Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Different Kinds of Humor

Sometimes when I'm stumped for a blog post, I stand in front of my bookshelves and open my mind. Inspiration usually hits within a couple minutes. Today's inspiration is twofold: I really need to rearrange the sections to incorporate the twenty-odd books I've stacked horizontally, and most of the books I own are funny. So is most of my DVD collection, for that matter. I don't know why this surprised me, really. I've known for years that humor, especially irony and deadpan wit, will hook me pretty consistently.

So my first thought upon re-realizing that I love funny things was that I'd talk about how to write humor. Then I realized that would require a lot more time and energy than I have to spend today, that I'm not exactly qualified to lay down the law on what's funny, and that I'd probably end up writing about how I write humor and who wants to read about that? Really? There's enough self-aggrandizement on this blog already. But one thing I can talk about is the kinds of humor, and what I've noticed about them when it comes to writing (and reading), so that's what I'm going to do.

First off, there's wordplay. This includes puns, spoonerisms, malapropisms, deliberate Freudian slips, deliberate misquoting, and, for ease of paragraphing, one-liners and other amusing turns of phrase. Wordplay's very common in British humor (Oscar Wilde, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, Terry Pratchett, William Shakespeare), and crops up pretty frequently in geek culture (Big Bang Theory), but it's not limited to those instances. Wordplay's fairly simple, after all. Change a sound or two, identify a homophone, and you're all set. One-liners are a little harder, but again, most people have an ear for the snappy comeback at least sometimes.

I find that puns are best used sparingly, because the novelty of them is a large part of their appeal. Spoonerisms and malapropisms are much the same, though I can't think offhand of a book where they're used in the narration. I've only ever encountered them as characterization—Shakespeare's Constable Dogberry, Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop. Quips are found all over. Urban fantasy is rife with them. So is Wilde. So are romantic comedies, sitcoms, and just about anything with a bitter, snarky narrator.

Non sequitur. Comments (or actions) that, because of their irrelevancy to what precedes them, are funny. Monty Python does this a lot ("And now for something completely different"; "Penguins come from the antarctic." "Burma!"). Rickrolling's a more modern form. Terry Pratchett* writes brilliant, meandering conversations that use non sequitur. Again, this tends to be used infrequently because too much exposure can spoil it.

About equal to puns and non sequitur in terms of usage frequency is slapstick, though I'm going to extend the "violence and schadenfreude as humor" definition to include toilet humor, because they seem to go hand in hand these days. The Three Stooges and Warner Brothers cartoons were my introduction to this sort of humor, but I'm also seeing it in low-brow comedies and cartoons aimed at adults such as Family Guy. Why do I say slapstick should only be used occasionally? The Three Stooges. You laugh the first time Larry takes a pratfall, and maybe you laugh the second time, but by the fifth time he's hit by the same board, it's getting old. Perhaps that's just me, though. Moving on…

Situation comedy. This actually takes some skill, I think, because you've got to create a scenario, or characters, or in the case of, say, Lois McMaster Bujold or Terry Pratchett, an entire world that allows for humorous situations. TV and film sitcoms are so frequent they barely bear mentioning, and they tend to be fairly formulaic too. Book-form sitcoms, on the other hand, tend to be a lot more varied and a lot more drawn out. Bujold spends chapters setting Miles Vorkosigan up, just by having him be himself in the world he lives in. Pratchett will drop hints in the first chapter for something that happens in the climax, and you'll write it off as a simple pun. Tom Holt, another comic fantasy writer, favours characters who are in over their heads from page one, and no matter what they do, they just make things worse for themselves.

And of course, you can have sitcom moments in a non-sitcom text, though you've got to be careful that doing so won't break the reader's engagement. A spy, running for his life, who finds himself working for the enemy by accident? Sure! A spy, hiding as an actor who plays spies? Gimme! A spy who, in the middle of a car chase, has a five-minute phone call with his girlfriend because of a misunderstanding? You'd better have set things up so we know we're in a humorous novel, not a hard-boiled one.

And lastly, we hit my favourite kind of humor: irony. There's something of the schadenfreudic in situational and dramatic irony, when a character expects one thing and we know they're getting another, or when we know something's going to backfire. I love the relationship between what we know, and what the characters know, especially when the writer plays with tropes. And then there's sarcasm, which ties into my one-liner comments above. I'm not going to comment much on irony. I've spent too long blogging today and isn't that ironic, considering this was supposed to be an off-the-cuff post? And I also find it easy to write, and I'm sure this skews my perception of how much effort most people put into writing irony.

Wordplay, slapstick, situational comedy, and irony are the nuts and bolts of humor, but a skilled writer won't use them for humor's sake alone. If you combine them into a nuts-and-bolts salad (yes, I know) or, rather, a nuts-and-bolts salad dressing to sprinkle over the plot salad (okay, okay, fine, I'll stop), then you'll end up with fluffy entertainment or satire or parody or comic relief, all of which are valid and necessary in literature. But if you use too many humorous devices, you run the risk of overdoing things. Of saturating the salad and making it unedible, if you will. (Sorry, I lied. Metaphor finished now.)

What's your favorite kind of humor? Did I miss anything?

* This will probably not be the last time I mention him. Sorry.
** Told you we weren't done with him.
*** I may be misquoting.

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