15+ Tactics for Writing Humor (A Master List)

A monster-length master list of over 15 tactics for writing humor, with examples from The Office,  Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Emperor’s New Groove, The Fault in Our Stars, Harry Potter, Pink Panther, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Elf, Trigun, Enchanted, The Amazing Spider-man, and more. Be prepared to laugh.

Introduction

I’ve been to a few workshops on writing humor, and I’ve read about writing humor, but the funny thing is, none of them really taught me how to actually write humor. But yet they all said the same thing: Writing humor is hard, harder than writing seriously, because if you fail at humor, you fail horribly.

I heard it so much, it made me fear failure rather than strive to develop that writing talent. For years I avoided writing humor, period. But the catch to that is that I also often hear how humor is a huge draw for an audience.

I read recently in Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts that humor is hard to teach and that some writers believe it can’t be taught at all. If you know these writers, send them to this post, send them to this post, send them somewhere that can actually teach them how to write humor.

People think writing humor can’t be taught because they don’t know how to teach it. Some people can write humor, but can’t teach it. They don’t know how they are funny because it’s just intuitive and natural to them. I was at one workshop on humor, and the only “how-to” tip they gave was that humor had to just come up naturally in the story. But professional comedians slave away and work their butts off writing their jokes, and then practicing them. That’s not natural. Sure, some comedians do improv (Whose Line is it Anyway? was one of my favorite shows), so they’re more natural, but I believe most comedians have to work to be funny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look at shows like The Office. Those writers obviously know how to write that kind of humor. And they use some of the same humor techniques over and over–that’s not just happening, that’s planned out. It’s formulaic. Look at the Marvel movies. They have their own style of humor too. I once read an interview with Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, in it he talked about how insanely difficult it is to come up with jokes sometimes.

So yes, writing humor can be hard. But it’s not impossible. After all the (non)advice I got on writing humor. (Sure, some of them did mention one or two humor tactics, but not how to do them) I decided to take it into my own hands. So I’ve studied humor on my own, and I’ve made my own “How to Write Humor” article that actually tells you (or rather myself) HOW to write humor.

It’s not all-encompassing by any means. And I’m still learning. And note that you might have a different sense of humor than me, but you should be able to revamp most, if not all, of these tactics to suit you. Some of the tactics I will talk about today overlap each other, so one example might actually fit into several of these categories.

15 Humor Tactics

 

Overstatements and Exaggerations

An overstatement or exaggeration is playing up something–making something seem bigger than it is.

Humor articles I did read said exaggeration or overstatements are a no-no, and then go on by giving examples like “My room was so messy, it looked like a bomb had gone off.” Well, guess what? That’s just a bad example. It’s cliche. And just. . . blah. (I’ll explain why it doesn’t work in a second.) The articles are right, don’t write that one! But the articles are wrong in saying that there are no good exaggerations. That’s not true. There are loads of good exaggerations and overstatements. Most parodies and spoofs are exaggerations.

Here is a spoof trailer for the movie The Number 23. I haven’t seen the original movie, but I saw the trailer for it. Watch how this spoof exaggerates that trailer for humor:

If your exaggeration is cliche or generic, it’ll fall flat. That’s one reason why “My room was so messy, it looked like a bomb had gone off” doesn’t work, but the second reason is it’s been exaggerated too much. If you exaggerate too much, it’ll be ridiculous and sound stupid.

“Wait,” some of you might be saying, “but that spoof and so many other stories are hugely exaggerated.”

That’s because how much you can exaggerate depends directly on what kind of story you are telling. Some stories are like the spoof I shared–their whole purpose is based off the mechanics of exaggeration and overstatement. But most stories aren’t like that. At the beginning of your novel, you are setting up reader’s expectations about what kind of story this is going to be. If your exaggeration takes you too far out of the realm you’ve created, it’ll fail. You just need to take your exaggeration far enough.

So, if your story is pretty true-to-life and regular, you don’t want to compare a character’s bedroom to a bomb going off. The voice of your narrator also sets up boundaries for exaggeration. How far you can take overstatements depends on voice.

 

Read the way J.K. Rowling takes her exaggeration just far enough outside the realm of Harry Potter’s world and the realm of her narrator’s voice. The set up is that Harry is eating in the Great Hall next to Ron. Lavender arrives, and they start making out. Then Hermione enters (bold mine).

“Hi, Parvati!” said Hermione, ignoring Ron and Lavender completely. “Are you going to Slughorn’s party tonight?”

“No invite,” said Parvati gloomily. “I’d love to go, though, it sounds like it’s going to be really good…. You’re going, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m meeting Cormac at eight, and we’re-“

There was a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink and Ron surfaced. Hermione acted as though she had not seen or heard anything.
“-we’re going up to the party together.”

Comparing two people pulling apart from kissing to a plunger and blocked sink is totally an overstatement, that, coupled with “Ron surfaced,” made readers laugh.

Want another example of exaggeration? Here is a clip from Zoolander.

See how it plays up Ben Stiller’s “look” to be outside the realms of reality?

