Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.34: Humor as a Sub-Genre

Humor is present as an element, at least to some degree, in a substantial amount of the media we consume. In this episode we discuss some stylistic tools for applying humor  to our work, and how these tools can best be employed.

WX Trivia: Episode 11.34 represents a pair of firsts for us here at Writing Excuses.

  • It’s the first time we’ve had to resort to having Howard record a fresh intro to replace some missing minutes
  • It’s the first time we’ve had a graphic novel as the Book of the Week.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Jeff Cools and an audio-eating gremlin, then mastered by Alex Jackson and a crossfade brownie.

Homework: Take some of the humor types, and rewrite a scene several times. Over-apply one type of humor with each rewrite, and take note of how the scene changes.

Thing of the week: Force Multiplication: Schlock Mercenary Book 12, by Howard Tayler, Travis Walton, Sandra Tayler, and Natalie Barahona, with an introduction by Mary Robinette Kowal.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Situational comedy relies on characters struggling in an unfamiliar situation. Good for release. Think Lucille Ball on the candy conveyor belt. Physical comedy? Think punching, think pratfalls. How does the character react? Farce is the extreme pursuit of a ridiculous object. What is the hammerlock that forces these characters into this situation? Don’t forget the soda! Linguistic comedy, wordplays, puns, and unexpected but accurate descriptions. May be tied to a particular character’s view of the world. Making unexpected connections, forcing the reader to imagine something they didn’t expect. That’s the sparkling gun of linguistic comedy. Which can make us like a character who holds that gun to our head. Watch for the transition between character humor and relationship stories, especially with odd couples. Put them in a crucible, turn up the heat, and see what happens!

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 34.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Writing as a Sub-Genre. 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’ve lost about three minutes of audio. I’m Howard. Brandon, Dan, and Mary will join us momentarily. We’ll be talking about how to use humor as a sub-element in a different genre. Which, when you get right down to brass tacks, is how most humor is delivered. For much of this episode, we’ll discuss different styles or categories of humor, like situational comedy, physical comedy, and farce, with an eye to employing these stylistic delivery systems to relieve tension, define characters, and do all the other stuff that humor can be used for in an otherwise serious work. That introductory bit, yeah, it sounded awesome when Brandon, Dan, and Mary delivered it. But that got eaten by some sort of recording error, and we didn’t catch it in time to fix it is a group. We had just started diving into situational comedy when the recording started working correctly. My job here is to get the episode introduced. Which I have now done. Our engineer, Alex, will seamlessly blend my audio into the existing audio which picks up early in our discussion of situational comedy, and how it’s structured and why, once upon a time, Three’s Company was funny and…

[Mary] Three’s Company was funny because back in the day, oh, my goodness, a guy is living with two girls. How wacky!
[Brandon] Well, I mean, even a lot of great classics of comedy. Trading Places. I mean, they’re very up front in that movie with this is the premise. Comic drop on two people not used to being in each other’s worlds.
[Dan] Well, then the humor comes from how they struggle and screw up trying to deal with that. One of the great classic scenes of sitcom television is Lucille Ball on the candy conveyor belt. That is an unfamiliar situation she doesn’t know how to deal with and it just gets worse and worse as she stacks up one bad decision after another trying to deal with this candy.
[Brandon] Now, you can use this in your stories, even if you’re not writing a sitcom. If you’re writing mostly a drama, there will be moments where you need release, where the audience needs release. You can add these by saying, “Okay. Let’s put our character, our hyper competent character, in a situation that they didn’t expect, where their competence is no longer in play and they’re in a reversal of fortunes.”
[Howard] Quick example, just off the top of my head, and when I say off the top of my head, making this up. You have your party of hyper competent adventurers. They have murdered their way into the tavern, and then the most murderous among them, for whatever reason… The Army is coming down the road. You, there, swordsman, you’re now the bartender. Peel everything up, serve drinks, be nice. Instantly, we have a situational comedy in which the swordsman pulls the Lucille Ball and slings beer wrong.
[Brandon] Well, I mean, Joss Whedon is really good at this. The Avengers has moments like this all through, where… Like I’m thinking of the moment where the Hulk punches Thor. Right? They are at the end, they’ve been fighting the bad guys, they’re victorious. And one of the good guys punches the other good guy. It works because comic drop, but also call back, because they had been fighting earlier, and it’s also physical comedy which makes us laugh. It is three moments of comedy in two seconds.
[Howard] There’s a fourth. It’s a release of tension. That punch comes at what I believe to be the statistical average of this is where action movie fatigue is going to set in, and we are releasing that with a joke. It’s brilliant.

