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The 1, 2, 3 of Humor Writing

How many times have you laughed yourself silly and tried to relate the humorous episode to a friend but the retelling failed? Guess you had to be there became the punchline.

Everyone enjoys a laugh, but some writers are better than others when it comes to getting one from their readers. Writing funny—capturing humor on the page—is even harder than retelling humorous events that happen to us. As most of us know, it’s easier to write suspense or provoke a tear than it is to get our readers laughing.

To deliver humor in your writing requires an understanding of what makes something funny and turning those insights into tools.

E.B. White, who said that humor “has a certain fragility, an evasiveness”, compared the process of understanding humor to dissecting a frog. “The thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging pickings.”

Humor dismantled is no longer humor, which is why, when we retell our humorous incidents, we often fail. In our retelling, we neglect to reassemble the elements in keeping with what had provoked our laughter.

SO WHAT PROVOKES LAUGHTER?

Spend time with a baby if you want to learn about humor. Babies laugh around 300 times a day. All you have to do is make a funny face. But what makes a funny face funny? The same thing that makes the appearance of your face in a game of peak-a-boo funny. The unexpected.

You see, babies laugh more because they have so few expectations written on their hard drives. Show them a disembodied hand while you hide around a corner and they giggle like your Louis C.K. or Tina Fey.

What babies show us is that laughter is all about consciousness.

Yes, so too are tension and sorrow and every other emotion rooted in consciousness. It’s easier, though, to write suspense or pull tears from your readers because tension and sorrow rely on consciousness, whereas the humorous evades consciousness—or rather, humor slips into consciousness unannounced.

What is consciousness? To be conscious means to have one’s mental faculties alert, to be aware of thoughts, sensations, surroundings, etc. To know what’s going on.

Suspense and sorrow are emotions that mount in one’s cognition. Readers become increasingly aware, more focus and consciously invested as the story leads to a culminating event. For the writer, it’s relatively simple to plant a string of clues that build toward anxiety or grief. Laughter, on the other hand, is a tricky feat to pull off, as the writer attempts to take his readers awareness by storm.

The secret to writing humor is found in science, which demonstrates that laughter is beyond human, or conscious, control. If sensitive enough, we can cry on demand, but we can only fake laughter. Why is that? Because we can feed our consciousness something sad, while we can’t knowingly introduce a surprise.

When some people sit down to write humor, they adopt a giddy tone of voice, a whooping or comic warble, so that the reader will know it’s funny. It’s the writing equivalent of a clown suit. This does not wear well. Humor needs to come in under cover of darkness, in disguise, and surprise people. You don’t want to get that gdoing, gdoing, gdoing sound in your writing. It makes the reader feel sorry for you. —Garrison Keillor

Will any old surprise make us laugh? Of course not. Surprise a baby with a mean face and you’ll end up with a mess on your hands.

To get adults to laugh, according to Peter McGraw and Calib Warren from the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, the surprise has to be wrong and not wrong, threatening but harmless.

MISDEMEANORS ARE FUNNY

McGraw and Warren came up with what they call The Benign Violation Theory. Their research showed that humor stems from a benign violation of the way the world ought to be. An aberration of convention, norms, or what is acceptable evokes laughter. McGraw and Warren’s findings coincide with what Aristotle proposed in Rhetoric—that laughter results from establishing an expectation and following it with something incongruous, such as a logical impossibility, irrelevance, and inappropriateness.

But McGraw and Warren further our understanding of humor, and hence humor writing, by defining what’s not funny. A situation is not humorous unless it’s both a violation (a term they use to imply threat) and benign (meaning that the threat doesn’t cause offense or injury). In other words, humor relies on two conditions:

  1. A situation is unacceptable but not absolutely unacceptable, and
  2. A situation is benign but not entirely benign.

A stranger molesting someone is absolutely unacceptable and not funny. Two lovers engaging in a sexual act in the privacy of their home is entirely benign and not funny. But two lovers engaging in a sexual act while seated at a dinner party, unbeknownst to those in their company, has been known to rouse a chuckle.

