Many big-name comic writers will tell you that humor is too subjective to be defined, much less taught. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why I wrote this article. Wait, now I remember: because that’s not true.
While no two people will laugh at exactly the same jokes, why one person finds something funny while another does not is pretty simple. This doesn’t mean writing jokes is easy, but it does mean that you can learn how to be funny. And by “learn how,” I don’t mean “keep trying and eventually your subconscious will make the magic happen.” I mean you can actually understand how humor works and use that to get better, though as with any skill, practice is essential.
As we go, I’ll use many examples from the comic I write, Once Upon a Trope. This is because I can legally steal from myself, not because I am some god of mirth.
What Makes Things Funny
If you’re a storyteller, the formula for humor may look pretty familiar: it’s just like a twist or reveal. To be funny, this twist must meet three requirements.
The Audience Must Be Surprised
The first rule of humor is that you have to surprise people. This means they should expect something different than what you deliver. If someone spoils the punchline or people just see it coming, it probably won’t be funny.
When I think of a concept for a comic strip, the first thing I do is look for ways I can twist it to create a surprise. That surprise is my punchline. Then I try to preserve that surprise in several ways:
- Being careful with titles, taglines, and any other marketing copy. For instance, I’ll use generic titles like “Heroic Tactics” or “Urban Fantasy City.” I wish they were more specific, but I have to be careful not to give away the punchline.
- Watching out for jokes that are too old. While I look for story tropes that people are familiar with, I have to be careful about parodying ones that have already been parodied to death. If my punchline is unique enough, it can still work out, but my audience is more likely to see it coming. They might even have seen a comic strip similar to mine before – there are a lot of comics, and I can’t read them all.
- Using misdirection (red herrings). The panels before the punchline are often set up to mislead the audience about what’s going to happen. In the early days, I actually had to tell my illustrator, Bunny, to make character expressions less realistic. Characters have to act as though the last panel will go in a different direction than it does.
For an example of misdirection to create surprise, you can look at the comic Modern Weaponry. (After I mention a comic, I will probably spoil it; this is your only warning.) In it, a couple of urban fantasy heroes wielding swords encounter a vampire with a gun. They flee the scene. I wanted to make readers think they were going to grab guns themselves, so I put some signs for that in the second panel.
This way, it will hopefully be surprising when they choose crossbows from another historical period instead.
The surprise requirement is also why jokes get old so fast. When writing jokes, pay attention to your initial reaction when you first think of a punchline. If you laugh, that’s a great sign. By the time the joke goes out to your audience, you probably won’t find it funny anymore, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.
The Surprise Can’t Evoke Negative Emotions
Humor is incompatible with emotions such as sadness, fear, or anger. This is why a tense twist in a story isn’t funny, and why inserting humor in a tense moment will ruin the mood. So a joke has to avoid evoking negative emotions even when covering dark subjects.
When I started writing Once Upon a Trope, I often used violent punchlines. It was an easy way to generate surprise, and to me, the silly stock archetypes of my comic are just figments of my imagination. As it turns out, other people have trouble laughing while I murder figments of my imagination. So I’ve tried to stay away from that.
When character suffering is essential to the trope I’m covering, Bunny can help smooth it over by drawing it in a light way. The comic Rescue Attempt required someone to be dying, so we decided to show only part of the dying person.
It’s hard to feel sorry for an arm, right? You don’t know that a body is attached to it; maybe it’s just Armie the Arm.
The Surprise Must Fit What Audiences Know
If people are surprised because the punchline is bizarre, it won’t be funny. Like a great reveal in a story, it has to click into place. What you want is a subconscious reaction along the lines of “I should have seen that coming.”
There are a variety of ways to do this:
- Using references people are familiar with. For example, my Star Wars parody comic, Cosmic Balance, naturally has a Star Wars reference.
- Appealing to common audience experiences. In the comic Exciting Interlude, a character has a terrifying nightmare, but once she wakes up, she feels strangely cheated. This is meant to resonate with people who are peeved by stories that present dreams as though they are really happening.
- Foreshadowing the outcome. My misdirection in Modern Weaponry also serves as foreshadowing for the crossbows. Sometimes, when I think it’s necessary, I’ll almost spoil the punchline so it fits better.
For instance, in The Helicopter Problem, my punchline is especially out of the blue. So after the characters start arguing over whether helicopters explode every time, one of them poses a question the punchline can answer.
