MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 13 - Humor - full transcript

Neil shows how he uses humor in his work. He includes a close look at his novel Anansi Boys to illustrate his personal techniques such as "sherbet lemons" and "figgins."

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[MUSIC PLAYING]

Humor in anything you
do is good for me, anyway.

I know there are many writers
who write without humor.

For me humor, whether it's
broad or whether it's subtle,

is always vital.

Sometimes it can be very dry.

Sometimes it can be overt.

Sometimes it can be overt.

Whatever you're writing
you want some humor,

because humor is recognition.

Humor is that moment
where you see something



that you've always
thought, but now somebody

has articulated it.

And they've
articulated it in a way

that you've never seen before.

And sometimes it's just
the joy of the unexpected.

This is a book
that is all humor.

It's called,
"Fortunately, the Milk."

It's a children's book.

And it is about a
father who sets off

to buy milk for his
children's breakfast,

and finds himself
kidnapped by aliens.

And fleeing the aliens, finds
himself captured by pirates.

And fleeing the aliens, finds
himself captured by pirates.

"'Who be ye, landlubber,' said
the woman who had a big hat



on her head and a
parrot on her shoulder.

'He's a spy!

A walrus in a coat!

A new kind of
mermaid with legs!'

said the men.

'What are you doing here?'

asked the woman.

'Well,' I said, 'I just set
out to the corner shop for some

milk for my children's
breakfast and for my tea,

and the next thing I knew--'
'He's lying your majesty!'

She pulled out her cutlass.

'You dare lie to the
queen of the pirates!'

'You dare lie to the
queen of the pirates!'

Fortunately I had kept a
tight hold of the milk.

And now I pointed to it.

'If I did not go to the corner
shop to fetch the milk,' I

asked them, 'then where
did this milk come from?'

At this, the pirates were
completely speechless.

'Now,' I said, 'if you could
let me off somewhere near

to my destination, I would
be much obliged to you.'

'And where would that happen
to be,' said the queen

of the pirates.

'On the corner of Marshall Road
and Fletcher Lane,' I said,

'my children are waiting
there for their breakfast.'

'my children are waiting
there for their breakfast.'

'You're on a pirate
ship now, me fine bucko,

said the pirate queen, 'and you
don't get dropped off anywhere.

There are only two choices.

You can join my pirate
crew or refuse to join.

And we will slit
your cowardly throat,

and you'll go to the bottom
of the sea where you will feed

the fishes.'

'What about walking the plank?'

I asked.

'Never heard of it!'

said the pirates.

'Walking the plank,' I said,
'it's what proper pirates do.

Look, I'll show you.

Do you have a plank anywhere?'

It took some looking.

But we found a plank,
and I showed the pirates

But we found a plank,
and I showed the pirates

where to put it.

We discussed nailing it
down, but the pirate queen

decided it was safer just to
have the two fattest pirates

sit on the end of it.

'Why exactly do you
want to walk the plank?'

asked the pirate queen.

I edged out onto the plank.

The blue Caribbean water
splashed gently beneath me.

'Well,' I said, 'I've seen
lots of stories with pirates

in them, and it seems to me that
if I'm going to be rescued..'

At this the pirates
started to laugh

so hard their stomachs wobbled
and the parrots took off

so hard their stomachs wobbled
and the parrots took off

into the air in amazement.

'Rescue?' they said.
'There's no rescue out here.

We're in the middle of the sea.'

'Nevertheless,' I told them,
'if you are going to be rescued,

it will always be while
walking the plank.'

'Which we don't do,'
said the pirate queen.

'Here have a Spanish
doubloon, and come and join us

in our piratical adventures.

It's the 18th
century,' she added,

'and there's always room for a
bright, enthusiastic pirate.'

I caught the doubloon.

'I almost wish that
I could,' I told her.

'But I have children
and they need

'But I have children
and they need

their breakfast.'
'Then you must die!

Walk the plank!'

I edged out to the
end of the plank.

Sharks were circling.

So were piranhas..."

"Fortunately, the
Milk" is a bit odd,

because it has a
father narrating.

The actual book is
narrated by his son.

So-- "And this was where
I interrupted my dad

for the first time.

'Hang on,' I said. 'Piranhas
are a freshwater fish.

What were they
doing in the sea?'

'You're right,' said my father.
'The piranhas were later.

Right, so I was out at
the end of the plank

Right, so I was out at
the end of the plank

facing certain
death, when a rope

ladder hit my shoulder and a
deep booming voice shouted.

'Quickly!

Climb up the rope ladder.'

I needed no more
encouragement than this.

And I grabbed the rope
ladder with both hands,

fortunately the
milk was pushed deep

into the pocket of my coat.

The pirates hurled insults at
me and even discharged pistols.

But neither insults nor pistol
shot found their targets.

And I soon made it to the
top of the rope ladder.

I'd never been in the basket
of a hot air balloon before.

It was very peaceful up there.

The person in the
balloon basket said,

The person in the
balloon basket said,

'I hope you don't
mind me helping,

but it looked like you were
having problems down there.'

