Similes and metaphors provide a ready formula for humor. The comparisons must, of course, shed light on original entities, but by crafting unexpected comparisons, those that perhaps employ exaggeration, the imagery gets a laugh.
Chuck Wendig gives us myriad examples. Here’s one from his his blog post, 25 Things To Know About Writing The First Chapter Of Your Novel: "Writing the first chapter can feel like you’re trying to artificially inseminate a stampeding mastodon with one hand duct taped to your leg. That’s okay. That’s normal. Do it and get through it."
Robert Schimmel, in Cancer on $5 a Day* (*Chemo Not Included), wrote, “… this stupid hospital gown is riding up my ass. I try to pull it down and it snaps right back up like a window shade. I cross my legs and suddenly I’m Sharon Stone.”
From Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion: “I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I’m drowning in ellipses.”
From Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says: “…one f*cking Snickers bar, and you’re running around like your asshole is on fire. Okay, outside you go. Don’t come back in until you’re ready to sleep or sh*t."
George Carlin used analogy to come up with his line: "Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity." Another example of analogy is from Cat and Girl Volume I by Dorothy Gambrell: “If television’s a babysitter, the Internet is a drunk librarian who won’t shut up.”
What’s your topic or the point you want to make? Such-n-such is difficult. Okay, list everything you can think of that’s difficult. Once you’ve done that, go for another round, this time focusing on obscure tasks, like buttoning a blouse with fake nails or trying to shave your back. (Keep your character in mind. Is whomever you intend to deliver this line male of female?) Now for the last round, fabricate absurd tasks that defy any odds of achieving, like milking a mouse or flossing a cat’s teeth. When you’re done, pick from the best you have.
As we discussed in the previous article, humor relies on patterns that establish expectation. The laugh comes when the pattern is broken, or readers are misdirected. So why not play off pre-existing patterns? Clichés are worthlessly predictable, but in the right hands their predictability can take on value. If you write, “Going to hell in a…” readers will expect you to follow with hand basket. Give them something different and you’ll catch them by surprise. How about going to hell in a hot-air balloon? A trolley car? Maybe you prefer Going to hell on the last seat backed up to the restrooms on a packed 747?
Instead of dead as a doornail, what about dead as a door-to-door salesman peddling Encyclopedia Britannica? Not quirky enough? Swap out his tomes with a case of Vegemite. Not dry enough for your readers? Why not imply the door-to-door reference and write dead as the Fuller Brush Man?
The possibilities are inexhaustible.
- Can’t teach an old dog how to fly (new tricks).
- Take it with a grain malt whiskey (a grain of salt).
- Happy as a pig in mustard and sauerkraut (in mud).
- Sure does take the wind out of your tuba, doesn’t it? (your sails)
- Doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in a microwave oven (in hell).
- He couldn’t hit the broad side of a broad (barn).
- Face only a mother could diaper (love).
There’s also the cliché twist, as in Steve Martin’s rendition of “A day without you is like a day without sunshine.” Martin got a laugh when he said, “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”
And clichés are just the beginning. You can play with catchphrases, lyrics, slogans, literary allusions, etc.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall—and poured himself a gimlet.
Put a spin on a common saying, as Sheng Wang did when she wrote, “Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”
Take a proverb and add a contingency or comment, like Thomas Stephen Szasz who wrote, “Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they make a good excuse.”
What about definitions? From Lemony Snicket, “Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant filled with odd little waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.” Or happiness, as defined by George Burns, is "having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city."
The definition approach can include “the secret to” or “how to”. In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams wrote, “The Guide says there is an art to flying", said Ford, "or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” In terms of cause and unexpected effect, Albert Einstein gave us: “Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.”
And don’t forget statement reversals, as in Woody Allen’s, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens”? Paul Terry gives us another example: “Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.”
Humor is about people, rising from the way we think and act, particularly when we’re short-sighted, discontent, or selfish. Don’t be afraid to turn the firehouse of exaggeration on our foibles. You’ll make your point and get a laugh at the same time.
Study the above examples, along with others you come across in your reading, and take the concepts into new territory. Play with the funny things your kids say, lyrics you misheard, wacky product ideas. Next time you’re writing a funny scene, work these techniques into your dialogue. Leverage a clash of context to create the benign violation that makes us laugh. And don’t forget to throw in some gratuitous asides or unexpected actions. I’ll leave you with an example from Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Draft. Notice how she procrastinates.
Even after I’d been doing this for years, panic would set in. I’d try to write a lead, but instead I’d write a couple of dreadful sentences, xx them out, try again, xx everything out, and then feel despair and worry settle on my chest. It’s over, I’d think, calmly. I’m not going to be able to get the magic to work this time. I’m ruined. I’m through. I’m toast. Maybe I’d think, I can get my old job back as a clerk-typist. But probably not. I’d get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I’d stop, remember to breathe, and eventually return to my desk. All I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it.