How to Write Humor: What Makes Something so Funny?
Can Writing Something Funny Be Taught?
An editor I once worked with, asked if I could teach her how to write humor.
Until then, I had never thought of humor as being something that is taught. I had always thought that people have a humor gene or they do not.
It would be like trying to teach someone to have brown eyes if they were born with blue eyes. Or trying to teach them to be brown-eyed when they already have brown eyes. In either case it wouldn't accomplish much.
Also, I felt if I were to analyze humor, and unravel the deep mystery of what it really is, the fragile elusive Humor Muse would be ticked off and forsake me for discovering her address and true identity.
Another reason is that I hesitate to call my offerings humor, (usually I call them silliness) but since she was "The Editor" and had the final say, I happily accepted her judgment.
How Can You Tell if Something Is Funny?
When I finish a humor column I often rewrite, or at least re-read it about fifteen times. As you can imagine, it quickly loses the element of surprise. Surprise is important.
I sometimes go from "this is sort of funny" to "this might be funny" to "I'm not so sure this is funny at all." I sometimes run my ideas by a certain friend, just to check. (She has a great laugh.)
However, "The Editor's" question challenged me as a teacher, and I began giving it some thought.
I've taught people to draw, but that did make them great artists. I'm not sure I could teach anyone to write humor, but I can give my thoughts about what makes certain things funny.
In a sense, analyzing DOES scare the muse off.
I think this may be similar to reading a scientific, medical, clinical manual about the human physical procreative procedure. It may contain all of the correct information, but it is not sexy. In the same way, trying to explain why things are funny may be correct, but it is not, in itself, funny.
Serious Thoughts About Writing Humor
Disclaimer: I am not a humor expert. And I'm not a psychologist. These are just my thoughts on the subject. There's nothing particularly profound in this. But, here goes:
- Humor is based on truth, literalness, humility, objectivity, and possibility.
- It is a viewpoint and an attitude that most of us have as children. I believe it comes more naturally to those of us who have never quite grown up.
- People will read a humorous piece, laugh and say "but that is SO true," and often it is. It can be based on the truth of what is, or the truth of what might be.
My Dad was a rather quiet, very kind, agreeable man who had a wonderful way of defusing a tense situation with a quip. I remember one time I called my mother "Maw." She got upset and told me not to ever call her "Maw." Daddy spoke up and said, "call her Mammy." This broke everyone up (including Mom), because what he was saying was, "It's not as bad as you think... what if it were this way." It was also silly.
A Way of Understanding Humor
I think that one key to understanding humor is to understand why people laugh when they are physically tickled.
Some people would say it is because it feels funny, or because it stimulates the nerve endings of your, well... wherever part is being tickled. But I think there is another explanation, and it's related to the fact that people can not tickle themselves.
A tickle is a physical assault, quasi-aggression. Because it is not objectively harmful or hostile, there is no defense against it. It would be inappropriate to haul off and slug your tickler, even though we are mentally programmed to defend ourselves from any attack.
You cannot justify giving your parent or child or friend or lover a black eye to retaliate for a tickle attack. We are helpless, frustrated, and confused in such a way that we react with laughter to release the tension.
Also it creates a mood-elevating effect which apparently can be measured chemically. That is not an authoritative explanation, but it is MY explanation. (Scientific studies DO say that laughter reduces stress hormones and strengthens the immune system, so it's all good.)
Humor is threatening, frustrating, and impossible to defend against, partly because we are not aware of why it is threatening, and also because we know it is that it is not hostile.
It is a psychological tickle, a friendly assault. Some "humor" can be mean spirited, but I don't think this is real humor. It lacks the friendly, or non-hostile, element.
Some people think sarcasm is humor. I don't. I try to avoid it. OK, maybe a little irony or or a gentle gibe, but nothing corrosive enough to harm the environment.
Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop
The court jester in Medieval times was often small, sometimes deformed, and weak appearing. He was a "fool," an object of derision and contempt. Often he was dressed in ridiculous fashion, but because of his non-threatening persona he could speak the truth, often in unflattering ways toward the royals and nobles, and get away with it. A great example of the psychic tickle.
When Don Rickles pours his outrageous insults out on an audience (an obvious form of attack), people laugh. Here is this short fat old bald guy who looks like a turtle—non threatening—telling the truth about people for the most part, and they are defenseless.
He does this so well that if anyone were to really get mad, they would look absolutely stupid. You may notice at the end of such a routine that he always thanks people for being good sports, thus making himself non-hostile as well. This is NOT my favorite style of humor; I would never personally attempt it. But I must admit he is a genius at it.
I enjoyed reading the work of a local humor writer who contributed to a paper I read regularly (name omitted to protect—me). He is very funny. Of course he has an advantage over me with two live-in teenagers to provide inspiration. Actually I must credit him with my decision to try "columning."
After reading some of his work, I said to myself, "Myself, you could do this. Here is this guy writing silly stuff off the top of his head ... and being an embarrassment to his friends and family... how hard can that be?"
Though he makes himself out to be a foolish,hot-headed know-it-all and borderline ignoramus... I'll bet he is none of the above, and that is part of what makes him funny.
