Finding Your Wings with Humor

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Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, had this to say about flying: The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

What does this have to do with writing humor? This: Trying to be funny is a lot like trying to fly. When you decide to tackle being funny, you take a chance, you throw yourself out there—you open yourself up in a way that most other writing doesn’t. You’re targeting a specific response and hoping for the desired reply. You’re taking a leap and if you’re lucky, you come just close enough to the ground to keep from splatting.

In short, writing humor is frightening.

Rather than leaving the writer flailing about, I thought I’d try to point out three classifications of humor that seem to work well for me. (These are arbitrarily named by the way.)

  1. Observational Humor (OH) is first. OH is usually based on how someone sees something. It can be attributed to a character or narrator’s unique or even quirky way of looking at things that makes the reader giggle for any number of reasons. Maybe the reader had never looked a situation the same way as the character/narrator or maybe it’s so absurd it catches the reader off guard. Regardless, this type of humor really helps the reader connect with a character. A good example of this can be found in the character of Charlie Valentine in the YA book, Bone Gap.

“I’m not either,” said Charlie. “I was on my way to a date.”

“Sorry,” said Finn, not sorry.

“Eh, no need. She’s already mad at me anyway. Women are always mad about something. Did I ever tell you about the time I was traveling alone across this beautiful country of ours and met a beautiful woman with flaming hair? Her name was Esmeralda. Empira. Empusa. Something with an E. I
thought we’d had a fine time of it, the two of us, until I woke up and found her trying to gnaw off my arm. Had teeth as sharp as a shark’s, that one.”

In this brief snippet, the reader gets that Charlie has an odd way of looking at life, and whether you agree with him or not, his views help us better understand both the world of the book and the other characters in their reaction to him.

  1. Situational humor (SH) is (duh) humor based on a situation. This is usually a setup that a character finds himself/herself in that is ripe for laughs. My favorite ones are those that contain a certain level of absurdity.One of my favorites is from M.T. Anderson’s Whales on Stilts! Now with a title like that, you know you’re going to get something off the wall. In a opening scene, a father takes his daughter to work, and this dialogue follows:

“What is this place?” said Lily. “Dad?”

Lily’s dad looked bored. “Research and Development,” he said.

She looked around again. He took her wrist and dragged her forward.

“Come on, honey,” he said. “They don’t like people to look at what they’re working on. After a minute the guards start shooting. First near your feet, then at your knees.”

The guards stood with big guns next to all the doors, watching everything and frowning.

Lily rushed to catch up with her father. She grabbed at his sleeve. She whispered, “What do you make here?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m in Sales and Marketing.”

“Dad, you must know. There’s something weird going on here.”

“What’s gotten into you?”

Careful to keep walking, she whispered, “This is like some sort of mad scientist’s laboratory. What do you really make here?”

“Oh,” said her father, laughing. “A ‘mad scientist’s laboratory’? Nothing quite so sinister. I think your imagination has gotten the better of you. No, honey, it’s all completely aboveboard. But it’s kind of complicated to explain.” He patted her arm. “Keep walking. The guards’re looking antsy.”

The humor is obviously in the ridiculousness of the situation as she soon learns they are actually making stilts for whales. The contrast between the sane and rational Lily and her father is what makes us laugh. In this case, we are like Lily, seeing the environment for the first time and seeing how absurd it really is.

  1. Conditional humor (CH) is humor that evolves as a reaction to a situation. Something or someone triggered a humorous response or outcome that brings giggles. One of my favorite books as a kid was the classic, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I remember this book being read to us in class, and I remember the laughs it brought.In this scene, Fudge, the main character’s younger brother is reacting to his father’s stuffy boss who has flown in to visit.

I jumped up. “Give him to me!” I told Fudge. I took Dribble and his bowl and marched into my room. I inspected my turtle all over. He seemed all right. I didn’t want to make a big scene in front of our company but I was mad! I mean really mad! That kid knows he’s not allowed to touch my turtle!

“Peter,” my father called, “come and finish your dinner.”

When I got back to the table I heard Mrs. Yarby say, “It must be interesting to have children. We never had any ourselves.”

“But if we did,” Mr. Yarby told my father, “we’d teach them some manners. I’m a firm believer in old-fashioned good manners!”

“So are we, Howard,” my father said in a weak voice.

I thought Mr. Yarby had a lot of nerve to hint that we had no manners. Didn’t I pretend to like their dumb old picture dictionary? If that isn’t good manners, then I don’t know what is!

My mother excused herself and carried Fudge back to my room. I guess she put him into his crib again. I hoped she told him to keep his hands off my things.

We didn’t hear from him again until dessert. Just as my mother was pouring the coffee he ran in wearing my rubber gorilla mask from last Halloween. It’s a very real-looking mask. I guess that’s why Mrs. Yarby screamed so loud. If she hadn’t made so much noise my mother probably wouldn’t have spilled the coffee all over the floor.

My father grabbed Fudge and pulled the gorilla mask off him. “That’s not funny, Fudge!” he said.

“Funny,” Fudge laughed. “Funny, funny, funny Fudgie!”

Part of what made this so funny as a kid is I could picture the scene so clearly in my mind. I could see Fudge coming back into the room around a stuffy dinner table, and I could see an already tense situation explode when he scared Mrs. Yarby.

In closing, no matter the type of humor you use, always use it to deepen your story. The examples above don’t just make us laugh, they help us better understand our characters, our environment, or our situation. But the most important thing is don’t be afraid to try to fly. Yeah, you won’t always take flight, but with time and practice, you’ll learn not to splat.

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