[Brandon] Let’s move on. We could talk about this one all day, but let’s jump to physical comedy. Why is it funny to see someone get punched?
[Howard] Whew…
[Mary] It’s a status change.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] I mean, that is… A lot of physical comedy comes from the… Schadenfreude. It’s… There is, unfortunately, we as people like watching other people suffer to a certain degree. But this is what I was talking about in the previous episode when I said that one of the differences between comedy and horror is tone. You can do that exact same punch, and one of the differences… I say tone. The big difference is how the person who has been punched reacts.
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Mary] Because in a horror film, if he punched Thor, that could kick off a massive battle that winds up with bloodshed and destruction. But the way Thor reacts and everyone else reacts around it, tells us… Gives us permission to laugh at it.
[Howard] Well, consider him punching Thor, we know that Thor is going to survive. If Hulk, still angry, punches and kills an innocent bystander. That’s not funny, we’re suddenly horrified. Because Hulk is a monster that is rampaging in New York, and our battle scene has now become a scene where we have to rein Hulk in.
[Mary] Actually, I think you’ve just hit on something that I haven’t thought about, that in some ways one of the differences is also that the stakes in comedy are usually really low. It’s like what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen if…
[Howard] The stakes in physical comedy.
[Mary] Physical comedy.
[Howard] Are really low. That’s…
[Brandon] Or they make like… Even the stakes in Hitchhiker’s, though the planet gets destroyed, are… But it’s played for laughs in the way that… This was actually not a very high stake. You’re just one planet out of billions, and it’s not a big deal. Oh, your planet got destroyed. Oh, well, let’s go have a drink. Like they’re making the stakes intentionally lower in that story.
[Dan] That’s one of the great definitions of farce that I love, is that the stakes are low but their pursuit of those stakes is at the highest possible extreme. That’s what makes it farcical.

[Brandon] Now I want to… Let’s jump into farce, but first, let me say one more thing about physical comedy as… We’re focusing on the punching. That is a great form of physical comedy, but it doesn’t have to just be punching. I saw a play in London called The 39 Steps. Which, the joke of The 39 Steps is there are very few cast members playing a lot of parts and as the play progresses, they play more and more parts to the point that one starts playing a window and one starts playing a chair and one’s playing two characters in the same scene where they’re wearing half of a costume and playing off of themselves. The joke escalates and it’s physical comedy in that we are… They’re like pretending they are a really small cast and we just have to do this so that the story gets to the audience. You see these beleaguered people doing all of this, and it’s hilarious. It’s physical comedy, but nobody is punching anybody else. It is human beings doing ridiculous things.
[Mary] Although still, it’s human beings suffering [garbled]
[Brandon] Oh, the suffering is a big part of it.
[Howard] It’s worth bringing up the famous Mel Brooks quote. Tragedy is when I’ve got a hangnail. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die. It is… We’ve mentioned The Humor Code before, the benign space and the violation space. If I’ve got a hangnail, I’m in actual pain. That’s violation space. If I’m watching somebody fall into an open manhole and die because they were texting while they were walking and they were’nt paying attention, well, I’m not hurting. So it’s kind of benign. Well, there’s definitely a violation, because death, but that fits into the comedy space. So physical humor… Physical humor can have really, really high stakes depending on our relationship to who is being hurt.
[Mary] Yeah. Kill Bill, for instance…
[Howard] Oh, my goodness.
[Mary] Is comic horror, in a lot of ways.
[Brandon] It is. Very much so.

