Okay, that’s not all there is to it. Humor is a craft that can be learned and perfected. With that in mind, let’s look at how a joke is crafted.
How to Write Funny: Set It Up and Pay It Off
The formula is: For any given setup, the payoff is the negation of the setup.
The setup: Babies are inherently cute.
The payoff: That is one ugly baby.
The joke: A woman boards the bus with her infant, and the driver cannot help himself: “That’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” The woman sits down and tells her seatmate the driver insulted her. The seatmate is horrified: “You give him a piece of your mind! Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”
It’s just that simple. And that’s no joke.
The setup: Thor thinks he’s all that.
The payoff: Thor is not all that.
The jokes: This is used to great comedic effect multiple times.
- At the opening when he is preternaturally cheery despite being captured.
- When Mjolnir does not respond to his call.
- When he insists his girlfriend didn’t dump him.
- When he screams in fright while being dragged to meet the Grandmaster.
- When the Grandmaster keeps referring to him as the Lord of Thunder.
- When he sees his opponent in battle is the Hulk, his “friend from work.”
- When he assumes his login is “Strongest Avenger” when it actually is “Bodhi from Point Break.”
In his special Equanimity, comedian Dave Chappelle has a joke about his high-schooler son going to parties. Dave tells his son if the son ever found himself in a situation where his ride was drunk to call Dave.
The setup: Dave is a responsible parent.
The payoff: Dave is not a responsible parent.
The joke: Inevitably, the son calls from a party, and Dave is upset: “Do you know what time it is? It’s 1 AM! I’m drunk!” Dave tacks on two more payoffs to extend the laugh:
- Dave decides to drive his son anyway.
- When Dave gets the address, he realizes they’re at the same party.
In extending the joke, Dave uses both shock (driving drunk to stop drunk driving) and the unexpected (Dave is also out partying that weekend).
6 Types of Humor You Can Use in Your Writing
1. Stakes and Identification
In the early 2000s, Ashton Kutcher developed a show called Harassment, with the premise of doing shocking things to regular people. The pilot featured an ordinary couple who returned to their hotel room only to discover a dead body surrounded by a pool of blood. “Security” arrived and refused to let them leave the room.
One $10 million lawsuit and countless therapy visits later, Kutcher retooled the show as Punk’d. This time, it was a hit, and the only difference was that it lowered the stakes (the higher the stakes, the less humor).
Finding a dead body in your room and facing prison… the stakes do not get much higher. Punk’d lowered the stakes. One prank featured a jealous man who took a baseball bat to a replica of a star’s new car. It’s okay to laugh at the star’s anguish and confusion because we know the car is fine. This is a technique known as dramatic irony, in which readers know more than a character does about a situation, which transfers our identification to the prankster.
After the initial payoff, another payoff to the same setup is known as a callback. Callbacks are a great way to increase comedic momentum. For this reason, comedians almost always end their sets on a callback. In Ragnarok, Loki’s ecstatic reaction to Hulk stomping Thor is a callback to the climax of The Avengers (which, as you may recall, ends on a callback of its own: #Schwarma).
When an element does not fit expectation, it is incongruous or counter to expectation; we react to this by laughing. The mighty Thor screaming in fright does not line up with our expectations. Nor does Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster meet our expectation of a fearsome character.
Absurdism defies literal explanation, temporal logic, sometimes even physics itself. One of my favorite examples is when the Beatles are tormenting a banker on the train in A Hard Day’s Night. After being in the corridor to his left, a second later they are on his right—-and off the train, banging on his window. Absurdism is truly unexpected, a key element of comedy. The more unexpected the payoff, the bigger the laugh—which is why when Thor is hit in the head by the metal ball, it gets the biggest laugh in the film.
Because of absurdism’s disregard for niceties of plot and logic, it is best used judiciously. Too much absurdity can disrupt plot mechanics and make the piece too frothy. However, a moment or two of absurdity can lift an overly serious work.
Slapstick is a huge component of humor. Wherever characters are falling down or running into walls, slapstick lives. The Three Stooges personify slapstick, as does Thor and Loki when they play “get help.”
Slapstick is the easiest form. One moment your character is walking and talking, and the next they have fallen down a manhole—while the other person continues the conversation. A moment of slapstick instantly changes the tone of any scene.
6. The One Technique All Decent Folk Hate
Black humor is the most vital, life-affirming humor there is—because it is the one that laughs in the face of death, pain, and suffering. For example:
Setup: Danger should be avoided.
Payoff: I want it to be dangerous.
Joke: My Craigslist date stood me up and I was really hoping to get murdered tonight. (Via Twitter user Mr. Bea Arthur.)
If you do not gasp and sputter in shock at that joke, you’re a terrible person, and you need to friend me on Facebook RIGHT NOW.
When we laugh at something scary, it robs its power over us. Four Lions, a film about inept British terrorists, is a great recent example of taking an existential horror and letting us laugh at it by making it ridiculous.
Making Humor Work for You
Effective humor is on-theme humor. Cracking a joke just for a laugh weakens your story.
Humor can act as counterpoint. Since the stakes are generally lower in a subplot, making it humorous is a good way to increase the entertainment value of your work.
Humor can foreshadow in an entertaining and unexpected way. Make your beats do double duty.
Make a story beat surprising by making it a joke. A laugh is a great way to alleviate growing tension without changing the underlying mechanics.
Humor can be used to reveal character. Having characters act in ways diametrically opposed to their words can be effective and funny.
Mastering humor can seem daunting, but it is just a craft, and a craft can be mastered with practice. When your audience laughs, they won’t be wondering how hard you worked on that joke, they’ll be too busy laughing.
Which reminds me of a joke: Why did the writer write? To get to “the end.”
I didn’t say it was a good joke.