I said, 'You're a stegosaurus!'"

One of the fun things about
a scene like that is you

are taking a scene
that everybody

is kind of familiar
with, and then you're

just twisting it 45
degrees off kilter.

So we have a pirate ship.

So we have a pirate ship.

And you get to go,
what are the cliches?

How can I make fun
of the cliches?

How can I enjoy the cliches?

I love the idea that the
first thing that anybody

does if they're about to
be killed on a pirate ship

is demand the plank,
because of course, you

get rescued walking the plank.

We've all seen that.

So one thing that's really
fun is just take a cliche.

Take a scene that you have
seen a thousand times.

Take a scene that you have
seen a thousand times.

And it can be from whatever
kind of fiction you like.

It can be, you know if
you like people with guns,

it can be two people
facing off with guns.

If you like fiction with
swords, it can be swords.

If you like fiction
with dragons,

it can be somebody
against a dragon.

If you like
doctor-nurse romances,

it can be a doctor and a
nurse and another nurse.

And they're glaring
at each other,

And they're glaring
at each other,

because one thinks
that the other one has

slept with the other one.

The other one knows
that they haven't.

And there are messy--
you do the thing--

the cliched way.

Do the way that you have
seen it a hundred times.

And now if you're going
to mine it for humor,

you just turn it
and you tilt it.

And some of that is just
going to be word choice.

And some of that is
going to be attitude.

And a lot of it is
going to be surprise,

because the lovely
thing about laughter

because the lovely
thing about laughter

is it's the release of tension.

You are building up
to something funny,

and then you're letting it go.

And you're building
up to something tense,

and then you're deflating
it with laughter.

So see how you can do that
with something very familiar

and something very cliched.

And then have one
of the characters

just be a little bit more matter
of fact than they ought to be.

Have one of the characters
know a little bit more

about this kind of fiction
than they ought to.

about this kind of fiction
than they ought to.

Have one of the characters
be much more concerned

about whether they left
the kettle on at home,

or that the kids need to
be picked up from school,

than they are about
the dragon or the gun.

And just see what happens.

That way it's an
easy way to start

building humor, but a
really lovely way just

to go in and find
what's funny in a scene.

Certain words are going to
have humor in-- in a sequence

that I read from "Neverwhere,"
describing Ruislip

as being heavier
than four Fops, each

of those Fops carrying a
large suitcase filled entirely

with lard.

Um, the use and deployment
of the word "lard"

is just-- it's
just the right word

is just-- it's
just the right word

to deploy in the right way.

And it gives you this
wonderfully funny image

in your head of four
tall, thin people, each

hauling a suitcase around, which
by its very nature is funny.

So you can go, you
know, use funny words.

Deploy them.

Play around.

One of the things that-- that
stand-up comedians and people

who write humor find fascinating
is where in the sentence

who write humor find fascinating
is where in the sentence

your word comes can actually
mean the difference between

funny or not funny,
ending with--

with the funny is
always important.

You know, four
lard-filled suitcases

as opposed to four suitcases
filled entirely with lard.

The lard being the funny
word comes at the end.

When Terry Pratchett and I
were working on "Good Omens,"

we needed shorthand ways to
communicate with each other.

And what I loved about
talking with Terry

was that he would come
up with terms for things

that they were not terms
for, in ways to write comedy.

that they were not terms
for, in ways to write comedy.

One of those was a "figgin."

A figgin was a term that he had
started using in "Discworld,"

where a "figgin"
initially you think

it's something terrible that,
you know, like a body part,

possibly a testicle or something
where your figgins are going

to be, you know, cut off
or thrown to the winds.

And later you discover a
figgin is a small raisin-filled

And later you discover a
figgin is a small raisin-filled

like an Eccles cake.

It's a little sort of pastry.

And he used to use that
as just a figgin being

a little joke that
becomes a running joke,

but a running joke
that then will pay off

in some way toward the end.

And they were distinguished from
something that we built in--

in "Good Omens" which Terry
called "sherbet lemons."

in "Good Omens" which Terry
called "sherbet lemons."

And he called them
sherbet lemons,

because there is a
moment in the text where

Adam, the 11-year-old
Antichrist,

has been falling asleep
eating sherbet lemons.

And he is determined to
get rid of nuclear power,

because he's read
magazines saying

this is a very bad thing.

And the next thing that happens
is a nuclear power station

And the next thing that happens
is a nuclear power station

discovers their reactor
has gone missing,

but mysteriously is
still putting out--

they're still putting
out a full load of power.

They just don't know where
they're getting it from.

And when they go and inspect
the enormous room where

the power-- where the
reactor used to be,

the only thing they
find is a sherbet lemon.

And so Terry would start
using sherbet lemons to mean,

just little things that
you'd throw into the text,

just little things that
you'd throw into the text,

to make someone smile.

They'd just be a little
nice little moment of--

of humor.

It's a small thing
that you throw in,

as a opposed to a "figgin."

And the figgin
would be something

you would think was
just a sherbet lemon,

but then it would pay off.