A punchline doesn’t have to be logical to click into place. Illogical character behavior can make sense because we understand where they’re coming from or because it’s typical behavior for them.
Common Types of Jokes
Now that we know how jokes work in theory, let’s look at different types of jokes to see how they fulfill these requirements. Knowing common joke types can give you a more tangible starting point for writing a joke of your own, regardless of what type of media you’re writing.
Fill In the Blank
These are short jokes that set up a qualification and then surprise the audience with a creative entry that they can nonetheless relate to. If you’ve ever played the game Cards Against Humanity, you’ve seen this type of humor in action. Some well-known quotes also fit this format.
Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.Benjamin Franklin
The above quote may not be funny to you because it’s so well known. However, it almost certainly became well known because it was funny. While “taxes” is the surprising and funny entry, mentioning death is also important for misdirecting the reader. In fact, these jokes are often lists with one last creative addition.
Below is a 2015 quote that became popular because it’s surprising but also clicked in place for many people.
God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dudeSarah Hagi
The word “confidence” comes first, setting readers up to expect something different than “mediocre white dude.” But it resonated with many readers and offered some great commentary.
Let’s look at another one from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In it, Arthur Dent has just boarded an alien spacecraft for the first time and been brought to a resting place of dubious quality.
Arthur prodded the mattress nervously and then sat on it himself: in fact he had very little to be nervous about, because all mattresses grown in the swamps of Sqornshellous Zeta are very thoroughly killed and dried before being put to service. Very few have ever come to life again.
The reason why Arthur doesn’t need to be nervous is not what readers expect, but since Arthur is on board a strange alien ship, anything is possible.
A subversive joke uses common conventions, such as tropes and idioms, to set expectations before deviating from them. I do this a lot on Once Upon a Trope, since as the name indicates, the comic is about story tropes.
In particular, I look for tropes that don’t make sense on some level. In these cases, the only reason the audience expected the conventional ending is because they’re so used to seeing it. The subversive ending might click into place simply because the trope was unrealistic in the first place. It can also give me a source of commentary or give my audience a little catharsis after being frustrated with those tropes, which is a nice bonus.
For instance, here’s the middle panel from Invincible Woman, in which a superhero uses her powers in a different way than is conventional.
It’s a story of war and politics, of magical gemstones and devastating storms, but how does the setting hold up? Only time will tell. And me. Only time and me will tell.
Oren is writing the article, so it’s already obvious that he is going to give his opinion on this. But readers are likely to accept the phrase “only time will tell” at face value for a moment simply because it’s such a common idiom.
You can use similar tactics without calling on common conventions; you just need another form of misdirection. Like the above joke by Oren, you can make a statement only to contradict it or carve out an exception. Many movies and TV shows will have a character say one thing only to be immediately proven wrong. These “proven wrong” jokes don’t work for me very often, though. To be surprising, the audience has to buy into what the character says, but often the character is acting goofy and is obviously wrong. Or maybe I’m just too trope savvy.
Altogether, subversive humor encourages audiences to take conventions less seriously. For this reason, you have to be careful when adding it to a fiction story. Many story conventions are necessary for the story to be engaging, and you don’t want to undermine those.
Puns and Multiple Interpretations
Any language, visual, or general situation that can be interpreted in multiple ways is great fodder for comedy. First, because it’s easy to surprise the audience with an alternate interpretation. A character might misinterpret something the audience understands, or the less obvious interpretation could be revealed as the real one. Second, because as long as the comedic content is carefully tailored to support both versions, the reveal will click into place.
For years I didn’t understand how puns were supposed to be jokes, but they can actually be funny! The problem is that most puns are bad puns. Like any other poorly constructed joke, bad puns aren’t funny, Oren.
So what makes a pun good? Well, first of all, it can’t be a pun. Okay, okay, it has to feel like a natural fit for both interpretations, not like the tortured husk of a language that was once English or Demonic (which we can assume the punner also speaks). If either interpretation feels like a giant contrivance, it probably won’t be funny. I’d say this pun by Oren is pretty good:
Dating a cosmic horror cultist is no picnic, so be prepared to make sacrifices.
A great example of full sentences interpreted multiple ways is the famous Who’s on First routine.
However, you don’t have to get that elaborate. A single line of dialogue interpreted in an unusual way can make a nice joke. Take the below excerpt from Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff. In it, Claire and Dean have just discovered an evil Sleeping Beauty in a room that’s been locked for decades.
