Is there a magic formula for writing humour?

the_jokerI have a challenge ahead of me – to write a humourous speech for a  speech contest.

What is humour and how can it be created? Are there some techniques which can be used? How do you write a 7 minute speech that is funny, memorable and gets the audience laughing? I wish I knew the answer to that question or had a magic formula to create laughs.

Humour is like creativity. We recognise good examples of both and can use  techniques for being creative or humorous. In this article I explore some techniques for creating humour – combining dissimilar things, crossing boundaries, maximising, minimising, changing context, finding new uses for things.

Comedy can’t be analysed too much or else you kill the humour with dry analysis. E. B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web and one half of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style) said:

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

There is no magic formula!

Much of the humour lies in the originality and freshness of the incongruities. It is up to you to develop your observation, writing and creative skills.

So how is it possible to craft a humorous speech?

Why is something funny?

Humour means different things to different people. Why is something funny to you? What makes you laugh? It is important to identify your particular style of comedy and develop this style. In the speeches I have given at Toastmasters I base my humour on observing human behaviour in public places and point out the absurdities by exaggeration, for example in my speeches Life on City Rail and Walk on the Wild side.

A few humorous techniques and examples

1. Exaggeration or Minimising. For example Woody Allen said “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

Stuart wrote an article about North Sydney and said “People were more polite getting to the lifeboats of the sinking Titanic than they were leaving the exit gates of North Sydney station this morning”.

2. Combining dissimilar things – juxtaposition. Incongruity.

3. Changing context, often in a daring manner. Different contexts are the basis of metaphors. Stuart writes:

“..a riff on a subject can be a lot of fun… almost a ‘conceit’ to use a term from English poetry. For example “…being married to the same woman is like sucking a peach dry and all you’re left with is the dry empty seed. And all the time there’s new harvests coming out, and fresh young peaches just ready to be enjoyed.”

I heard an excellent humorous speech where the speaker continued the story of Cinderalla in present times bringing in elements of popular culture and politics. The audience knew the Cinderella story and were entertained by his connections to modern times.

Stuart was watching the Lord of the Rings movies and suddenly realised their meaning:

“The ring in Lord of the Rings is actually a wedding ring – for men. Men will do anything to get their hands on one. And, when they do, it only brings them misery. You put it on and it makes you invisible to other women. And, when you’re wearing it, there’s this big evil eye – it’s watching you – it can see whatever it is that you’re doing even though it’s miles away. Married men take off the wedding ring when going to pubs and nightclubs in an attempt to make their wives invisible.”

4. Observation. Paying attention to the world, giving focus to the unusual or absurb then exaggerating, stretching or minimising.

5. Adapting old humour to new situations. Stuart likes to borrow/appropriate gags from other comedians. He uses ideas from Barry Humphries and sometimes Woody Allen. Most of his material is original. He once said to a visiting executive from our USA office (Stuart and I used to work together): “I’ve heard a lot about you… but none it would stand up in court”.

6. Ambiguity and intentional misunderstandings. These are the basis of puns and riddles. Sometimes you can explore triple meanings of words as well as double meanings. “I woke up and shot a leopard in my pyjamas”.

7. Using the rule of three. This is a tried and tested method of setting up a situation (step 1), moving in one direction (step 2), then surprising the audience by an unexpected or bizarre direction (step 3).

8. Schadenfreude – There’s also a bit of comedy to be found in misfortune and misery usually when the speaker is making fun of himself – self-deprecating humour. Making fun of other people’s misfortunes is usually in bad taste – but the Germans have a name for it – Schadenfreude.

So what can you do to now?

Observe – listen carefully – and take notes of what you see or hear. Write down ideas to explore later. Careful listening, and objective observations of the world around you can go a long way to help you be “funny”.

For example, Stuart had watched the opera Aida on DVD with a group of opera-loving friends. Someone offered an explanation of the plot: “There are two women and they’re both in love with the same man. It’s a love triangle”. Stuart replied “Actually it’s a love pyramid”. What a quick thinking response to a story set in the land of the pyramids!Ask yourself questions – What does this remind me of? What are some similar situations but in a different context?  What would happen if I exaggerate this? Minimise it? Reverse it ? Can I give this situation a name or categorise it (one of my techniques I use is to give false category names, e.g. the different type of train travellers).

Think of a humorous caption or explanation of a situation. Once I was on a weekend walk and saw a woman carrying two bags of groceries each contaning what looked like a jumbo pack of toilet rolls. I chuckled to myself as I thought of some explanations for why she needed so many toilet rolls.

Can you see two or more unrelated things in what you are observing. What happens if you combine these? I read a story of how a man was speaking to a group of high school students in the school auditorium. He noticed two signs – Toilets and Seating Capacity 400, then proceeded to joke about the massive “facilities” of the school.

Some of my Toastmasters Speeches

Further reading:

On the Power of Three  – articles

This article has been enriched by the contributions of my comedy mentor and friend, Stuart. Thanks Stu!

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Author: charuzu

I live in Sydney and interests include music, piano playing, technology, cooking, English language, public speaking, Toastmasters, Asian culture (especially Japan and Korea), cinema, personal development, productivity and making friends with people from around the world.

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