How can I learn the elements of humor?
July 22, 2006 5:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn the elements of humor?

My goal is to create funny material, and I'm hoping this process doesn't have to be completely accidental. Is there a guide to humor the way there are guides to good English writing style (i.e. those with lists of techniques like alliteration, metonymy, understatement, and so on)? The way there are guides to debating techniques like this one? I've noticed common rhetorical and thematic devices in jokes, and would love to see an attempt at categorizing them.

I've read the writings of Freud and Bergson on humor, but I'm looking for something that focuses on the rhetorical techniques of humor in a more applied way.

posted by lunchbox to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Read genuinely funny writers; as humor is a subjective thing, this can be easier said than done. I find a wide variety of writers pretty amusing, and I think a wide variety will help you avoid just mimicking one particular style, but rather understanding the nature of what is or isn't funny. For example, Why Not Me? by Al Franken was a laugh out loud book, in my opinion, as is Barrel Fever, or Me Talk Pretty One Day, or really anything by David Sedaris. Online, I really like the short, absurdly cruel celebrity attacks that take place over on As far as fiction goes, not many fiction pieces have made me laugh out loud (more just a smile, and the recognition of humor, as opposed to the uncontrollable urge to laugh), but that's not to say none have. Youth in Revolt, by C.D. Payne, or Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo both made me laugh. Maybe this is too much work, in the long run, but hopefully reading some of these will, at the very least, keep you amused while you learn.
posted by jonson at 5:46 PM on July 22, 2006

There was a great thread not to long ago about hot to tell a joke... but I can't find it right now.
posted by bigmusic at 5:48 PM on July 22, 2006

Try an Amazon (or Powell's) search for "writing comedy" and you get dozens of results like Comedy Writing, Step by Step.

Here's a user-compiled list of books on humor studies, which will be more theoretical than practical, it looks like.

On the more philosophical side, there's Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts about Joking Matters by Ted Cohen, which is meant to be an analysis of why some jokes work. It's very short and its main claims are not very shocking; better to get from a library than to buy, in my opinion.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:06 PM on July 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Looking at my own link, I find that the Ted Cohen book is cheaper than it was when I got it -- so buy away!

David Chalmers' Taxonomy of Cognitive Jokes might also interest you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:11 PM on July 22, 2006

I think Comedy Writing Secrets by Marvin Helitzer is what you're looking for. It covers eight different techniques(plays on words, reversals, triples, harmony of elements, funny words, (over/under)exaggeration, shock, and character). Each section explains the technique, why it's funny, errors that make it not funny, examples of the technique in use (from famous or not so famous anymore comedians), brainstorming ideas, and usually an exercise or two using the technique.
posted by hamhed at 9:10 PM on July 22, 2006

In Chuck Jones' book "Chuck Amuck" he talks about the period when he first became a director at Termite Terrace. He tried to be scientific about his cartoons, going out and observing audiences to see what kinds of things made them laugh and trying to engineer his own cartoons to do the same things -- and the results were invariably putrid. (Not his words, but his meaning.)

Eventually he stopped doing that. He said that the real key to writing good humor is to write things that amuse the writer. That's what he did later, and as we all know the result was a nearly unbroken string of comedy masterpieces.

Regarding your question, I think that trying to analyze comedy at that kind of level is virtually certain to fail. The entire approach contains the seeds of its own failure, and even approaches a contradiction in terms, because real comedy, comedy that lasts, comedy that has broad appeal, must be natural and spontaneous. If you try too hard, the result is labored and unnatural and contrived.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:26 PM on July 22, 2006

I think that trying to analyze comedy at that kind of level is virtually certain to fail.

This is true, if you're looking for a "funny manual" that reads like a software manual.

That being said, there are ways to learn comedy fundamentals, such as taking classes with Second City or the Groundlings. They're not going to teach you how to be funny, mind you, so much as teach how to look for the funny and get you thinking about the funny. Getting back to what Steven C. Den Beste said, these types of improv classes will teach you how to relax and how to recognize when you're being natural and spontaneous, so you can repeat it and extend it.
posted by frogan at 9:47 PM on July 22, 2006

The key is to go for the worst case outcome. I just saw Clerks 2, and the dope dealer offered to give the two clerks money to open their own store on two conditions, one he could still stand out side the store and sell dope and two they blew each other.
posted by zackdog at 11:59 PM on July 22, 2006

peruse quonsars comments
posted by hortense at 2:54 AM on July 23, 2006

Did you see this recent thread about gelotology?

A bit off-topic, but you might want to have a look at Edward de Bono's books about creativity, he has a bunch of techniques for finding different ways to look at a situation which could be useful for comedy writing.

I think that trying to analyze comedy at that kind of level is virtually certain to fail.

It depends what you mean by "fail". You won't get belly laughs that way but you might manage to write something that a lot of people will find mildly amusing. I'm guessing that's not what you're after though.
posted by teleskiving at 3:33 AM on July 23, 2006

Live in England for a while.
posted by i_cola at 4:23 AM on July 23, 2006

Whatever you do, make sure to follow the rules EXACTLY.

Seriously, though, my intellectual understanding of why funny things are funny (and, more importantly, why unfunny things are often hilarious) kicked up several notches when I took improv classes (UCB for me. YMMV).
posted by mkultra at 9:17 AM on July 23, 2006

What Are You Laughing At?
posted by scody at 9:41 AM on July 23, 2006

Juxtapose the real and the ideal.
posted by jewzilla at 10:21 AM on July 23, 2006

« Older Do Preferences about Anti-Smoking Legislation Have...   |   Brave New Exercise Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.