21 Tips for Writing Humor
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 9 “Humor”
“The secret to humor is surprise.”-Aristotle
There are many theories as to the nature, science, and reason for humor. It's an element of human behavior that seems objective in the skill that is required to execute it successfully, and yet just as subjective for how unpredictably it can hit every individual audience member. Today, I'm going to talk about the various forms that humor takes, and give you some tips for making your humorous story a success. To start with, lets look at what I will call the “five scales of comedy”. (Please note that the following is not intended as definitive list of the only sources and scales of humor in the world, only the ones that I have been able to identify within my own life, time, limited understanding, and culture. Also note that I will use the word “Humor” instead of the word “Comedy,” simply because I do not want this discussion on genres to be confused for the type of story that is opposite of Tragedy.)
The Five Scales of Comedy
A story or other source of humor can usually be found along the lines of five different scales. These are: High Humor vs Low Humor, Sweet Humor vs Acidic Humor, Distanced Humor vs Close Humor, Predatory Humor vs Reflective Humor, and Clever vs Ridiculous Humor. These scales stand apart from the sub-genres of humor (dark, slapstick, dry, etc...), and have to do with how the humor affects the audience. Note that there is no “best” type of humor; there is only humor that works in different ways and which impacts different sorts of people. So wherever you find your story in the scales, know that there is no need to change it unless you want to. Also, the names of the scales are just that—names. Just because your story falls into the category of “low” humor, doesn't mean that it is any less valuable than “high” humor.
Range 1: High Humor
Within the range of High vs Low humor, what we are discussing is the how large an audience we are trying to reach. High humor involves jokes and comical situations that are only understood by a very select group of people. An example might be a comedy series that focuses its humor on the experience of working in a corporate office (like … The Office), or perhaps political commentary. These are only funny to those people who have shared the experience or the political knowledge of the person generating the humor. Basically, the higher the humor, the more the entire set-up begins to resemble an inside joke. This type of humor is excellent for gaining the interest of select demographics who you may want to address. For example, if you only want to talk to nerds (I say non-insultingly because I am one and am proud of it), you might have lots of references to science fiction and fantasy.
Range 1: Low Humor
On the opposite side of the range, you have Low Humor. Low Humor deals with topics, jokes, and situations that are more universal to the human experience. An easy example of this is a fart joke. Everyone in the world farts, and most people are in touch enough with their inner child to think that it is funny if the joke is skillfully set up. Again, there is nothing wrong with low humor; and in certain situations it is even preferable. The lower your humor, the larger your potential audience can be. Other examples of low humor might be family life, slapstick, and situational comedy based on everyday experience. Shows like Spongebob Squarepants, for example, involve such a low degree of comedy that people of all ages, demographics, and locations across the world are able to find delight in it.
Range 2: Sweet Humor
The next range of humor, Sweet vs Acidic, deals with the intensity of the humor itself. Sweet Humor involves jokes, situations, and characters that require less pain and cynicism to appreciate. For example, a story that involves simple characters bumbling around, making mistakes, overcoming, and becoming better people for it would generally fall into the range of Sweet. We don't laugh at their misfortune (or if we do, its lighthearted and with limited consequences, like slipping on a banana peel), we laugh because their situations are joyfully amusing.
An example of this are the sort of jokes and humor found in Youtube “Lets Plays,” like those of Markiplier and Jacksepticeye. We don't laugh because of anything bad happening to these people (or the characters that they play); we laugh because they are eccentric, silly, and joyful in a way that also makes us feel joyful. This form of humor can be tremendously encouraging and uplifting to the types of readers who enjoy it.
Range 2: Acidic Humor
On the other hand, we have Acidic humor. Much like with food, most people have strong preferences and limits to how acidic (spicy, sour, or bitter) they like their humor. Acidic humor deals with laughing at topics that are increasingly serious or even tragic, such as death, illness, social injustice, etc... A popular example of acidic humor is South Park. Those of us who enjoy acidic humor will find ourselves laughing at topics that would otherwise likely bring us to tears. The power of acidic humor is that it helps its appreciators to cope with the difficult truths of life, and also to acknowledge problems that we are otherwise tempted to ignore because they are too hard to think about.
