Humor can be hard to master because it’s so subjective, but it’s not an ephemeral mist that can’t be defined. Many methods of adding humor are easy to understand and use. Let’s go over some jokes that are simple to include in character interactions.
1. Odd Juxtaposition
A character compares two or more things that are very different in a way that suggests they are similar or otherwise mixes up their relationship.
Hermione: Now if you two don’t mind, I’m going to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed – or worse, expelled.
~ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
This joke is easy to insert whenever a character happens to be listing something. If you have a grocery list in your story, add something like “common sense” after the milk and eggs. This can be a great way to give your character a little more depth or distinction.
2. Curious Events
A character refers to a previous experience that sounds very odd without clarifying what happened. The audience is left with strange and amusing images in their head.
William: Witness Exhibit A: My 8th Grade science project – a working rain forest. Mike Dexter threw it out a third story window. It rains here no more. Witness Exhibit B: An eye patch I wore for a month after Mike beaned me with a raisin in home ec. My parents took me to a 3D film. I saw no third dimension. And of course, how could I forget the pudding incident? I know no one else has.
~ Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
Don’t go so far afield that the incident seems implausible. It’s no good if a character mentions being on the roof of a cathedral at midnight while juggling candles unless your audience can imagine them doing that. If they are a street performer that might be appropriate, but if they never do wacky things, it would be a stretch.
This technique can also be distracting when used in the wrong place. Keep the joke brief and don’t put it in moments that are critical.
3. Mistaken Perception
A character makes a factual statement about something that they have experienced firsthand, only to be shown that their interpretation was widely off the mark.
Xander: I know we’ve been going straight because I’ve been following the North Star.
Willow: Xander, that’s not the North Star, it’s an airplane.
~ Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bargaining
This joke can also work well for creating tension. In many tense scenes, characters will misinterpret something dangerous as something benign. A moon may turn out to be a space station, or a bunch of round stones may be eggs that are hatching. Often, the wiser friend doesn’t correct the mistaken character until after they get themselves into trouble.
A character makes a self-aware remark that mocks events currently unfolding in the story or that commonly happen in a longer work or series.
(In the Star Trek franchise, the appearance of the Klingon race changes dramatically between The Original Series and The Next Generation. This becomes obvious in Deep Space 9, when the cast travels back in time to an episode in The Original Series.)
Bashir: Those are Klingons?
(Everyone looks at Worf, the Klingon in the group.)
Worf: They are Klingons… and it is a long story.
O’Brien: What happened? Some kind of genetic engineering?
Bashir: A viral mutation?
Worf: We do not discuss it with outsiders.
Because it points out that events are fiction, lampshading is more appropriate for some stories than others. A campy, tongue-in-cheek story can easily incorporate lots of lampshading, while a serious and emotionally intense story might lose impact if it’s used at the wrong time. I recommend using it to brighten scenes that are already low tension.
5. Awkward Self-Correction
A character says something they shouldn’t and instantly realizes their mistake. They try to make up for it by talking longer, but they do a terrible job.
Ichabod Crane: [to the Western Woods Crone] I should like to say that I make no assumptions about your occupation nor your ways, Witch… which… which… which are nothing to me, whatever you are.
~ Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Awkward self-correction is great for upping the tension during high-stakes dialogue. If your character has to impress their boss or must explain what they’re doing in a graveyard late at night, this will build off the conflict you’ve already established.
6. Surprising Positive Reaction
A character accidentally says or does something that is almost certain to make another character angry or suspicious. After appearing upset or skeptical for a moment, the second character reveals that they actually like what the first character said.
(Buffybot is at Parent-Teacher day, trying to pass as Buffy. The teacher is speaking to a crowd of parents.)
Teacher: As parents, you have a responsibility to create the right attitude, to teach your child what school can mean.
(Buffybot raises hand. The teacher looks taken aback at the interruption.)
Teacher: Ms. Summers?
(Buffybot stands and smiles proudly.)
Buffybot: School is where you learn.
(Teacher looks annoyed, then smiles.)
~ Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bargaining
This joke is used to diffuse tension; it can go right after an awkward self-correction. If you have high-stakes dialogue that your character should succeed at, this is a great way to reveal their success.
7. Disproven Opinion
A character expresses a strong opinion and then is immediately proven wrong when something unexpected happens.
Calhoun: That Cy-Bug you brought with you multiplied.
Ralph: No, it died in the taffy swamp, believe me!
(An entire swarm of cy-bugs emerges out of the ground.)
~ Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Often, the opinion demonstrates that the character is overconfident, and they are proven wrong when something bad happens. This combination works well because overconfidence gives a character bad karma, and the unfortunate event both satisfies that karma and raises tension in the story.
8. Literal Interpretation
A character uses figurative language such as an idiom or analogy when explaining something. The listening character responds with a question or statement that demonstrates they interpreted it literally.
Rocket: [Drax’s] people are completely literal. Metaphors are gonna go over his head.
Drax: Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.
~ Guardians of the Galaxy
This joke usually requires a character that hasn’t mastered human communication. It’s great for aliens or robots, but humans with poor social skills can also pull it off. Once you have the right character, you can keep using this joke in various forms to good effect.
9. Pretend Understanding
A character doesn’t know the meaning of one of the words another character has used. Unwilling to admit this, the first character keeps using or interpreting the word incorrectly.
(Ed is running a game of D&D; Eric is one of his players.)
Ed: You see a well-groomed garden. In the middle, on a small hill, you
see a gazebo.
Eric: A gazebo? What color is it?
Ed: … it’s white, Eric.
Eric: I use my sword to detect good on it.
Ed: It’s not good, Eric. It’s a gazebo.
Eric: I call out to it.
Ed: It won’t answer. It’s a gazebo.
Eric: I sheathe my sword and draw my bow and arrows. Does it
respond in any way?
Ed: No, Eric, it’s a gazebo!
Jokes involving a misunderstanding between two characters have a lot to offer, and they can be used again and again for an entire scene. While most misunderstandings have to be carefully set up beforehand, a simple mix-up over the meaning of a word can be used without much effort.
10. Misunderstood Insult
A character insults someone, but the person on the receiving end doesn’t see it that way. They might miss the sarcasm, consider the insult an obvious fact, take it as a compliment, or feel miffed that their nefariousness was understated.
EPA Official: Sir, I’m afraid you’ve gone mad with power.
Russ Cargill: Of course I have. You ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring. No one listens to you!
~ The Simpsons Movie (2007)
This joke is great for campy works with comical villains. It can be done in other stories, but you’ll need a quirky character that will happily flout societal expectations or ignore a sarcastic tone of voice.
Contrary to popular opinion, humor that doesn’t hit its mark isn’t necessarily awkward or embarrassing. The key is to make humorous lines also serve another purpose, such as raising tension or making an important point. If your jokes work with your story instead of taking time away from it, audiences that don’t find them funny will move right along, and those that do will have a great time.
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