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The Funny Thing About Humor Part 5: Humor Under Stress

This is Part 5 of my series on humor.

Have you ever been in a stressful situation where someone says something not-so-funny, and everyone has fits of hysterics, but no one really knows why?  You try to relate it to someone later but you give up before you embarrass yourself.  “Guess you had to be there,” you mumble.

I’m not talking about nervous laughter, exactly.  That is when people try to laugh to reduce tension, but they are not happy.  It doesn’t do much for the tension, either.

I’m talking here about a real laugh for real stress relief.  People laugh for many reasons.  To put others at ease, to create a social bond, to soften a harsh comment, et cetera.

In fact, laughter is such a part of our normal speech that we stick it in conversations that replace normal speech, such as texting, and even emails.  omg ew! lol 🙂

Consider two young people on a first date.  They are both nervous, so he tries a self-deprecating joke, like: “Sorry I’m late, but I had to run this shirt by my mom.”  She replies with a shy smile.  They drive to a restaurant.  He tries a couple more jokes in the car.  She smiles at the first and laughs the second.  During the meal he keeps the gigglefest rolling.  Later that night he drops her off and is rewarded with a peck on the cheek and a squeeze of the hand.

The next morning her friends swarm her for a recap of the previous night.  She says he has a great sense of humor, although she can’t remember any of his jokes.  That’s okay, they weren’t that funny anyway.  But they did their job.

That kind of humor typically doesn’t work in fiction, unless the audience is truly caught up in the scene.  It’s more of a visual thing too.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put that kind of dialog in your scenes — you should, because that is how people speak — but don’t expect your audience to find it as funny as you do.  Or you would, if you were there.

It’s like the irritating “laugh here now” cue, otherwise known as the laugh track.  It works in TV shows but books are spared this form of coerced mirth.

Hmm… maybe we could put it in a footnote?**

FYI, the laugh track was born on radio in the forties and found its way into television a decade later, where it became more and more popular, because it was cheaper than having a real audience.  By the sixties it was a sitcom staple.  It was even used in cartoons; they figured kids were too dumb to realize there could be no real audience for a cartoon.  Or they didn’t care what kids thought.

Think the laugh track is gone?  Sitcoms that are “filmed before a live studio audience” are still recorded, so they are not really “live”.  This allows sound engineers to use “sweetening”, where they add artificial laughter to saccharine up the real laughter, or they wipe out the studio laughter altogether then dub in a laugh track using the real laughter as a cue.  You would think that would hurt their critical potential, but even the Emmy Awards uses sweetening.  It’s all about control, people.

There is a physiological reaction to note here too.  Ever had the problem where you can’t stop laughing?  Laughter stimulates emotional and endorphin release, which makes us feel good.  This releases more endorphins, which makes us feel better.  We get high on laughter.  Jokes should be illegal.**

Anyway, what I’m really talking about in the context of this essay is the need to vent the pressure cooker of a tense scene or sequence of scenes, to let out a little steam before the pot (plot?) explodes.

This technique occurs all the time in fiction.  It’s called comic relief.

The simplest form of comic relief is tossing in a joke now and then.  The ideal timing is while the tension is building but not too close to the climax.  You can use Humor in the Unexpected or draw on Instant Humor.

Let’s take two examples from The Avengers.  In this movie, the forces of Earth face annihilation, and they are “hopelessly and hilariously outgunned”.  So they call on a group of “lost creatures” to save them.  Enter our superheroes.  They are as different as superheroes can be, they don’t get along well together, and they didn’t ask for this.  Oh, the possibilities for conflict!

First, recall the scene in Stark and Banner’s laboratory on the aircraft carrier, where they confront Nick Fury about what is really going on.  The rotating rapid-fire arguing ratchets up the tension, released periodically by Stark’s witty insults and the beginning of a grudge match between Captain America and Iron Man.

In the meantime, the real climax is building without anyone noticing.  This conversation is a distraction!  It ends with a bang (actually several, from without and within) and our heroes see how Loki has been manipulating them the whole time.

A second example is near the end of the final battle, when The Hulk confronts Loki in Stark’s tower / mancave.  Outside, the battle rages and Earth’s future is still in doubt, but the writers need the tension to last a little longer.  So they introduce a little comic relief.

