Multilevel Humor

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.


54 thoughts on “Multilevel Humor

  1. Makes sense. *snods wisely* Sometimes, you can get away with just an adult joke, though, because often children will laugh just because someone else is laughing. My nine year old sister laughs at every joke she hears, but I’m pretty sure she only gets about .01% of them. Sometimes I’ve done that, too. Someone else is laughing and I only half-get the joke, but I laugh anyway. Granted, this is me we’re talking about, who’s known for laughing and giggling as a response to a statement just because I have no clue what to say. Even though it’s not in the slightest bit funny. But still.

    Children’s humor is kind of difficult, though. At least for me, anyhow, because a lot of it is just silliness. Like you were saying, a villain sitting on a pitchfork or slipping on a banana peel. I can see how that might be funny (because I’m sort of at the stage where I get some of both children’s and adult’s humor) but in my own writing, I have trouble putting it in there. I guess just because it’s…silly. I feel really boring saying this, but, I don’t like being silly. I like being funny, but not silly. I guess I just get self-conscious about it, even if in my writing, it’s not me being silly, it’s one of the characters or something, but I just can’t seem to do it.

    It doesn’t help that most of my humor is making bad jokes and/or puns, and those are sometimes difficult to put into writing and make it work.

    Anyhow, good post!

    1. It’s easier to put a bad joke or pun into a story as an intellectual reaction to something silly that happened. So if you can make something silly happen, then make a pun around it…

      Thank you, and thanks for the essay (as DK would call it).

      1. That’s true… the only problem with that is if the pun is one of those kinds that works better as auditory rather than visual. *facepalm* But I suppose there’s no sense in worrying about that, I should just try to actually put any puns in there to begin with. *adds humor to her ever-growing list of things to add to her novels*

        Hehe, no problem. You don’t think I can convince my teacher that this should count for my literature homework, do you?

  2. Yes. Which is why we watch a Disney movie as kids then get into our teens, hear the subtle dirty jokes, and after laughing, wonder why we were allowed to watch this.
    Now I want to watch Monty Python… And attempt simultaneous kid and adult humor.

  3. Wow. I seriously have never thought of anything like this before. Now I want to dissect some humor…

    One place I have noticed the jokes we get later is…duh-duh-duh…Veggie Tales. It seems like every time I re-watch another Veggie Tales episode, I get one more of the jokes.

    And oh my, it seems like a difficult job, this humor-thing. I never purposefully put anything funny into my writing. It either happens naturally off the top of my head or not at all. But then again, forced humor isn’t interesting, so…

    1. Yes. Watch VeggieTales, then watch Monty Python, then watch VeggieTales again. Then watch a comedy called Airplane (warning for some dirty humor, as with Monty Python), then watch VeggieTales again, particularly the early ones. It’s amazing to see how many jokes they stole from both places.

      Exactly. Humor is difficult.

      1. It took me and the older younger siblings years to figure out all the parodies they did… “What, you mean the island one with coconuts was really Gilligan’s Island?” –That was the most recent startling revelation…

  4. Great post! I’ve actually noticed this too, but haven’t spent much time thinking about it. It makes sense though. When I re-watch movies that I laughed at as a kid, I find myself laughing at other jokes that I didn’t understand or catch when I was younger (admittedly though, I still laugh at some things that I found funny as a kid…I mean, come on, VeggieTales is hilarious no matter how old you are). Also, now I feel the need to watch Monty Python again because I feel like I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the humor when I first watched it.

    1. Monty Python is difficult because although you weren’t old enough to appreciate the humor, you also weren’t old enough to appreciate the inappropriateness of what’s going on. Be careful with that.

  5. Scooby Doo is full of it. I remember it especially because it’s only when you’re older do you realise that Fred gets jealous whenever Daphne is hanging out with another guy. Like when Johnny Bravo guest starred on the show.

    Phineas and Ferb also comes to mind. So do a ton of Disney/Dreamworks movies. That’s really why I love watching them–to understand all the jokes I missed as a kid. (The movie Robots was especially bad. Lots of dirty jokes slipped quietly into conversation.)

  6. Hey, i’ll have you know that I’m sixteen and I still watch Spongebob from time to time, mostly for nostalgia’s sake. That episode with the tattle-tale stranger never fails to make me laugh.

    I think Phineas and Ferb is the best with multi-level humor. When it first came out I remember my parents liking it more than I did.

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