Writing Excuses 11.32: The Element of Humor
Key Points: Talking about humor ain’t so funny. Why do we turn pages for humor? Because we enjoy laughing, and hope that it will happen again. Every joke is a story. Look for the twist at the end that recontextualizes everything. Lots of classes of humor, but the techniques get applied to everything. Make sure you are laughing, that it amuses you. Don’t play with a doll, be funny for the audience. Use comic drop, a change in status. Payload, then pause (put the funny just before the break, so we can laugh). Rule of 3, beat, beat, punchline. Reversal, give us a surprise. Use callbacks, referring back to jokes you have already made. To make a whole story out of humor, look for key elements, and make promises to the reader that you are going to be funny. Set something up, have something happen later, and then pow, deliver it even bigger (aka rule of 3 in action!).
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 32.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Element of Humor.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart, apparently.
[Brandon] Ah, we’re sitting in a new room. We’re recording, actually, here at Phoenix ComicCon in Mary’s room. We’re going to be talking about humor. Now, Howard always warns me that talking about humor is the least funny thing you can do.
[Howard] It pretty much is.
[Dan] It always has been in the past when we’ve tried it.
[Brandon] Yes. But it is an important topic for us to cover. So, this week we’re going to be talking about using humor in… Well, what makes a story humorous? That’s a big question.
[Howard] Well, for starters, when we talk about the elemental genres, it’s important to recognize that the… What is the driving force that keeps the reader turning the pages with that given element? As we’ve talked about humor in the past, we’ve talked about the metabolic aspect of it. The release. The loss of control as you laugh. We turn pages in the hopes that that will happen again.
[Brandon] Right. When… I remember a few months ago, you… We were talking about horror, you listed horror, romance, and humor as the most visceral of the genres because you said those are the ones eliciting a specific emotion.
[Howard] Well, specific… A metabolic reaction. That can be said of… If it makes you cry, if it makes you cheer, all of that is metabolic, but the actual movement of your diaphragm as you laugh out loud? That’s kind of an amazing thing. Making that happen is mystical and… But it’s not magic. There’s things that you can do to… There’s things that you can do to make that work.
[Brandon] Right. We’re going to talk about some strategies for doing that today.
[Mary] So I recently was at a convention and got to hear Peter Sagal from Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me who is also a playwright do a thing on humor. One of the things that he said that was kind of… Made me sort of reevaluate how I was approaching was that… That he said that… Oops… Humor… I actually wrote this down. That every joke is a story, and that the root of every story is desire. Which I thought was a really interesting way to approach it. That there is in fact a story that you’re telling when you’re telling a joke, and that a lot of times we think about it as, “Well, there’s just this thing happens, and it’s just funny.” But that what it’s missing when you do that is the understanding that stories are about connections, and that there is a context that has to go with that.
[Howard] A great many jokes… A great many funny stories are when you are telling a story that is kind of funny and then you get to the end of it and you realize, “Oh, I was actually being told a very different story, and that’s kind of hilarious,” as everything is re-contextualized and new. I don’t have an example of that right now, but I’m sure you can think of one, fair listener, if you go and find something funny.
[Mary] Well, I mean, the classic example is actually the opening of Hitchhiker’s Guide, which is “The Vogon ships hung in the sky…”
[Howard] “In much the same way that bricks don’t.”
[Mary] Right. That says I am going to be telling you a science fiction story… Maybe not.
[Brandon] Right. It is science-fiction, but it’s not what you’re expecting.
[Mary] It is going other places.
[Howard] I grew up on Douglas Adams. I devoured those books. I loved the wordplay. In going back and reading is, they are still funny. But they don’t work for me quite as well as they used to. I mean, that line continues to be awesome. But there are a great many others where I read them and thought, “Oh, wow. He could’ve tweaked this, he could have pushed this a little more over here, and it just would have rang a little bit funnier.” Now part of that is my personal taste.
[Brandon] Let me ask about that. Humor can be very subjective. So how is it that we can even talk about making something funny? Do you shoot for the broadest possible audience or do you put different types of humor in or…?
[Howard] Well, there’s… When you’re categorizing humor, you… There’s situational comedy and physical comedy, wordplay, puns. These are all kind of classes of humor. Then there are the techniques that you apply to those classes. So when I’m reading Douglas Adams, in some cases, the class of humor, which is farcical science-fiction, doesn’t work for me anymore because I’ve made fun of science fiction enough, and the joke falls flat. But the technique that is being used to tell the joke, whether it’s comic drop or rule of three or…
[Howard] I’ll get to those. But I start looking at the technique. That’s where, for me, turning the screws is always the most fun.