[Brandon] Dan. Farce. What is a farce? You’re good at these.
[Dan] Farce. Well, that’s what Blacker Darkness is, that I wrote. Farce, like I said, is the extreme pursuit of a ridiculous object. It is tragedy turned into comedy. What makes farce work, and we were actually talking about this last night in a totally different context… I got this word from Billy Wilder, who is an old Hollywood director. When he did Some Like It Hot, he talked about how the key to making farce work is what he called the hammerlock. Which is the thing that forces the characters into this ridiculous and untenable situation. Why did the characters in Some Like It Hot Have to dress up as women and join all-women band? Because if they don’t, the mob will kill them. Once you have that hammerlock in place, we have to be doing this or something terrible will happen, then just all the ridiculousness can spring out from there.
[Howard] By the way, the term hammerlock is a wrestling term. It’s an arm bar in which once you have control of the person’s arm, once you’ve got them in a hammerlock, they have to move in the direction you push them.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Howard] So you are hammerlocking…
[Dan] I like that word even more now.
[Howard] Your cast members.
[Brandon] How do you do this in a story that is not primarily a comedy? How can you add an element of farce?
[Dan] Well, one of my favorite TV shows, which is absolutely a farce, is Veep, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which is essentially a show about the Vice President and her staff. It is a farce in that the fate of the free world is at risk in every single half hour episode. Some awful horrible thing has happened and they’re hammerlocked into this situation now. So the things that they do, it’s all political machinations and back room scheming and talking to senators and congressmen and stuff, but once you get them into that situation, you have to do this or you’ll look bad on TV or we’ll lose that treaty with Finland or whatever it is, then you can do whatever you want.
[Mary] I was thinking as you were talking about heists. Because a lot of times, there will be a moment in a heist where in order to pull off the final thing, they have to go after something that is seemingly unrelated but ridiculous.
[Brandon] Well, I’m also thinking, in a lot of heists will sometimes see the one character who just loves a certain soda, for instance. They’re pulling off this intense heist and then a hand reaches out and grabs the guard station’s soda and takes it with them. That’s ridiculous pursuit of something that in context is just silly, but that one character really likes that, so you laugh. You’re on board.
[Dan] Well, in Guardians of the Galaxy, they have kind of a mini little heist scene when they’re breaking out of jail. Rocket says we need this and this and this.
[Dan] It is an extreme pursuit. If we don’t get these three things, we will not escape and we’ll be murdered by the other prisoners. One of them, at the end, it turns out he just thought it would be funny to steal the guy’s artificial leg. It doesn’t mean anything.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Now we have a very special book of the week this week.
[Howard] Our book of the week this week is my book.
[Howard] Thank you, dear listeners.
[Brandon] 11 years later.
[Howard] And Patreon supporters for allowing us to pitch things that just can’t have audiobooks. Because me reading you my comics just would lose…
[Dan] It’s still something I want to see.
[Howard] So much of the…
[Brandon] Just imagining you saying, “This was really funny, guys. He’s punching him, and it’s hilarious.”
[Howard] No, you’ve got to look at this picture of Schlock in the last panel, because I drew the eyes kind of extra googly. No, we’re not going to do that. Force Multiplication is the latest Schlock Mercenary book in print. I want to plug it, not because it’s one of my very favorites or because it’s new, but because Sandra wrote the bonus story called Risk Assessment, and the bonus story is a great example of a story that is not inherently a comedy, but which has humor in it. Sandra sat down to write a wonderful love story about characters who have not yet graced the page, but who are important in this universe. Natalie Barahona did the art and brought these people to life in a wonderful way. Then I went in and just fine tuned little tiny bits of the dialogue here and there to add the Schlock Mercenary flavor of funny. I’m really proud of the work that we did because I was able to hand it back to Sandra and said, “Is this okay?” She said, “That looks just like what I wrote. What did you change?” Obviously, it’s okay. I got away with it. Force Multiplication. The bonus story is called Risk Assessment. And you can grab a copy at
[Mary] And I wrote the introduction.
[Howard] That’s right. Mary wrote the introduction and said very kind things about me.
[Brandon] Well, I would like to put a plug in. Just… We’ve not been able to plug Howard’s books in the way that we really should. He is really good, particularly lately, at making these books feel like books. Now that’s going to sound weird when I say it that way. But these come out as daily comics. Every time I get a Schlock Mercenary book and read the thing, I’m like, “Wow. He, day by day, managed to write something that has a full arc to it.” He will introduce you to the characters in the beginning of the book if you’ve never seen them. It’s… You can start any one of these books. They have a complete narrative, and they actually read, in my opinion, better as a whole book than as a daily comic.
[Howard] Oh, they can only read better as a whole book. Definitely read better. I feel a little bad about that. But not bad enough.
[Dan] Well, they still work daily.
[Brandon] They still work daily.
[Howard] [splutter] I like people buying the product.
[Howard] I’m a fan of that. I’m a big fan of that.
[Dan] So go out and buy the product, dear listeners.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and talk about other types of comedy. Let’s talk about linguistic comedy. So these are word plays. Why are word plays funny? And how can we add them to our stories?
[Howard] Well, there’s a couple of kinds of wordplay. There is the pun, which is often called the lowest form of humor. A pun, for me, works really, really well when the person telling the pun is not also the person who set it up. Because if you set up that joke and then you tell it, and then you deliver the pun, all you’re saying is “Look, I found a couple of words that are kind of close together and I can make a joke out of them.” That’s a see how clever I am, and it’s not funny at all. But if we are having a natural sort of conversation, and somebody slides in a pun that changes the meanings of other things, it fulfills the spontaneity that we talked about a couple of weeks ago. And it gives us that surprise. It violates some of the rules of language, which… I mean, language is sacred. So in that regard, puns are quite wonderful. There’s another kind of linguistic humor which is when you use words that describe something accurately, but that do so in an unexpected way. The example we brought up last week was “The spaceships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” That is linguistic humor. We are not expecting to have that sort of a description, but it works perfectly. And it’s obviously very memorable.
[Brandon] Right. Right. [Garbled]
[Dan] Like the joke about the description of Wizard of Oz. A teenager kills an old woman and then unites a group of strangers in her quest to kill again. It’s totally an accurate…
[Dan] Depiction of the movie, but it’s not really an accurate depiction at all.
[Mary] Kills an old woman, steals her shoes!
[Brandon] Yes. Yes. I love these sorts of things. Particularly when they can be tied to a character. My favorite kind of wordplay moments are when you’ve got characters who will… The way they see the world is so individual that they… When they give a description of somebody, it’s inherently humorous, because of the words they would use that no one else would use. I’ve got a character named Lift in my books who’s just… She needs food for her magic to work, and she’s obsessed with food. So when she describes people, she will describe them like pudding, or like what… And her descriptions are inherently funny, because you’re like, “Oh, she is hungry. I can tell she’s hungry. Everybody is slowly slipping into food metaphors.”
[Howard] Neil Stephenson, in the book Zodiac, which is set in Boston. A cyclist is trying to cross the road, and he says, “The traffic light changes and the Bostonian vehicles charge across the intersection like the Chadian army.” I don’t even know who the Chadian army is, but this is a form for me of linguistic humor, because you are forcing me to imagine vehicles as something other than what they are. I’m imagining a spaceship as a brick. That is part of what linguistic humor does.
[Mary] A lot of this is, again, getting back to that idea of context. It’s causing your brain to draw unexpected connections. That is, I think, the sparking moment of excitement in your brain. Those unexpected connections, where it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see that com… Ah, that’s pretty funny.”
[Brandon] Right. Well, I mean, there’s… They again do this in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s wordplayish. It’s also character, which I want to transition to. There’s the one character who doesn’t get figurative language. Everything must be literal. Right? So the one character says…
[Dan] The funniest one in the movie.
[Brandon] That went over your head.
[Howard] It was not over my head.
[Brandon] He’s like, “It can’t go over my head. I would catch it.” So I love types of humor like this because… If you just drop in a pun now and then, yes, it’s funny. But that’s what you do in a book that is intended to be primarily a comedy. In a book that is not primarily a comedy, a story that’s not primarily a comedy, you want the character to drive it. So when they make a joke, or when you make a joke through them, the reader attaches something to that character and says, “Ah. I am more fond of this character and who they are because of the way they see the world and it is funny.”

