The Funny Thing About Humor, Part 1: Humor in the Unexpected
The things that people find funny are subjective and cultural, yet the basic framework of humor is universal. I put them into categories and made them into a series.
Let’s start with Part 1:
Humor in the Unexpected
This most common form of humor comes from something unexpected. (I know, you expected that.) This comes from basic brain physiology: our brains see patterns everywhere and they constantly make predictions about everything. This allows us to keep most functions on auto pilot while we concentrate on important stuff. We couldn’t function otherwise.
- as you walk forward, your brain predicts when your next foot will touch down. If your foot lives up to your brain’s expectation, you keep walking. You can even add some gum chewing. If the prediction is off, because of a half inch deviation in stair height, for example, you stumble.
- if you hear someone humming a familiar tune, your brain predicts what the next note will be. If the note is right, you can hum along. If the note is wrong, you wince and say she is off key, or pitchy, whatever the hell that means.
- if you meet your sister’s boyfriend for the first time, you expect to see his eyes and nose and ears in all the usual places. If so, you can ask, “How do you do?” If he has two noses, you stare. You can’t help it.
If a prediction is met, you don’t notice. What is predictable isn’t very interesting. But when something unusual happens, you notice. Sometimes it makes you laugh. Laughing at someone with two noses is bad manners, but you can’t fight physiology.
Let’s apply this to stories. A story is a sequence of events. Naturally, your brain seeks patterns in the events and makes predictions. If you can predict the events, you get bored. If something unusual happens, it catches your interest. If it catches you the right (or wrong) way, it could make you laugh.
A common setup for a joke uses the Rule of Three. Once is an incident, twice is a pattern, and the third time you break the pattern. For example:
Three guys walk into a bar. The first guy orders a beer. The second guy orders a glass of wine. The third guy orders the bartender to drop his pants and whistle Dixie.
You were expecting the third guy to order whisky or something, right? Fooled you. The sudden jolt caused you to bust a gut, right?
The Rule of Three works in stories too. The setup can be in one scene or over several scenes. After you set the pattern, then you have an unpredictable outcome, or have a character do something unpredictable. You don’t always need the Rule of Three, of course, but it works.
Next, there is the degree of unpredictable-ness. Odd evokes a chuckle. Bizarre brings a laugh. Totally off the wall brings guffaws… so long as it still fits.
If the twist is a little unexpected, it’s drama. If it’s over the moon, it’s humor. If it has gone past Pluto, all you get are blank stares from the audience and it’s good night, go home.
Then there is the simplest way of all to get a laugh: shock effect. Use something taboo or risqué. For example, in the joke above, let’s make the third guy a Jewish priest, the bartender is a gay cowboy, and throw in some cusswords. Hell, you don’t even need a joke anymore, people will laugh at the cusswords.
Of course, this is risky. Say your audience turns out to be Jewish or gay and they brought a basket of overripe fruit. If your story has a PG rating or better, using sexual situations is safer. It worked for Monty Python and Benny Hill.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Humor in the Expected…