Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Nonserious Social Incongruity: Rob's Humor Presentation

by Robison Wells

Last week I said that I'd email out my UVU Book Academy presentation to anyone who missed it. However, as I prepared to do that, I realized that emailing my PowerPoint really wouldn't be terribly helpful, since it didn't include much commentary. So, instead I've decided to just blog it all out. Therefore, I give you my presentation on humor. Note: it's long, because it's condensed from an hour presentation.

First of all, a few caveats: this not to teach you how to be funny. It's to teach you how to be funnier than you are now. I don't pretend to have the secret to how to make an unfunny person funny (though, heaven knows, I wish I did. I would engrave the secret in stone and hand deliver it to the morons who make the Olive Garden commercials.)

The other caveat: this is a presentation about humor, not a humorous presentation. I know that no one likes to read my blogs when I try to be serious--people generally prefer me to be the dancing monkey--but I swear, this is interesting information.

Why Am I Taking a Mechanics Approach?

The first workshop I ever taught about humor was done at the LDStorymakers conference in 2005. In that workshop, I began by presenting a formula for how to tell a joke in a very boring way, and then I erased that and said something poignant and stupid about how focusing on the mechanics of humor destroys the vitality and vibrance of the blah blah blah. It was my Dead Poet's Society moment, where we ripped up what the academics had to say and instead sucked the very marrow out of life. Also: that workshop was absolutely worthless and boring and uninformative and wrong-headed.

The truth is that when I wrote my first book I took the approach of: I'm a funny guy, so if I write down my funniness, the book will be great and everyone will love it. Well, yes, the book was funny. But it's also poorly-written. Many of the jokes are out of place, and many others fall flat. Many are obviously crammed in there despite the fact that they have nothing to do with anything; they're just kind-of funny, so I added them.

While I never took any classes that changed my outlook, I have recently realized something: when I write something funny--I mean really write something funny--I put a lot of work into it. It's not (as I previously thought) a matter of transcribing my natural humor onto the page. Instead, I have gradually and naturally transitioned into looking at the mechanics of humor, and I actively think about them when I write. My ultimate message of this presentation is this: writing humor is as much about skill as it is about natural funniness.

Consequently, we're going to talk about mechanics.

Why Are Things Funny?

A quick (but important) look at the psychology of humor:

For starters, humor is entirely social. We'll talk about this more in a minute, but suffice it to say that humor relies heavily on social context. Things that are funny to me may not necessarily be funny to you.

Next, there are two things necessary for humor: (1) nonserious perception, and (2) incongruity. This is why psychologists define humor as "Nonserious Social Incongruity." (Hilarious, huh?)

Nonserious perception is basically a trigger that tells the reader/viewer/listener that what they are about to read/see/hear is humorous. In joke-telling, this can be done with overt verbal cues: "Did you hear the one about..." or "A guy walks into a bar..." When we hear those things, we immediately know (through social conditioning) that what we are about to hear is a joke.

This gets trickier when you're trying to incorporate humor into a story. Generally, characters in humorous fiction don't tell each other jokes. Instead, they weave their humor into their usual narration or conversations. So, instead of a verbal cue, you have to use something else: in fiction this is generally done via context and characterization. If a character is known for making humorous comments, then, even when the situtation appears serious, the reader will still recognize a wisecrack for what it is.

I don't want to get bogged down in Nonserious Perception too much, because it's a pretty straightforward concept. We'll talk about it more in the coming examples.

The bigger concept in humor is Incongruity. Incongruity is basically a surprise: it is when an idea or image or event is unusual, odd, strange, or in any way incongruous with what the reader was expecting. Put simply, humor is all about surprise.

A quote from Charlie Chaplin about incongruity:
“You take a woman walking down the sidewalk. Show the audience a banana peel in front of her. Everyone knows that she is going to step on the banana and do a pratfall. At the last instant she sees the banana peel, steps over it and falls into a manhole cover that neither she nor the audience knew was there.”