In the Amazing Spider-man when a thief pulls out a knife, Spider-man fall down and says, “You’ve found my weakness! It’s small knives!” and he start’s acting like he’s terrified. He even asks a hilariously stupid question: “Is that a real knife?” And even funnier is that the thief answers seriously, “Yes, it’s a real knife.” That’s an example of a character using exaggeration. So your characters can exaggerate things for humor too.

 

So you don’t have to blacklist exaggeration.

I also think one reason people have a problem with exaggeration is because it tends to be the go-to humor tactic for beginning writers, who are still learning how to do it and who might not be aware of the other humor tactics available.

The Understatement

The technique I see almost always addressed after people put-down the overstatement is the understatement. The articles I read say, “Hey, don’t use overstatement. It’s bad. Use understatement instead.” They refer to understatement with good reason. It can be easy to do and can have a powerful effect.

The understatement is the opposite of overstatement. Instead of playing up a part of your story, you greatly downplay it.

I’ll give you an example. In Trigun, the protagonist is an outlaw with a $$60 billion bounty on his head, and he’s the best gunman on the planet, partly because, unknown to those around him, he’s not human. He has superior skill, aim, speed, and everything to make him basically unbeatable.

Contrary to his outlaw reputation, he loves kids and plays games with them around town, acting like an idiot in the process. In one episode, he enters a quick draw tournament to earn money to help a family in need. The town’s kids witness him ace each category. Then we hear this dialogue exchange between two of the kids:

Kid: Woah! Vash is in the tournament!
Kid 2: Now he’s cool enough to join our club.

If you’re watching the show, you’re laughing because “Now he’s cool enough to join our club” is a huge understatement, because there is basically no one more skilled–“cooler”–than Vash, so the idea that he wasn’t cool enough to qualify for a children’s club is hilarious.

Source

This humor tactic works like this: You show your audience something or someone extraordinary, then downplay it. You can downplay through dialogue or just through your narration. You can even downplay through description.

Now, just like the overstatement, this one can go wrong too. I’ve seen some understatements that just make me want to facepalm because they are so cheesey or unrealistic. In one book I read in elementary school, there was a character who downplayed every near-death situation by saying, “Piece of cake” afterwards, and even back then, I groaned every time, though if I didn’t fully understand why. The worst part, was that “Piece of cake” was the last line of the novel too. (I almost threw up.)

It didn’t work partly because it was cliche, so the joke fell flat; the other part was that it was downplayed too much. Just like you can exaggerate things too much outside the realm of your novel, you can downplay too much. It can fail the same way, so pay attention to cliches, your type of story, your narrative voice etc.

Context can help that from happening. In the Trigun example, the kids had no clue that Vash was a super humanoid capable of ruling the world, if he wanted, and they’d never seen him shoot his gun before, so the understatement wasn’t stupid coming from them. They meant it genuinely and we understand why.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into Gringott’s, one of their goblin companions gets killed when a dragon breathes fire all over him. Ron says, “That’s unfortunate.” And people laughed because it was an understatement.

Let’s take a second and compare the two tactics we’ve covered so far. They usually work best like this:

Overstatement: set up something ordinary –> exaggerate it
Understatement: set up something extraordinary –> downplay it.

 

A Sense of History and/or Predictability

You’ll usually find this tactic in “buddy stories,” stories that are really about two people and their relationship. They might be partnered police cops. They might be two childhood best friends. Or a whole group of friends. The humor often comes from these people knowing each other so well, or from these people filling their typical, expected roles.

But this doesn’t have to be reserved for buddy stories, or even buddies. Anything that has a sense of history or predictability to it can be funny. Here is an example from The Fault in Our Stars. Watch how the author, John Green, plays with history and predictability. Eventually I was laughing out loud, despite the subject matter not usually being to my taste.

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandths time his depressingly miserable life story–how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects. . .

and later, when Patrick prays at the end of a Support Group Session

“Lord Jesus Christ, we are gathered here in Your heart, literally in Your heart, as cancer survivors.

and later

Augustus Waters turned to me. “Literally,” he said.

“Literally?” I asked.

“We are literally in the heart of Jesus,” he said. “I thought we were in a church basement, but we are literally in the heart of Jesus.”

“Someone should tell Jesus,” I said. “I mean, it’s gotta be dangerous storing children with cancer in your heart.”

“I would tell Him myself,” Augustus said, “but unfortunately I am literally stuck inside of His heart so He won’t be able to hear me.”

The story gets funnier with each mention of Patrick’s condition and Jesus’ heart. It’s building a history. In the first example, we get a sense of predictability from how Hazel gives us the rundown on her Support Group meetings.

A subcategory of this is the “on-going joke.”

On-going Jokes

The humor of the on-going joke comes from an incident building on itself or reoccurring throughout the story. It’s like an inside joke. The concept of being literally in the heart of the savior is like an inside joke of Green’s protagonist. Here are some on-going jokes.

In BBC’s Sherlock, John Watson’s sexual orientation becomes a running joke because everyone keeps assuming he’s gay no matter how many times he tells them he’s straight. People don’t believe him (which adds to the humor). It’s a joke that starts in the first episode and continues through the series, even after he gets married. Here is a compilation of clips on it, though they are way funnier when you are watching them in the context of the episodes.