Visual, verbal, cognitive shift, and conceptual humor are usually based on the non-physical tickle. Humans like things to be comfortable, controllable, and predictable. The unusual, exaggerated, incongruous, or unexpected thing is threatening and uncomfortable.
Puns and double entendre are ambiguous, confusing, and surprising—but they are harmless and we can't defend ourselves against them. Though people like to be in their comfort zones, most also like to be slightly threatened, occasionally. If they did not, why would there be horror movies and roller coasters?
Children laugh more than adults, partly because they have not learned to hide their emotions, partly because they are innocent, and often because they see nothing wrong with telling the truth. They often make us laugh as well, because of these (threatening) qualities.
The story of the Emperor's New Clothes has always been a favorite of mine, because everyone is suddenly exposed to the to the truth about the emperor (and about their own self doubts and fears) by a child who sees nothing wrong with telling it like it is.
Who's on First
The classic Abbot and Costello "Who's on First?" routine is funny mostly because of the confusion of having the players named "Who, What," etc. Just at the point where we almost understand it, another confusing element is added, keeping the hearer slightly off balance . . . tickled.
Cleverness, wit, and creative associations may be slightly more sophisticated than the ticklish humor discussed up to this point. but it still has some of the same elements, including surprise and the annoying realization that someone else thought of it before we did.
Perceiving someone else to be smarter than yourself can be threatening, but if that person is not hostile, or pompous, or mean spirited, it still goes back to the tickle effect.
Do I think of all these things when I am writing?
No, not at all. But going back and looking at some things I have written, I can see that they do generally apply.
When I call garden gnomes odd, that's the truth. Even people who have garden gnomes know it. But those people cannot be mad, especially because I came back and said I had nothing against odd things and defended the right of garden gnomes to make a living (incongruity).
There are a few things that I do consciously to "enhance funniness," besides writing in comic book font (and see, that's funny because there's no way that could really make a difference—so that's kind of the flip side—or the flippant side—of truth. Something seems logical about it, but it's not).
When I fell down walking my dog, that was honest-to-gosh deeply felt pain, but beyond that there was some element of slapstick. When people see (or hear about) others in pain, especially non-disabling pain, there are a set of reactions:
One is "that was really stupid," but we know it's not nice to think that way so there is guilt (threat). Also, we are glad it did not happen to us—but we know it could (threat). If the victim over-reacts or under-reacts to the pratfall, it is threatening (incongruous).
Some things are just funny in themselves. Anti-aging cream does it for me because it doesn't make sense that you should be able to rub a substance on your skin and it stops you from getting older.
Anti-aging cream goes against the laws of physics. It goes against the theory of relativity and the space/time continuum. If it did work to stop aging, users would never get another birthday present. All of these things are absolute truth.
I use my thesaurus a lot. Some words just sound funnier than others. The thesaurus also gives synonyms with a slightly skewed connotation (incongruity) ... or words that sound pompous, antiquated, or too "important" (incongruity)... or words that make it possible to turn a phrase into an alliterative string or a rhyme.
(I'm not sure why alliteration seems funny. I'll give that part some more thought. I think Gilbert or Sullivan understood this... whichever one did the words.)
Exaggeration is funny, especially the exaggerated truth. This is partly because of the uncertainty it causes. We often know that something is exaggerated, but it may also be true, and we are not quite sure where the line is drawn (uncertainty, threat).
My mop directions were confusing (to me) when I first read them, but in order to make the point, I'll admit that I exaggerated the confusion, for the benefit of those who generally understand things better than I do, so they can get the same feeling.
Most of the things I write about are true happenings. I think the purseless story is one of my funnier ones, because it's all true. But I have to look at things in a very objective manner and ask myself if my reaction or non-reaction to a situation is true, or is there another way to look at it.
Nothing but the Truth
Speaking of truth,—which I was, somewhere along the way—let me give another example:
Some time back someone sent me an internet item that said something like "You are almost as good as your dog if you can..." then it had a list of things like:
- If you can be happy with the same simple food every day....
- If you can be loyal to those who sometimes ignore or mistreat you...
- If you can forgive those who wrongfully accuse you ...
- If you can be cheerful even when those around you are unkind...
- If you are willing to risk your life to save a child
- etc.. on and on and on about canine attributes.
It was very nice.
I knew my friend who volunteers at the animal shelter, would appreciate this, so I sent it to her. Now I like dogs and animals fine, (and I know you do) but I have a slight problem with those who tend to idealize them and make them more virtuous than they really are. So I added a few items to the list which are also absolute Truth:
- If you are willing to humiliate yourself and do almost anything for approval and a pat on the head...
- If you see nothing wrong with drinking out of the toilet...
- If you are not embarrassed to have sex in public with someone you have never met before...
When she got my list, she said her husband came in her studio to see what she was laughing at.
Like the clinical manual I mentioned before, these may be some of the technical elements of writing humor, but I think you just have to actually do it yourself to understand the wider implications.
The subtleties are hard to explain; it takes a little patience and practice, but you know when it feels right.
Questions & Answers
© 2008 Rochelle Frank