Everyone enjoys a little humour sometimes. We judge the interest level of seminars, books, and even news articles by whether they can make us smile. Smiling is a good sign that we are engaged and paying attention. As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. But what makes something funny?
Humour comes in several shapes, which can broadly be described as verbal, physical and situational. Here we are going to address some of the techniques for creating verbal humour.
In writing, humour tends to be created through misunderstandings in dialogue, through specific situations and through clashing characters or personae characterized in funny ways. Just think of the very first description of Hercule Poirot that Agatha Christie wrote in The Mysterious Affair at Styles:
He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible.
To return to our earlier question: what makes something funny? Dissecting humour often kills it, or as E.B. White said, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” However, if you are that scientific mind eager to put some humour in your writing, you will have to sacrifice a frog or two. So where do we begin?
- Funny is different for everyone
Mark Twain wrote that “… humor, to be comprehensible to anybody, must be built upon a foundation with which he is familiar. If he can’t see the foundation, the superstructure is to him merely a freak – like the Flatiron building without any visible means of support – something that ought to be arrested.”
In other words, you need to find common ground with your audience: common referents, the contemporary politico-social situation, the general human condition. A highly specialised chemistry joke will only be understood by chemists. So the first rule of humour is the first rule of writing: Know your audience.
- Choose your topic well
Common ground includes choosing topics which your readers understand, as well as find funny. Observe situations around you to see what makes people laugh and choose the type of humour that matches your goals as a writer. Don’t aim for belly laughs – it may be considered crass by your audience, and such writing is easily forgotten. Aim for a knowing smile, a snicker at most; you can best achieve that through double entendres, word play, funny words, memorable turns of phrase, and the like.
Tailor your jokes to your target audience: women may not find sexist jokes funny, precisely because they understand them. Certain types of humour may not feel appropriate to the readers expecting a different tone from your writing. Newspapers reporting coronavirus news would be condemned if they included sardonic commentary. There is a time and a place for each type of humour, and there are places where readers do not expect to see humour and will not accept it.
- Build humorous structures
Time and place are also vital to the construction of humour: subvert a cliché, and the humour is almost automatic. Begin a familiar phrase and finish it in an unexpected way and people smile, as shown below by Terry Pratchett in Jingo:
Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.
Under- and overstatement are also funny to most people for the same reason – they surprise the reader and are funny and memorable, as seen in the quote below from the classic film “101 Dalmatians”.
I’m so hungry I could eat a whole elephant!
There are whole humorous stories by Mark Twain built around the concept of overstatement, such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.
Repetition is also funny – modify some element a little every time, or have the same response to a variety of situations. Repetition is the driving force behind online memes – take a picture of a grumpy cat and change the text on it, and the result ticks most of the humour boxes: familiar topic, repetition, modification of something familiar, possible overstatement, the subversion of expectations at the end.
- Choose the right words
Another part of humour is the sound of words. The word ‘Poodle’ makes many people smile: just think how children laugh at certain words, completely disconnected to meaning or context, and use that. Saying ‘gobbledegook’ sounds funnier than saying ‘technological jargon’, and it is more memorable. Someone wearing diving goggles on their head will make for a ridiculous figure; someone with their Ray-Bans on their forehead will not.
Adding little details is also an effective way of creating memorable, gently humorous writing. Scroll up to the description of Detective Poirot that we began with, and see whether you agree.
Of course, the best way to write humour is to be immersed in humorous writing. Try reading Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Jerome K. Jerome, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, Bill Bryson, Joseph Heller. This list covers writers of everything from humorous non-fiction to science fiction, societal satire, and comic travelogue, and will expose you to a wide variety of techniques for writing humour.