An example of an issue addressed in South Park is the elderly, their treatment, and our fear that we will face the same. Sure, when we watch an episode we laugh when the younger characters mistreat and abuse the elderly in the community. However, a conscientious viewer will then begin the chew on the issue, once the episode is over. We'll look at our own actions, and begin to wonder if our treatment of the elderly is just as bad. Because of the acidic humor, these difficult truths come to the forefront of our minds, we gain the courage to actually think about them, and we can even bring them up in discussion with others. This discussion can then lead to people changing the world for the better.
Range 3: Distanced Humor
This range has to deal with the necessary emotional distance we need in order to be able to appreciate a certain level of humor. Even with lighthearted humor like slapstick, which has very low acidity, the audience needs to be distanced in order to laugh. For example, if I watch Bugs Bunny wallop Elmer Fudd on the head with a mallet, it's generally pretty damn funny. I know that these characters are both flat cartoons with limited depth to their character, and that as non-beings they don't really feel pain. Therefore, I don't have empathy to Elmer's pain (because it is really non-existent), and I can laugh. However, if the show were to show me Elmer's life, how he's been a vegan but famine has caused him to need to find meat to feed his family, and how he struggles to even shoot at a rabbit because it makes him feel like he's betraying himself; then I'm not going to laugh if Bugs hit him with a hammer. I'm too close, and need emotional distance in order for my empathy to not get in the way of my humor.
Range 3: Close Humor
We do not need distance in order to find something funny. With close humor, the jokes and situations actually rely on how well we know the characters and how much we empathize with them. An example of Close Humor is Scrubs. In the show actually find ourselves within the mind of the protagonist, JD, and seeing the entire world through his eyes. He tells us about his insecurities, his genuine pain, his fears, and we actually really care about him as a character. Yet, we find humor in his minor misfortunes and even in his silly victories. The closeness of our perspective amplifies the events that happen in his life in a way that distanced humor cannot achieve. For example, when he stutters and says something embarrassing in front of someone he idolizes, we find ourselves giggling. If Elmer Fudd were to stutter in front of someone he idolized, we wouldn't laugh nearly so hard because we can't possibly understand the stakes of the moment or why meeting this person is so important to him. We need to be close to a character for Close Humor to work.
Range 4: Predatory Humor
With the range of Predatory Humor vs Reflective humor, we are discussing who will be the “butt” or target of the joke. (Note that a joke does not necessarily need a butt, as we will discuss later.) While often used in a negative way, in order to bully and shame others, predatory humor is not a bad thing in and of itself. Predatory humor can be used to tackle and harm negative constructs and ideas in our society. For example, Fairly Odd Parents used to frequently attack neglectful and abusive parenting. Note that the while Timmy's (the protagonist of the show) Parents were frequently the butt of jokes, they were also not the real target (just like parents in general were not the target). The targets were their selfish and non-reflective actions that had damaging effects on their son. We can use predatory humor to attack ideas, and point out the evils that are so often overlooked in society. The trick is to always keep vigilance of your own mind, actions, and motives to makes sure that you do not become a bully who targets the people themselves. Because even if someone acts in an evil way, bullying them will never cause that to change.
Range 4: Reflective Humor
On the other side of this range we have Reflective Humor, which serves to make fun of itself. Again using South Park as an example, the creators would often make their own beliefs and ideals the target of their ridicule. For example, it's fairly clear that the show speaks in favor of LGBT rights and for their being accepted as equals in society. However, they also go as far as to mock people who are so over-enthusiastic and pro-LGBT (to the point of hypocrisy). Another example is when the show begins to teach a moral lesson, the writers will often make fun of themselves through the character of Kyle for being so preachy. The effect of the show making fun of itself is two-fold. First, those of us whose beliefs South Park mocks feel like the show is being fair. Thus, we continue to listen to and respect the views of the creators, even if we don't always agree. Second, we trust the messages of a story more when it has the integrity to point out its own failings. Note that unlike with other scales, Reflective and Predatory Humor can actually be interwoven so that a joke or story makes fun of itself just as much as its target.