I won’t spoil it in case you have not seen the movie yet (see it! it was an incredibly well written and directed film) but I will say I have never heard an audience laugh so hard in an action movie.  I couldn’t hear the rest of the scene.  For the writers, it was mission accomplished: this bit of comic relief allowed the director to keep the action going for much longer than an audience could normally stand.

Another popular reason for introducing comic relief is to liven up a story that would otherwise be bleak and uninteresting, either because of the setting, or because the main character is the strong silent type.  Many movies introduce a character specifically for this purpose.

A goofy sidekick is a popular but clumsy way to go.  If you are trying to create drama, a loveable moron can ruin all your hard work.  If you stick Harpo Marx into Unforgiven you get Blazing Saddles.**

Much better is to create comic relief from a “real” character based on his or her own traits.  It should be predictable in that it fits the character, such as Humor in the Expected, and/or unpredictable in that it doesn’t fit the situation, such as Unexpected Humor in the Expected.

For example, contrast the characters of Jar-Jar Binks and Han Solo.  Jar-Jar was a blatant comic relief character.  The story needed him because the other characters were so dour (they were Jedi, that was the point), but he was otherwise superfluous to the plot.  He was also dumbed-down for kids, and as a result most adult moviegoers hated him.  So let’s ignore him and move on.

Instead, look at Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.  He had a cavalier attitude toward life and was flippant in stressful situations.  He was integral to the plot, likeable, and he could behave unpredictably sometimes because that was part of his character.  Thus he was perfect for providing comic relief when the story needed it.

Remember when Princess Leia tells Han she loves him just before he was about to be frozen into an uncertain future?  He only responds, “I know.”  That’s Unexpected Humor in the Expected.  It lets a little steam out of the pressure cooker, and then the lid slams back down as the carbonite seals him in.  The climax of the scene hits harder because of that tiny release a minute before.

So in fiction, a little comic relief is not just for introducing humor for its own sake, it is to intensify the drama.  It is the calm before the storm.  It’s standing in the eye of the hurricane.  It’s getting a brief respite from the battering winds, enough to take a breath and inspect the damage, and then bam! they blow you over.

From cooking metaphor to storm metaphor.  I could write for Hell’s Kitchen.

Stay tuned for Part 6: Un-Humor.


The Funny Thing About Humor Part 4: Instant Humor

This is Part 4 of my series on humor.

The previous three parts of this series looked at creating humor in a scene.  Now let’s look at instant humor, in other words, humor that you can create in an instantaneous.  (That was an inside joke, for people following my blog.)

First let’s look at gags.  Merriam Webster defines them as “a laugh-provoking remark or act”.  In other words, gags are the bits of slapstick, the pratfalls, the good natured pranks.  They could even be the one-liners, the clever puns, the side jokes.

They are quick to set up, they provoke a snort or a guffaw, and then they are gone.

On the upside, they are easy to write if you have any sense of humor at all.  On the downside, they tend to be forgettable and are generally short-lived.  Even the best gags are hard to sustain for more than a page or two.  If you have too many gags too fast you will ruin your story.

But wait! you cry.  What about The Three Stooges?   What about Airplane!?  What about Spaceballs?  What about Scary Movie?  What about…?

Yes, there are lots of movies that were non-stop gags, from the opening credits to the last few bars of the soundtrack.   The examples above were basically a series of gags with a skeleton of a plot to hang them on.  So what do you remember them for?  The plot, or that they were soooo funny?

See?  That’s my point.  Plus they spawned the inevitable mass of imitators, most of which fell flat.  (Did you know there were four, yes four, Scary Movies?  And there’s another one coming out??)

As another example, gags are the basis of live comedy.  Modern comics don’t tell you a story, they tell you jokes.  People go when they need a laugh, once in a while.  The rest of the time they want a story.

In fact, in yesteryear, comics like Newhart and Cosby did tell stories as part of their routines, but that style faded out decades ago.  However, everyone remembers Newhart’s rookie security guard and Cosby’s Noah and Fat Albert stories.  Who remembers all the jokes from Eddy Murphy’s Delirious? That’s my point, er, again.

Props can serve a similar function to gags.  Think of Steve Martin clowning around with an arrow through his head, or Gallagher with a mallet ready to obliterate a pile of watermelons, or Howie Mandel’s entire act.  With a funny prop, or a funny look for that matter, it takes no set up to get people laughing.