So, look at the elements here: the incongruity comes from the fact that we think we know what is going to happen, but at the last minute it changes. The nonserious perception comes in the form of the banana peel--no serious film would have a hero slip on a banana peel. (Imagine how this scene would be different if the music were intense, the faces serious, and the banana peel was replaced with a patch of ice. We wouldn't be expecting humor anymore.)

The Formula For Humor

It is simply this: Setup + Punchline = Funny. Here are a few examples:

Bill Cosby said: "I am proud to be an American. Because an American can eat anything on the face of this earth as long as he has two pieces of bread.”

The setup is: "I'm proud to be an American." We all know this line so well that it conjures up a thousand patriotic images in our minds. In other words, it sets up the norm. Then we get the punchline (or, in other words, now that we've seen the norm, we get something incongruous to the norm): "Because an American can eat anything on the face of this earth as long as he has two pieces of bread.”

Let's look at another:

Bob Newhart said: “I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down'.”

The setup is "“I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do." He's establishing a norm--he's talking about music preferences, but he's also making a caring statement about politeness and treatment of other people. And then, in the punch line ("And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down') he flips the norm completely on its head. Not only is it incongruous with his previous statement, it's complete opposite of his previous statement.

Here's where socialness comes back in. Like I said, all jokes are social; the reason for that is because for something to be incongruous there has to be a shared idea of what constitutes "normal". In the Bill Cosby joke, if someone were unfamilar with the stereotypical gluttony of Americans, the joke wouldn't be funny. In Newhart's joke, if we didn't have a concept of the stereotypical uneducated redneck, it wouldn't be funny.

(As a sidenote: this is why humor is often difficult in political discourse. Some on the far right think that Jon Stewart isn't funny. Some people on the left think that Ann Coulter isn't funny. It's not that either of these people don't know how to setup a joke and deliver a punchline; it's that the viewers/readers have differing context of what is "normal" and therefore what is incongruous.)

If I can use my first book, On Second Thought, as an example: most LDS people who read it--particularly those in the Intermountain West--find it very funny. But were a Catholic from Florida to read it, or an atheist from England, or a Muslim from Spain, they would hardly laugh at all. The norm established in the book is that of a very Mormon guy in a very Mormon culture. If a reader doesn't understand the norm, then they obviously won't catch the incongruities, and therefore they won't "get" the jokes.

(Incidentally, this is also why "you had to be there" stories aren't as funny to the listener as to the speaker. Likewsie, this explains the adage that a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it.)

The practical application of this sociality can be summed up simply as: know your audience. I recently finished my MBA, during which I was the Editor-in-Chief of the MBA weekly newspaper. The humor that I used in that paper was very different from the humor I use on this blog, or in my books. It was for a different audience, who had a different norm.

How and Why Humor is Used in Writing:

Kurt Vonnegut once said that every sentence in your book had to do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. Brandon Sanderson, misquoting Vonnegut, made a statement that I personally think is much better: "Every sentence must do two things." It should advance plot AND reveal character. Or it must present exposition AND reveal character. Or it should foreshadow AND build suspense. Etc. The point of giving sentences double-duty is that your story will be that much richer and more engaging. And humor is a perfect option for a sentence's second duty. Humor greases the wheels of exposition, gives depth to the narrator, makes the boring interesting.

Here are several examples of the different ways humor can be used in writing. (In the workshop, these were class discussions. But since we're not in class, I'll give a few comments after each one.)

Humor can be used to break tension:

From Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller:

"I went back into the house and saw that Rayner was where I’d left him, lying in a pool of vomit. He was dead, or he was grievously-bodily-harmed, either of which meant at least five years. Ten, with time added on for bad behavior. And this, from my point of view, was bad.
I’ve been to prison, you see. Only three weeks, and only on remand, but when you have to play chess twice a day with a monosyllabic West Ham supporter, who has ‘HATE’ tattooed on one hand, and ‘HATE’ on the other—using a set missing six pawns, all the rooks and two of the bishops—you find yourself cherishing the little things in life. Like not being in prison."

In this example, we have an obviously violent situation presented, which is the initial setup. (The non-serious perception came earlier in the story--the first paragraph of the book sets it up. In the context of this workshop, the non-serious perception comes from the fact that I'm quoting it as an example of humor.)