Range 5: Clever Humor
The last range of humor that we'll discuss is that of Clever vs Ridiculous. This range is fairly self-explanatory, but the core of its nature is what sort of punchline is delivered at the end of a humorous situation. Clever humor takes the audience expectation and amplifies or twists it to an unexpected place. You can see this in the work of comedians such as Louis CK and Demetri Martin. Martin, for example, has a humorous bit about doorways that say “Exit Only.” The joke then involves his compulsive desire to tell store workers that they underestimate the potential of those doors by about 50%. The delivery of the punchline is true and logical, but it such a way that it humorously exceeds audience expectation.
Range 5: Ridiculous Humor
Opposite of Clever Humor, we have ridiculous humor. This is when the punchline of a humorous situation is so absurd that we can't help but laugh. And example of this is the Spongebob Squarepants episode where he and Squidward get lost while delivering a pizza. They become lost in the wilderness and spend the episode becoming more and more so. Then, right at the end, Spongebob exclaims that they are saved because he's found a big beautiful boulder, the likes of which the pioneers used to ride for miles. And, to make matters even more ridiculous, the boulder works—driving just like a car. We find humor because the punchline is simply so grandiosely absurd that we can't help but enjoy it. Note that both Clever and Ridiculous humor require a great amount of skill and thought to pull off successfully, it's just a matter of your preference and your target audience.
The Five Sources of Humor
Once we identify what type of humor we are employing by using the scales, the next thing to consider is what makes our stories funny. This is something of a challenge, because we don't generally put much thought into why humor makes us feel the way it does. The humor either hits or misses, and we laugh or we don't. Making matters even more complicated is that there are so many theories as to why and how humor works—with everyone from Aristotle to Freud interjecting an opinion. But if we look at the particular sorts of things that make people laugh, we can improve how we use humor in our stories.
Source 1: Misfortune
Whether a cartoon character is slipping on a banana peel, or a character in a romantic comedy finds themselves in an embarrassing situation, the misfortune of others seems to be the most popular form of humor. This is why slapstick and funny home videos have been so prevalent in modern humor. Plato and Aristotle seemed to believe that this was because such humor made the audience feel superior to the characters being ridiculed (Superiority Theory). This seems especially true when we see unlikable characters (like the villain in a children's cartoon) experience misfortune in a comical way.
Though Superiority Theory has its place, I would assert that there is an alternative way that people enjoy misfortune. Perhaps the experience of slipping on a banana peel or being in an embarrassing situation is funny because of our own memories of experiencing the same thing or something similar. Freud and others theorized that humor was a release of energy (Relief Theory). Maybe our camaraderie with the character, mixed with emotional distance from the scene we are watching, creates a safe space to release our own stored feelings of pain or embarrassment. Thus laughter really does become a healing force.
Source 2: Absurdity
In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus defines and explains the absurd.
“It's absurd” means “It's impossible” but also “It's contradictory.” If I see a man armed with only a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his interaction and the reality he will encounter. […] Likewise we shall deem a verdict absurd when we contrast it with the verdict the facts apparently dictated. (29)
Though Camus is not talking about humor (rather the existentialist question), I think that the absurd is a source of humor. Audiences are often entertained by the absurdity of a situation. And by looking at Camus' explanation, we can hypothesize that this form of humor comes from the disproportionate contrast of action and situation. An example of this might be one of the last battle-scenes in Braveheart. In this scene, victory looks unlikely, the dramatic tension is high, and it seems to be the most serious moment imaginable. Then, upon being signaled, the protagonist's soldiers pull up their kilts and reveal their bare asses to the enemy. It's so unexpected and so absurd, that many people cannot help but to keel over laughing.