[Claire to Dean] “Could you go get me another cup of coffee, please.“
He looked at her like she was out of her mind. “What? Now? What about the woman on the bed?”
“I don’t think she’s going to want one.”
Another form of humor is mixing and matching character traits that people don’t expect to go together. That provides some surprise, but you’ll need to add context that makes the pairing click into place.
In my comic Unlikely Suspect, two people at a crime scene discuss how the culprit is whoever they least suspect. That means it must be the dog. I made this joke because it actually happens in stories, but even so, the contrast of a dog committing crimes still adds some extra humor to the last panel.
However, when making this type of joke, please keep in mind what message you’re sending: that these characteristics don’t belong together. If your joke is about a man dressing in women’s clothes, you’re enforcing gender roles and stigmatizing queer people. Often, the characters featured in these sorts of jokes are stereotyped to increase contrast, and those stereotypes themselves can be hurtful.
But that doesn’t mean these jokes have to be problematic. I’m fine with my comic, because as a rule, dogs don’t grab knives in their mouths and use them to stab people. If some do, I’m okay with stigmatizing those dogs.
Monty Python, a famous comedy troupe, uses lots of contrast humor. For example, take this Ministry of Silly Walks skit.
Besides animals that commit crimes and silly walks, slapstick and potty humor probably also benefit from contrast – within their target audience, anyway. Simply because they are crude, these methods of humor contrast with the typical heroic depictions in most stories. However, this contrast tends to lose its surprise as people age, and many people find slapstick and potty humor unpleasant. Again, if a joke evokes negative emotions, it won’t work.
Taking Your Audience Into Account
If you look around, you’ll find that many comics are written for a niche audience, such as roleplayers or PhD candidates. Many comedians also target a niche audience, and if they don’t, they often develop different jokes for different crowds. In Once Upon a Trope, I’ve occasionally been tempted to make tech jokes, but I’m trying not to do that. There was also that one time I made the mistake of using a trope that has a different meaning in Western media than in anime. I apparently have a lot of anime lovers in my audience, and I’m still hiding from them.
At Mythcreants, we usually instruct writers to broaden their audience where they can, but jokes benefit from a narrow audience. That’s because the shared experiences of these audiences make it much easier to write jokes that will be surprising and make sense to all of them.
For instance, take this hilarious joke from Avengers: Infinity War. The lead-up is that Peter Parker walks in on an argument between Tony Stark and Dr. Strange. Peter has never met Dr. Strange, so he introduces himself.
Peter: I’m Peter, by the way.
Dr. Strange: Dr. Strange.
Peter: Oh, you’re using your made-up names, umm, I’m Spider-Man then.
Dr. Strange gives Peter a dark look and walks away.
To get this joke, you have to know that most superheroes have an alias but Dr. Strange doesn’t – that’s his real name. When Peter assumes it’s an alias, it’s surprising but also completely understandable.
Similarly, most of the comics I write aren’t funny unless my audience is already familiar with a specific trope. That means they’ve watched who-knows-how-many speculative fiction TV shows and movies.
By sticking to a niche community, you can also use reoccurring jokes and in-jokes… or die. Since punchlines lose power quickly, you might wonder how reoccurring jokes can be funny. The answer is that the reoccurrence provides the “click into place” aspect. The placement of the joke is what provides the surprise. So each instance of the joke crops up unexpectedly but reinforces that you should have seen it coming.
Not everyone will get these jokes, but that’s part of their appeal. Like any meme, reoccurring jokes and in-jokes offer the additional benefit of making the audience feel like members of an exclusive community. Unless they’re Eragon fans on this site, in which case they just get mad at me again.
None of this means that you should be narrowing your audience to write better jokes. If you’re adding a joke to a novel, do the best you can to craft appropriate jokes for the audience you have. That means considering what knowledge the audience needs to get a joke. If you’re writing for a general audience, how universal are the experiences you’re joking about? If you’re writing a middle-grade novel, make sure your jokes have a chance of landing with middle-grade readers and not just adults.
It can be difficult to determine what is funny for your audience and what is only funny for you. I send my comic scripts to Oren and Bunny for approval before they’re drawn. If you recruit a small test audience that’s similar to the people you’re writing for, it will not only help you identify the best jokes, but also make you feel more confident in your work.
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