Steve Harvey once told Jerry Seinfeld, “If you explain it to ’em, it will make no sense. [Comedy] is the most senseless profession on Earth.” Harvey and Seinfeld—both famous, experienced, polished comedians—came to the conclusion that no, you can’t explain what it means to be funny. To have a sense of humor. To see the world with a glint in your eye, invigorating everything you do with a little tinge of funny.
So, let’s go ahead and ignore all of that and explain humor, shall we?
Okay, I’m joking. Maybe Seinfeld and Harvey were talking about a certain “it” factor that makes a person likely to be a famous comedian. But we’re talking about something different here. Like any other skill on planet Earth, you can learn how to write humor.
A Humor Definition (That Doesn’t Feel Like a Robot Explaining It)
Here’s the problem with the standard humor definition. We looked it up, and within the first couple of words, even the dictionary used the word “quality.” As in:
The quality of being amusing.
Thank you, internet android. Unfortunately, we’re no closer to determining what is humor than before. Let’s try and resolve that, shall we?
Humor is the art of being surprisingly amusing.
We can’t always define what amusing is—there’s no accounting for taste—but humor is almost universally surprising in at least one of the following ways:
- An unexpected punchline. A sharply-written joke is like a magic act. Get your audience looking one way and hit ’em with the magic from left field.
- Subversiveness. Subversiveness often works because of its societal surprise factor: You’re not supposed to say that! Sometimes, a wry observation contradicting or highlighting our societal norms will be enough to make us laugh.
Examples of Humor
Rodney Dangerfield’s Unexpected Punchlines
“Doctor, every morning when I get up and look in the mirror I feel like throwing up. What’s wrong with me?” He said, “I don’t know, but your eyesight is perfect.”
The joke is easy to understand—the doctor is telling Rodney Dangerfield he’s ugly. But notice the twist: The set-up to the joke is about a potential illness, not a doctor about to tell a patient he’s ugly. If you want to master traditional jokes, Rodney Dangerfield routines aren’t a bad place to start learning.
Jerry Seinfeld’s Observational Humor
“Make no mistake about why these babies are here. They are here to replace us.”
On the surface, there’s nothing especially surprising about this punchline. Where does the surprise come from? From the level of truth in the statement. Seinfeld is taking an everyday concept (babies) and framing it in a nontraditional perspective.
Tig Notaro’s Wry Wit
“A precious little kitten named Fluff. That’s her given name. We kept it out of respect for her birth parents.”
Maybe this joke doesn’t have the rat-a-tat rhythm of a Dangerfield joke, yet it’s no less funny. Why? Tig Notaro takes a wry approach to the topic by deadpanning a silly situation like a pair of adoptive cat parents sitting down and giving their kitten a human name.
Humor in Poetry
Resume by Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Not all examples of humor are knee-slappers. Some will trend towards verbal irony. Dorothy Parker’s Resume finds its poetic humor with a surprising take on a depressing subject.
If the poem has a punchline, it’s “You might as well live,” a sort of humorous echo of Dylan Thomas’ Rage Against the Dying of the Light. But in Parker’s case, the humor comes from the blase voice of the speaker, who seems to be saying: well, living beats the alternatives.
The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll
‘O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
‘You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.
Featured in Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll’s poem is intended for children. A simple situation where the oysters can’t respond because they’ve been eaten is all the punchline you need.
Unleash Your Funny on the Internet
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Humor Examples in Literature
When we first learn humor, we tend to think of serious literature as high-brown, stern, and dry. But classic literature is full of comedic moments, harking back to traditions when any new entertainment should make people both laugh and cry.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?’
Early scenes in Romeo and Juliet play to the crowd’s, ahem, baser instincts, like the above reference to—well, it’s better left unsaid.
At the beginning of the play, several characters make suggestive jokes like the one above. It’s only when the drama takes a turn in the second half of the play that we can call Romeo and Juliet a true tragedy.
Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
“The year was 2081,” writes Vonnegut to begin this short story, “and everybody was finally equal.”
It’s an obviously absurd and satirical premise. In 2081, the government is so concerned with equality that beautiful people have to wear masks and the intelligent are intentionally disrupted, lest they shame those who are less attractive or smart. Such satire gives us moments of literary humor like these:
Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.
How to Write Humor (Without Making People Cringe)
An attempt at humor in literature is a noble thing—you’re trying to entertain people, after all. Yet if you do it wrong, it can fall flat with a spectacular thunk. Or, even worse, make your readers cringe. What are the keys to unlocking humor that lands with your audience?
Never Take a Joke Where They Expect
Consider this statement from one-liner legend Steven Wright:
A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me. I’m afraid of widths.
A geometry pun is kind of corny—but it works. Why? Because you think he’s setting you up for a joke about psychology.
Put Some Personality Into It
Remember that line from Vonnegut: “…to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”
It’s dripping with irony and sarcasm. It’s not a joke, per se, but nevertheless, we can hear Vonnegut’s witty voice seeping into the prose. To do the same, don’t be afraid to let your natural wit break through, even if you’re an omniscient narrator.
Training Yourself to Be Funny
Maybe you don’t have the natural instincts that drive the greats in stand-up comedy, as Steve Harvey warned. But you can learn to be funnier when you write. When in doubt, try practicing! Writing a web comic is a great exercise in brevity and punchlines. Or try writing prompts or internet humor writing to see if there’s comedy you can glean from absurd situations.
And don’t forget the ultimate test: If something makes you laugh while you write, there’s a good chance it will make your readers laugh, too.
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Writing Funny: Introduction to Humor Writing