The Funny Thing About Humor, Part 2: Humor in the Expected
This is Part 2 of my series on humor.
As per Part 1 of this series, common wisdom says “humor is in the unexpected”. That is the most common way to create humor, but there is also humor in the expected.
Bet you didn’t expect that. Okay, given the title of this post, you probably did.
Yes, people can find predictable things funny too. It’s harder to pull off, it takes more work to set up, and it’s rarely good for more than a chuckle.
However, humor in the expected has a few bonus effects:
- it strengthens the bond between character and audience;
- it strengthens the bond between writer and audience;
- it can even, such as in the case of a long-running TV show or series of books or movies, create a bond within the audience itself.
For this to work, you need three things:
- the audience must be well acquainted with the character and his habits;
- the audience should like the character, or at least identify closely with him or her;
- the habit, trait, or reaction that you repeat must be at least passably funny to begin with.
Then when the character reacts to a new situation in exactly the way the audience expects, they laugh.
Don’t believe me?
Consider The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Remember that look Johnny gave the camera whenever a guest did or said something wholly unexpected? It often came up in the animal segments — an innocent “why me?” combined with “are you seeing this?”. He gave his audience that look at least once per show, and the audience knew it was coming, but it never failed to crack them up. It became a comic covenant between Carson and his long-time audience. Think of it: 30 years on, and people still laughed at it. Proof enough?
Such a running joke doesn’t necessarily take 30 years to set up, but it certainly takes more than two hours. So it is difficult to pull off in a short story, or even in your average movie. However, it works well in novels and sit-coms where the audience gets time to know the characters.
For example, the funniest television show ever made, The Big Bang Theory, has developed many running jokes over the years. These have the effect of binding the audience to the show. It even binds the audience to each other; check out a typical fan forum where people discuss said jokes.
So… a running joke keeps people running back. (No that’s not a football joke. Never mind.)
The other obvious example is the catchphrase. For example, who says “D’oh!”? Right! Homer Simpson. And what do you think of when I say, “I’ve got a ba-ad feeling about this.” Hint: it’s a catchphrase used in a series of six movies by just about every major character in them. After the first couple of movies, you were waiting to see who would say it in the next one.
How about, “Life? Don’t talk to me about life.” Hint: it’s the robot with “a brain the size of a planet” forced to do menial chores. Yes, it’s Marvin, who don’t get no respect. Oops, that’s someone else’s catchphrase. D’oh!
Interestingly, catchphrases work best when they don’t try too hard. When someone deliberately tries to create their own catchphrase, it never takes. The audience has to choose. Think about “I’ll be back”: do you think the writers of The Terminator ever imagined it would become Arnie‘s catchphrase? No way. The audience liked it, especially the way Arnie said it. So he adopted it.
Similar, but different: there is the in-joke for people who follow certain authors, or directors, or types of movies, et cetera.
For example, many film directors have certain shots or effects that become their trademarks, and fans look for them whenever a new movie comes out. As another example, every Marvel superhero movie has a Stan Lee cameo in it. Only the people who follow Marvel comic books (and recognize Lee) will get the joke.
So did you click on that link?
Good, now you are in on the joke too.
Stay tuned for Part 3: Unexpected Humor in the Expected…