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If you want to ‘Make em laugh,” you have to make them cringe first

In the musical “Singing in the Rain,” Donald O’Connor sings a song called “Make em Laugh” which features the advice from his dad who said he needed to be a comical actor.

I thought about this song while reading an interview with author David Swann on Daily Write. Swann said that he likes writing that’s similar to conversations at a funeral where laughter and tears form a strange mix. Swann mentions that “‘The writer Simon Brett says writers shouldn’t ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if A,B,C, D, happened?’ Instead, he says it’s better to ask: ‘Wouldn’t it be tragic if it weren’t funny if A,B,C,D happened?'”

The juxtaposition of laughter and tears has for centuries been a storytelling technique that makes em laugh. In a theater, or at a play or a reading, those in the audience want to laugh because they can’t help it, but they look around first to see if anyone else is laughing. When you have a book in your hands, you don’t have to check out the mood of the rest of the audience.

I can’t help but think of the scene in the movie “Cat Ballou” where the drunken gunslinger (Lee Marvin) stumbles into a funeral, blows out the candles, and sings “Happy Birthday” to the dearly departed.  Of course, the movie was a spoof just as “Blazing Saddles” was a spoof. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to think of the reactions of “every day people” to a drunk at a funeral. Maybe it’s gallows humor. Or, maybe some of us are flat nuts.

Writers, I think, are among those who see the tension of putting things together that “don’t belong together.” Laughter arises out of that tension. So do tears. And perhaps, so does a new way of looking at the world.

I enjoy watching movies or reading books where my sense of what I would do with the plot or the dialogue at one point or another lets me guess what the next line in the dialogue really needs to be. I’m disappointed when I’m wrong, but not because I like being right. I’m disappointed because I see that an opportunity was lost to drive a point home toward laughter or tears. The resolution to the tension of opposites that could have been there has been left out, rather like hearing the first part of the “shave and a haircut,” ditty without hearing the “two bits.”

Since people tend get very nervous when I say, “What’s the worst that could possibly happen?” or “What could possibly go wrong?” I say those things a lot because people are so superstitious about hearing them. As a writer, I have a license that allows me to scare people and watch their reactions. What I see, makes me a better writer.

I’m very superstitious, but not about those questions. So, I know how thin the line is between reality and fate, humor and fear, and belief and astonishment. Without shame, I exploit how thin that line is. Since I’m and old writer, I can tell you that’s an old writer’s trick that might help you when you’re trying to make em laugh.




  1. “I enjoy watching movies or reading books where my sense of what I would do with the plot or the dialogue at one point or another lets me guess what the next line in the dialogue really needs to be.”

    Yes! I do this all the time. When we’re watching a TV show or a movie, I frequently say the next line before the actor does, which makes my husband shake his head.

    Oh, and “shave and a haircut, two bits” is now stuck in my head. Thanks for the little ear worm. The fact that I recognize the line and know just how to deliver it reminds me that I’m no spring chicken, so thanks for that, too. 😀

    February 10, 2018
    • This proves that authors aren’t as crazy as some people think. We’re simply wise and all knowing, spring chicken or not.

      February 11, 2018
  2. Marina #

    And what IS laughter actually? As Ken Dodd once said at a live performance (or words to that effect) – ”whatever actually causes a human to want to turn up the ends of his mouth, jiggle about, and with tummy gyrating, let out a peculiar sound, known as laughter” as a result of seeing or hearing something funny!
    As he said, why do we not choose to put one leg out and shake it, wiggle our arms about or whatever, instead. Also, when in a state of hill

    arily, why do we usually end up crying with laughter, when the two emotions are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum! Another mystery of the human mind! Yes, the thought of a drunk at a funeral, well I am sure one would both laugh, cry and cringe! Stranger things have been known!

    February 16, 2018

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