A popular post from January 2008
by Annette Lyon
Humor in writing is tough to get right. It's all too easy for a joke to go just slightly off the mark and miss the laugh.
I think many writers do manage to be funny to a degree, but their problem is that they don't take it to the next level, the unexpected place where the laugh comes at you from the side so that you can't help but wipe away tears.
One great way of taking your humor to the next level is to analyze the laugh you're trying to make. What's the obvious joke (even if it's a funny one)?
Now, how can you take that joke one step (or even better, two steps) further?
In a recent essay I read, the author described a soul-sucking job and the manager she worked for. A good comparison (and a funny laugh) would have been to say her boss was a vampire, sucking the life out of her employees.
But this author took it a step further:
"[S]even years later, I voluntarily left a good-paying, soul-sucking, part time job as the records clerk for an office of remarkable neurosurgeons and one prickly office manager (who I am still convinced has no reflection in a mirror) to take a position at a veterinary hospital."
The reader deduces that she's a vampire without the writer ever saying so. It's a classic case of show-don't-tell.
Chandler from the sitcom Friends is another terrific example of taking the humor past the obvious. Take, for example, the time when he and Joey try to determine the identity of two babies, one of which belongs to Ross. One baby has clothing with ducks on it, and the other has clowns.
Joey decides to flip a coin about it, saying that the baby with ducks on its clothes will win if the coin lands on heads because ducks have heads.
It would have been funny enough had Chandler said, "What, and clowns don't have heads?"
But in a sense, that's what the audience is already thinking (and already laughing) about.
Chandler instead comes out with something that uses the first joke (clowns have heads too) and creates a second laugh by planting a comical image in our minds:
"What kind of freak clowns did you have at your birthday parties?"
Show-don't-tell is powerful no matter what kind of writing you're doing. Learn the skill well.
Then learn to take the humor past the obvious joke. Find out how far you can take it to create funny, fresh, and unexpected images.
It helps to read books, essays, and columns by some of the best funny men and women we have writing today. Also, watch comedians. Pay attention to how they craft their jokes, how the punch line flips the joke on its head and makes you laugh. Notice how jokes often come full circle later in the book/sketch/essay and take on new meaning the second time.