My last couple of blog entries, I’ve been breaking down how to write humor. The problem with looking at the nuts and bolts of the craft of humor is that the craft itself isn’t funny. It’s like a magician showing you how the trick is done: cool to see, but ultimately, sort of a let down because it’s no longer magic.
(While they’re gone… let’s vote that the new readers buy drinks, okay? And chips.)
I left off in the middle of listing some mechanisms for humor. This is not going to be an exhaustive list (cannot stress that enough). Think of them as handy brainstorming guidelines, but be aware that you can combine them, as well. Okay, lessee…. up next is:
Exaggeration / HYPERBOLE —
This is one of my favorites (go figure) because it can be used subtly (yep, I know, seems like a contradiction in terms: subtle exaggeration), and it can be used balls out.
Subtle: She loved the pie so much, she’d marry it if it were legal. Which it probably was, in the deep south. So long as it was a Christian pie.
Big: She knew she wanted that man. She had always known. The Universe had known. Eleventy billion years ago, some DNA somewhere paired up with some other DNA and they hatched a plan so that right now, at this moment, she would be here in this spot where she’d see him walking across the vast, empty parking lot, and she’d be able, with just the right touch, to stomp on the gas pedal of her little Prius and get up enough speed to mow his lying, cheating, bastard ass down without a single witness in sight. The Universe was smart like that.
Understatement works by utilizing a reversal of expectations and downplaying the obvious with sarcasm (generally). It’s difficult to give an example out of context, so here’s one from Bobbie Faye’s book 3 (WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON). Bobbie Faye, Cam (her ex who is very unhappily helping her find her fiancÃ©, Trevor), and Trevor’s sniper friend, Riles (who hates Bobbie Faye), are all approaching a very large casino boat on Lake Charles. Riles looks over the boat and, knowing of Bobbie Faye’s propensity for disaster:
“I’m stunned they don’t have your picture with a slash through it out here somewhere,” Riles muttered. “That’s a class-action lawsuit begging to happen.”
Misguided proclamations —
A moment later, in the bar inside the casino, Bobbie Faye is assuring the bar’s owner, Suds, that she is not going to cause any harm to his establishment.
“I promise, Suds. That last time was a total accident.”
“Honey, you took a chainsaw to three booths.”
“They beat up Lori Ann after school.”
“I know, Sugar, I’d have held the idiots down for you, but the booths were innocent.”
…and a couple of exchanges later…
“I’ll make this quick and clean and then we’ll be outta here. Give me some time before you call the cops.”
And by this point, anyone who’s read anything about Bobbie Faye knows that place is toast. At that point, it’s just a matter of how it will unfold.
Other misguided proclamations occur when we see, for example, that there is a problem, but the person the scene is focused on tries to imply that there isn’t one by claiming, “Oh, move along, nothing to see, all is well.” The comedy comes in the anticipation of how bad that is going to rubberband back on them.
Shock Value —
Socially inappropriate behavior will either horrify us or make us laugh, and sometimes, both at the same time. Someone naked where they aren’t supposed to be, someone saying the first thing that comes to their mind when they shouldn’t, someone acting completely age inappropriate or status inappropriate. For example, if you saw Queen Elizabeth on a YouTube video humping the leg of her husband, you’d be horrified. If she were drunk and people were trying to stop her, but afraid to touch her, but trying desperately to salvage her dignity, you’d be laughing. If she were humping the leg of a gorilla, you’d probably be in tears.
The problem with shock value is that it can almost immediately backfire on you if the reader / viewer thinks too much about what they’re seeing. It elicits a purely visceral, fast reaction, but we are also almost always embarrassed by the fact that we found something like that funny. To pull this one off requires a lot of perfect timing if it’s going to be the central moment around which the comedy is built. Alternately, shock value can be the premise of an entire piece which does gag after gag after gag. (Monty Python stuff, lots of slapstick comedies, farce and satire utilize shock value frequently.)
This is when the bad guy gets his due, done in a funny way. The easiest example is when Daffy Duck has grabbed away the gun from Elmer Fudd (I believe) because he’s being selfish and screams, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” and it goes off, blowing his beak around to the back of his head. Or when Wile E Coyote is determined to trick the poor Road Runner and ends up off the edge of the cliff himself, scrambling for purchase of thin air, knowing he is doomed.
(Obviously, this is used with non-cartoon moments. But you cannot help but love Daffy and Wile E.)
Humiliation / Self-Deprecation —
Entire careers can be made off these two. For humiliation, think Jim Carrey in LIAR LIAR. In that movie, Fletcher, an attorney, cannot lie for 24 hours due to the birthday wish of his young son, and the truth-telling is about to kill him because he has no control over it. Here’s one of many exchanges:
For self-deprecation, think about nearly any movie Hugh Grant’s been in. Four Weddings and a Funeral, for example:
Charles: Ehm, look. Sorry, sorry. I just, ehm, well, this is a very stupid question and… , particularly in view of our recent shopping excursion, but I just wondered, by any chance, ehm, eh, I mean obviously not because I guess I’ve only slept with 9 people, but-but I-I just wondered… ehh. I really feel, ehh, in short, to recap it slightly in a clearer version, eh, the words of David Cassidy in fact, eh, while he was still with the Partridge family, eh, “I think I love you,” and eh, I-I just wondered by any chance you wouldn’t like to… Eh… Eh… No, no, no of course not… I’m an idiot, he’s not… Excellent, excellent, fantastic, eh, I was gonna say lovely to see you, sorry to disturb… Better get on…
Carrie: That was very romantic.
Charles: Well, I thought it over a lot, you know, I wanted to get it just right.
and here, this one is his friend, Tom, speaking:
Tom: Oh, I don’t know, Charlie. Unlike you, I never expected “the thunderbolt.” I always just hoped that, that I’d meet some nice friendly girl, like the look of her, hope the look of me didn’t make her physically sick, then pop the question and, um, settle down and be happy. It worked for my parents. Well, apart from the divorce and all that.
Tom: The great advantage of having a reputation for being stupid: People are less suspicious of you.
And from the third Bobbie Faye book:
She’d sunk a boat. A whole boat. A boat that was bigger than a house. Bobbie Faye had never sunk something bigger than a house before. Where does that go on a rÃ©sumÃ©? Hobbies?
Webster’s defines sarcasm as the “use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” In book 3 (WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON), Bobbie Faye and Riles argue. Often.
“Right, because it feels so much better to think that there might be two homicidal maniacs out there who want me dead.”
“As opposed to all the regular people who want you dead?” Riles asked.
In Jennifer Crusie’s FAKING IT, Tilda has just completed a van Goh like mural on a restaurant wall and her client is looking it over.
“You didn’t sign it ‘van Goh,’ did you?” Clarissa bent down. “Wouldn’t that be forgery?”
“Not unless he had a Kentucky period we don’t know about.”