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The Funny Thing About Humor Part 3: Unexpected Humor in the Expected

This is Part 3 of my series on humor.

Let’s combine the previous two techniques, Humor in the Expected and Humor in the Unexpected.

So now, we have a character who reacts in an unusual way to a new situation, but it still fits the character.

For example, remember the scene in Friends where Monica and Chandler dropped a cheesecake so good they are willing to eat it off the floor?  Joey catches them in the act, and the audience expects a look of disgust or a disparaging comment.  Instead, after a dramatic pause, Joey whips out a spoon and says, “Ohh-kay, what’re we having?”

This being unexpected, the scene would be funny with any character in it.  They could even drag in an extra from the street.  However, it really needed to be Joey.  Why?

Well, we know the character of Joey and we have an emotional connection with him (everyone loves Joey!).  Plus, we know Joey thinks with his stomach.  Thus the writers have met the three requirements of Humor in the Expected.

Now, the writers throw in something Unexpected.  We have never seen Joey walk around with a spoon, but then again, why not?  For any other character, the spoon and his reaction in the scene would have been funny.  When it’s Joey, it’s funny, but more importantly it is memorable because it resonates with the audience.

So this is kind of like the Rule of Three on a much grander scale.

Incidentally, the reverse doesn’t usually work so well: when a character reacts unpredictably to a situation we have seen him or her in many times.  This has the character breaking a pattern that is already set for him or her.  In fiction, breaking a pattern already strains believability, and needs careful setup.  Throwing humor in there is usually too much.

Having a character react unpredictably to a familiar situation is a popular way to create drama though, such as an incident to move us from Act 1 to Act 2, or to resolve a climax.  Humor here would sap the strength of the drama.

For example, consider the climax to The Truman Show.  Truman finally sails to the end of his world despite all the obstacles its creators have put in front of him.  Most of the movie is played as a comedy, with various funny things happening to our hero (hell, it’s Jim Carrey) but with a serious undertone.  This isn’t a farce or sendup, our hero is trying to accomplish something.

So instead of another gag, to resolve the plot, the writers want Truman to make a fundamental change of character.  Therefore, it must be dramatic.  Truman makes his decision, he breaks out of his world into the greater world beyond, and his life is changed forever.

Once the climax is over, the humor can resume.  Truman’s reaction to this new world and its reaction to him could have been played for laughs and it wouldn’t have lessened the climax.  Done right, humor after the fact could have cemented the character change and intensified the climax.  But that’s another story.

Stay tuned for Part 4: Instant Humor…

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:

  1.  the audience must be well acquainted with the character and his habits;
  2.  the audience should like the character, or at least identify closely with him or her;
  3.  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.

Ever heard a Wilhelm Scream?  Yes you have, but you probably didn’t know it.  Check it out, it’s a fascinating bit of movie trivia.

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…

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