A Couple Tools for Humor

I decided a couple days ago to write a post about humor, especially workshopping it.  I decided that to figure that question out, I’d watch some Firefly, because it’s one of the funniest TV shows I’ve encountered without ever detracting from the plot.  Funny thing I realized, though, after watching about seven episodes: it’s much easier to keep watching than to write a post about how it works.

I said a couple weeks ago that humor can be learned, and practiced.  I wouldn’t have said that if I hadn’t believed it to be true.  Humor is a tool like anything else, and to learn humor requires the same process as anything else: experience.  I can’t tell you how to make a joke, nor can I dissect humor and tell you what makes it tick.  All I can do is tell you how to make your humor better— how to practice it.

The first thing to realize, I think, is what jokes communicate.  Jokes are, primarily, funny— there’s no getting around that— but they also occur at the expense of someone or something.  It’s your job as a writer to figure out what that is.  If a joke is in the wrong place, it means it’s happening at the expense of something you don’t want belittled.  If it’s in the right place, the humor occurs at no one’s expense, or purposefully detracts from a certain character’s standing, or lends to the mood in that way.  Howard Tayler, cartoonist, has to keep a drama running as he makes a joke every day.  He’s said several times that he can’t make a joke about things that are happening— that would be at the expense of the plot, which would destroy suspension of disbelief.  Since he needs that, he can’t destroy it with a joke.

But in the right place, humor can be just the thing.  So my first advice to you is this: make all the jokes you can, as you’re writing.  After you’ve written them, look at them and figure out, individually, if each joke detracts or lends to what you’re trying to do.  If it makes a character seem petty who ought to seem heroic, delete it.  If it makes a dire scene seem more dire, it’s perfect.  Let it be.

Another thing to realize is this: what I mean by “joke” in this post doesn’t actually mean joke.  A standard joke has a setup and a punchline.  In a normal joke you might tell, you need to take a little time to set things up and then deliver the punchline— the audience might know that you’re about to crack a joke, but they’ll go along with it because they want to laugh.  That won’t work for you in a drama.  You can’t have the setup and the punchline all wrapped up in a bow.  Your joke has to spring, seemingly organically, from the story.

How do you do that?  Second piece of advice answers that question: make your humor arise from the characters.  Instead of setting up a punchline, try and make things funny that a character would say normally.  A perfect example of this is Firefly, mentioned above.  Joss Whedon’s characters almost never set up jokes blatantly.  Instead, they say something that makes perfect sense from their perspective, but is hilarious in the perspective of someone else.  For that exact reason, I can’t give a good example, because it takes knowledge of the characters to understand them.  Nevertheless, character.

That said, here’s another thing to realize: anything can become funnier.  (This strays into the concept of “the right word” for a sentence.)  Think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Knights Who Say Ni:

First of all, think about the general theme of the joke.  King Arthur and his men are stopped by a knight who claims a toll.  By itself, that’s not that funny.  But add the fact that the knight is overly tall, calls himself one of the Knights Who Say Ni, and demands a shrubbery, it becomes a whole lot funnier.  Also, consider if the knight had claimed he wanted a bush.  Is that as funny as a shrubbery?  No, it isn’t.  The weird sound of “a shrubbery” makes it funny, as well as the humorous sound of the word.  Bush just doesn’t cut it.

Third piece of advice: choose the correct word.  Many of the jokes in Firefly wouldn’t be the same had the characters simply changed one word, but as it is, it works.  If you’re trying for a joke and it’s not working, but you know the spot is the right one, change some words around.  Find the silliest synonym for a word and put that in instead.  It might just do the trick.

This post wasn’t quite as profound as I wanted it to be, but I hope it made some sort of sense to you.  Make sure your jokes are in the right place (that usually means they should mean something bad for the main character, even if the main character is making the joke).  Try and get the humor to come out of the character rather than from a canned setup and punchline.  Lastly, if you want a joke but it’s just not working, change some words around.  Things can be made funnier by mere syllables.  I hope all this has made sense to you, and I hope it works for you.  I’ll try and think about this some more as I attempt to raise the humor level in Gifts of Rith— until then, discuss among yourselves.  Anything I missed?


24 thoughts on “A Couple Tools for Humor

  1. My word… you actually managed to dissect humor. I salute you, sir.

    Points you made are noted and will be kept in mind. I love writing jokes in my stories, but I need to work on correctly placing it.