We get a similar joke with Andy in The Office. Here and there, through the last few seasons of the show, suggestions that Andy is gay keep cropping up. It first crops up when Michael starts a bunch of rumors, one of which is that Andy is gay, but wait, Andy tells the camera crew this is the third time rumors have spread that he’s gay, so we have that “history” humor with it too. From then on, every time anyone questions Andy’s sexuality (including himself), it’s hilarious. However, keep in mind that jokes like these can be considered queerbaiting, but that’s a whole other topic–my point is that whether or not you think they are examples of queerbaiting, they use the ongoing joke method. And I would argue that the humor comes from the ongoing joke and misunderstanding of the situation. After all, I find it equally funny when people think “The Senator” in The Office is straight when he is actually gay.

In the Pink Panther with Steve Martin, all mentions of hamburger become an inside joke. The seed for the joke is planted in this scene where Clouseau can’t pronounce hamburger correctly, which is funny in and of itself, but the two movies refer back to that so it becomes a running joke. Watch this clip of the “seed” which then goes into one occurrence of when the joke it brought up again.

The danger of the run-on joke is that you can overdo it. As one of my friends said, “The thing about sequels is they just keep telling the same jokes that worked in the first movie and they expect them to be funny again.”

To avoid that pitfall, add a new twist to or shift the context of the running joke each time. It should not simply be the same joke retold over and over again. It needs to grow and change somehow. Second, don’t overuse the running joke–it’ll become annoying.

So, for these tactics, provide a sense of history for what you want to be funny. You can set it up in “telling” like John Green does with The Fault in Our Stars. Or it can be something that builds on itself throughout the story, like John Watson’s sexual orientation.

Relatability

In the interview I read with Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, he talked a little about his sense of humor. He says the kind of humor that works for him is relatability. It works for thousands of others too. Most memes are based off relatability humor. The Office plays off relatability too.

When I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I laugh because, yes, I remember being a kid and having to stand around forever while parents talked, even on Halloween when I was waiting to go trick-or-treating.

Relatable humor is what makes movies like the National Lampoons and Marley and Me and Jingle all the Way so funny. We laugh because, obviously a) we’ve been there, but b) the writers captured that moment or situation so well.

Relatable humor is usually paired with exaggeration or overstatement, because exaggerating what is relatable just a little more makes it a whole lot funnier. One of the funniest parts in the Diary of a Wimp Kid movies to me, is when the Heffley family goes to the city pool. The creators of that scene nailed and then exaggerated what it’s like to go through the public locker room, and then swimming in a pool where it’s not only crowded, but band-aids are floating around, children are peeing in it, and you get pushed up against gross strangers.

A subcategory of relatability humor is nostalgia humor. What it was like. How things used to be.

To write relateable humor, you’ve got to pull from your past experiences that are universal and the experiences of your audience. Details matter. Exaggerated details can drive it home.

Presentation

For this one, the humor comes maybe not so much in the events, but in their presentation. Tone and voice come into play here. This tactic also usually has a bit of exaggeration, but not necessarily.

People who love the Lemony Snicket books like them more for the way the narrator presents the story than for the story itself. What I love about Lemony Snicket is that his very writing is what’s the joke. He plays with writing rules and grammar in ways that anyone, even people who aren’t versed in storytelling, can laugh at. Here are a few great lines of how he tells a story:

 

If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf.

 

If an optimist had his left arm chewed off by an alligator, he might say in a pleasant and hopeful voice, “Well this isn’t too bad, I don’t have a left arm anymore but at least nobody will ever ask me if I’m left-handed or right-handed,” but most of us would say something more along the lines of, “Aaaaaa! My arm! My arm!”

 

A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called “The Road Less Traveled”, describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn’t hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is dead.

 

A passport, as I’m sure you know, is a document that one shows to government officials whenever one reaches a border between two countries, so that the official can learn who you are, where you were born, and how you look when photographed unflatteringly.

If you haven’t read any of Lemony Snicket’s works, yes, he writes like this as he’s telling a story. This isn’t like some humorous essay, this is how he writes novels (that aren’t even about him, but other protagonists and antagonists)

It’s Lemony Snicket’s voice that people find funny (or extremely annoying, depending on preference). He presents stories in interesting ways with a strong unique voice that can be witty in what is not said and funny in stating the obvious (what is said). (Make note of that little tactic: witty in what is not said and ridiculously obvious in what is said.) But other times he can be wittily wise, and readers have to stop to take in the significance of what he said in such a ridiculous manner.

So you can create a witty voice to tell your story. It can be your protagonist’s voice. The way she sees the world is funny.

But you don’t have to go as “out there” as Lemony Snicket. You can present a scene in a funny tone. Perhaps my favorite chapter in all the Harry Potter books is when Harry drinks Felix Felicis, a potion that makes people lucky. I love how J.K. Rowling switches the tone to account for Harry being under the influence of Felix Felicis. If you have the book, you should go read it. Here is just a sample.

