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Putting humor into words (Part 1)

The world is sometimes thought to be divided into those people who have a sense of humour, and those don’t. Laughter is universal among human cultures, and so we could perhaps infer from that thet everyone has a sense of humour.
road sign

In fact, surveys show that most people think they possess a sense of humour, although other people are slower to spot this characteristic in them.

For example, many people who can remember, and faultlessly trot out, hundreds of standard jokes are usually rather dull people; the same can be said for relentless narrators of anecdotes, who seem to have a story for every occasion. As the late columnist Jeffrey Bernard once wrote: “Anecdote is not a form of conversation.”

These are not the sort of people who are likely to write humorous books; their humour is received, not self-generated, and contains no originality. By contrast, people who spontaneously generate humorous material tend to possess one inherent characteristic — the ability to laugh at themselves. To be able to view the world as absurd, it is necessary to be able to view ourselves as absurd, or what we possess is not a sense of humour, but megalomania.

But what is the basis of humour and how can we best transport it to the written word? A great many serious thinkers have considered the conundrum that is humour. What is funny? Do we all find different things funny, or is there a common theme underlying humour?

The Canadian author and psychologist Stephen Pinker describes humour as an “anti-dominance mechanism”; we laugh with other people in our group and laugh at an adversary whom we wish to strip of their assumed superiority.

Humor is the enemy of pomp and decorum, especially when they prop up the authority of an adversary or a superior. The most inviting targets of ridicule are teachers, preachers, kings, politicians, military officers and other members of the high and mighty,” he wrote in his book How the Mind Works.

The corollary is, Pinker says, that we engage in banter with our friends to show that we can use this mechanism with them in a non-threatening way.

Kidding is a precision instrument for assessing the kind of relationship one has with a person. You don’t tease a superior or a stranger, though if one of you floats a trial tease that is well received, you know the ice is breaking and the relationship is shifting towards friendship. And if the tease elicits a mirthless chuckle or a freezing silence, you are being told that the grouch has no desire to become your friend (and may even have interpreted the joke as an aggressive challenge.)

People
When it comes to writing, this theory of humour translates to one important point. We laugh at people, not things. And we laugh with people. Humour is a people-based business. So any attempt at written humour must bear this basic truth in mind.

In the first place, it means not throwing in humorous material, or a piece of coruscating wordplay, if it doesn’t fit the story.

British comedian and writer Ricky Gervais wrote: “I’ve seen so much stuff that’s been ruined by writers’ getting carried away with getting a good joke in. We threw jokes on the floor if they made someone look too clever or undermined the story.

In similar vein, talking about his TV writing, Gervais wrote: “You can’t just have decapitated jokes. Then what you’ve got is a sketch show.

Another universal truth about humour is that it has to be true to be funny. Again, this relates back to the notion that we laugh at people, not things. If we cannot make the connection between the humour and real life, if the humour doesn’t ring true, it fails. One of the problems for humour writers is precisely that real life is funnier than our imaginations.

Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who wrote the British comedy shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, said: “After we wrote each episode, we would show it to some secret sources, always including somebody who was an expert on the subject in question. They would usually give us extra information which, because it was true, was usually funnier than anything we might have thought up.

Jay added, about a particularly humorous episode: “I can’t tell you where, I can’t tell you when and I can’t tell you who was involved; all I can tell you is that we knew that it had actually happened. That’s why it was so funny. We couldn’t think up things as funny as the real things that had happened.

This is undoubtedly true. We only have to look at the depths of idiocy (and consequent humour) on websites like E-mails from Crazy People or Failblog, to see that real life has reserves of humour that far outstrip the imagination of the poor author.

The final requirement for humour is that it must have a purpose. Humour without purpose takes us back to the joke-telling and lengthy yarning genre or the “decapitated jokes.” The purpose can be satire, or the humour can operate in its own right to construct character and environment in a novel.

It can even work as a plot device. Talking about the writing of the British TV comedy Fawlty Towers, John Cleese said he tried to make the most important plot moments the funniest in the show, to disguise the plot and make it less visible.

In the episode Communication Problems, the plot turns on a bet that Cleese’s character (Fawlty) has made, and this is wonderfully created (but obscured) by a hilarious dialogue of misunderstanding between Fawlty and his hapless Spanish waiter Manuel.

Humour must be about people, must have purpose, and it must ring true. Humour is not just jokes and stories. Plus humour is usually predicated on an us-versus-them basis, “us” pricking the ego of “them“. The controversial Dutch cartoonist, Gregorius Nekschot, sums this last up as: “Harmless humor does not exist.

He may be right, but humour can vary from the gentle (P.G. Wodehouse, David Nobbs or Garrison Keillor) to the harder-edge satire of Tom Sharpe and Carl Hiaasen, to work like Nekschot’s own, which many people consider deliberately offensive.

But all of these forms of humour need to be well treated and well crafted in order to stand up in a book, a topic I’ll discuss next.

(to be continued)

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Categories: Humour, Technique Tags: , , , ,