    I agree, the jokes in Firefly are amazing and were they said by other people, they wouldn’t be as funny. Also, I really need to watch the rest of Monty Python and the Holy Grail…

    Lovely post.

  2. First of all, you’d probably want me to discretely point this out for you to fix: “…the fact that the night is overly tall…” *coughs discretely* There’s a typo there. Feel free to edit this part of the comment out once you fix it. Unless of course, you truly meant the night was tall, in which case I’ll have to ask you to tell me more about this tall night phenomenon.


    I have to echo Robyn and applaud you with all due astonishment and awe for picking humor apart for us. Especially since it must’ve taken an incredible amount of willpower to actually stop watching TV.

    Let’s see, what do I do with humor…generally, I tend to take more of a spontaneous approach. A character will spit something out from nowhere, so it seems, and I’ll go with that. But a lot of times it’s more an action that’s humorous, at least in my opinion. That’s also pretty spontaneous, admittedly, but…okay, this is going to sound pretty silly, but here’s an example. MC #1 and MC #2 chased each other around throwing dirt at each other and climbing up and down trees. They were inspired by two squirrels chasing each other. During the course of this scene, MC #1 untied MC #2’s horse’s reins and said something like, “Oops, guess you didn’t tie your knots tight enough.” Then later (the rest of that book and halfway through the next one…), I brought that up again when MC #1 and MC #2 had their horses somewhere in the forest and MC #1 said to MC #2, “Just tie her up over there–and make sure your knots are tight enough. Don’t want any more accidents.”

    Wow, that doesn’t even sound funny now…well, I think my point (rather buried under all that MC 1-and-2-ing) was that I tend to lean toward the more “inside joke” between characters type thing. I…should probably work on this. Anyhow. Good post.

    1. Also, awwww! You got rid of the tips for life and stuff? I can understand why, but you did save that in a document somewhere or something, right? …Right?

      1. You made me quite worried there, Amanda, but then I searched “tips” in the search-thingy and the posts seem to be all there. It would have been tragic to have lost all that advice on how to give writing tips, and how to deal with irking young cellists.

    2. Fixed, although a tall night would be interesting.

      Interesting. I have to say, it does lose something in the translation, but if it makes you laugh, it’s good.

      1. It would, wouldn’t it?

        Indeed…I’m quite aware of that now. I suppose most jokes do when you try to explain them. But all the same, it wasn’t the best example for sure. Not that I can think of a better one off the top of my head without re-reading the whole thing.

    1. Unfortunately, irony is so often misused that you almost can’t include it in anything describing humor for fear of being misunderstood. I understand that it’s a tool, but the term itself gets confused too often. But if you use it, great.

      It is interesting, but it can definitely be broken out of. Keep working.

      1. In what way does it often get misused? I hope I’m not misusing it, because it’s one of my favourite techniques (not just in creating humour, but in many different ways).

        I will! Thanks.

      2. Many people believe irony to be the same as coincidence— rain at a wedding, for instance, is not irony, but merely coincidence. But a burning fire truck is ironic, because it’s meant to stop the very thing that destroyed it. It’s definitely a difficult thing to define.

  3. So basically what I need to do is just set myself a reminder like every few moments to add a joke into my writing in the first place, so that I can consider editing it out later? Mmm, sounds strangely like the advice I’ve given myself for description.

    Heh. Please excuse my snarky comment there. ’Tis a good post! I think it should definitely be useful if I ever sit down and consciously try to add humor to my writing.

    Also, I’m pretty sure you’re the third person to bring up Firefly in the past two weeks or so. I think that’s a cue that I need to maybe watch it…

    1. That’s one way to do it, yes. Another way would be to go in later and add humor (which I’ll be doing in this draft).

      Firefly is awesome, but it can hit hard. I think it’s worth it for the writing instruction.

      1. Yeah, that’s probably what I’ll have to do, though now that I’m not being so snarky, I’ll point out that that advice actually seemed to help with my description. I think. I hope.

        Oh yeah? Hmm…

  4. I have a lot of banter in my book, but I am conscious of when it seems I’m trying too hard with the humour or if it looks like I’m adding it even though it doesn’t fit with the scene.

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