[Dan] I think when you’re trying to decide what kind of humor, how am I going to make the most number of people laugh, it’s the same as almost anything else that you’re trying to write. Make sure you’re the one laughing. Do what amuses you the most. That’s what’s going to work best.
[Brandon] See, I… I totally agree with that. Though I personally… This is more of a thing for the next humor episode we do where we’re talking about adding humor to a different type of story. But for me, I’m writing generally these big epic fantasy books. I can’t afford to have only one kind of humor. Because if the humor consistently misses for a reader, they need to find something else that they’re enjoying, otherwise, they’re going to put that book down. So, yes and no. For me, I’m like, I need three different types of humor in every book. With different characters saying humor in different ways, so that you’ll find something funny, hopefully, even if you don’t find this character funny.
[Mary] But you find all three of those forms funny, don’t you, yourself?
[Brandon] I do find all three of those forms funny. So, yes.
[Mary] So the thing that Dan is… That you’re both saying. Here, let me split the middle, is that you have to think… You are your first and most important reader in a lot of ways. But the… You have to also think about who you are communicating to. Otherwise, in puppetry terms, it’s the difference between a puppet and a doll is that a public has an audience, and a doll, you’re playing for yourself. So with writing, particularly with humor, you are trying to be funny for someone else. But you should never extract yourself from that equation.
[Brandon] I would say, though, along these lines, the more I’ve written, the more types of humor I’ve found funny. Things I didn’t find funny as a teenager I now can see the humor in, and can apply them. Just like there are stories that when I was young, I’m like, “Oh, I’m not interested in that type of story.” That now I can appreciate and can apply to my writing.
[Dan] Well, there is… I think it’s more than just different kinds of humor. It’s the execution of the humor. I use lots of different kinds of humor in the John Cleaver books. I use lots of different kinds of humor in Blacker Darkness. My editor at the time, Moshe, never thought any of them were funny. He’s never thought any of my writing was funny. It’s just because whatever genre of humor I was using, sometimes it just doesn’t land for different people.
[Brandon] Your techniques just weren’t…
[Brandon] Let’s actually stop for our book of the week. Then we’ll come back, and we’re going to have Howard give us some of his techniques and some definitions.
[Howard] Okay. All right. The book of the week is Death by Cliché by Robert J. Defendi. Disclaimer: Bob’s in my writing group, and Death by Cliché is one of my favorite funny books of all time. Because it doubles down on all of the tropes. As the title kind of suggests. Quick synopsis, a game designer who is participating in the worst role-playing game ever tries to leave, is murdered in a back alley, and wakes up in that game. Where the hallway is lit by flaming brassieres, because…
[Brandon] Yes. They don’t know the difference.
[Howard] The person doesn’t know the difference between brassiere and brazier.
[Howard] Yeah. Bob does a great job of, like I said, doubling down on all of that and making it funny, and at the same time, giving us a story where something is at stake, where there’s real heart to the story. One of the things that happens to this character is because he is a game designer inside a game, the faceless cardboard sorts of NPCs around him begin coming to life when he does certain things and stop acting like cardboard cutouts. Really kind of wonderful. It’s available on Audible now. Like just now. I just found out. Death by Cliché. But you can also pick it up anywhere…
[Brandon] Anywhere fine books are sold.
[Howard] Anywhere fine books are sold. That, fair listener, is thanks to you and Patreon. We appreciate your sponsorship.
[Brandon] All right. So let’s talk about your techniques. You mentioned three of them earlier.
[Howard] Yes. Yes. I’m going to start with comic drop. Comic drop is the term that I use when the status between two people changes. When one person is elevated over another. It is really common in the low sorts of humor that we scowl at because people are punching down. But it can be done really, really well. You will find that, for instance, self-deprecatory humor is a great comic drop. In fact, our haiku tagline is a comic drop. 15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re… Not that smart. There’s the drop. Right there at the end. I was thinking about that this morning and thinking, “Well, what does that… What’s our real message with the podcast?” The real message is this podcast is short because you should be spending more time writing and less time just listening. I mean, that’s what we’re trying to say. I asked myself, “Can I rewrite that so it’s not the joke, but it’s pithy?” I came up with “15 minutes long because you should be writing, not listening to us.” It’s not as funny because the comic drop doesn’t work as well, but that’s the same principle. If I were taking that and trying to turn the screws on it and wordsmithing it, I might have arrived at the second one first and then worked my way towards the first one. We got the first one because I just got lucky.