THE SUDDEN ENCOUNTER WITH INCONGRUITY

The dystopian world of 1984 is incongruous to our own, but while reading the novel we reside within an internally congruent realm and the affect is sobering. Humor, in contrast, results from sudden and isolated encounters with incongruity—the unexpected—that overturn convention.

Consider a line from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.

The reader doesn’t expect the second half of the sentence. Anticipating something of macabre nature, Flaubert’s whimsy gets a chuckle. The juxtaposition is such that the line is memorable.

Comic digression gives us an example of the relationship between humor and the unexpected. Readers expect a linear thought, but the comedian takes an unexpected turn. The audience laughs but now expects the unexpected. The digression continues to work only if each volte face hits an unexpected note. Each sudden turn must also follow logically, otherwise, it’s not digression but surrealism. Notice how Ellen Degeneres pulls it off.

“I’m feeling so good. I feel like a million bucks. I’m focused, I’m alert, I’m zippy and top of my game. I’ve never felt better. I’m sharp as a tack right now. And what’s weird is that I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night. And they say that’s the most important thing. Or is it breakfast they said? That’s the most important meal of the day, breakfast, yes. And then it’s ‘i’ before ‘e’. I know that… um… diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Dog is a man’s best friend. What was I talking about? Oh that’s right, that I feel great and I’m at the top of my game. And it’s odd because I didn’t get hardly any sleep last night. And, they say that’s the most important thing.”

Ellen greets her audience as though she’s catching up with old friends. Her repetition is humorous and sets the pattern. Then comes the sharp left—Or is it breakfast they said? The ping pong match begins, and she hits an unexpected note with And then it’s ‘i’ before ‘e’, a logical and wonderfully far-flung association. She knows that rule, too. What else does she know? And the match continues while the audience laughs.

Much comedy contains variations on the elements of surprise and the effect of opposite expectations. To get your wheels turning, think of things that are unexpected, things that are abrupt, accidental, inconsistent, incoherent, startling, unpredictable, unreasonable, absurd, impetuous, bizarre, deviant, abnormal, one-of-a-kind, unsystematic, unsymmetrical, unpremeditated, indiscreet, out-of-sync, or seemingly random.

1, 2, 3—CUE LAUGH

Omne trium perfectum, everything that comes in threes is perfect. The rule of three suggests that things grouped in threes are inherently funnier than other groupings. In comedy, it is called a comic triple. Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and patterns and repetition make us laugh.

The following excerpt was posted by Dave Hill on his website Ardmore Media.

Do you know how some people can face danger and do incredibly brave things with adrenaline pouring into their bloodstreams? That never happened to me.I flung the flashlight at the mommy bear, causing her to rear up even higher, and ran and climbed a tree shouting out, “A bear, a bear, run for your life!”

The bear shook the tree… While the tree was swaying like a pendulum, my brain was saying, “Climb higher!” My stomach was saying, “Jump and run!” And my bladder was saying, “Evacuate!” As I was evacuating, I fell from the tree, rolled towards the fireplace, and instinctively grabbed a piece of wood to use as a weapon. Out of my mouth came a blood curdling scream, “Ahhhhhhh!” My girlfriend peered through the zipper of the tent just in time to see Mummy Bear and the cub run into the forest.

Christine is now my wife, and she still wonders how someone my size can be so brave to take on a bear. Between you and me, when I picked up that piece of wood, I felt fear, I felt anger, I felt…the searing red hot embers burning into the palms of my hand from the still smoldering piece of wood.

Notice his use of triads, particularly ones that deliver the unexpected third. Although Hill is an engineer and professional keynote speaker, he understands why comedians use the rule of three—to exploit the way people’s minds perceive patterns, and then throw them off track (make them laugh) with the unexpected third item.

The rule-of-three structure sets a pattern like a train coming down the track. You see the principle in action in a two-person comedy act. The straight person sets up a pattern that the funny person breaks. The first two items in the group lay the track, and the third item veers from what’s expected, resulting in a train wreck or laugh. For readers tracking a story, they knew where their trains of thought had been and believed they knew where they were going, but are caught off guard when their expectations are derailed. And as we know, the unexpected (benign violation) is humorous.