Here's a list of the incongruities/punchlines. I'm going to hit them all in depth, just to illustrate the principles:

  1. "greivously-bodily-harmed" This is incongruous because it's a surprising bit of wordplay. He takes the legal term of "grievous bodily harm", and then changes it into a verb.

  2. "Ten, with time added on for bad behavior." He sets this joke up with the previous phrase ("which meant at least five years"), which, without him stating it explicitly, brings to mind our existing knowledge of the legal system. The incongruity comes when his criminal sentence gets increased for bad behavior rather than decreased for good behavior. The fact that he so casually implies that bad behavior is a foregone conclusion is also funny (and it also reveals a bit about his character)

  3. "And this, from my point of view, was bad." This is classic humorous understatement. He's possibly killed someone, might be going to jail for ten years, and he sums it up as "bad". Not only that, but the line "from my point of view" is even more incongruous, because it implies that there are others who may not agree with this already understated analysis.

  4. "Monosyllabic West Ham supporter" Although I'm not terribly familiar with this, I understand that calling someone a "West Ham supporter" is similar to being a Raiders fan. This is a perfect example of the social neccesity in writing: the book was published in the UK, written by an Brit. Those who share his norm about West Ham supporters will likely get his joke. Those who don't (i.e. me) probably won't.

  5. "'HATE' tattooed on one hand and 'HATE' on the other" The incongruity there is in the fact that we've all seen these kinds of tattoo in the media, and once he says "HATE tattooed on one hand" we're expecting something else on the other--but, no, this guy is 100% hate.

  6. "You find yourself cherishing the little things in life. Like not being in prison." Again, he uses understatement, as before. Not being in prison is one of the little things in life that ought to be cherished, which is an obvious incongruity.

So, now you see how the game is played. I won't go into as much depth on the following examples, though I will mention a few things.

Humor Can Be Used To Make the Boring Interesting:

From Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss

"A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s and BOOK’s.
"If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don’t bother to go any further. For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker."

The incongruity here is in the gross overstatement of her position, and the exaggerated emotions she expresses. She's talking about punctuation and grammar, yet she uses words like "satanic", "gasp of horror", "quickening of the pulse", and "ghastly." She compares her reaction to a misplaced apostrophe with the stages of bereavement, and concludes with a "righteous urge". All of this makes what would be an otherwise boring paragraph into a hilarious one.

Humor Can Be Used to Reveal Character:

From I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells: [As introduction, they're working in a mortuary, in the process of embalming someone.]
“How’s school?” Margaret asked, peeling off a rubber glove to scratch her head.

“It’s only been a couple of days,” I said. “Not a lot happens in the first week.”

“It’s the first week of junior high, though,” said Margaret, “that’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?”

“You hated junior high,” I told her.

“Everyone hates junior high,” she said, “it’s part of the point. That’s why so many people say that high school was the best time of their lives—they’re comparing it to the three years of hell they just escaped from.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I feel better already.”

The anti-coagulant was almost gone, so Margaret poured in a bright blue conditioner to help get the blood vessels ready for the formaldehyde. “Meet any new friends?”

“Yeah, a whole new school moved into town over the summer, so miraculously I’m not stuck with the same people I’ve known since Kindergarten. And of course they all wanted to make friends with the weird kid. It was pretty sweet.”

“You shouldn’t make fun of yourself like that,” she said.

“Actually I was making fun of you.”

The humor used in this conversation is much more subtle than the previous two examples (where the authors had the primary goal of making the reader laugh). In this conversation, the humor is more realistic, how two people would actually talk. And, despite the fact that the conversation is on the extremely basic small-talk subject of "How was school?", we get a very good peek at both characters.

First, we get the incongruity about how casually they view embalming. Despite the setting, they talk as if nothing is at all unusual. Second, we see the main character's personality--dark, a little jaded, sarcastic. Third, we also see Margaret's personality as a little optimistic, maybe a little encouraging.

Humor Can Be Used to Present Setting:

From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

"Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe.

