Children laugh at different jokes than adults do.
It’s kind of obvious. Children laugh at the bad guy sitting down on a pitchfork, at which adults wince. Adults laugh at a Monty Python reference, at which children ask what’s so funny. Children and adults laugh at different jokes. If an adult watches a children’s movie, they’ll laugh just as much as the kids. If a kid watches a grown-up movie, the reverse is seldom true. But even in the children’s movie, the adults laugh at different jokes than the kids. It’s almost like the writers are writing two levels of humor.
Breaking news: they are. Writers of movies for young people have to cater to all ages because parents are more likely to let their children watch movies they like than movies they don’t. A movie could be full of children’s humor, but without catering to adults, it won’t last. Thus, writers write for both levels of humor at once, making writing for kids harder than writing for adults. Even more than that, they have to make sure neither party is left out of any joke. Humor is a difficult thing to nail.
Note: I will attempt to describe the different levels of humor, but as E.B. White pointed out, trying to dissect humor is ultimately useless, since it dies in the process. What I say here is neither absolute nor meant to be taken as such.
The children’s level of humor is based on visual or physical things. The same way a badly dressed man with a scraggly beard and bad teeth will strike children as evil, a man wearing a fish on his head will strike them as funny. A short man with a floppy toupee who dances like a chicken with the head of a monkey is funny at first, yet easy to dislike as the story proceeds. This is the reason we have cartoons where bombs explode and anvils are dropped from on high– acts which may, under different circumstances, be labeled violent. Visual, physical humor amuses children. That doesn’t mean that violence amuses them, but the sight of funny things is usually funnier than hearing about them.
On the other hand, the adult’s level of humor is based on logic or dialogue. Fallacies, light emotional conflict, puns, these make adults laugh. References to literature, references to other funny things, references to real life in strange places– Monty Python quotes make us laugh, as does a famous quote taken completely out of context. Ignorance is also humorous at times, and of course the occasional dirty joke. While children laugh at things they see, adults most often laugh at things they hear or piece together for themselves.
This is why a really good pun will amuse an adult forever, while children won’t understand a bit of it. This is why kids love SpongeBob until they grow old enough to realize it’s not really that funny– unless you’re looking at the childish, visual side of it. Things for children seem silly and empty-headed, but the fact is they don’t find intellectual humor amusing just yet.
Obviously, one joke does not amuse all ages, unless an adult is willing to act like a child for a while. Instead, in order to amuse the entire audience, the writers must tell two jokes: one silly, one intellectual. But there’s more to it than that– people don’t like to be left out. If the children are all laughing at a joke, the adults won’t feel included. If all the adults are laughing, the children will feel the same way. Laughter is fun and everyone wants a part of it, but not everyone laughs at the same things. How do you strike that balance?
Tell two jokes at the same time. No single joke– for child or adult– must appear alone. However, they don’t have to happen exactly simultaneously– just within a five second time frame or so, or within a couple sentences of each other. You can see this technique at work anywhere. You have the villain slip on a banana peel, then someone makes a quip at his expense. Visual, then auditory. Silliness followed by intellect.
Is it a rule? Of course not. It’s simply a trick writers use in productions for children, whether books or movies. But as always with humor, you have to make sure it isn’t releasing suspense that you want to keep around. A joke made about danger makes the danger less real. A joke made about the character’s incompetence in the face of danger makes the danger that much bigger.
But try this. Tell two jokes at the same time. Cater to both age groups. Both enjoy their laughter.