Props work especially well in a novel.  Recall the scene in The Stainless Steel Rat when Slippery Jim fakes his death, and some unthinking orderly ties a toe tag on him and nearly amputates his big toe.  Toe tags become the focus of the ensuing morgue scene, one of the funniest in the book for me (not just because of the prop, and not because I hate toes).

So in any form of fiction, throwing in a few gags can work.  In humorous fiction they will abound, but you will see them in dramatic fiction as well, as stress relief (that’s foreshadowing for the next article in this series).

Now let’s look at situational humor.  Like gags, the humor can be instant, but in contrast with gags, the humor can last for entire scene, or even an entire story.  It can also build a while without the audience noticing.  Have you ever been reading a story or watching a film and suddenly found yourself laughing hysterically for no apparent reason?  Or maybe you started shaking your head and grinning, then said to yourself, “This is just… so… ridiculous!”  That’s what I’m talking about.

To create situational humor, you take interesting or bizarre characters and put them in interesting or bizarre situations, and then let them do their thing.

The most obvious example is, well, situational comedies, otherwise known as sit-coms.  They portray hopefully interesting characters in hopefully interesting situations.  Ironically though, they aren’t the best examples because most of them end up relying on gags for humor.  This is because it’s hard to keep the same situation funny after the first season.  Plus most of them aren’t that funny.

A better example is the sketch comedy.  These are like sit-coms in miniature, which means the characters and situations have to be even more bizarre to stand on their own.  Look at the classics that people still watch in reruns like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, In Living Color, and one of the longest running TV shows of all time: Saturday Night Live.

One of my all-time favorite SNL skits is when Eddy Murphy teaches Stevie Wonder how to sing like Stevie Wonder.  Just hearing the premise makes me giggle.  Actually seeing it still puts me in hysterics.

Now that I think of it, I remember that skit better than any (or almost any) of the gags from Airplane! and it was probably easier, in the end, to write that scene than coming up with 50 gags back-to-back.

Situational humor is the basis for most comedic films.  It is generally built into the premise.


  • What movie had three handsome bachelors forced to adopt an adorable baby girl?
  • What movie followed the biggest case in the life of the world’s best (in fact the world’s only) pet detective?
  • What movie followed the life of a baby through the eyes of said wise-cracking baby?
  • What movie(s) had a bumbling detective with an outrageous French accent solving crimes by accident, and being decorated as a national hero?
  • What movie had a teacher obsessed with punctuality suddenly forced by circumstance to be late for everything?  (That is for John Cleese fans, like me.)

We can find endless examples in novels as well.  Harry Potter is a boy yanked from the muggle world to learn how to be a wizard.  While not technically a comedic novel, this fish-out-of-water situation provides endless opportunities for Rowling to slip in humor when she needs it.  Chocolate frogs and bogey-flavored jellybeans, anyone?

In one of my all-time favorite books, the knight-errant Don Quixote spends his entire eponymous novel firmly believing he is doing good deeds for everyone, but he is really a deluded and dangerous menace.

No one tells the reader this, of course, since we are seeing events through the hero’s eyes.  That is the funniest part of all.  We aren’t the only ones confused — no one stops Quixote because they quickly perceive he is mad, and they either try to help him or get out of his way, but he has periods of brilliant lucidity that make people stop and wonder if he is really mad after all.

Then there are the gags, like the windmill scene, and the regular beatings.  The regular beatings only strengthen his resolve, and he has a devoted squire who shares in the mishaps that befall his master.  The squire complains all the while of his lot yet he cannot leave because… well, I won’t spoil the book any further.

Suffice it to say, Cervantes put enough layers on the story to make the characters and adventures believable and interesting, while making the reader chuckle and shake his or her head all the while.  The characters and their situations are remembered four centuries later.  As proof: his name (as the adjective quixotic) and the phrase “tilting at windmills” are part of the modern English lexicon.

To conclude, if you want the ultimate giggle + belly laugh combination, go for the double whammy: set up your humorous situation, then let it simmer while you pepper it with gags.  This is essentially the recipe of all the successful comedies mentioned above.

You can keep it simmering for as long you like, then let it boil over, then dial back the heat so your story can simmer a while longer.

Finally, to stretch this metaphor to its breaking point: if your base is good, you are more likely to over-season than to over-cook.

Stay tuned for Part 5: Humor Under Stress.

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…

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 examples:

  • 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…

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