Friday, June 22, 2007

How to be Seriously Funny

In March when I was teaching writing in India, we brainstormed on the topic: “What makes a story funny?” My students came up with a list that really impressed me. Here are a few of the ideas:

1. The Unexpected. Just like a good story, the end of a joke is unexpected by also inevitable. For example, Question: “What’s the difference between boogers and broccoli?” Answer, “Kids won’t eat their broccoli.” But the joke only works if the end is both unexpected and inevitable. If it’s only one or the other, it’s not funny.

2. Truth. Humor almost always tells the truth about life, but from a perspective we hadn’t noticed. We hear the story and we say, “Yes! That’s so true, why didn’t I think of that?” This is evident by the popular comedian shtick, “Did you ever notice that?...” And we laugh because we have noticed it, but we’ve never had our attention drawn to it. I think that's what makes the cars and computers bit so funny (see my last post). But this approach is only funny if people have actually noticed it. If they haven’t they’ll just say, “No. I don’t see what’s so funny about that.”

3. Self-deprecating humor. People don’t ever want you to make fun of them, but you can poke fun at yourself. Once when I was introducing myself at a conference I said, “Last year when I was here a woman said, ‘Has anyone ever told you how handsome you are?’ I smiled and said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘There’s a reason for that.’” People laughed, but they would have turned against me big time if I told it the other way: “Yeah, it was cool. I went up to this woman who was speaking here and I said, ‘Has anyone ever told you how pretty you are?’ And when she said, ‘No’ I told her, ‘There’s a reason for that.’” Definitely not funny.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Flea said...

My kids liked the boogers and broccoli joke. Thanks for the visual. :)

Kathleen said...

Not sure if you are reading the blog responses or not, but could you explain "the paradox of freedom" listed under your tips for writers?

Steven James said...


Good question! I'll do that later this week. It would make a good post.