Patterns can be applied in any context and are especially easy to incorporate in dialogue. What are your characters talking about, or what is the subject of your hero’s internal dialogue?

  • Cities: Paris, Malan, Hoboken
  • Agenda: Making friends? Give your time, give your ear, give your earrings.
  • Traits: She was gorgeous, she was voluptuous, she was a he.
  • Twitter bio: I write things, I light things, sometimes I just leave cupboards open. (actually saw this on Twitter)

Ordinary, ordinary, ridiculous. Nice, nice, not so nice. Routine, routine, extreme. Extreme, extreme, routine. Expected, expected, unexpected. Why three? It’s the quickest route to a punchline. The writer establishes a pattern and breaks it without getting bogged down in a lengthy set-up.

Writers find the rule of three handy when it comes to crafting a hook. In “Interest Rates Are Going Up. Now What?” (More), notice Jean Chatzky’s reversal. Her point is the punchline.

Let me predict a few things that will happen in the next year. Brad and Angelina will add another baby to their brood. The day you spend $175 getting your hair done is the day it will rain. And the variable-interest rates—on your savings account, mortgage and credit card—will go up.

Watch your funniest TV shows and rewind the scenes that make you laugh. Write down the dialogue and study it.

From Will & Grace season 8, episode 14, Jack says, “You are not going to believe who’s here. Antoine! Remember him? We had that horrible break up when he cheated on me. Literally, on me. I woke up and he was having sex with another man—on top of me. They had no idea I was asleep under the covers. Since the whole thing played out in a display window at Bed, Bath & Beyond, I was the laughing stock of that weird part of 6th Avenue.”

Notice the unexpected 1, 2, 3—literally on methey had no idea I was asleep under the coversin a display window at Bed, Bath & Beyond. The entire incident is a benign violation that builds from outrageous, to more outrageous, to extremely outrageous—1, 2, 3.

Also notice the detail. Bed, Bath, and Beyond takes it from over the top to over the moon. Be specific. Generic words (e.g., shoes) aren’t as funny as specific words (e.g., Christian Louboutin sling-back, red-soled heels). Specific words add a level of detail that makes the incident funnier and more believable.

In the same episode of Will & Grace (which happened to be on in the background while writing this article), Grace says to Jack, “You know what I hear when you talk? Blah, blah, blah.” Jack comes back with, “You know what I see when you talk? William Hurt in a wig.” The last line delivers the laugh, but the pattern—you know what I hearyou know what I see—made a place for it.

Comedy thrives in patterns and repetition, and the rule of three can apply as easily to action as it can to dialogue. Based on something interesting or unusual in a scene, give some thought as to how you can build a pattern from it. Try repeating variations of an action twice, and then a third time.

In season 2, episode 22 of Big Bang Theory, Howard has designed a toilet for the International Space Station. Realizing, though, that his “Wolowitz Zero-Gravity Waste Disposal System” is going to fail after ten flushes, he brings a replica to Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment and recruits the guys to help him fix it. “It’s kind of like a jack-in-the-box,” he says, “no one knows exactly when, but at some point something way worse than a puppet is gonna pop out of that box.” Howard then tells them that their repair is limited to the spare parts available on the Space Station. Here’s how the rule of three pattern plays out.

#1

Sheldon: All right, what if we use this two-inch PVC to reinforce the center cross-support?

Howard: No good. I mean, it might work for the Japanese and the Americans, but have you seen the size of the Russians they got up there? This thing has to hold up against a hearty potato-based diet.

#2 (later scene)

Howard: Hang on, I think I’ve got this. Help me see if we can wedge this little piece of PVC behind the support rod.

Sheldon: You’re overestimating the tensile strength of the substructure you’re building.

Howard: Sheldon, I know what I’m doing.

#3 (later scene)

Howard: All right, I think we’ve got a prototype ready to test. Hand me that Tupperware.

Raj: Wow, that’s heavy.