And it would have a shape
and a payoff toward the end,

and it would appear you'd
sneak it in under the radar.

People would think ah, this
is just a sherbet lemon.

People would think ah, this
is just a sherbet lemon.

But actually it will be a thing.

Terry loved having
these terms for things.

Another one of Terry's
terms was "cigarettes."

And he would talk
about the end of a book

as being built of cigarettes.

And by cigarettes, what he meant
was the moment in a 1960s cop

show, 1960s American
cop shows in particular,

where everyone will be sitting
around having a cigarette.

Because they used to smoke
on television in those days.

Because they used to smoke
on television in those days.

And they'd say, so what
really happened to the widow

Blumenthal, anyway?

And someone would say, oh,
well this is what happened.

And then you'd-- you'd cut
in on all of the characters.

They'd all be having their
little cigarettes and--

and you get away of
saying goodbye to them.

So Terry would
always love the idea

that at the end of the novel,
after a novel was done,

you needed to have
your cigarettes.

You needed to just stop
in on each character,

explain anything from
the plot that had not

explain anything from
the plot that had not

been explained so far,
wrap everything up,

and say your goodbyes.

And the problem with that,
actually I discovered years

later, was the nice thing about
the "cigarettes" on a 1970s

American cop show,
is they are literally

the time between the
end of the episode

and the final commercial break.

So you have your commercials,
and then you have your titles,

and in between they liked
to have this little bit

and in between they liked
to have this little bit

that they would squeeze in where
nothing really would happen.

And it lasted maybe a maximum
of three minutes long,

so this tiny little thing.

And of course, once you
put them into a book

and then try and turn
that book into television,

your last half hour
consists of people

saying goodbye to each other
after the plot is finished.

So when I was doing "Good
Omens" as a television series,

So when I was doing "Good
Omens" as a television series,

I actually wound up
having to reconfigure

the entire plot for
the last episode,

and come up-- while keeping
the original plot that Terry

and I came up with, I
came up with a new plot.

And one that keeps ticking
until the final second,

because I really
didn't want a plot that

finished halfway through,
and then people just

said goodbye to each other.

Well it's something
that-- that is definitely

just a sherbet lemon, in that it
is there, it is a running gag.

It shows up several times.

But it's just there to be fun.

It doesn't have
any kind of payoff,

would be this is "Anansi Boys."

And was the lime--

and the idea being
that fat Charlie, who

and the idea being
that fat Charlie, who

is the hero of the novel, has
arrived on a little island

called St. Andrews.

Here we go.

He's taking a taxi ride.

"He learned there was no reason
ever to leave St. Andrews.

The taxi driver himself
had seen no reason ever

to leave St. Andrews, and he
had given it much thought.

The island had a cave, and a
mountain, and a rainforest.

The island had a cave, and a
mountain, and a rainforest.

Hotels?

It had 20.

Restaurants?

Several dozen.

It contained a
city, three towns,

and a scattering of villages.

Food?

Everything grew here.

Oranges, bananas, nutmegs.

'It even,' the taxi
driver said, 'had limes.'

Fat Charlie said,
'no' at this, mostly

in order to feel
like he was taking

part in the conversation.

But the driver
appeared to take it

as a challenge to his honesty.

He slammed on the taxi's brakes,
sending the car slewing over

to the side of the road.

Got out of the car,
reached over a fence,

Got out of the car,
reached over a fence,

pulled something from a tree,
and walked back to the car.

'Look at this!' he said, 'Nobody
ever tell you that I is a liar.

What it is?'

'A lime,' said fat Charlie.

'Exactly.'" Which means that
by the time we get to page 12--

chapter 12, several
chapters later, fat Charlie

gets to rent a bicycle.

And there were information
conduits on St. Andrew's

And there were information
conduits on St. Andrew's

that fat Charlie,
who on some level

believe that coconut palms
and cellular telephones

ought to be mutually
exclusive, had not expected.

"It did not seem to
make any difference

who he talked to: old men
playing draughts in the shade,

women with breasts
like watermelons

and buttocks like armchairs
and laughter like mockingbirds,

a sensible young lady
in the tourist office,

a bearded rasta with a green,
red, and yellow-colored knit

cap and what appeared to
be a woolen miniskirt:

they all had the same response.

'You're the one with the lime.'

'You're the one with the lime.'

'I suppose so.'
'Show us your lime.'

'It's back at the hotel.

Look, I'm trying to
find Callyanne Higgler.

She's about 60 American.

Big mug of coffee in her hand.'

'Never heard of her.''

And once fat Charlie
gets back to his room,

"Benjamin, the concierge,
examined the bike

and told fat Charlie
not to worry.

They'd have it all fixed
and good as new by tomorrow.

Fat Charlie went back
to his hotel room,

Fat Charlie went back
to his hotel room,

the color of underwater,
where his lime sat,

like a small green Buddha
on the counter-top.

'You're no help,'
he told the lime.

This was unfair.

It was only a lime.

There was nothing
special about it at all.

It was doing the best it could."