Finding the Funny (and what to do with it when you’ve found it)

I don’t get asked to do workshops very much. But every now and then someone will say, oh, hey, erm, someone cancelled, is there any way you can lead a workshop on humour in poetry? Below you will find the notes that I use when I’m doing one of these.

Due to dyslexia, workshops aren’t something that I feel comfortable providing, because I can never successfully answer any questions which might come up. So I have these notes with me which I read from. I hope you find them useful!

Finding the Funny (and what to do with it when you’ve found it)

This workshop gives us a snapshot on how to formulate ideas to use in poetry (or comedy) and how to expand on a theme. The second part of the workshop covers the attitudes we apply to those themes.

The purpose is not to create deep philosophical page poetry. That can take months and possibly years, though it may be a start along that route.

By its nature comedy has the ability to say more than can be said through serious poems, or at least, gives the poet a platform in which they might easily bring to the surface serious themes. These themes can then be explored in a comedic manner, for example, homophobic bullying, gender expectation, heteronormativity.

However comedy is only funny when you’re punching up. If you’re in a minority or an under-represented part of the community, comedy poetry can be a way of connecting with a wider audience, because everyone enjoys a laugh no matter what your background.

Punching down, though, is not funny. It’s downright mean and it enforces stereotypes.

While this workshop might not necessarily result in a fully-formed completed poem, it will hopefully give you the tools and the impetus to get working on something funny and compelling.

So what is performance poetry? What do you understand by that phrase? (There are no wrong answers).

Discussion five to ten minutes, possible discussion points:

  • A juxtaposition of ‘high’ art of poetry and it’s usual ‘serious’ tone with the mundane, therefore elevating the mundane to high status.
  • The surprise which comes with elevating the mundane to high status.
  • Saying what nobody has ever noticed, but through a poem.
  • Saying what everybody has always noticed, again, through a poem.
  • The communal fun of a shared experience, including content, rhymes, rhythm and the atmosphere in the room which comes from these.
  • Breaking up the tone of a poetry recital or gig which isn’t necessarily comedy-focussed.
  • Hiding serious messages and social concerns behind the veneer of comedy.
  • The surprise which comes with the juxtaposition of rhythms and expectations of poetry and the conversational tone of words and phrases. (Lidls, muffins).
  • Punchlines and jokes to make the audience laugh.
  • Exaggeration and attitude.
  • Creating tension and then relieving it with humour, punchline, tag, afterthought.
  • Using language, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, metaphor, simile, repetition, vocabulary and sounds for easy aural consumption.
  • Non-verbal communication.
  1. Ideas and material generation

Pick a subject to write about. Tricky, huh? It can be something mundane like turnips or teapots, or something abstract, like ennui or clumsiness. Or a place, or a memory, or a year. Or just an interesting word that you might have heard. Write the subject in the middle of a sheet of paper.  (Two minutes)

Add around the subject some free associations, once again ignoring the social editor, and the links can be as tenuous as you like. Just write the first thought that pops into your head.  (Five minutes)

Go around the word again and add a second layer of free associations to the first ones. Again, write the first ideas that come to mind. However more than just words, these will be more like statements or ideas. (Five minutes)

Choose one or two of these ‘branches’ and add three, four, or as many new associations as you like. Each one could follow the logic of the last one or it could be an ‘afterthought’ – like a comedy punchline. (‘I like my nephews. But I could never eat a whole one – unless they were served with roast potatoes – however I’m trying to cut down on my carbs’. (Five minutes)

If you’re really lucky, the last association might be a punchline or some kind of method of drawing all of these together neatly. If so, then you’ve probably got the basis of a joke. In any case, you’ve now got the structure of a pretty weird poem.

Just concentrating on one of these ‘branches’, free write a poem, ignoring the social editor.

The social editor is the part of the brain that tells you that you can’t say or write something because it isn’t proper. Part of writing comedy is learning to ignore the little voice that says, ‘Hey, that’s not logical, you wouldn’t find a duck driving a bus’, or, ‘In real life, people would certainly not try and have a conversation with an elephant about prunes mistaking them for a supermarket manager’.

Often when you ignore the social editor, several disconnected themes suddenly connect. Writers have been trying to think of methods to achieve this over the years. Some take to drinking, some take to drugs. My own method is to kind of take my brain out of gear, relax, free-write and see what emerges.  (Fifteen minutes)

(Read examples people have come up with, ten minutes).

  1. Attitude

This is the ‘what to do with it once you’ve found it’ part of the workshop. 

There are many attitudes that you can take while writing or performing. You can write in praise of a subject, or you can rant against it. You can be angry, venting, quizzical, perplexed, speak from a certain authority, you can be in awe, laughing at it, laughing with it, having fun, or you can be surreal or just plain weird. There are many different attitudes.

Others include : fun, surreal, plain / neutral, angry, ranting, in character, monotone. A lot of these depend on your tone of voice, facial expressions, movements and gestures.

Think about what kind of attitude you might like to apply to what you have written. (Five minutes).

(Let people demonstrate some of their attitudes, five to ten minutes).

Now look at these attitudes again and choose what you would consider to be the complete opposite. For example, ranting might become fawning, fun might become scared, angry could be enthusiastic. Or just pick a completely different attitude at random just to play around. (Five minutes).

(Let people demonstrate some of these attitudes, five to ten minutes).

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