Howard: Damn right it’s heavy, it’s my mother’s meat loaf, it’s been testing toilets for generations.

Sheldon: I must say, Howard, I think a detailed letter to MIT describing your current circumstances might entitle you to a refund on your master’s degree.

Howard: Okay, simulated zero-gravity human waste disposal test with meat loaf analog in three, two, one.

Howard flushes the contraption and launches a cannonball at the ceiling.

Sheldon: Fascinating.

Raj: What do you think the problem is?

Howard: Not enough bread crumbs.

“It’s kind of like a jack-in-the-box,” Howard had said. Indeed.

Two other techniques based on repetition are the running joke and the call back. The running joke is a literary device in the form of a comical reference that appears repeatedly throughout a story. Again from Big Bang Theory, a running joke is used to characterize Sheldon. Whenever he crosses the hall to inquire of his neighbor Penny, he knocks three times and says her name. Knock, knock, knock, Penny. Knock, knock, knock, Penny. Knock, knock, knock, Penny. It never fails to rouse a laugh. Even though we know it’s coming, the context encapsulating the behavior, which varies, raises Sheldon’s ritual to a new level of absurd.

Of course, a main character with obsessive compulsive disorder (or whatever it is that Sheldon has) lends a work a heap of material for the running joke, and Big Bang doesn’t miss a trick. Additional examples are based on:

  • The couch seat reserved for Sheldon
  • Sheldon’s inability to venture from his routine, especially concerning new restaurants
  • Sheldon’s apartment admin based on the Roommate Agreement
  • Sheldon is not crazy, his mother had him tested
  • Inclement Sheldon’s craving for a comforting round of “Soft Kitty”
  • Sheldon as encyclopedia, forever educating the unfortunates in his company
  • Leonard and Penny as Sheldon’s pseudo-parents
  • References to Penny’s “check engine” light
  • Penny’s tendency for drunken promiscuity
  • Raj’s inability to talk in the presence of females unless he’s drunk
  • Sheldon’s derision of Howard’s lowly master’s degree and Leonard’s inadequate physics acumen
  • Suggestions or suspicions of a homosexual relationship between Raj and Howard
  • Howard’s mother hollering from off-screen
  • Jokes made at the expense of Howard’s mother, as well as Howard’s relationship with his mother
  • Amy’s unquenched passion
  • Amy’s lab monkeys

A running joke can be as simple as a reoccurring catchphrase. The ultimate show about nothing, Seinfeld gave us its share of catchphrases, the stand out being “Yada, yada, yada.” With Friends, it was Joey Tribbiani’s “How you doin’?” In How I Met Your Mother, the line was Barney’s, “It’s gonna be legen—wait for it—dary.”

The callback is similar to a running joke. In literature the terms are almost interchangeable. A callback inserts a rendition of an earlier joke in different context, with the effect of creating layers and reinforcing or amplifying the purpose of the original line. When done right, the callback draws bigger laughs.

Examples of running jokes used in Arrested Development

Click on image to see full-sized infographic

NPR made a wonderful graphic of the running jokes in Arrested Development, which illustrates how extensively the technique was used by its writers.

An example from Back to the Future, which was basically a grand scale callback, starts with Marty using the word heavy to mean mind-blowing. Doc interprets the expression literally, thinking the future’s gravitational pull has increased. Meanwhile, Doc leans on a colloquialism of his days, frequently proclaiming, “Great Scott!” Both characters give their lines a number of times until, in the final film, Marty makes a discovery and says, “Great Scott.” You guessed it. Doc comes back with, “This is heavy.” It’s a classic callback.

In Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, the dog protagonist Enzo hates crows. Caught up in one of his anti-crow tirades, he gives an aside, explaining how Denny has to pick up and dispose of his excrement as part of man’s penance for their inclination to keep dogs under supervision. The tirade then continues—

Denny collected the small crap-filled bags and kept them in a plastic grocery bag. Occasionally he would dispose of the larger bag in a garbage can in the park up the street. I guess he didn’t want to pollute his own garbage can with bags of my feces. I don’t know.

