Monday, April 7, 2014

Make ‘Em Laugh

The one show tune guaranteed to make even the most recalcitrant cynic crack a non-sneering smile is Donald O’Connor’s comedic tour de force in Singing in the Rain. Go on: I dare you to clink on the hyperlink and go one full minute without smiling.

And no one could possibly disagree with the song’s thesis: the most reliable way to win people over is by making them laugh. Accomplishing this feat, however, is no joke.

Sure, there are some who sound so funny that it hardly matters what they’re saying. I am thinking of Gilbert Gottfried reading a certain trashy bestseller (to which I dare not provide a link lest I risk losing this blog’s PG rating.) But when it comes to comedic writing, that is serious business.

As Shakespeare well knew, writing in an authentically funny voice requires special skill. To be “wise enough to play the fool”—“to do that well”—“craves a kind of wit,” as Viola notes in Twelfth Night, III.1. To be seriously funny, a person . . .

. . . must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man's art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit.

There is a lawyer here in Austin, a core member of the local bar, who manages routinely to be wise enough to play the fool while writing about law practice. His name is Claude Ducloux. He doesn’t know it yet, but I recently decided to claim him as a kindred spirit in hopes that his ability to grind out seemingly effortless sallies of wit about lawyering will somehow rub off on me.

I have not yet plummeted Claude’s secret. Maybe it has something to do with laboring as a lawyer in Central Texas while bearing a super fancy-sounding Gallic name. Certainly, the man does not shy away from his French roots; the column of his that I admire is called “Entre Nous.” Who knows? Perhaps one key to being funny is being burdened from birth—and then refusing to be broken by that condition. I, for instance, was given a name that suggests a German milkmaid although I am neither German nor fond of milk. But it is what people do with these burdens that decide whether they will be Fate’s hostage or turn their bondage into daisy chains.

As I said, I have not yet ascertained the source of Claude’s comedic power, but I have eked out an admission that resonates with the theme of this post. Claude agrees: “It’s hard to be funny on purpose." Each of his columns goes through at least 8 drafts—all to ensure a voice that sounds entirely spontaneous. Claude also admits that he took comfort recently when his hero, comedic writer Dave Barry, made a certain confession during an NPR interview with respect to the arduous nature of producing breezy prose. When Barry was asked why he had abandoned a weekly humor column that he had kept going for nearly 25 years, Claude says that Barry said: "because my accountant said I don't have to anymore.” In other words, being consistently funny on command was really hard—even for that guy. And that is why so many must rely on cats to do their funny business for them (and skip the writing part altogether). See, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Zp8w9-BTCo.

It might be tempting to conclude that this is good news for lawyers, because no one really expects legal writers to be all that funny—at least not when they are producing actual legal writing. Indeed, some lawyers find the very notion of “humor” and “law” incompatible. And that is a shame. Humor does not suggest a lack of respect for the subject matter or context. Au contraire! It only seems that way to the chronically humorless. Most truly effective humor has an edge to it because the subject matter is so serious—and then the form succeeds in transcending unbridled irreverence, disdain, or resentment. (See last post on “Shakespeare as a Weapon.”) Humor is a way of letting light into the darkness; for light is the only way darkness itself becomes something a person can see.

Because most judges are people too, I suspect they prefer a dash of levity instead of relentlessly angry screeds about the opposing party’s boneheaded arguments or opposing counsel’s unprincipled behavior—no matter how poorly reasoned or badly behaved the other side/lawyer has been. Judges, as smart people, value wit; therefore, when wielded appropriately, wit can be among the most valuable persuasive tools around. Just ask the fans of Claude, Shakespeare, or Donald O’Connor.