This scene is completely disproportionate to what we would expect to see in this dramatic a moment. The action does not suit the situation, but in a strange way it also kind of does—with the action juxtaposing itself against the situation. Perhaps, just like with misfortune, absurd humor creates a needed release of energy, connected to our own sense of existentialist absurdism. The absurd could then serve to release our feelings of despair in a positive light. The show, Rick and Morty, seems to be built on this connection between absurd humor blended with existentialism and nihilism. Of course, this is just a theory. What you'll want to focus on when writing absurd humor is the relationship of your characters' actions to the situations that they find themselves in. Are they lost in the desert? Have them climb a boulder and ride it home. The stronger the contrast between action and situation, the higher you'll make the potential for absurdity.
Source 3: Wit
Wit is the essence of Clever Humor; its the pithy intelligence that makes us laugh because of all the thought put into a situation. When we hear a witty joke or are part of a witty situation, we find ourselves moving in a forward humorous momentum, instead of the backwards and diagonal momentum of the absurd. But we don't stop at the expected location. For example my mother called me a few months ago, asking me if I was going to wish my brother a happy birthday. The expected response for this sort of set-up/situation is to answer “Yes” or “No”. But I went forward and beyond “No” by asking why she wanted me to congratulate my brother for being one year closer to death (I have an acidic sense of humor sometimes). This reply was much more thoughtful than what my mother expected, and pointlessly taken beyond the realm of reason. Therefore, she found it funny.
Perhaps there is an element of the absurd in any given amount of witty humor. It's as if we are taking extra steps to be as intelligent and rational as possible—ending with us standing somewhere close to the absurd. Using Camus' illustration of absurdity, the soldier with a sword wouldn't necessarily attack the machine guns, but instead go home, refusing to sacrifice his life to be a metaphor. You can see this sort of humor in Youtube series such as How it Should Have Ended. In this series, animators take a closer look at popular movies and then make efforts to enforce logic in worlds and characters that didn't have them. This includes having Severus Snape use his time-travel gizmo to go back in time and kill Voldemort before he became a problem—an action that is so logical that it erases the need for any of the Harry Potter stories to even happen. So when you create witty humor, look to take things beyond the realm of expectation—aiming for the absurdly reasonable.
Source 4: Anti-humor
Anti-humor is when something is so unfunny that it becomes funny, sort of like puns. As we find delight in the absurd and the unexpected, humor and jokes can begin to feel predictable. We begin to look for the solution in jokes, and we're usually smart enough to begin to be able to predict it. In this case, the expected becomes surprising. An example is the classic: “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” If you haven't heard it before, this anti-humor joke is actually kind of funny. A great example of this are the great collection anti-jokes found online.
You can take anti-jokes to the next level using extremely acidic humor. This is where you take serious, grievous, or tragic topics and use them as the punchline for your joke. For example, a joke about a fatal illness is not funny because the person making the joke finds that topic amusing (otherwise that person needs some counseling). A joke about fatal illness can be funny to some people for the exact opposite reason—because of how dark and unfunny it is. Again, I believe this ties into a release of negative energy while in a safe space, and the processing of difficult emotions. If you plan to use the extreme form of anti-humor, please note that many people have very legitimate reasons for not enjoying it. So be careful, and give your audience some sort of forewarning so that you do not spring something so emotionally charged on them without their consent.
Source 5: Familiarity and Value
When I was taking university writing classes, I had an extremely eccentric professor who had all sorts of mannerisms that were unique to him. In the moments when he was particularly eccentric and acting out of his true nature (which he was quite comfortable with), I would find myself laughing, even if the situation wasn't funny. I think others can relate to this, as we all love to talk about fun people that we used to know, and find ourselves laughing even when what we are remembering isn't particularly funny. We laugh because those people acting happily out of their own nature gave us joy, and so anything they do creates a laughter that feels akin to humor.
