Making People Laugh: The Secret Art of Funny Fiction
You ever have that one friend who is really awesome and hot and skilled, but just way too intense? Like laughing would somehow ruin the brood they’ve got going on? That’s what dealing with heroes is like. Heroes have some serious baggage—and that has a tendency to weigh them, and the story, down. A little injection of humor here and there can do wonders to lighten things up, as well as give some contrast to your heroes. Humor is also automatically engaging and conversational; it says your audience is important to you, and that in itself goes a long way. Take it from a sidekick, whether you’re writing essays, books, or tweets, humor is an invaluable tool.
Of course, humor is also terrifying. Nothing is louder than the absence of laughter—except, perhaps, for a pity clap. When I asked what people feared more—writing a love scene, a fight scene, or a humorous scene, people overwhelmingly said humor. (Which is news to me, because love scenes are freaking terrifying.) But if you’re going to use humor, you need to check your fear at the door. It takes thick skin and lots of practice to perfect the art of making people laugh, and even then, it might not always work—but it’s well worth the attempt. Seeing your audience smile is one of best rewards an author can ask for. And besides making people laugh, you can make people think, saying things with humor you couldn’t get away with any other way.
But how to unlock the benefits of this trickiest of tools? There are plenty of excellent and detailed guides for budding comedians out there, but just to get you started, here are some of the funny business basics, and how you can use them.
The unexpected is the heart of humor. We love to be surprised—and humor often plays on our expectations to serve us up deliciously funny points of view. The set-up is where you set up your audience’s expectations so that you can surprise them later. In most forms of humor, the set-up is in total stealth mode: you only recognize it if you’re really looking for it. It usually consists of something so mundane our unsuspecting minds glaze right over it, with something else to distract us for good measure. This is a very important part of humor: if the audience is prepared, your punniest pun will evoke far more groans than laughter. Here are a few of my favorite examples of strong set-ups--and don't worry, I'll give the punchlines in the second part!
Form: Innocuous Conversation
Distraction: Slightly Icky
Example of the Set-up of a Joke: " ‘It's unpleasantly like being drunk’
‘What's so unpleasant about being drunk?’"—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
How It Works: I don’t know about you, but when I think about unpleasantness associated with drinking, my expectations run to matters of toiletry. And with that lovely expectation, my mind quite naturally shies from examining things closer, lest more vivid imagery come to mind. The icky innocuousness of this conversation has served its purpose in convincing me this is not important and is quite probably gross, so it is safe to move quickly past.
Form: Obvious Statement
Distraction: Mild Structural Humor
Example of the Set-up of a Joke: “If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth...”Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window
How It Works: This is slightly funny already, because normally, you would just say “If you are allergic to something, don’t eat it.” The playful word order gives the sentence gravitas, making it sound as though this very obvious advice were worthy of enshrining in a proverb. And that slight humor blinds us to the expectations it seeds, as we’re pretty sure we’ve already seen the funny.
Form: Known Proverb
Example of the Set-up of a Joke: “Give a man a fire and he's warm for the day…”—Terry Prachett, Jingo
How It Works: Ah, we think when we read this line. We know how this ends. This mimics the proverb: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” Clearly, the next line will be “Teach a man to build a fire, and he’s warm for the rest of his life” or something like that. The mimicking works particularly well as a distraction because we have such strong expectations as to how it will end—and we are so sure of ourselves that our brain almost skips the second half of the proverb—the same way we can miss spelling errors because of our confidence in perceiving words.
Remember those expectations you set up? This is where you turn them on their head, preferably with a funny or even absurd image to back it up. If you’ve built up your set-up carefully, your readers—so sure they know what’s going to happen--aren’t really paying attention, making the twist delightful both for catching them up and for the comical imagery. Here is how those examples from the set-up resolve:
Twist: Word Interpretation
Example of the Twist in a Joke: “ ‘It's unpleasantly like being drunk’
‘What's so unpleasant about being drunk?’
‘You ask a glass of water some time!’ ”—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
How It Works: What a delightful twist! Moving from the grossly mundane to the absurdly imaginative, this has all the hallmarks of a perfect pun. Our expectation was firmly set that “drunk” meant inebriated, as humans generally don’t have to worry about the other kind of “being drunk,” and the reversal is contained within that single word, resulting in the hysterical anthropomorphizing of a terrified glass of water. Which you are then asked to identify with. Puns don’t get much better than that.
Twist: Context Reframing, with Understatement
Example: “If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.”—Lemony Snicket,The Wide Window
Example of the Twist in a Joke: The unspoken expectations were, of course, that we were talking about allergies to food—expectations set by referencing mouths and allergies. As it is generally a bad idea to put a live cat in your mouth even if you aren’t allergic to them, reframing like this doesn’t even occur to us! Which recasts the beginning of the proverb as an understatement for additional chuckles, and results in delightful imagery. The serious, proverb-like beginning lures us into thinking this is a purely theoretical discussion about peanuts or something, before getting waaay to specific for this to have not happened.
Twist: Defying Expectations and Taboo Irony
Example: “Give a man a fire and he's warm for the day, but set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life.”—Terry Prachett, Jingo
Example of the Twist in a Joke: That didn’t turn out at all like the mimicry led us to expect! Instead of a staid, moralistic proverb, we got setting people on fire, which, I don’t have to tell you, is generally frowned upon in civilized society. This gives the statement the immediate shock value of joking about the taboo. And it’s terribly ironic to boot, as the set up for giving a man a fire leads us to expect you are helping him to survive by providing him with warmth, and as setting fire to a man does exactly the opposite of that, making “the rest of his life” is very short indeed, despite the abundance of warmth!
This kind of humor is kind of like high fashion: you love it or hate it, but beyond that, everyone agrees it’s not for every occasion. Everyday humor is subtler, but runs along the same courses as high humor. For a subtler style, to just accent your books, essays, tweets, or presentations, you can also set up expectations with your writing style, subject, and context. For example, speaking very formally about something absurd, or using a mechanical term for something really not mechanical. You can also play with messing with expectations in a more general sense--understating or exaggerating something to humorous effect, or flat out lying and then admitting the truth—but for the wrong reasons.
No matter what happens, though, don’t be offended if sometimes your humor fails to entertain. Humor is very personal, and some things I find hysterical, others lack the good taste to appreciate. Just practice, and polish, and stay true to your particular brand of humor, sharpening your wit until it’s as fine a tool as any in your arsenal.