Some words are funnier than others simply by virtue of their sound. For reasons that range from onomatopoeia to phonosemantics, they amuse us. All on their own. Without context.
Through one of his characters in The Sunshine Boys, Neil Simon says—
“Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say `Alka Seltzer,’ you get a laugh…Words with the `k’ sound in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that’s a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland…Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there’s chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny.”
The principles of humor drill down to the least component—the individual word—and comedians have long been employing funny ones to enhance their routines.
When it comes to humor writing, a thesaurus becomes a handy tool, as there’s no greater source from which to build a collection of funny words. As you’re writing or editing, read your work out loud. Tune your ear to the sound, and try substituting words. Listen for a difference.
Believe it or not, words with the k sound are funny (hockeypuck, kumquats, duck, quack), as are words with a hard g (rigmarole, guacamole, garbanzos, gogo dancer). Playing off what’s called The K Rule, an episode of “The Simpsons” scripted Sideshow Mel to explain that Krusty the Clown had laryngitis from “trying to cram too many k sounds into a punch line.” In another episode, Krusty the Clown tells Homer during a lesson at his clown college, "Memorize these funny place names: Walla Walla, Keokuk, Cucamonga, Seattle."
In a 30 Rock episode ("Kidney Now!"), Dr. Leo Spaceman says that "kidney is such a funny word… it’s the hard K sound that’s making [him] giggle". Joe Piscopo walked onto the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation in "The Outrageous Okona" episode. While playing a comedian who tries to teach Data (an android) the concept of humor, he refers to words ending in a k as funny.
It’s widely held that consonant plosives (with the "explosive" sound) p, b, t, d, k, and g are the funniest sounds in the English language.
Start hunting for funny words. Keep them in a file you can reference when you’re aiming for a laugh.
Words can exaggerate, add shading through connotation, or wield the double entendre, all of which are techniques used to make people laugh. Alliterations, as well, can emphasize word choice by repeating the consonant plosives, e.g.: Squire Squiggy was bumfuzzled by the booze.
As mixing the length of sentences adds variety to a piece, mixing the length and pattern of words can add the element of surprise and its resulting humor, e.g.: Hector’s most requested meal consisted of standing rib roast, creamed spinach, potatoes au gratin, and a Twinkie.
This device works especially well with lists. Consider, for example, if the Gabor sisters had a fourth sibling—Magda, Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Jane. Or the Marx brothers? Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, Zeppo, and Clarence. The creators of the animated 3-2-1 Penguins! used this technigue to name their ensemble cast—Zidgel, Midgel, Fidgel and Kevin.
Notice in each of these examples that the funniest word is positioned last. Don’t forget to incorporate the other humor techniques—establish a pattern first, then break it with the unexpected. As with stand-up comedy, the most mysterious part of humor is timing, an established rhythm referred to as beats. A beat is a pause that enhances the humorous delivery and gives the audience time to react. This can be as simple as applying the funny word, phrase or sentence at the last possible moment. You can also force a pause by starting a new paragraph before delivering the punchline.
In stand up and films, even in conversation, humor is supplemented by facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and sounds, all of which tickle the funny bone. As writers, though, our humor relies on the choice and arrangement of our words, which is why we need to pick our words with care and arrange them for impact.
When revising a humor piece, reread each sentence with an ear for the funniest word. Then rewrite sentences using the same words in a different order to see which has the most impact.
Lastly, look for connotation and double meanings.
The double entendre—devised to be understood in multiple ways, one being obvious and the other subtle—can exploit ambiguity or puns to convey a second meaning. As you see in the examples below, they’re a humor staple
- “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” ― Robert A. Heinlein
- “I don’t just like sexual double entendres I love them, I stroke them, I milk them, I spank them when they’re naughty.” ― Craig Ferguson
- “When she spoke, Tom held his breath, so eagerly he listened; when she sang, he sat like one entranced. She touched his organ, and from that bright epoch even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence.” ― Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit
Similarly, homophones (words with the same pronunciations) can be used as a pun or double entendre.
- “She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” ― Mae West
- “Sublime is something you choke on after a shot of tequila.” ― Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
Comedy writers and comedians tend to push buttons and boundaries. Be wary of ridicule, though. Humor depends on the sensitivities of your readers, their likes and dislikes, intelligence, and your story’s context. Ridicule as humor might work in some arenas, but many readers find it mean-spirited.
Make sure that your characters make choices that feel real in the context of their world, and use humor as parenthetical information rather than seasoning to spice up the reading experience. Humor must add both interest and relevancy. If what you’re writing doesn’t further the story or develop the theme, it won’t work in your novel’s favor.