This mirth through familiarity can be accomplished in stories as well. In Bob's Burgers, for example, we really don't even begin to understand the humor until we develop an attachment and feelings for each individual character. Sure the situations are mildly amusing, but true laughter and humor doesn't begin until we know the characters, their likes, their dislikes, and who they are deep down inside. Once we know that, we laugh as each character acts out of their nature. When we see Louise (one of the protagonists) act with mischievous intent, we laugh even before we know what she's doing because we are happy that she is about to act out of who she really is. Note that this is a rather difficult sort of humor to pull off because you have to create a relationship between the characters and the audience before the humor will be possible.
General Tips for Humor
Tip 1: Create a patterned and uniform blend of humor for your story.
When you choose what sort of humor you plan to use in your story, the best way of maintaining audience enjoyment is to keep it constant. Just like when we watch a stand-up comedian, we begin to develop a taste and sense of expectation for whatever we are watching or reading. Over time, your audience will begin to really appreciate the flavor of your humor, and that appreciation will make your jokes increasingly funny (so long as they are creative and continue to be intelligently crafted). The pattern will also make all of your jokes seem, feel, and become purposeful. Your audience will enjoy this much more than if you seem like you are desperately trying to milk the humor from anything you can get your hands on (you perv).
I recommend you begin by analyzing the origins of humor in your story's world. Is the world simply absurd, with unseen gods of chaos just dropping coconuts on people's heads for pure amusement? Does the humor come from a specific character? A group of funny people living in a serious world that they must learn to cope with through humor? A funny narrator with a unique perspective on life? Once you figure out the origins, determine where your humor will fit on the scales (it doesn't have to be on any extreme, you can stay in the middle of the scales and still be hilarious); and then figure out the source.
Tip 2: Create a genuine story with genuine characters, in order for humor to gain the most power.
If we value stories in terms of how much people enjoy and remember them, the best humor stories are those with good plots and characters. This may seem counter-intuitive when your intent is to make your audience laugh, but think of it this way. If an audience wants just concentrated jokes, they will read a joke-book. Your audience is choosing to dredge through the murky waters of story in order to find the humor with more difficulty because they want a blend of story and humor.
An example of this is the movie,“Austin Powers.” Many people, myself included, watched these movies before we ever watched the James Bond movies that they were making fun of. And we enjoyed them greatly, and laughed the entire way through. Why? Because the characters and story, ridiculous as they were, were good enough that we actually invested our interest and emotions into them. As an added bonus, the story has become timeless and respected in its own right. Even if we face a future where nobody knows who James Bond is, the Austin Powers movies will be able to stand on their own merit because they are more than just jokes.
Tip 3: Be careful about dating yourself.
Speaking of parody and humor losing its ability to be funny, let's talk about references that date our stories. Humor at the expense of popular culture (movies, politicians, celebrities) is a fun ploy of high-humor. It's especially useful for nighttime comedy shows that will be lost to time anyways, within a couple years. When you are writing a novel, however, you are trying to create something that will last a bit longer than that. Additionally, novels take a lot longer to write than an episode of a late night comedy show. This means that by the time you publish and people begin to discover your book, they may not know who the vapid pop star you're making fun of is. Your humor will be lost to time, and your book quite possibly forgotten. Of course, I'm not telling you that you can't use this sort of humor, just that you should be aware of the risks it holds.
Tip 4: Mark every line that is supposed to be funny, and make sure that it is.
Nothing detracts from a story or from a spirit of jovial humor so much as an obvious joke that falls flat. It's like watching an acrobatics show. If the acrobat falls on their face too many times you'll either be embarrassed for them or you'll empathize and start worrying for their safety. Either way, you won't find the situation amusing. In your own personal copy of the manuscript, mark every joke for analysis of whether it actually succeeds and whether it serves to empower the story. Then, ask your editors, test-readers, and writing partner to circle every point that they genuinely found funny. Be sure to pick test-readers who fall into the niche you are writing for, as well as those who do not. If nobody but you marked a specific joke, then you need to either get feedback for how to make it funnier, or else cut it.
