I love irreverent humor. Blue humor, offensive jokes, grown-up cartoons, things like that. I’ve already done a review of Rick and Morty, for instance, and I stand by it being a smarter show than most people give it credit for. (I can’t say the same for some of my fellow fans. All I can say is I’m sorry.)
The problem is that when you write a character that embodies this sort of irreverent humor, they can become really awful characters. The Peter Griffin sort that really doesn’t have a personality aside from being offensive. No one likes those characters.
If you want to write something hugely inappropriate with really awful people as main characters, there are some things you should keep in mind, though. Shock value for the sake of it is rarely entertaining. So what keeps your offensive humor from being that? Here are a few things I would suggest.
This is the first and probably most important rule about writing offensive humor. It has to be funny. You can’t tell a bad spousal abuse joke and expect people to be okay with that. Now if you tell a funny spousal abuse joke, or make a career out of it like Andrew Dice Clay, you’ll probably be remembered as a legend.
(A side note not. I couldn’t think where else to mention this, but after bringing up The Dice seems natural enough. Being an irreverent comedian works better when you’re not a horrible person. You don’t get to make racist jokes if you’re really a racist. You don’t get to make sexist jokes if you’re actually sexist. Don’t be a jerk and expect people to laugh at your jokes.)
Offense comes better from a place of intelligence. If your character comes off as offensive and smart, that’s a fun character. If your character comes off as offensive and stupid, that’s not a fun character. At least not a fun protagonist.
That’s why characters like Rick from Rick and Morty House from House work well. They’re assholes, and hugely offensive. But they’re smart.
Have realistic characters
Another reason why characters like Housework is because their actions are realistic. Even if a lot of the rest of the show is not. (Sometimes, it is Lupus.) It’s the same as any other character. The world may be amazing. The powers the character possess might be completely unrealistic. But they still need to be people. A person who’s an asshole and treats people badly does so for a reason. Normally a really sad one, to be honest. A megalomaniacal character like Rick or House really doesn’t like who he is, so his drug addiction makes perfect sense, as does the way he treats his loved ones. You can see where the pain, where the anger is coming from. They’re not just mean to be mean. There’s a reason why the equation pain plus time equals comedy works.
Have endearing characters
If you’re writing a character that’s going to be really offensive, that can’t be all there is to them. They have to have some endearing features, or your reader is not going to have the patience for their hate, no matter how funny it is.
A good example of this Will McAvoy from Newsroom. He’s a vaguely racist ass who has driven away almost everyone who wanted to work with him. It’s only in the course of the show that we find out why he’s an ass. He lost the woman he loved, lost faith in his country, and in himself. He’s endearing because we understand these losses, and understand why he is the way he is. We also see times of bravery, times of compassion. We see that he’s a good man if a flawed one.
I don’t know that we can say Rick and House are good men. In fact, I’d say, Rick, in particular, is a weak man. He doesn’t care to change, or make the world better. He’s content to amuse himself and do things that he thinks might make him happy.
But it’s that constant need to focus on his own selfish desires that reveal his real pain. We can see that there is some goodness in him when he occasionally helps people for no selfish reason. But it seems that he almost regrets it afterward. It’s almost as though there’s a pain in his past that he never intends to feel again. I think we can all understand that.
In closing, don’t be afraid to write offensive humor. Just don’t let it turn into a poorly written character.
After years of war between Montelair and Septa, the two thrones are united by family. Victor’s nephew, Morgan, is sharing the throne with the last heir of the royal line, Jacob. He and Lenore decide to travel to Montelair with their newborn daughters to help broker peace.
But peace among their own people is harder to achieve. The city is tormented by a terrorist who calls himself The Tinker. He and his group of anarchists plant bombs through the city and call for the death of the new kings from every street corner.
Meanwhile, in Calistar, Sultiana and Devon are marching to war with Kussier. The ancient hatred between the two countries is sprung anew when Sultiana is declared heir to the Calistar throne.
Waiting at the border, though, is a much darker enemy. A force from legend threatens to consume both countries, and possibly the world.
Great post. I think Seinfeld and The Simpsons are other examples of this. They say or hint at things that make you laugh and then say, “Can they say that?”. I guess 30 Rock is a more recent example. I think, with humour, what’s important is often intent. In saying something or making an observation, are you trying to hurt someone or is it something everyone can chuckle at.
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Not only do I think I could write a book on The Simpsons and the things we can learn from them as writers, I’m pretty sure there are whole college courses based on it.
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