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Humor Writers Are Filthy Liars

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A good humor writer is a master of deception, a psychological deceiver, a sensory trickster.

They’re filthy rotten liars.

That’s because good humor is based on violated expectations. That is, the laugh comes from being surprised when you think one thing is going to happen, but another does instead.

It’s based on what psychologists call the Incongruity Theory or Incongruity-Resolution Theory. That’s because the humor actually happens when you realize and recognize the incongruity..

Here’s how it works.

“Take my wife, please.”

When Henny Youngman first told that joke, his audience imagined he was about to say something else. They imagined he was going to say, “Take my wife, for example.” In fact, in their minds, they had already filled in the “for example.”

Instead, he lied to them, and didn’t say what they expected him to say. Rather, he pleaded with his audience to take his wife off his hands. Incongruity ensued, it was recognized by the audience, and they laughed. Not because his wife was necessarily a terrible person (I’m sure she was a wonderful woman), but because they were surprised by what he said.

The incongruity happens because we’re expecting one thing to happen, but because words have more than one meaning, an incongruous understanding can happen.

Purdue University linguist Victor Raskin calls this the Semantic Script Theory. Basically, it means that there are two different “scripts” taking place, and the two collide, because they don’t match up. Here’s another example:

“Is the doctor home?” whispered the patient with a sore throat.

“No, he isn’t,” whispered the doctor’s pretty, young wife. “Come right in.”

In this case, the first line and the wife’s first phrase — the first “script” — take us down one path. We expect her to say, “No, he isn’t. Can you come back later?” or “No, he isn’t, but he should be back in an hour.”

Instead, the laugh comes from the incongruity of her answer, when she invites the patient into her home for — well, we can only guess. (Not you. I already know what you’re thinking. You should be ashamed.)

Keep in mind, the incongruity will also come as a surprise. That is, if you know it’s coming, the joke won’t be funny. If you’ve heard “take my wife, please” before, you won’t laugh, because you know it. But back in the 1930s, it was hysterical.

Incongruity abounds in humor

Humor writing is not just about telling jokes, or coming up with punchlines. You don’t need fart jokes, puns, or funny names to be considered humor. (In fact, I strongly advise against it.) And the world is better off without yet one more version of “Hairy Snotter and the Goblet of Tires.”

Good humor is subtle and surprising. The jokes come out of the situations, not the language. Don’t focus on making funny words, focus on finding funny situations.

Just catch your readers off-guard.

Surprise them. Create misunderstandings like our patient and doctor’s wife above. Lead readers down a path, and then take an unexpected turn at the very end.

By creating incongruous situations in your writing, you can stir a couple laughs from your readers, even in the most serious situations.

There are actually several techniques you can use to create humor, and I’ll be sharing them on my Florida Writers Association webinar on Saturday, March 12, at 11 am. I hope you can join me.

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Follow Erik Deckers:

Writer & Marketer

Erik Deckers is a professional writer and marketer. He has co-authored four books on social media marketing and personal branding, owns a content marketing agency, is a newspaper humor columnist, and was the Jack Kerouac House writer-in-residence for Spring 2016. He is currently working on the third edition of Branding Yourself, which is all about personal branding and self-promotion via social media. He's currently reviewing the galley proofs for an October publication.

One Response

  1. Dan Alatorre
    | Reply

    Good stuff. I wish more writers would incorporate humor into their stories, but it’s hard for most to do. As I like to point out, do you ever go through a whole day without somebody saying or doing something funny? No. Do you ever have the characters in your story go through a day without something funny happening? Yes.

    Humor is all around most writers and yet they don’t put it in their stories.

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