[Brandon] See, but you’ve mentioned before, like situational comedy where it’s like two characters interacting and the situation is funny is almost always comic drop, meaning someone is changing status through the conversation or through the events.
[Howard] We did, at the beginning of the episode, when we had the episode with Jim Hines, which folks can listen to. I introduced him and said, “All the men wants to be like him, and all the women wants to be with those men.” Which is a fantastic comic drop, and I remember Brandon’s… We all laughed, and Brandon said, “Why was that funny? How does that joke even work?” There’s two things at work there. One is the comic drop. The other is a principal which… We talk about in late, out early. Payload, then pause. Whatever your punchline is, whatever the payload is, whatever the funniest bit is, put that as close to the natural pause as you can, so that we have the opportunity to react and to laugh. If you give us the payload and then keep talking, the joke loses its punch. In that one, “and all the women want to be with… him,” is what you’re expecting. The very last word is now gone and is now replaced with “other men.” So the payload is the very last thing, which is kind of perfect. And I thought of it on the fly, because I’m just that good. That’s not actually self-deprecatory humor.
[Mary] But it is an example, dear listener, of the kind of thing that happens when you’ve been working in a field for a long time. There are certain tools that are easier that you learn to do instinctively because you’ve been working at them so long. That’s one of the reasons we try to break these techniques down for you is so that you can try individual things where you’re thinking about it consciously until you hit a point where you can do it without having to think about it.
[Howard] An example… Mary, should we do the…
[Mary] Yeah, let’s do the thing.
[Howard] That one. Mary and I actually rehearsed this a little bit. I want to bring up an example from the television episode… Television show Galavant. This is an example of rule of three. It’s a brilliant example of rule of three. This is a love song, three stanzas. Mary, would you give us the first one?
[Mary] I am not singing. Just so everyone’s clear.
Love is strange,
And sometimes kind of gross
It’s embarrassingly gassy
And it leaves its dirty underwear
In piles around the place
[Howard] Okay. So there we have three beats, and the third one is the longest, and the third one is the most specific, and it’s starting to paint a picture for us. That stanza, all by itself, fulfills rule of three in a funny way.
[Brandon] So what is rule of three?
[Howard] Oh, rule of three is essentially beat, beat, punchline. Thing one, thing two, thing three where we are escalating to the funniest moment.
[Brandon] Okay. I see this a lot in fiction as lists. He walked in the room and saw a desk, a lamp, and a big green monster eating a burrito. Right? That sort of thing.
[Howard] That sort of thing. That rhythm works really well for us. So, the other thing that’s happened here is that we are told we are getting a love song, and we finish this stanza complaining about dirty underwear. So we have a reversal. We are not getting what we expect. Let’s have the second stanza.
[Mary] All right. The second stanza is
Love is rude, it has a sort of smell
And it thinks that you don’t notice
And it blurts out things
That make you want to smack its stupid face
[Howard] In this one, we have again it’s more specific at the end, and we get a comic drop. We see that the singer is… She’s elevated in status over her love, because smacking his stupid face. Let’s go with the third stanza.
And it’s awkward and confusing
It annoys you half to death
Then it grins that dopey grin
And you can’t catch your breath
[Howard] That is the third rule of three, and it fulfills the big one. With this, we get a second reversal. Oh, this really is a love song. It’s actually a pretty good love song. You’re forced to recast all of those other things as things not that we are complaining about, but that we have come to adore. I like this example because Galavant, yeah, it’s straight up comedy, but this love song is a love song. It’s a stirring love song that makes us laugh and makes us emote with the characters.
[Dan] Well, it has another reversal between character status at the end as well.
[Howard] That’s right. [Garbled]
[Dan] Where all of a sudden she is not elevated over the love, she is…
[Howard] Captured by it.
[Brandon] We don’t have a lot of time left on this, but I do want to hit just a question for the podcasters. How do you make an entire story out of this? We’re talking about humor as our elemental genre. Making an entire story constructed from… Around the idea of humor.