[Mary] This gets into a reason to use humor. One of the things we talked about in the previous season was the character sliders and how to make a character more likable and sympathetic. One of the components is making them funny.
[Brandon] Intentionally or unintentionally.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Drax is unintentional humor. Unintentionally funny.
[Howard] One of my favorite examples of character humor as character building. From Consider Phlebus by Iain Banks. A character, we’ve seen her earlier, is thrown into a cell. Then she shows up later in the book, and the main character says, “What? How did you get here?” She says, “I got out.” “You are locked in a cell with a class III Idrian guard in full armor.” “I didn’t say it was easy.” It’s funny and she never gives us the explanation. Later in the story, she is in a real hard way and is completely unarmed. She begins prying out her teeth and taking her putty teeth and turning them into the weapon that has been hidden in her mouth. You realize, “Oh. Ow. Wow, it really wasn’t easy. I was not expecting that.” So in that regard, you give us a moment in which we laugh. We didn’t get to see what she did, but it’s character humor. Then later, you put paid on us, put paid on it by showing us what she did, showing us what she needs to do.

[Brandon] Yeah. This is going to transition very well into next month’s topic, which is relationship stories. Because I think some of the best character humor is where you have two people where you establish they are quirky and interesting, as all people are. Then, if you put two together that run each other in exactly the wrong ways, it creates immediate friction and humor because of that. Even in a story that wouldn’t necessarily be primarily a comedy, you can say, “Oh. We put them together. It’s funny.” There’s this whole website that is They Fight Crime. Where it takes two random things…
[Brandon] And it’s the they fight crime. It’s us imagining that a sentient washing machine and a gunslinger from the 20s have to fight crime together.
[Brandon] They fight crime makes it funny because we are immediately imagining them in all these situations together. Where they have to be together. Where they’re hammerlocked together… I don’t know if I can use it that way,
[Dan] Sure.
[Brandon] But the two characters are forced to solve a problem and they have very different methods of doing this.
[Dan] The word for that is actually a crucible. That you put two characters in a situation and turn up the heat, and see how they react to each other.

[Brandon] We are completely out of time. We need to move on. I’m going to give us our homework which is I want you to take some of these things we’ve talked about. At least three of them. The types of humor. Physical humor, situational, character, farce… Whatever it is, or find your own. I certainly don’t think we’ve covered all types of humor in this short podcast. I want you to take a scene and try to write it with an overabundance of one of the types. Then pull it out and try to write the same scene using situational comedy. Pull it out, try to write the same scene using word plays. See how you can do these. You’re going to overload on one of these types in order to practice it and see what it does to your scene. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.