Humor is your brain having a good time.
Authors who write material of any kind (outside of textbooks and the like) need to introduce a little humor into their writing. The same thing can be said for people in general. It doesn’t hurt to infuse our writing and our lives with a bit of amusing chatter or rhetoric.
I’ve found three types of people when it comes to humor. Group 1 is what we think of as naturally funny. I had an aunt who fit that category, also a niece and a couple of close friends. I also tend to be a part of this group or so I have been told. Analyzing myself and these other people, I’d say that instead of just naturally being funny, we have found by observation how to be witty. In other words, I think humor can be learned as though it were a special grammar. We do not have a fun gene that allows us to comment on the fads and foibles of the moment. In my case, up until I hit puberty I was not funny in the least. Then I found that I wasn’t all that popular with my peers and I saw I had to do something fast or I was going to be labeled a bona-fide dullard.
I discovered rather quickly that if I always told something unusual or absurd about an ordinary situation, it would tickle the funny bones of my friends. You see, they were expecting the ordinary and got the unordinary. “I saw a cross-eyed chicken and it was walking like a drunk across the road.” Not big time humor, but for a 14 year-old in Okolona, Mississippi, it got some chuckles from my cohorts. So, over time I improved and became better at off-base stories.
When I began writing, I dropped this knack and swapped it for somberness. I didn’t know it but my writing was dull. My father’s first cousin was the writer Sally Kelley and I used to visit her when I was growing up. She wrote short stories for all sorts of national magazines. She read some of my stuff once and promptly told me to lighten up. Of course I didn’t listen. I should have seen that even though her stories were stark, human tales, she never left out a bit of humor.
This does not mean that you have to turn every calamitous thing you write or say into a comedy. You just have to treat it like successful Sally Kelley did—have a touch of humor every now and then. Shakespeare was great at this in his tragedy plays. (EX. The nurse in Romeo and Juliet.) Also photos or drawings can be exaggerated for a humorous effect. Caricatures would be an example.
I also noticed that by adding an unusual or absurd element to ordinary occurrences, I could conjure up some humor. EX. I had a collision in my car. I ran into Rosie, the horse drawing the local tourist carriage. This isn’t hilarious but it does present a visual picture to your listener or reader—and that’s what humor is all about.
Another humorous thing is repetition—the same event happening over and over. In the film GROUNDHOG DAY, it is the premise of the movie. This guy wakes up every morning and it’s the same day over and over for the entire movie. It builds and gets funnier and funnier. One more example. If a guy trips over the lawnmower once it’s not necessarily funny. The second time it is funny and the third could be hilarious.
A variation of this is when we’re telling a joke. You always have three instances of the same event. It could be three mothers telling something about their daughters. The first says her daughter married a doctor, the second says her daughter married a lawyer—and then the third says her daughter married a jerk—but his name is Rockefeller. You can have three of anything happening. Ex. A fat man comes into a bar and asks for a beer. A thin man comes into a bar and asks for a beer. Now, you finish the last one in the series and add a kicker of some sort. I’ll help you. A skeleton comes into a bar and asks for a beer—and a mop.
One other big resource for humor is the art of playing on words and puns. One word can have many meanings and thus its misuse brings laughter. EX. I used to be a banker but I lost interest. I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. It’s impossible to put down.
The key to successful humor is to be a little off base and tweak someone or something that is familiar. Most of your best comedians and humorists do exactly that. Think of Oscar Wilde (There are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want and getting what you want.) Mae West (When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.) Fran Lebowitz (I never met anyone who didn’t have a very smart child. What happens to these children, you wonder, when they reach adulthood?) and George Carlin (Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?) This sort of humor is just fine if you’re talking politics or about life in general or concerning some well known personality. But do not use your friends as the butt of your put-down jokes. They won’t find it funny and no one else will laugh either and they could sue you. You most likely will end up laughing at your own jokes and you know how most people feel about that.
Now I have to put up or shut up. Here is a passage from my book CONTESSA. In it, the title character’s first job in show business is doing burlesque at a whore house in Havana, Cuba. She has just come out on stage for the very first time.
I smiled and in an all-knowing way, began my monologue: “Hello there. I’m Contessa—a girl who looks good in anything I take off.”
The audience applauded and cheered. The hecklers never even got started—thank goodness! I went on:
“A wife! You know what that is: the bitter half—a disease that’s easier to catch than get rid of. A woman who whines you around her little finger. You know what a widow is, don’t you? A woman who no longer finds fault with her husband. There are two types of wives: the bereaved and the relieved. I notice you, sir, staring at my—blond hair—the outstanding contribution of chemistry to the world. —My evening gown? It’s by Lo and Behold! This dress picks up everything—mainly men!”
A group of sailors shouted and whistled.
“Men! You’re the only animal that can be skinned more than once. You have three ages: underage, overage and average. I’m a modern girl myself—a woman who has visible means of support. I have more clothes on when I go to bed than when I go to work.”
I used just about all the available tricks for humor in the preceding paragraphs from CONTESSA. I urge you to do the same in your writing. In fact, if you’re a writer, take something you’ve written and see if it contains any humor. If not, change it around and add something witty or clever. It can only improve what you have written.
Oh, I mentioned that there were three groups of people when it comes to humor. I have already gone into detail on Group 1. In Group 2, you find the people who think they are funny but aren’t. The problem is they’ve watched too much late-night TV talk show repartee. They think a one-liner has to follow anything anyone says. They generally laugh at their own jokes. Aargh! What they fail to realize is that their late-night idols hire professional comedy writers for big bucks. Your friend who is running his or her own private talk show has no paid writers and has never taken the time to analyze how real humor is structured. He or she just gas off their unfunny attempts at humor and expect people to laugh. They generally don’t. That person ends up laughing at his or her own jokes. Ugh!
Group 3 consists of people who think of themselves as having high wit that only they and a few of their honored friends can fully appreciate. They’re the ones who give you a pursed-lip smile after one of their pronouncements. EX. A sourpuss friend of mine was in the hospital and had to miss an acquaintance’s party. He asked a friend, “How many people were there?” The guy answered, “Thirty.” Sourpuss replied, “He doesn’t know thirty people.” So all in all, Group 3 is the insult joke. Joan Rivers was a specialist at this but she had professional writers. Your friends who belong to Group 3 probably don’t and thus they just look and sound like sourpusses. How funny is that?
So, there you have it. Which group do you belong to?