Harry took out the rolled-up sock at the bottom of his trunk and extracted the tiny, gleaming bottle.

“Well, here goes,” said Harry, and he raised the little bottle and took a carefully measured gulp.

. . . Then, slowly but surely, an exhilarating sense of infinite opportunity stole through him; it felt as though he could have done anything . . .

. . . It was when he reached the bottom step that it occurred to him how very pleasant it would be to pass the vegetable patch on his walk to Hagrid’s. It was not strictly on the way, but it seemed clear to Harry that this was a whim on which he should act, so he directed his feet immediately toward the vegetable patch, where he was pleased, but not altogether surprised, to find Professor Slughorn in conversation with Professor Sprout. Harry lurked behind a low stone wall, feeling at peace with the world and listening to their conversation.

. . . Professor Sprout headed off into the gathering darkness in the direction of her greenhouses, and Slughorn directed his steps to the spot where Harry stood, invisible.

Seized with an immediate desire to reveal himself, Harry pulled off the cloak with a flourish.

 

If you are familiar with the tone of the books, and particularly the tone of Harry himself, phrases like, “An exhilarating sense of infinite opportunity stole through him,” “it occurred to him how very pleasant it would be to pass the vegetable patch,” “Harry lurked behind a low stone wall, feeling at peace with the world,” “Seized with an immediate desire to reveal himself,” and even the word “flourish” are hilariously out of character with Harry and the book itself. Not only is the content of the situation itself funny (in that chapter, J.K. Rowling does a good job of building on the humor in several ways), but the tone these phrases create make it funny too.

While affecting the right voice or tone can help you write humorously on a somewhat natural level, there are some tricks of actually writing that can help you present something as funny also:

Emphasis

Sometimes to present something humorous, all you need is the right emphasis.

When I took a drama class in high school, I remember my teacher saying, “Swear words are just there to add emphasis.” I kind of got what he was saying, but I was a bit skeptical. And I wasn’t sure I bought the “just” part. I still don’t. I think swear words do more and mean more than that. But he was right about the emphasis part. Pardon the upcoming French, but you can use swear words for a humorous effect.

Here’s an example from The Fault in Our Stars:

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell.

This sentence is funny on multiple levels, the first is that it has that contrast, that irony. The Support Group was depressing. That’s funny. But John Green adds the emphasis “as hell.” Listen to how the sentence sounds without that part:

The Support Group, of course, was depressing.

Do you hear, feel, how it is lacking that extra punch at the end?

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell.

Swear words have lent themselves to laughs for ages. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people laugh when Ron in Harry Potter says “Bloody hell.” We aren’t laughing at the situation itself; we’re laughing at Ron’s reaction to it, and we’re laughing at Ron’s reaction to it partly because of the emphasis swear words carry.

There is a comedian that I find hilarious, but he swears a ton so I hardly ever listen to him or recommend him, but the whole reason he swears is because it adds emphasis to his jokes. It adds that extra punch that can draw out a few more laughs from his audience.

But what if you have characters who don’t swear? Or what if you’re not into swearing? (I’m not) Or writing children’s books? That’s okay. Remember, it’s the emphasis that counts, and you can get a similar effect by using the right diction or syntax or by using sentence fragments. If you look back at our example sentence, you’ll see there are actually two moments of emphases:

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell.

The “of course,” is a lesser emphasis (see how it also pulls from the “predictability” humor?). There are tricks, places in sentences, that are naturally more stressed than others because of the way we talk. The first and last words in sentences always have potential for emphasis–the last word more so than the first word. In some cases, you can emphasize words or phrases in the middle of the sentence by setting it off in commas or dashes, like John Green did.

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell.

Look at this paragraph again:

I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.

See the stand-in swear word? See how he used commas to create emphasis? See how he made it funnier by ending on “whatever” so that it had the emphasis?

Back in college, when everyone was reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I read a different book called Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. (I definitely recommend it. Even if you are doing the things in it on a intuitive level, reading this book will help you become conscious of it so you can do those things purposely.) Joseph M. Williams’s Style has a whole chapter dedicated to emphasizing word and phrases by altering sentence structure. He can tell you how to end sentences lightly or strongly.

Remember that naughty phrase your English teacher told you not to use, “There are/is/were/was”? Because it doesn’t actually tell us anything? Well, it’s a great tool to push a word you want to a sentence’s end for emphasis. Let’s say that I want to emphasize the word “cows” and in the context of my scene, it’ll add humor (because of the build up before). I could write, “Some cows grazed in the pasture,” but that probably won’t get a laugh out of my reader–there’s no emphasis. It would be better to write, “There were cows.” Also, the simplicity and invisibility of “There were” keeps the whole sentence’s focus (in other words more emphasis) on “cows.” The reader’s attention isn’t being divided between “cows,” “grazed,” and “pasture.”

Passive voice (another naughty thing) can do the same thing. It can move the emphasis onto the word you want. Likewise, it uses boring weak words that won’t detract from the word you want to emphasize.

You can also add emphasis by using sentence fragments.

There were cows. Fat cows.

You can create a similar effect with colons.

There were cows: Fat cows.

