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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 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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