Humor - Uses, Techniques

(These are the notes I use for my talks on humor in writing)

About Humor:

  • These are the sorts of things people find funny: Death, injury and mutilation, injustice, pain, stupidity, despair, racism, sexism, ethic chauvinism, hate, arrogance,human folly (especially religion, medicine and politics). Belly laugh: savage release of almost unbearable tension.

  • Humor is by nature discontinuous - a long work of humor is a series of funny stories, vignettes and scenes knitted together with a unified plot and a consistent, often contrived, literary style.

The Laughter of Angels and Devils (Kundera) The book of Laughter and Forgetting

The laughter of solidarity (authentic or faux) vs the laughter of chaos and shattered expectations.

Trajectorys of Humor

  • Classic Comedy and literary/genre romance (the touching and idiotic. Struggles of people who love or will love one another).
  • Education (dumb person learns)
  • Picaresque quest (dimwit or roque on a journey of self-discovery).

  • Formal satire (let’s make fun of opera, the romance novel, or art rock)

Uses for humor in writing -

  • building Characters (what do they do that is funny, what do they laugh at)

  • humanizing Heros/Villains

  • making the reader feel comfortable and safe

  • tension release

Techniques for creating humor: (I use examples that occur to me at the time of the talk)

  • Create situations where characters are ignorant or mistaken about facts known to the reader.

  • Unexpected and inappropriate behavior (especially in the respected and authoritative, the august and important.

  • Purposeful misinterpretation (generally by over-literal interpretation)

  • Earnest or technical description of base act.

  • Portraying a ludicrous situation as though it were evocative or poignant

  • Purposeful distortion of a "sacred" myth, story or tradition -- often through being very literal.

  • Portrayal of foolishness that the foolish person does not recognize as foolish

  • Exaggeration.

  • Improper attribution of purpose - characterizing a random, accidental or unanticipated situation as intended, planned, or purposeful

  • Irony, reversed meaning

  • Understatement and/or stating the obvious (often as a revelation)

  • Manipulation of dialects and colorful figures of speech

  • Paradoxical effect: creating a situation in which a character reacts in exactly the opposite way that other characters and, perhaps the reader, expects.

  • Predictable vignettes, moral tales, proverbs or cliches that charters interpret in unexpected ways

  • Celebration of character flaws

  • Note: In a longer work, the writer needs to be aware of the rhythm, the Overall roller coaster effect. The writer should build then release tension through humor in sequence with the laughs getting bigger


1. Situations in which characters are ignorant of or mistaken about facts known to the reader. example: The colonel as author of the infamous note. Rosa thinks that Ev, has written the note
pp. 165, 175.
2. Unexpected and inappropriate behavior - especially in characters with positions of authority. example: The colonel’s demand for a gun pp.25-26
3. Purposeful misinterpertation by over literal interpertation, misplaced concreteness. example, Fanny reacting to the claim that a parrot’s jaw is strong enough to lift a Cadillac. p.252
4. Earnest description of base acts. example: The Samson the Ostrich moves his bowels, p. 113.
5. Portraying a ludicrous situation as though it were poignant. example: p25 It is always annoying to have quiet times with injured pets interrupted by retired drunken Colonels demanding guns.
6. Purposeful distortion of a myth, story, tradition or pop culture artifact. example, Magda’s song for Champy p.24. Downward sloping demand p 116
7. Portrayal of unrecognized foolishness. Example: The Colonel worrying over King Richard pp. 232-233
8. Exaggeration/overstatement. example: The first sight of an ostrich p. 144, Rosa doing something in the kitchen that apparently involved a jackhammer and a set of cymbals
9. Improper attribution of purpose/intent. example Horses like to cover ground...etc:p229
10. Irony, reversed meanings. example: pp. 141-142.
11. Understatement and/or stating the obvious. example: p. 204 “No one would ever characterize sheep as creative creatures.”
12. Manipulation of dialects, slang, and colorful figures of speech. example: Bert’s advise about Ev’s hurt feet. pp.119-120
13. Paradoxical effect. example: darting in front of Pink Cadillacs does work up an appetite
pp 204-205
14. Unexpected juxtapositions. example: Zebulon Pike, Pike’s Peak and the sight of the ostrich.p114..
15. Predictable vignettes that turn out to have an unexpected meaning. Fanny’s rap on parrots and fighting. pp. 146-147
16. Celebrations of character flaws, pettiness p. 236 Sabine enjoys watching disrespectful children sass their domineering mothers. Sabine is glad that Courtney gets her face rubbed in the dirt.
17. Awkward situations - Ev and Rosa at breakfast. p219
18. Arguments Sabine and Rosa, Ev and VJp p40-42, 10-11, 48,49
19. People talking at cross purposes Fanny, Sabine, and VJ pp 146- 147
20. Conversations lacking listening - Sabine and the prison guard. pp44-47
21. People attempting to manipulate one another or follow an agenda. Sabine and Rosa, then Celia , then Felice pp168 - 174

The Overall roller coaster effect build, release in sequence with the laughs getting bigger - Marijuana bonfire in CROSSWINDS, Sabine’s Party in OSTRICH.