But do you feel how the colon has a shorter pause than the period? The period creates more of an emphasis.

If you want to learn more about controlling what you emphasize, check out Style. It’s really geared toward essay writing, but the most of the principles apply to fiction writing too.

Quick Note: Don’t Laugh at Your Own Jokes

One of the things that makes writing humor so hard, is finding the balance between communicating the joke and over-communicating the joke. Usually you just want to make it obvious enough for the reader to get it, but not so obvious that it is painful. That’s like laughing at your own jokes.

I can’t remember which Harry Potter book this comes from or where exactly, but I promise that it comes from one of them, and it goes something like this:

“Do I look stupid?” Uncle Vernon asked, a bit of egg dangling from his mustache.

The joke here is that Uncle Vernon, who is very angry and serious right now, is asking if he looks stupid in a rhetorical sense, but he does literally look stupid because he has egg dangling off his face.

Did every reader catch onto that joke? Probably not. They may have been too focused on what was happening in the scene. But imagine if J.K. Rowling had written it like this:

“Do I look stupid?” Uncle Vernon asked, a bit of egg dangling hilariously from his mustache. Harry thought it was funny.

The moment isn’t as funny anymore. It’s like a laugh track–people use them to indicate to the audience that something is supposed to be funny. But if the moment is funny enough, you don’t need a laugh track. Laugh tracks themselves are funny because it’s like the creators are laughing at their own jokes, so you’ll join in. It’s like “Hey, a bunch of people think this is funny, so I guess it is!”

 

Don’t use laugh tracks in your writing. Don’t laugh at your own jokes (unless of course the fact that you are laughing at your own jokes is the joke, but more on that later).

What makes the original Uncle Vernon line funny is partly that it’s a joke the reader has to pick up on him or herself. What’s not said blatantly is that Uncle Vernon does look stupid, and it’s funny. J.K. Rowling guides the reader, but she doesn’t point fingers at it, asking, “Did you get it? Did you get it?”

 

Fish out of Water (Making the Unusual Normal & the Normal Unusual)

Fish out of Water stories are narratives where a character is thrown into a world or role that they don’t belong in. It can be Giselle from Enchanted going to New York. Or a “normal” character going to a fantastic world, like Harry running into all the odd things in the Wizarding World. It can be a change of roles, like in Freaky Friday. It can be something like Daddy Day Care, where two stereotypical bread-winning dads have to try to run a daycare. They have no clue how to take care of kids. They’re fishes out of water. People love to laugh at fish out of water stories. Here are a few more: The Princess Diaries, Legally Blonde, Third Rock from the Sun.

If your story has a character who travels to a fantastic world, then you can play up the humor by making the unusual what’s normal. In the Wizarding World, it’s normal to have pictures walk out of their frames. The first time Harry’s sees this, he’s shocked. Ron shrugs if off, simply saying, “You can’t expect them to hang around all day.”

Harry Potter also plays with the inverse of this, when wizards and witches have to do things in the Muggle world. They don’t understand how to wear Muggle clothing, so you get wizards wearing dresses, and Mr. Weasley asking what the purpose of a rubber duck is etc.

Here is Hermione trying to explain to witches and wizards what her parents do as dentists (at the starting of the clip).

Elf is one of my favorite movies that uses this type of humor. In case you haven’t seen it, the protagonist, Buddy, was raised by Santa’s elves, and then goes to New York to find his real dad. What’s interesting about Elf is that Buddy is a fish out of water in both the North Pole and New York, and he doesn’t realize it.

In most fish out of water moments, if not all, you’ll be playing with a character’s innocence, their naivety, for humor. Often times these characters will have moments where they take things too literally also.

But your whole story doesn’t have to be structured as a fish out of water story to use this humor. You can create fish out of water humor in almost any story. Just put your character in a place or role they don’t usually belong in.

In The Office, one of the protagonists, Jim, transfers to another branch of Dunder Mifflin, the paper company he works for, (as the new guy to this “world,” he’s a bit like a fish out of water, in the sense that he is inexperienced there.) In his new branch, everyone plays Call of Duty, and he doesn’t. Watch these clips (sorry, couldn’t find a video that had them all together, but each are only a few second long) to see how fish out of water humor is used in a story that isn’t about a fish out of water.

There is another hilarious example of a fish out of water moment, (instead of a whole story) in the movie Lady in the Water. In it, the protagonist, a full-grown man in his forties, has to act like a cute little kid in order to get vital information from a woman. It isn’t a full-blown fish out of water moment, since the protagonist is willingly taking on the role, and he’s not naive, but it works with similar mechanics.

To write this humor, you may just need to sit down and brainstorm about what kind of clashes can happen between “worlds” and roles, and remember, you are playing off a character’s inexperience.

Beating around the Bush (Playing with What’s Not Said)

Remember how earlier I touched on humor that comes from what is not said? Beating around the bush humor does just that. Watch this scene to see a great example of how it’s done. Harry is realizing that he has a crush on his best friend Ron’s little sister, who is dating another guy, Dean Thomas. Ron is both disgusted and annoyed about his little sister dating Dean, and brings it up to Harry, who is afraid of what Ron will do if he learns that Harry likes her.