The crows, who pride themselves on being cousins of the raven and therefore being very smart, love going after a bag of groceries. And they have, on many occasion, gone after a bag on the porch left outside when Denny or Eve brought home more than a few at a time. They can get in and out so fast, maybe find some cookies or something and fly away.

On one occasion, when I was young, the crows spotted Eve bringing home the groceries and they crowded nearby, clustering in a tree just on the edge of the property, so many of them. They were silent, not wanting to draw attention to themselves, but I knew they were there. Eve had parked in the alley, and she made several trips with bags from the car to the porch, then from the porch into the house. The crows watched. And they noticed that Eve had left a bag behind.

Well. They are smart, I have to give them credit, for they didn’t move in right away. They watched and waited until Eve went upstairs and undressed and got into the bathtub, as she sometimes did in the afternoon when she had a day off from her work. They watched and were sure that the glass-paned kitchen door was closed and locked so thieves and rapists couldn’t get in, and so I couldn’t get out. Then they made their move.

They swooped in, several of them, and picked up the bag with their beaks. One of them goaded me by walking up to the glass and trying to get me to bark. Normally, I would have resisted the urge, just to spite them, but knowing what I knew, I barked a few times, enough to make it convincing. They didn’t go far. They wanted to taunt me with it. They wanted me to watch them enjoy the treats in the bag, so they stopped inside the yard, on the grass, the whole group of them. They danced around in circles and made faces at me and flapped their wings and called for their friends. They tore open the plastic and they dove in with all of their beaks to eat the wonderful food and delicious items that were hidden inside, and they ate. They gulped, those stupid birds; they ate from the bag and they swallowed with glee. And they choked on giant mouthfuls of my shit.

My shit!

Oh, the looks on their faces! The stunned silence. The indignation! The shaking of heads, and then they flew off en masse to the neighbor up the street with the dribbling fountain so they could wash their beaks.

They came back, then. Clean and mad. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. They stood on the back porch and on the back lawn, so thick with crows it was like a massive, undulating layer of tar and feathers, all of their beady eyes trained on me, staring at me, as if to say, Come out, little doggie, and we’ll peck your eyeballs out!

I didn’t go out. And they soon left. But when Denny got home from work that day, he looked in the back. Eve was cooking dinner, and Zoë was still little, in a high chair. Denny looked outside and said, “Why is there so much bird crap on the deck?” I knew. Given a Stephen Hawking computer, I could have made a good joke of it.

He went out and turned on the hose and washed the deck. And he collected the torn poop bags with puzzlement but no inquiry. The trees and telephone wires and electrical wires were heavy with those birds, all of them watching. I didn’t go out with him. And when he wanted to go throw the ball, I pretended I was sick and climbed onto my bed and slept.

It was a good laugh, watching those dumb birds who think they’re so smart with their beaks full of dog shit. But, as with all things, there were repercussions: since that time, my nightmares have always contained angry crows.

The book is laugh-out-loud funny—cliché, but true—perhaps the funniest novel I’ve ever read. But back to the callback.

Later in the book, Denny and Enzo are out for a walk (going to a funeral, though Enzo doesn’t know this). Recognizing where he is spawns the following thought..

Of course, I knew the importance of Lake View Cemetery, though I had never been there. I had seen a documentary on Bruce Lee; Lake View is where he is buried, alongside his son, Brandon, who was a wonderful actor until his untimely death. I feel very badly for Brandon Lee, because he fell victim to the family curse, but also because the last film he made was The Crow, an unfortunate title for an unfortunate film based on a comic book written by someone who clearly had no idea of the real nature of crows. But that’s a discussion for another time.

As you see, the callback is simply a reference to an earlier segment. In some cases, the callback might be more developed. Here, though, a single line delivers the laugh—“The Crow, an unfortunate title for an unfortunate film based on a comic book written by someone who clearly had no idea of the real nature of crows.” Stein employs other callbacks in this novel, as well. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a great and recommended read, particularly if you’re interested in developing your humor writing techniques.

For more humor writing techniques, continue to Part II →

Additional articles on Humor Writing:

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist