Competition: Could you be the next Myles?

Tue, Jul 3, 2012, 01:00

‘The Irish Times’ is on the hunt for the next generation of Myles na Gopaleens. As we launch a competition to find fresh comic writers, FRANK MCNALLYreveals some tricks of the humorist’s trade

I’VE NEVER MET anybody who, when pushed, would not claim to have a good sense of humour. It seems to be a universal human right, free of any regulatory or inspection process.

But if good senses of humour were as common as all that, it would be easy for writers to make people laugh.

Whereas the available evidence suggests it isn’t.

My own suspicion is that many people feel the need to exaggerate about how developed their senses of humour are – God knows why. And the era of mass communications, with its text-speak and emoticons, has, if anything, only encouraged the tendency.

More than once, I have seen someone brazenly write the abbreviation “LOL”, or even “ROFLMAO”, in messages to friends, while staring stoney-faced at the screen. And saddened as I was by the human capacity for deceit, it reminded me of something I knew already: that it is a very hard thing to make people laugh, really.

Still, you have to try. And the process starts, usually, with an idea that you yourself find funny. In everyday life, you can wait for these ideas to arise, unbidden: in the shower, or during a walk in the park, or wherever. But if you write humour for a living, you probably can’t afford to wait. You have to go searching instead.

As with, say, truffles, there are certain areas you’re more likely to find such ideas. Yet even the most skilled searchers require patience.

You can spend appallingly long periods of time minutely examining your life, your fingernails, the wall, or whatever, looking for a vaguely comic angle. And it always feels like wasted time until you find something.

When you do have a workable concept, at last, you then need to examine it at leisure and from every aspect to see how best the humour can be extracted for publication.

After that, you decide on the general shape of your column or sketch: how it should begin and end, with some notion of where it will go in middle.

Only then should you write a first draft. Which, when you read back over it, however carefully you thought you were writing, will probably make you want to vomit, it’s so bad. So then you re-write it: again and again. And again.

There have been times – maybe three or four in the last 15 years – when I found a first draft hard to improve. But these are so rare as, when they happen, to make you wonder if your coffee has been laced with something.

Usually, and deadlines allowing, I need to rewrite a first draft anything between 10 and 25 times. That’s a rough guess: I never count them.

Even then, or especially then, you won’t think that what you’ve written is remotely funny. And you’re probably right. More often than not, the pay-off from readers might be a wan smile, or grunt of mild amusement, or one of the lesser currency units of laughter. And you’re probably not there to see it anyway.

But occasionally you get a letter or e-mail saying that you made somebody spill coffee on a new laptop, or something. Then you can allow yourself a little self-satisfied sigh at a job well done.

Once in a while, the pay-off may be bigger. Some years ago, for example, I wrote a kind-of diary-of-a-dog. It was about a real-life Jack Russell that had made the news by getting lost for a weekend and then turning up on the pitch in Croke Park during an Ireland-Australian compromise rules game.

Among a small spate of letters afterwards was one from a patient in a psychiatric institution who claimed the piece had made him laugh for the first time in years. To the concern of doctors, he claimed, his laughter had then continued for 24 hours. And it was gratifying to know that I had helped someone regain his sense of humour.

But in this case, at least, I hope he was exaggerating.

How to enter

In memory of the great Irish Times satirical columnist Myles na Gopaleen/Flann O’Brien/Brian O’Nolan, The Irish Times is on the hunt for new Irish comic writing.

We invite the scribblers of Ireland to offer a piece of prose, satirical journalism, criticism or comment.

The only rule is that it makes readers split their sides, spill their coffee and lose control of their bowels with laughter.

Send 400 hilarious words, on any subject, to thenextmyles@irishtimes.com. We’ll print the funniest, and offer a prize of €300 to the best one.

Terms and conditions from:marketing@irishtimes.com

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