ABCs of Flash Writing: L is for Laughs

Posted by on Apr 29, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: L is for Laughs

“What’s the deal with airline food?”

My pupils narrowed from the glare of the lone spotlight, I can’t see the four people sitting at the black wooden four-tops straggled throughout the club, but I know they’re there because their silence becomes them. A flop sweat is starting in my armpits and I’m waiting for the levee to break and drown the audience in my panic. I’ve told jokes for six minutes, mostly comparing different things – airports and cattle ranches, men and women, cars and trucks, dogs and cats. No one has laughed, or coughed even. There hasn’t been a single mucus-clearing ahem in the longest six minutes of my life.

I’m bombing.

…At least that’s what would have happened if I decided to become a comic instead of a poet.

In a way, a poetry reading is a type of stand-up comedy routine. It’s a single person getting up on stage, grabbing the mic, and baring their soul. It’s the craft of realizing that life’s absurdities can be universally recognized – sometimes in rhyming couplets, sometimes as a Priest, Rabbi, and Buddhist Monk joke. Both are usually performed to a very small but attentive audience, who, if they don’t like your work, will probably let you know. For comics, it’s hecklers. For poets, it’s the people who come right up to you after you’ve finished reading and say “you know what, I didn’t really like your work.”

I honestly think I could handle a heckler better. At least I can make fun of his hair.

But if poetry is the Seinfeld-esque stand-up routine, flash is the kind of comedy we see now, popularized by folks like Amy Schumer, John Mulaney, and Aziz Ansari. It’s the kind of comedy that tells short bursts of funny, well-told stories.

With a poet’s attention span, I often find myself writing flash pieces when I take a leisurely stroll down Prose Boulevard. In flash, there’s just enough time to be irreverent and still finish the entire narrative. In short fiction, I often find that the jokes get lost somewhere between the elements of craft and the desperate need for originality. For flash writers, it’s a lot easier to rely the reader’s understanding of context to fill in the holes left by traditional story elements set aside in favor of brevity. It’s the same in comedy.

Take, for example, this segment from Donald Glover’s 2011 stand-up special Weirdo.


Glover gives us some context. He starts by telling us about his brother’s relationship with sugar and his mom’s attempt at keeping her kids from, well, eating sugar.

Okay, so in this narrative, we have a protagonist, an antagonist, and a conflict. What he doesn’t give us is details aside from what we need. We don’t have a fully explored setting, but we do have the store and the family kitchen. We have the name of the cereals they were allowed to have and we have what they tasted like to kid Donald, but we don’t have the look of their box or the frequency in which he ate them. We have the resolution – his brother subdued into eating a very unfair mixture of Kix and Cocoa Puffs just to get a little taste of sugar.

But what sets this bit apart are the details Glover does include. The high detail is what gets the laughs. His simile likening the stray Cocoa Puffs spread throughout the tupperware to “a Kanye concert” draws one of the biggest roars from the crowd.

In order for a piece of flash to work well, writers have to treat their audience like the club crowd at the improv and assume they are present because have the knowledge, context, and understanding that will fill in the holes. If Glover didn’t think that everyone in the crowd knew who Kanye West was (if you don’t know who Kanye West is, I’d like very much to know what rock you’re under so that I may join you), he wouldn’t have added that joke to the bit. He trusted them to fill in the holes.

When we write flash, we’re asking our readers to use their own experiences and personal interpretations of the world to finish the writer’s job. In this way, flash is both the 1st and 2nd stories of a joke – the scenarios where the audience imagines the setup and the punchline. By allowing them to bring their own context, flash becomes a much better vehicle for humor writing than a short story, a novel, or even a poem. It’s letting them drive what makes them laugh.

There’s a wonderful quote from the last interview George Carlin ever gave where he comments on the idea of how self-expression and comedy go hand-in-hand. He says, “Self-expression can be based on looking at the world and making observations about it or not. Comedy can also be based on describing one’s inner self—doing anecdotes, talking about your own fears….But I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I think self-expression is present at all times, and whether or not you’re talking about the outside world or your responses to it depends on the moment and the subject.”

I think that’s an important thing that flash writing does. It allows writers the ability to strike quickly to the poignancy of a moment or a subject without overburdening their readers with anything extraneous, especially since the readers already bring that to the table.
It’s self-expression, our worldview, and our inner selves at their barest.

I mean, until we’re all arrested for indecency.

I’m back on stage, only this time I’m leaning heavily into the podium in front of me, my glasses situated on the end of my nose, and two printed pages of a flash piece called “Asshole Day” resting on the lip. I’ve gotten a few laughs so far, but I’m coming up to what I hope will be the closing line – the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” of this short narrative.

I adjust my tone as I go into the final stretch, emphasizing the incongruity between the language of a Presidential Proclamation and the repeated use of the word “asshole.” It starts as a few snorts, some chuckles, but by the end, the whole room is laughing. This is the first flash piece I ever wrote.

It didn’t kill, but it definitely maimed.

Katie Eber holds a B.A. in English Literature from Roanoke College and is a 2014 graduate from the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Fairfield University. Her work has appeared in On Concept’s Edge, Hobo Pancakes, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Quail Bell Magazine, and MadHad Lit. She is the current Poet Laureate for the town of Wallingford, CT.
Katie enjoys good beer, good sandwiches, and advocating for widespread use of business hammocks.