Tip 5: Write within your own expertise and authority.
This does not mean that you can't laugh at things, and poke fun at things that are outside your realm of expertise, so long as you have done your research. But consider the power of an insider making a joke about something that you are a part of vs an outsider doing the same. It would be like the difference between me calling most writers narcissists (as I am one, and know that it is pretty true in most instances) and a politician making a joke and calling writers narcissists. I mean, what right does that asshole have to judge us, even if it is true? The point is that your jokes gain power when you can tell them with the confidence of an insider. Not only that, but your audience who is a part of the group at the butt of the joke, will be much more gracious and feel far less attacked when the joke comes from one of their own.
Tip 6: Humor is personal
Humor is something that is highly individual to specific groups and people. For example, I do not understand, nor am I really able to appreciate most British or Spanish comedies. This is not because they aren't funny; they are just as valid and hilarious as every form of comedy that I do enjoy. The reason is simply that because of either how I was raised, my life experiences or because of who I am by nature, I can't enjoy them any more than I can enjoy olives on my pizza (seriously, I hate them). It doesn't matter how artfully these types of humor are composed, there is simply no effect akin to joy, amusement, or laughter when I come across them. In other words, the problem is me and not them.
All this is to make three points. First, it may be more difficult to find test-readers and worthwhile criticism for humorous work. Even if I'm really good at critiquing stories, I will not be able to give you any helpful feedback if your humor doesn't match with mine. And that isn't your fault any more than it's my fault. It's just a difference in taste. Second, humor is as personal and close to the heart as any other story or craft. When you create a joke, you are channeling whatever emotions and mixes of experiences have led you to the type of humor you have. So recognize the emotional bond between yourself and your humor.
The third piece of advice is for those on the other end of the spectrum, those experiencing the humor of others and perhaps trying to give advice. Please recognize that others' sense of humor is just as valid as yours. Whether their sense of humor is simple, complex, dry, witty, dark, acidic, sweet, or anything in between, it is their sense of humor and not yours. Be careful in how you voice any attempts at criticism, as there are few ways to break your friends' trust and confidence as completely as when you tell them, “That's not funny.” You might as well be telling them that their heart sucks, and they are a sucky person.
Instead, acknowledge the differences in people's humor, value it even if that humor makes you uncomfortable, and voice your criticisms accordingly. Try: “This joke wasn't successful with me, and might be perceived as racist/bullying/insensitive to some readers; so seek other feedback to see if it's just me.” You will voicing just as honest an opinion, without formulating a direct attack against the person who has trusted you with something so delicate to them.
Weekly Recommended Watching: Doraleous and Associates by Hank and Jed. (A free animated fantasy Youtube series that manages to successfully mesh several humor types with an over-arching plot. Examine how even there are plot elements that are serious and even sad, the series maintains its humor through well-balanced distance and wit. And if this form of humor does not amuse you, that is perfectly valid and your own unique sense of humor is still a valuable thing.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.9
This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of humor Write down what type of humor you plan to use. Then, write down what completely original sci-fi ideas you have for your story.
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How do I use these tips to write good jokes and comedy into my story without ruining the drama or forcing the humor in? Can you explain it to me or at least give me an example on how to do that, please? Sorry if I being too pushy or demanding.
Unfortunately, the question is kind of open and it all really just depends on every other part of your story. There's not like a fix-all suggestion that will work for anything. My advice would just find a humor book that does what you are wanting to do well and figure out how the author is doing that. Then, just write a first draft. Write a second draft. Then pass off your manuscript to someone who shares your kind of humor to get criticism. Specifically ask them if the humor is working for them and if not, why. Then ask what would have made any failing jokes work.