"The second worst is that of the Azagoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode To A Small Lump of Green Putty I Found In My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

"The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England in the destruction of the planet Earth."

Personally, I think this is one of the more interesting examples because of the way Adams sets up his joke. (In the workshop, someone immediately commented that this was just funny because it was absurd and silly, but I disagree completely. It's funny because Adams knew the mechanics of how to tell a joke.)

The second paragraph is funny for several reasons. It's a bit of a commentary on poetry, but most of the incongruities come in the form of a constant, fast-paced barrage of absurdities. We laugh because it's all completely incongruous, completely foreign and weird.

But the third paragraph is the masterpiece. It's the big punchline, and it gets the biggest laughs. While the second paragraph was a huge punchline, it was also setup for the third paragraph. The reader is thinking "If the second-worst poetry in the universe was so extreme, what must the worst be like?" And then he presents the worst poetry as coming from some woman in England named Paula.

If you want a testimony as to the value of good setup, imagine the third paragraph if the second wasn't there. Would the third be funny at all?

Humor Can Be Used to Set the Tone:

From Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

It is remarkable that a single sentence can do so much. What do we know about the rest of the book, based on these twenty two words?

First, we know that the book is going to be funny. There is the classic joke formula at work here: the setup ("It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune...") and the punchline ("...must be in want of a wife.")

Second, we know that the humor in the book is going to be pointed at society. When she uses "it is a truth universally acknowledged" as setup for a joke, then she must be mocking the society that universally acknowledges such things. When the punchline is presented, we are essentially laughing at everyone who believes such a statement, and Austen has assured us that everyone believes it. Therefore, we know that what we are about to read is a satire.

Humor Can Be Used For Humor's Sake:

From Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort Of History of the United States, by Dave Barry:

"But all of this changed twenty thousand years ago with the construction of the Land Bridge to Asia, which was completed on October 8. Suddenly, the ancestors of the Indians and the Eskimos, clans who called themselves “The Ancestors of the Indians and the Eskimos” had a way to get to North America.
"Still, it was not an easy trek: They had to traverse hundreds of miles of frigid snow-swept wasteland, which was cold and each was permitted to carry only two small pieces of luggage. Eventually they arrived in an area very near what we now know as Kansas, and they saw that it was a place of gently rolling hills and clear flowing streams and abundant fertile earth, and they looked upon this place and said, “Nah.” Because quite frankly they were looking for a little more action, which is how come they ended up on the East Coast. There they formed tribes and spent the next several thousand years thinking up comical and hard-to-spell names for major rivers."

So, obviously it's funny. But here's the question: where's the setup? The jokes start almost immediately (with the statement that the Land Bridge (capitalized) was "constructed").

The setup for this entire book comes from our knowledge of American History textbooks. while he still uses the setup/punchline structure to get our minds leading in a certain direction, he expects us to know the subject matter well enough that he doesn't have to say more than a few words of introduction.

What is the Practical Application of All This?

So, that was very long and I doubt many people got through it all. But I hope it was helpful to those who were interested.

I doubt very much that any humor writer starts writing by pulling out the humor formula and says "Okay, I need a really good setup, and then I need to think of a good punchline." That's not how any of this should be used.

However, I would guess that, whether or not they know the phrase "Nonserious Social Incongruity", they still use the same principles to refine their humor. I remember one humor columnist, Eric Snider, once said that he writes the column first, and then he goes back and makes it funny. I don't think he meant that he goes back to a completely serious article and sprinkles in the jokes. Instead, he means that he refines and revises, crafting each joke carefully.

That's the whole point of all this: when you write something funny, don't simply leave it there. I've noticed (and regular readers probably have, too) a big difference in my blogs between when I just write something quickly, transcribing my natural humor versus when I carefully and skillfully craft something funny. (I'd give you examples, but I'm sure they're fairly obvious.)

Most of all, remember that, just like a talented yet undisciplined writer will likely fail, a funny yet undisciplined humor writer will also fail--probably more so. Being a funny person doesn't translate into being a good humor writer, unless you have the skill to back it up.

