META: The Problem of Humour

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Sun Feb 24 21:20:21 PST 2008

In the past, when I've waxed philosophically about humour, it has been
in the context of stand up comedy.  In this context, jokes are
expected and TIMING is important.  Like a magician, a comedian uses
MISDIRECTION: the comedian starts by telling a seemingly serious story
so the audience is fooled into being surprised by the punchline.  The
story is the SET UP.  All jokes follow the set up - punch line format:
not enough set up and the joke is LAME; too much set up and the
punchline loses its element of SURPRISE.  We are less likely to laugh
at a punchline that we can predict: the comedian might as well just
skip to the punch line sooner and get the joke overwith and move on.

Thing is, and maybe this means I'm really slow sometimes, but it
occurs to be that very little of the above applies to written humour.
In written humour, misdirection is more important than timing: a slow,
deliberate reader can see a joke coming a mile away.  Perhaps that is
why humourist Dave Barry uses the phrase "But seriously" so often: you
know there's a joke coming so he will actually lie and tell you he's
being serious right before he tells the next joke.

Humour in the context of a story doesn't follow the set up - punchline
format at all: instead, you are given a situation, either a ridiculous
situation that is funny in itself or a serious situation in which a
joke is completely unexpected (and hence potentially much funnier).
Humour in a serious story is refered to as "comic relief".

One good question is this: when does a drama with comic relief become
a comedy?  If a drama makes you laugh out loud then is it still a
drama?  I think we touched on this question before when we discussed
genre: if genre is a function of how it makes the audience feel then
what is a comedy to you is not a comedy to me and vice-versa.  The
Scream movies could be either seen as serious horror movies or laugh
out loud comedies, depending on whether or not you think the effect of
the comedic elements outweighed the effect of the dramic elements.  I
think the same could be said of the Final Destination movies: the
death scenes are straight from slapstick comedies except they end in
brutal death.  It's almost as though Moe had stabbed Curly with a
knife instead of just poking him in the eye.  Would it still be
funny?  People are going to disagree.

Sometimes too much comedy can ruin a drama.  Take CSI: Miami.  Fans
call CSI: Miami "a parody of regular CSI with blatant homages to Miami
Vice".  CSIs arrive back at the lab with their beautiful designer
outfits and inform the lab techs that they just recovered some trace
evidence in the swamp.  Horatio begins each episode with a bad pun and
then puts on his sun glasses.  The lead detective in the case always
looks confused and has to ask the CSIs what they are doing (which is
good for exposition but it makes the character look like a dufus).
Worst of all is how cool Horatio acts, such as the time he casually
walked away from a car bomb.  (The bomb was on a timer and there was
no way to disarm it so Horatio drove it out to a field and walked away
as the car exploded behind him.  Okay, so Horatio is the man.  We get

In writing, there is also a lot more opportunities for humour beyond
the set up - punchline format.  For one thing, you have more CONTEXT.
An entire story can be the set up for a joke and this works
particularly well if the story is satisfying in and of itself.  Other
jokes take the forms of PUNS, NON-SEQUITORS, WIT, HOMAGES,

A pun is the lowest and yet potentially most effective form of humour:
if you are writing a Star Trek: The Next Generation comedy and you
call Picard "Prickhard" then it's a lame joke and yet you'll get a
laugh every time.

Non-sequitors are considered funny by some but lame to others.  A good
example of a non-sequitor from an LNH story is the use of the Solid
Platinum Dancers in the Swordmaster series.  A non-sequitor is the
kind of humour that causes some people to laugh while other people
just look confused and say "I don't get it."

Witty jokes tend to follow the set up - punchline format.  Sarcastic
remarks are most effective when they are witty: a serious comment by
one character becomes the set up that inspires a sarcastic punchline
from a second character.

Homages usually have to be used in conjuction with puns to avoid
copyright infringement: basically the idea is to take a character like
Superman and put him in a situation that you'll never see Superman in,
such as being accused of negligent homicide after having sex with an
ordinary human being.  I'm sorry but that just makes me laugh to think
about that.  Call me sick if you want. :)

Juxtapositions are funny when you take iconic characters and play them
off of each other.  I thought the X-Men / Teen Titans crossover way
back in the eighties was hilarious and I would have loved to have seen
the Justice League / Avengers crossover.  In the case of parodies,
doing homages of iconic characters, giving them funny names and having
them play off each other is potentially so funny that you can go ahead
and write them into an otherwise serious story and still have it be
hilarious.  Your mileage may vary. :)

Finally, in-jokes run counter to the notion that humour should be a
surprise: people laugh at an in-joke because it is familiar and often
even predictable.  Catchphrases like "Eat my shorts!" or "Doh!" or
"Cowabunga!", all from the Simpsons, all qualify as in-jokes.  It's
worth noting that little kids respond the most to this kind of humour:
I've noticed that kids will laugh at the same joke 100 times, which is
98 times after most adults would want to hear it.

Most of what I've said above is arguably factual.  What follows now is
just my opinion.  I find drama without comic relief boring.  But I
also find comedy without context lame.  It's like eating fried chicken
with rice: too much fried chicken and you worry about your fat intake;
too much rice and and you worry about not getting enough protien in
your diet.  When it's right is a matter of personal taste.  I hate to
say it but I probably enjoy rereading my own stories better than I
enjoy reading stories by other people, simply because I try to strike
the balance that works for me.


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