Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So You Think That's Funny?

Humor makes the world go round. It certainly makes people turn a book's pages. As I started writing fiction, I found that my natural sense of humor was missing from my writing, but now that I am more relaxed and confident in fiction, I'm able to be funny in a story.

In considering this, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of humor. It's a widely drawn conclusion that everything one might consider funny has an element of surprise. Whether it's a clever twist of phrase in satire, a pratfall, a fart joke, or a silly costume, we laugh as a reaction to the unexpected.

But there's another side of humor which I believe is just as important: strength. Humor is a nutrient for the human spirit, and we seek it out and take comfort in it. Humor galvanizes us and lets us face the unbearable in life, and nothing can stamp it out. The Russian poet Evgeny Yevtushenko (pictured) wrote about this in his poem "Babi Yar:"

Tsars, kings, emperors, rulers of the world
Commanded parades, but humor--- humor they could not command...
They wanted to buy humor, but he cannot be bought!
They wanted to kill humor, but humor thumbed his nose.


  1. More than once I've heard the postulate that humor requires someone or something to be aggrieved. "Take my wife -- please!" The "please" is the surprise, but the wife is aggrieved.

    To put it another way, if something is funny, someone--a person, a culture, whatever--is being hurt.

    As Jerry Seinfeld might say, "Have you ever noticed...?" and whatever is being noticed is the thing being made fun of.

    If you think about it hard enough, of course, there are exceptions to the rule. But when I think about humor in such an analytical way, the "nature of humor" that is, I tend to find this suggestion to be more true than not.

  2. I think humor is tough because different people find humor in different things. I recently took a novel writing course and my instructor loved the tongue-in-cheek humor my main character had. I've had others read it and feel the same way about my MC, yet... some others don't like it at all. Humor is subjective, which makes it tough.

    I try to remind myself that while my husband and I love to watch stand up comedy, we don't always laugh at the same things. Sometimes he's cracking up and I barely smirk. Or vice versa.

  3. Rich, that's a fascinating point. I see what you mean.

    Kelly, yes, absolutely true. But I guess that's a good thing. We're all different. And it makes it particularly rewarding when we do share a joke with someone.

    (Blogger is acting weird. This comment may show up as "Anonymous," but it's Anne talking!)

  4. While some consider humor in writing to be like some spice you sprinkle on the dish as it's cooking (a pinch of joke here, a dash of gag there), I consider it--in my writing--to permeate every molecule of the meal. Humor, to me, is more than a series of "funny" lines, it is a general worldview, a philosophy. It is a philosophy that acknowledges and even embraces the absurdity of life. It is irreverent and skeptical. In my writing, it is working behind the scenes all the time, even when nothing consciously humorous is being said.
    Not to put myself anywhere in the same artistic universe as he, but you can feel the same general spirit in the work of Kurt Vonnegut. He's a comedian 24/7, even when he's not trying to be funny.

    John Guare said something similar about imagination in his great play, "Six Degrees of Separation":

    "The imagination has been so debased that imagination -- being imaginative -- rather than being the lynchpin of our existence now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops[....] The imagination has moved out out the realm of being our link, our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world -- this world we share[....] I believe the imagination is another phrase for what is most uniquely us."