[Howard] No, that is a great question. I look for key elements. We’ve talked a lot about making promises to readers. Often, the promise that I’m making is that I’m setting a thing up and something funny is going to happen later. With rule of three, I set a thing up, and something happens later, and then I deliver it bigger. So my outline will have beginning, middle, end, rule of three in it. That also functions as a callback. Sometimes it is a comic drop, where I’m going to lessen that person’s status at the beginning, I’m going to drop them further at the middle, and then at the end, there is a reversal and their status increases. Okay, couched not as a joke, that’s just good storytelling. There’s some symmetry and there’s some character dynamic. Couched as humor, we will find it funnier because of the symmetry that’s there.
[Mary] All right. This gets back to that thing that Peter Sagal was talking about, with every joke has a story. But one of the other things that he said with this was that every joke is contextual, which is why he believes that comedy tends to age less well than tragedy. Because comedy is often based on common context and things in popular culture. But he also said that every joke is a surprise, and that every joke has the illusion of spontaneity. Which is one of the reasons that callbacks, which is what Howard was talking about, work so well. So a callback technically is where you refer back to a previous joke long after you’ve gone past it. The reason that that works, and the reason you can use it to structure a story, is that what you’re doing is you have spent… You’ve built a common context with the reader, and then you bring the callback up in a scenario that they’re not expecting it again. It comes as a surprise. It’s doing two things simultaneously. It is referring back to your common context, and it’s also surprising you. It feels spontaneous, because it’s so unexpected. So when you’re trying to build an entire story this way, one of the things that you have to be thinking about is looking for ways to not tip your hand. This is…
[Brandon] Well, it occurs to me, just hearing you say that and hearing what Howard says, the Shakespearean quote unquote comedies, which are all comedic, but also, they’re their own genre. All are about, every one of them, people in new situations. They’re comic drops. We’re going to put someone in a… We’re going to drop them, drop them, raise them, drop them, raise them. It’s basically how these are going.
[Mary] The other thing that I will say about structuring things as a comedy, which is my own personal thing, is that I think that pretty much the only difference between a comedy and a horror is your tone.
[Dan] No, I absolutely agree with that. I think for me, one of the reasons that makes both of those genres work more so than in other genres is the familiarity you have with the characters. You have to love that character and know that character in order to feel scared on their behalf. Also, the better you know a character, then when the joke starts to get set up, you can almost tell it to yourself in advance, because you know exactly how everyone in the room is going to react. I think that’s one of the reasons, for example, that Arrested Development works so well. They often don’t even have punchlines on that show. They just tell the first half of the joke, and the audience tells the second half because they are so familiar with the characters.
[Howard] The… When Mary said surprising, we’ve talked about surprising yet inevitable a lot. One of the reasons that love song works so well for us is that there is a rhyme scheme, and when you deliver on a rhyme with a punchline, the rhyme fulfills inevitable automatically. We knew there was going to be a rhyme. It had to happen. When it changes a meeting, you can’t catch your breath, it is a rhyme, it fulfills surprising yet inevitable. There are lots of other ways to do that. If you can surprise us with a joke, and the joke is inevitable in the context of the rest of the story… You have multiple story purposes going on, and you’re awesome.
[Mary] But… I’m just going to… I can tell that we need to wrap up, but the catch with that is that illusion of spontaneity. If you are telegraphing your jokes, and the example of that is like… Oh, right, I can’t curse on this podcast.
[Mary] My life is so difficult.
[Mary] But if I had just done that… If I had been like, “Okay, so I have an example and… Oh, that’s right. I can’t curse on this podcast.”
[Mary] Because I just telegraphed it. So… The… When you’re structuring it, making sure that you do not do that wink and a nod too hard at your audience.
[Brandon] We are out of time. We will come back and talk about this in a few weeks, but… Howard? Why don’t you give us some homework that they can work on during that time?
[Howard] Okay. Yes. I want you to get something funny. A book, hopefully, that you can actually make notes in. Outline… I say outline. Underline, highlighter… Look for rules of three. Look for places where there are three things in a list, look for places where three similar things happen. By the same token, look for comic drops. Circle or underline any place where characters’ statuses change. As you go through this, I have no idea what you’re actually going to find, because I don’t know what it is you’re reading. But as you go through this, try and figure out what the pattern is to this story that makes it work. Why are these elements working, working so well? Ultimately, what you want to be able to do is you want to know how to apply these tools in your own writing. So you have to look for them specifically in someone else’s work.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.