Another facet coming into play is that Ron likes Hermione, but won’t admit it to anyone, not even himself. What’s funny is what’s not said.

Beating around the bush humor can be great tactic to pair with sexual (or just romantic) tension. Put those two things together and soon everyone is laughing.

You can have the characters talking about what’s not said, like Harry and Ron, or, the narrator of your story can pull it off too.

Here is that Lemony Snicket example again:

A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called “The Road Less Traveled”, describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn’t hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is dead.

What is not said is that Lemony Snicket’s friend, Robert Frost, met some horrific fate on a little road. Sure, it’s implied, but it’s not stated straight out. The long sentence that implies it, followed by the casual conclusion and short sentence structure of “Sure enough, that poet is dead,” creates the joke. The reader fills in the blanks, and then it’s funny.

The trick to pulling off this humor is again, balance. You need to imply the joke strong enough that the reader gets it, but never come out and say it straight out, and you don’t want to over-imply either, that’s like laughing at your own joke.

Here is a tweaked line that I wrote:

Monica’s voluminous, bright red lips greeted them. She had so much blush and foundation and lashes and gloss that her face looked plastic.

Her make-up wasn’t the only part of her that had been touched up.

Here is another example of beating around the bush from James Dashner’s The Maze Runner:

Minho was holding out a couple of pairs of tightly cut underwear, made from a shiny white material. “These bad boys’re what we call Runnie-undies. Keeps you, um, nice and comfy.”

“Nice and comfy?”

“Yeah, you know. Your–”

“Yeah, got it.”

The way the reader delivered these lines in the audio book made me laugh out loud.

 

Stating the Obvious

The opposite of beating around the bush is stating the obvious. In The Office, Kevin sometimes works off this humor. Like I mentioned earlier, Lemony Snicket states the obvious (and yet withholds from directly saying the less obvious). Usually the character who uses this tactic comes off as a bit dimwitted, unless they’re doing it intentionally to be stupid, funny, or sarcastic. However, characters who genuinely state the obvious are almost always funnier.

I really don’t think this tactic needs much explanation. But in order to use it to the best of its abilities, you state something so obvious that no normal person would ever even think of stating it. The idea wouldn’t even cross their mind because it’s such a given. Again, you can either have a character who states the obvious, or your narrator can do it.

 

Over-complication and Over-simplification

You can create humor by having a character over-complicate something. One of the funny, ongoing jokes in The Office, is the party planning committee. It’s a group of employees who are supposed to plan the birthday and holiday parties. Sounds like a simple, normal thing, right? Buy some cake and punch, and you’re good. But throughout the show, there are all of these ridiculous things that happen in the party planning committee–crazy rules and crazy drama. They make the task way more complicated than it needs to be.

Eventually the boss gets tired of the drama and forms a new committee with people who turn out to be even worse at organizing office parties.

You can play it in the opposite direction, by having a character take an overly simplistic approach to a complicated situation.

Miscommunication

Humor can come from a miscommunication. We see this happen all the time when writers play with dramatic irony. I remember one scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry is trying to talk to Cho Chang about Quidditch or something and Cho Chang thinks Harry is asking her out on a date.

I’m sure we’ve all seen similar scenes, where the miscommunication plays with a different context for hilarious effect.

Here is an example of miscommunication (that overlaps with fish out of water humor) from a youtuber.

I also thought the stupidity in the following moment of miscommunication was funny. This comes from The Fault in Our Stars, told by Isaac, who has a rare kind of eye cancer:

“. . . so I went into clinic this morning, and I was telling my surgeon that I’d rather be deaf than blind. And he said, ‘It doesn’t work that way,’ and I was, like, ‘Yeah, I realize it doesn’t work that way; I’m just saying I’d rather be deaf than blind if I had the choice, which I realize I don’t have,’ and he said, ‘Well, the good news is that you won’t be deaf,’ and I was like, ‘Thank you for explaining that my eye cancer isn’t going to make me deaf. I feel so fortunate that an intellectual giant like yourself would deign to operate on me.'”

 

Defying Expectations

Stories like the Tooth Fairy starring The Rock, and Mr. Mom are funny because they defy our expectations. Most people picture the Tooth Fairy to be someone small and feminine, so when you have someone as strong and manly as The Rock for a Tooth Fairy, it’s funny. In his Monster Hunter International books, Larry Correia defied reader’s expectations by making the mythical elves of his fantasy trailer trash. When he brought it up at a writing conference, people laughed. Trigun plays off the same tactic. It’s about a notorious outlaw who is actually a cry baby and a pacifist. It’s funny.

But this tactic can work on a smaller scale, outside of characters even, and into the plot and writing itself.

I recently found an article on writing humor that was actually helpful. In it, the writer talks about how humor is really an exchange of emotions. Your taking the audience’s emotion in one direction and then suddenly pop up and take them somewhere else. In other words, you’re defying expectations.

Remember this Dumbledore quote?

What happened between you and Quirrell is a complete secret, so naturally, the whole school knows.

