The Funny Thing About Humor Part 6: Un-humor
This is Part 6 of my series on humor.
What is un-humor, and why would I include it in a series on humor?
The easiest way to illustrate un-humor is by a joke. Well, it’s sort of a joke. Please resist the temptation to skip to the punch line (!!) or you will ruin the effect:
A guy goes to the doctor. He says he is feeling terrible. He hasn’t laughed in weeks. He has tried going to see funny movies, live comedy, everything he could think of.
The doctor gives him a full examination and says, “Sorry sir, your sense of humor is dead.”
“Oh no!” the man cries. “Is there nothing you can do?”
“I’m afraid not,” the doctor says.
The guy goes to another doctor and gets the same opinion. He tries a third doctor and gets the same thing. However, as he is leaving the third doctor’s office, the doctor adds, “Well, there is one thing that might help. It’s just a rumor, but…”
“Really?” the guy asks. “I’ll try anything.”
“You could try the great Kaping Kapong,” the doctor replies.
“Where do I find the great Kaping Kapong?”
The doctor pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it. “This is the address of an old friend of mine.”
“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.
“No,” the doctor replies. “But he can tell you where to go next.”
So the guy goes to the address on the paper. It’s in a slightly rougher part of town. He finds an old guy in a small office behind a massive oak desk. He tells the old guy his sense of humor is dead, and he needs the great Kaping Kapong.
“Oh, I have heard the great Kaping Kapong is very powerful,” the old guy says. “Here.” He pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it. “You need to see this woman.”
“Is she the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.
“No,” the old guy replies. “But she can tell you where to go next.”
So the guy goes to the address on the paper. It’s in a much rougher part of town. He finds a wizened old woman working in back of a Chinese restaurant. He tells her his story.
“I see,” she says. “You seek the great Kaping Kapong.”
“Yes,” the guy says.
She pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it. “You need to see this man.”
“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks excitedly.
“No,” the old woman says. “He is the Guardian.”
The guy rushes to the address on the paper. It’s in a really rough part of town. He enters a dingy bar and runs to the back. There is an enormous figure in a gray, hooded cloak there. From under the hood, a deep voice booms out: “So you are the seeker of the great Kaping Kapong?”
“Yes,” the guy says, trembling with excitement. “Please hurry.”
The enormous figure swings its arm up and points at a door. “Go through there.”
“At last!” the guy cries as he bursts through the door. He comes to a landing at the top of a tall flight of stairs. There is a shiny metal ball on a small table. Next to the ball is a slip of paper with something written on it. The guy snatches up the paper and reads:
For the great Kaping Kapong to appear, throw this ball down the stairs.
So the guy does.
And as the ball bounces down the stairs, it goes: Kaping! Kapong! Kaping! Kapong!
“Well,” you say, “that was actually kind of funny.” To which I say, “Really?”
In that case, here is a better example. It’s shorter, I promise:
This guy walks into a bar and asks to use the bathroom. The bartender says, sure, it’s in the back. So the guy goes in, comes out, and leaves. A few minutes later, four pink flamingoes come strolling out of the bathroom and head out the front door. Everyone watches this in shock.
The next day, the same guy enters the bar. He asks to use the bathroom. The bartender says sure, it’s in the back. The guy goes in, comes out, and leaves. A few minutes later, a two orangutans come swinging out of the bathroom and head out the front door. Everyone watches in shock, but the bartender is getting suspicious.
The next day, the same guy enters the bar and asks to use the bathroom. This time, the guy goes in, comes out, but the bartender stops him from leaving. Sure enough, a few minutes later, five baby hippos squirm out of the bathroom and head out the front door. The bartender rounds on the guy and demands, “Did you put those animals in there?”
And the guy answers:
What do these two jokes have in common? Right! They aren’t funny.
So what is un-humor? It’s the joke that doesn’t happen. All that build up, and then… nothing.
So when would you use un-humor? Well, generally speaking, you wouldn’t. For two obvious reasons: first, it’s not funny. Isn’t the point of a joke to be funny?
Second, it’s breaking an implied promise with your reader or audience. They will feel cheated if you don’t deliver.
For example, there is the dumbest, most hackneyed, saddest excuse for a plot device ever invented: the dream sequence. (I would rate it even worse than deus ex machina only because people still use the former, and true examples of the latter have become thankfully rare since the Greeks stopped writing tragedies.)
You know how it goes. You are watching a show, or reading a book, anticipating a big climax, wondering how the hell the hero is going to get out of this one, then bam! the hero wakes up. Hahaha! You fool, it was all just a dream. Everyone is fine. I, the writer, am feeling far superior to you and I am now laughing at your expense.
People want to get caught up in stories. They expect them to matter somehow, even if it’s only to a fictional character. The dream sequence is just a waste of time for everyone.
Now, I’m not talking about scenes where it’s obviously a dream, or it becomes obvious that it is a dream long before the audience becomes invested in it. These are reasonable, if a tad too easy and cliché, ways to convey information to the audience.
Anyway, I have digressed. My point is, un-humor is like a dream sequence — a joke played on the audience, and not for their amusement. Mr. Writer, we are not amused.
However (you were expecting this, right?), there are two cases where un-humor can work.
Note that I’m not talking about a last minute twist on the joke, where a character tries something funny and fails, but it then morphs into something more unexpected and therefore even funnier.
I’m talking about scenes or dialog that end in a big… splat.
The first place you can use un-humor is where a character tells jokes that are so un-funny it’s funny. For example, in How I Met Your Mother, Ted is famous for his lame puns. His friends tell him to stop, but he never will. Then there is Marshall’s fish list — his standup comedy routine that was simply reeling off names of fish. He thought it was funny.
Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, “I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.” Ha! It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.
The key here is, we already like the characters and so we laugh anyway. Thus these are examples of Humor in the Expected.
The second place you can use un-humor is for dramatic effect. You harness the letdown to play with the audience’s emotions.
For example, there is the scene — a cliché in Saturday morning cartoons — where the protagonist is failing and tries to win everything back with an elaborate stunt, and fails. The hero doesn’t get the laughs she was expecting. She comes off as pathetic, everyone abandons her for good, she is truly alone. The audience is crying along with her. Hopefully. Plus they are mostly five year olds and near to crying anyway.
The failed humor dramatizes the fall. It makes us feel rock bottom along with the character.
On the bright side, there is nowhere to go from here for the character, but…. up! (no, not the movie)
Well, that wraps up my series on humor. I hope you found it useful and, of course, amusing.
Think of any major humor types I missed? Any more examples to share? Sound off in the comments!