As readers may know, I’m not a big listicle guy… except for Saturday Hot Links which is where I tend aggregate the countless types of these items which skitter my way over the course of a week via the web. However I found this particular list to have some potential value for those of us who write comedy: 10 Ways to Make People Laugh.
Hey, what’re you laughing at? Psychologists debate whether humor arises simply from absurdity and incongruity, from a need to relieve tension, or from a desire to feel superior. Academics have identified 41 humor techniques, 10 of which are listed below. See which psychological motives you think are at play in the following examples.
Taking things over the top can make for hilarious absurdity. In “A Night at the Opera,” Groucho Marx’s stateroom was crowded. How crowded? Take a look.
Speeding up or slowing down speech or actions can make them “funny strange” and “funny ha-ha.” Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs, like “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance, set the bar for speed talking. When it comes to slow delivery, pauses are key. Listen to the notoriously stingy Jack Benny’s pause in “Your Money or Your Life.”
In Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, when the horses rear up and whinny the first time the forbidding Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) gives her name, it’s ominous. Afterward, however, every time her name is mentioned, no matter how casually, the horses never miss their cue. Repetition makes what was once frightening ludicrous.
The other 7:
How could a writer use this list? A couple of ways:
* If the humor in a scene feels flat, look at what you have at work there and see what type it is. Is that the best type for that scene? What if you think more visually and use slapstick? Or have a character get so wound up they blurt out a malapropism. It’s a way to take humor that isn’t working and trying other approaches to make for better comedy.
* When prepping a scene, the list can serve as a reminder about the variety of ways you can go about injecting humor into the moment. This can be corrective in nature. For example, what if you keep going to the well using exaggeration to generate laughs? Mix it up by brainstorming some misdirection or a misunderstanding.
* Even at the conceptual level, you can use this list to help spin story ideas. Impersonation leads to misunderstanding? That’s as old as Cyrano de Bergerac and we’ve seen it in movies such as Tootsie and Dave. Repetition leads to exaggeration? How about Groundhog Day?
I’m sure for most who traffic in comedy, it’s an instinctual thing. If it’s working for you, don’t over-think it, just keep doing what you’re doing. However perhaps a bit of reflection and thought about your approach to comedy can broaden your horizons and up your game.
By the way, I did a bit of research and believe I’ve found the academic article featuring the “41 humor techniques” noted in the article above. Go here to see a preview and there is a link where you can download the PDF for $39. But digging deeper, I found this link which, if you’re interested, you may find helpful…
For the MentalFloss article cited above, go here.