People laughed at it, because J.K. Rowling is taking us in one direction, one that involves “a complete secret,” and then takes us in the opposite direction, “so naturally, the whole school knows.”

You could also think of it as a set-up and a punch line.

In 9th grade, my teacher had us all read these poems that worked off this same mechanic (I wish for the life of me I could remember the author or titles, because they were hilarious). For several lines the poet sets up a negative situation, and following the beat and rhymes of it, the reader natural anticipates the poem to end on a swear word, but it doesn’t. It ends on something like “stupid” instead, a word that not only pales in vulgarity, but that doesn’t fit the rhyme or beats of the poem at all. These poems left my whole class laughing. Someone thought our teacher had censored them. He hadn’t. That was the effect the poet was trying to create.

So in your story, you can defy expectations your reader already has, like the Tooth Fairy, or you can set-up expectations and then defy them, like J.K. Rowling did. In this kind of tactic, you usually don’t want the punch line to come too far after the set-up. It might make the reader feel cheated. But, you can still get away with dragging it out if your story has the right tone for it.

Thoughts vs. Words

Make what your character thinks different or the direct opposite of what he says. This is usually best when the thought is paired closely with that character’s dialogue.

The Office uses this one regularly, by pulling aside the characters to get their thoughts on a situation, where they behaved differently. Here are two examples that use this technique.

So have your character say one thing, and then near it, have them genuinely think something else.

An alternative to this is having a character that is mentally absent from the conversation at hand. To really make this one work, you’ve got to have a fun humorous voice, otherwise it’ll just be blah. Kuzco in The Emperor’s New Groove has a great voice for it. Watch it in play starting at time stamp 1:15.

Awkward (and Reactionary)

It could just be me, but I feel like the whole Awkward as Humor phenomenon is pretty recent. In this technique it’s the awkwardness that makes us laugh. A lot of the other tactics work off irony or opposition or exaggeration, but this one is achieved by making a situation slightly off. Things just don’t fit quite right.

This kind of humor usually makes us laugh at the characters’ reactions to awkwardness. Sometimes it’s like we are watching the awkward situation unfold and laughing at it (there are good examples of this in The Emperor’s New Groove). Other times it feels like we are in the awkward moment, and that feeling is what makes us laugh. With the latter version, where we ourselves feel like the characters, for some people, it makes them too intensely uncomfortable to be funny. They feel too awkward on behalf of the characters. In fact,  some might not even recognize that it’s supposed to be funny. The empathy they feel is too intense.

This type of humor often works off relatability humor (we laugh because we relate to the awkward moment or feeling), or off beating-around-the-bush humor–what’s not said. Other times it’s just funny because it’s awkward.

 

 

 

 

 

I watched an interview with Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight in The Office. He was talking about the type of humor The Office works off of. He called it “reactionary humor.” Instead of the “punch line” being the funny part, often it’s people’s reactions to it that are funny. That’s one reason why The Office uses awkward humor so well. One way to get funny reactions is to amp up awkwardness.
It’s awkward that the boss, Michael, jokes about slavery in a work meeting, but the part that makes people laugh most is the close up of Stanley’s face after Michael says it.
Here is another awkward moment in The Office, that works off what is not said. Kevin is talking to Oscar (who happens to be gay) about jail.

(I know, again with the gay humor.)

To do awkward humor, you’ve got to make situations a bit off. Play with simple weirdness like in the first example of Michael staring at Ryan. Play with characters’ reactions, like the second example. Or play with what’s not said–the more you play with character’s who don’t want to say what they are really thinking, the more awkward the situation can get. What makes the third example funny is that Oscar is pushing more and more for Kevin to say what is truly offensive–him suggesting that because Oscar is gay, he’d like jail–but Kevin won’t say it.

Michael Scott’s character works a lot off awkward humor. He is always trying to be something and people either one-up him, or indirectly (sometimes innocently) insult him, which makes it awkward. A lot of times he undercuts what he’s trying to be by doing something unintentionally offensive.

A Note on Todd Packer and Gutter Humor

The character Todd Packer in The Office is pretty much only in the show to work off this humor. He’s my least favorite character in the show (thankfully he’s in only a few episodes). I can’t stand him. Packer has all these awful sex jokes that tempt me to turn off the show. I’m personally not into sex jokes, and Packer’s are plenty offensive. I mean, they aren’t even funny. He made me uncomfortable, especially if there were other people in the room watching it with me. I didn’t get why the writers made him so gross.  I didn’t understand why the writers thought they were being funny by writing him in.

It wasn’t until this last year that I realized that Packer isn’t supposed to be funny. That’s the joke. The comedy role that Packer plays in The Office is that he thinks he’s funny when he’s not. And everyone in the office but Michael can’t stand him or his humor. THAT’S what’s funny. Not Packer, but the dynamics he brings into play. Everyone hates him, but he thinks he’s hilarious. He makes the show and employees feel very awkward, which creates more reactionary humor.

