The Art of the Unexpected – Humor and Writing

Humor is one of humanity’s unifying experiences. Nothing draws a group of people together like a good joke, laughing actually alters brain chemistry in ways that makes people more friendly, more enthusiastic and less stressed. Even people who are not particularly funny still tend to have one or two good jokes they can share with others to break the ice in new situations or just keep a conversation moving when it’s stalled. But original humor requires a great deal of intelligence and social awareness to pull off and, even then, it’s very subjective, so what leaves one audience in stitches will leave another bored and restless. Any stand-up comedian can attest to this.

Most writers try to have some humor in their works. Getting that humor to land can be very difficult for all the reasons above but when it does the benefits it provides in getting and keeping your audience is immeasurable. Humor isn’t a formula or a set of tricks but instead a fresh perspective combined with penetrating understanding of the world in general and human nature in particular. The two basic keys to good humor tend to be honesty and surprise. The first, honesty, is very simple. You cannot get a laugh if it’s not founded on some truth of the world that your audience recognizes. There’s a lot of nuance to that, cultures and limited perceptions playing a huge part in it, but that’s the core of it.

The harder part is being unexpected. We laugh because our expectations have been violated but not badly violated, or violated in a way that is very harmful. People in stressful situations often say that they laugh because the only other option is to cry, a testament to the fact that the biggest difference between humor and trauma is how deeply the wound cuts. Another way to look at it is the difference between being tickled and rubbed with sandpaper – one causes laughter, another tears.

Unsurprisingly, this means that a failed joke often causes some kind of emotional distress. Anger, sadness and general discomfort are the outcomes of a failed joke, which means using humor in your writing carries a great deal of risk with it. More than just breaking immersion, a bad joke can actually turn audiences against your story if it really rubs them the wrong way. It’s true that you can chalk this up to part of the audience being thin skinned or overly stodgy. But at the same time, it could be that your use of humor didn’t suit the story or audience you were trying to find. These kinds of judgement calls ultimately rest in the hand of the author but, as always, are also things you must be aware of in order to make those calls effectively.

There are three basic ways to violate expectations for humorists. The first is to cross societal bounds, the second to set up non sequiturs, the third is to construct running gags.

Crossing societal bounds is touchy stuff, the kind of humor most likely to cause offense and, naturally, the funniest when done right. The most famous example of this is probably George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV”, although the modern masters of the art are undoubtedly Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle. Beware strong language – Here’s a great example of Bill Burr explaining why there’s always a reason to hit a woman (but you shouldn’t).

So yeah. That kind of humor is potent, potentially destructive stuff. I’d say it’s for advanced users only but, honestly, it’s probably impossible to master that kind of biting social commentary any way other than going out and doing it. But, for the aspiring writer it might be wise to practice this kind of humor a great deal in less permanent venues before immortalizing it in writing. Test it on trusted friends first, then maybe writing groups and, if you have access and can speak in front of people, at comedy clubs. Get really good at judging this kind of thing and exactly where it’s funny for most people because once it’s out there in writing it’s never going away.

Of course, there are many much milder ways to play on societal expectations for humor. Consider the punchline of this gag from Girl Genius. The setup is when General Zog hears Dimo was listening at the door like a great big sneakypants and he says, “Dimo, I am shocked at this behavior!” And the payoff is when we realize he found it shocking because it was smart, not rude. Our understanding of shocking behavior is violated by the general’s. Puns are another great example of a very mild form of humor relying on social norms.

It’s important to note that this kind of humor can fail for reasons other than being offensive. Someone from a culture where listening at doors is normal and accepted, for example, might immediately conclude General Zog was shocked at Dimo’s display of social awareness in knowing when to listen at doors rather than the fact that he did it at all. Humor based on social conventions needs to be placed in a story that will appeal to an audience that will understand those social conventions or it won’t play.

The second kind of humor is the non sequitur. As the phrase implies, this is humor that violates our expectations simply because the punchline does not follow directly from the setup. All absurdist humor follows under this banner, as does a good bit of sketch comedy and improvisational comedy. Fish out of water humor is an interesting blend of non sequitur and societal norm humor as it revolves around people taking actions that make perfect sense to them but no sense to the audience (see Demolition Man’s three seashells gag), or taking actions that make sense to the audience but produce absurd results.

One of my favorite examples of a non sequitur gag is demonstrated in Dr. McNinja on this page and the next.

No explanation is ever given for what happened in that missing third of a page, if you’re wondering. Christopher Hastings is a master of non sequitur humor in addition to great plot based storytelling but cutting out a typical encounter in the middle of a typical adventure story and using that absence to remind us that the Doc is, in fact, a ninja is delightfully absurd. He violates both our expectation to see the Doc manage a cop quickly and easily and our expectation to learn something new about what’s going on at the same time and he does it so skillfully we don’t hold it against him. And we get to see Doc fight the NASAghasts that much faster.

Non sequiturs also have their weaknesses as humor devices. You have to present the audience with something surprising in order for it to really work and that gets harder to do every day. There’s a sequence in The Orville episode “About A Girl” where a Mexican standoff turns into a dance-off because one of the officers has been tinkering with the holodeck programs. It’s supposed to be funny but it flopped, first because Guardians of the Galaxy already attempted that gag and flubbed it but secondly, and more importantly, because going from Mexican standoff (an exotic and unusual situation) to dance off (not particularly exotic, and still less unusual than a Mexican standoff) is a poor non sequitur joke. The sequence of events started us someplace more in violation of our expectations than where we wound up, which is not funny.

Finally, there is the running gag.

It may seem strange to say that a thing that happens over and over again is a violation of our expectations. But the secret of a running gag is not that it is the same thing over and over again, but that we keep seeing the gag in places where it hasn’t shown up before and doesn’t make sense. The best examples tend to come from long running media or entertainment careers that have the time to really find the best use for these gags, things like the black cat in Trigun or the way Harpo Marx never speaks, in spite of take the roles of many people who would have to be excellent public speakers. Even Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, Doc?” is a running gag of sorts. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine found nearly infinite uses for self-sealing stem bolts, and the accompanying reverse-ratcheting routers. And the Nostalgia Critic’s relationship with the Bat Credit Card is the stuff of legend. But one of the greatest running gags of my childhood has to be the Noodle Incident from Calvin and Hobbes. The less said about that the better.

There tends to be a danger that running gags become overused. They can’t turn up constantly because then they stop being unexpected and funny. But if they’re forgotten completely or only mentioned once or twice then they can’t build up the force of a good running gag. Of course, repeating a gag that is naturally funny, as often happens on Who’s Line is it Anyway? helps make reusing it easier, but even these gags can wear out their welcome. The best part about running gags is that they’re easy to set up and bear little of the risk of other kinds of humor – basically, the only two risks are setting up a running gag that isn’t funny at all or running one to death so that your audience loses interest whenever it comes up instead of laughing. Of course, the opposite side of the less risky coin is that few running gags are exceptionally funny. Typically they just are. People like them but don’t love them.

Humor brings a lot to a work but it’s also important to know what kind of humor best suits what you’re writing. Running gags rarely fit commentaries, for example, while social humor is going to completely miss with younger audiences, who don’t get puns and don’t fully grasp the contexts that make other forms of social humor funny. Learning what humor goes best in what situation is just another part of sorting out how you’ll use it in your writing. Sorting it all out is half the fun – for you, if not your audience. But once it works the payoff will be more than worth it.