So the key takeaways are these:
  • Read and understand the principles I talked about in the examples.

  • Read other humor and analyze it--figure out why it is funny.

  • Go, and do thou likewise.


At 10/06/2009 1:52 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

This was enormous enough that I didn't bother tacking on the tangent about how much I dislike puns. If anyone wants to hear about that, let me know.

(My stance can be summed up fairly well in the fifth panel of this comic.)

At 10/06/2009 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enormous is right. 13 pages to be exact. I copied and pasted it to my files because, oddly enough, I was lurking outside your Twitter page this morning trying to find a way to ask you for this very presentation. I know last week you offered it to everyone who asked, but I hadn't ever tried writing humor before, at least before yesterday. And from what my poor test reader said, she rather liked it. Now, I haven’t had a chance to read through the thirteen pages of information you have posted, but please be sure, I will study it thoroughly today. I just wanted to thank you for the timely blog. It’s what I needed, when I needed it. Quite freaky, actually.


At 10/06/2009 3:14 PM, Blogger David J. West said...

Great post Rob that was a lot easier to follow than power point, that and I was 5 minutes late to it the first time.

At 10/06/2009 3:32 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

I made it all the way through and I loved it all the way through. This is something I need to work on. Frankly, it's a relief to know that I can. Thank you so much for sharing it.
(And the comic strip--frickin' hilarious!)

At 10/06/2009 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great stuff Rob. The "social context" for Hugh Laurie's THE GUN SELLER, could have come from the Queen's admission that she was, secretely, a West Ham supporter. But I think its because of the club's ties to Hooliganism.

The origins of West Ham's links with organised football-related violence starts in the 1960s with the establishment of The Mile End Mob (named after a particularly tough area of the East End of London).

During the 1970s and 1980s (the main era for organised football-related violence) West Ham gained further notoriety for the levels of hooliganism in their fan base and antagonistic behaviour towards both their own and rival fans, and the police.

The Inter City Firm were one of the first "casuals", so called because they avoided police supervision by not wearing football-related clothing and travelled to away matches on regular "Inter City" trains, rather than on the cheap and more tightly policed "football special" charter trains. The group were an infamous West Ham-aligned gang. As the firm's moniker "inter city" suggests violent activities were not confined to local derbies – the hooligans were content to cause trouble at any game, though nearby teams often bore the brunt.

During the 1990s, and to the present day, sophisticated surveillance and policing coupled with club supported promotions and community action has reduced the level of violence, though the intense rivalry and association with Millwall, Chelsea and other major players in the 'firm' scheme remains.

The 2005 film "Green Street" (an allusion to the road on which the Boleyn Ground stands) depicted an American student played by Elijah Wood becoming involved with a fictional firm associated with West Ham, with an emphasis on the rivalry with Millwall. The two teams and their Chairmen moved to distance the clubs from the movie at the time. West Ham hooliganism was again highlighted in film in 2008, with the film based on the life of well known former hooligan Cass Pennant, Cass. Also a gang of armed robbers who supported West Ham were portrayed in the 2008 episode "Are We Not Men?" of the British sitcom The IT Crowd.

At 10/06/2009 4:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...but then again, it could be even funnier that the Queen was secretely a West Ham supporter while she was also deeply involved with the anit-hooliganism legislation of the 1980s and 1990s and her admission was, well, pretty funny. She was, essentially, admitting her membership in the "Inter City" firm of hooliganism.

Just thought you'd like to know...

At 10/08/2009 3:07 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Whew! Glad I went to the class because this blog is just way too long to read (teasing).

At 10/13/2009 6:18 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

sad missed the class, but loved the post. I always find it amusing that Dan tsks when I tell him how funny you are and says, "Yeah. I used to be the funny one . . . I'm not quite sure what happened." Seriously thanks for the information. Sadly, I am not funny--especially when I try to be.

At 10/16/2009 10:42 PM, Anonymous Susan Corpany said...

Sounds like a great class, Rob. I am working on a humor class to teach here in Hawaii, so your stuff was helpful.

If you want a copy of my Powerpoint let me know.


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