Just for fun, blow that up into a bigger context. I don’t know about you, but I know of loads of t.v. shows and movies that proclaim to be funny, but are nothing but obscene sex jokes, that only make me and my friends uncomfortable. And seriously, most of the time, they aren’t even good jokes if you do like that kind of humor. But the writers of those “comedies” were trying hard to be funny, and that’s what they came up with.

Packer. Embodies. That.

The jokes Packer tells aren’t funny, but The Office is. The writers of The Office actually know how to write their kind of humor. They are making fun of Packer.

There were a few season of The Office that totally went downhill, sometime after the writer’s strike, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The jokes started to fall into Packer’s line of humor, and I know people who stopped watching it. People usually resort to Packer’s jokes when they don’t know how else to be funny. Hopefully with this blog post, you will never need to reach for the Todd Packer jokes of the world to be funny again!

And if you do like gutter humor … I’m sorry, but that’s one area of humor I might not be much help with.

Stereotypes

You can use stereotypes to your advantage to be funny. Enchanted is funny because it’s making fun of Disney Princess stereotypes. The Office frequently makes fun of stereotypes too. They use a lot of humor that could be very offensive, only it’s not because when you look beyond the one-liner joke, you realize the writers themselves are making fun of stereotypes, and illustrating the stupidity of them.

With this humor, you play off stereotypes intentionally, and you might need to alert to your audience that what you are doing is intentional. A good way to pull off this humor is too match stereotypes with reality, like Enchanted did in this clip.

Or in The Office, offensive stereotypical jokes are made, but are funny because they are met with reality.

Michael assumes all black people play basketball–it’s a stereotype. It’s met with reality–that Stanley doesn’t play basketball. What’s funny are the reactions and the fact the Michael actually believed that stereotype.

One of the reasons The Office gets away with so many stereotypical jokes is because they have such a diverse cast that, when you look deeper, isn’t actually that stereotypical–not when it comes to race and sexual orientation.

Stupidity Humor

Let’s be honest, some things are funny because they are just plain stupid. Shows like Funniest Home Videos usually works on this technique. I really can’t say much more than that this just works off the fact of people being dumb.
This Youtube Muffin video is just so dumb, it makes me laugh.

See how it also plays with exaggeration?

And of course, this clip from Zoolander.

Or Dumb and Dumber.

See how the Dumb and Dumber one plays with reactionary humor again?

There really isn’t much more to say about his humor. Character often plays into it. It’s like Dory in Finding Nemo, some of the things she says are so dumb, it’s hilarious. You can play with innocence with this humor, and have moments where characters are oblivious. The male models are oblivious to the dangers of playing with gasoline. The characters in Dumb and Dumber are oblivious to how they are effecting their hitch-hiker friend.

Making Humor and Character Coincide

I realize that most of the people reading this probably aren’t familiar with Trigun, but it really is a great example of a story where the humor and character coincide, so I’m going to refer to it.  To create great humor, it should really come from the character–and that doesn’t necessarily mean your character has to be a big joker.

In Trigun, the writer did a great job having each character bring a unique kind of humor to the show. Their characterization brings a certain kind of humor with it. Wolfwood is a priest, who practices priestcraft, earning money for an orphanage, but he’s also a trained gunman, who works for the villain. So the type of humor he brings into the show plays off those traits. The writer pairs up Wolfwood’s religious beliefs with his violent actions to make him say funny things. Vash is a dangerous outlaw, but he puts on a show of being an idiot and a goof-off, partly to cover up his true identity, so all the stupid stuff he does plays off his characterization. Meryl is a high-strung person, but she’s surrounded by “crazies” that create all kinds of disaster. Her dealing with it is funny. That humor comes from characterization. Milly is an innocent and oblivious person, so her type of humor comes from that.

Let’s take it a step further. The characters also play off each other to provide more opportunities for humor.

Vash and Wolfwood are opposites. Vash is an idealist. Wolfwood is a stark realist (ironic, since he’s the priest). So when they are put together, they work off each other to create humor. If they were both idealists, we wouldn’t get that effect.

Vash isn’t proactive and he likes to goof-off. Meryl is high-strung and very proactive. So, when they are together, they work off each other to create humor.

Meryl is very organized and on top of everything, so, when Milly is oblivious, it contrasts with Meryl to create humor.

By making your characters opposites in some way, you create more opportunities for humor.

If you want to take it further, you can look into how your character’s type of humor can play into their character arc too. But honestly, to learn about characters and humor, go read this article that does just that while looking at Guardians of the Galaxy. It talks about all this character and humor stuff I’ve brought up. Unfortunately, it’s written in all caps, but the guy definitely knows what he’s talking about.

In Closing

So this is my little guide to writing humor that I’ve developed so far. And you know what? My writing has gotten a lot funnier since I started this quest, and you know what else? It also got a lot easier to write humor. Obviously you aren’t obligated to do this (and thank you for just reading this), but if you found this article helpful, please consider sharing it with others. I’ve been working on this list for months so I’d appreciate anything like that. Also, frankly, there are other people out there who are just as unhappy with the “how to write humor” sources as I was.
Next time I’m here, my article will be on creating character relationships that are so entertaining, they basically are a character.
September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while on rare occasions critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side. Mostly she hides out in her room and writes.

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