My book, Concept to Contract, has a lot of humor in it—or a lot of corny jokes, depending on how you look at it. I was intentional about that because I find that many nonfiction writers are overly serious, and when you’re doing the hard work of writing a book you need to laugh at yourself once in a while. Besides, laughter is a much more pleasant sound than moaning and whimpering.
A great comedian once said, “You can dissect humor the way you do a frog, but it’s a messy business and the patient dies in the process.” At the risk of committing humor-cide, and spilling its guts all over, I want to take a look at what makes writing funny.
Much of humor comes from incongruity. You have to see an incongruous situation, recognize it as such, and then accept the incongruity. Only then can you express the humor of the situation. The reason you have to have a level of acceptance before you can see the humor in a situation is that if you can’t be resigned to it (to some degree), you’ll only be frustrated with the situation, and being frustrated is never funny—at least not to the person that’s frustrated!
But you have no power over a situation until you accept it to some degree. You aren’t compromising or giving up when you accept a situation. Rush Limbaugh makes a lot of jokes about Democrats (“Democrats are very skilled at spending other people’s money”), but he certainly isn’t compromising his political position. And he couldn’t joke about his political opponents if he didn’t accept them as they are, to some degree.
Humor writing has to be very good technically; for example, you can ruin the timing of a joke by being too wordy. You have to have the right build-up to a “punch line” or it can really fall flat. A student of mine had a great example from Dolly Parton: “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb—and I’m also not blonde.” This would be far less funny if she had said, “I’m not dumb, or blonde. So I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes.” Why does the first one work better? Because Dolly holds off her confession that she dyes her hair to the very end.
Well, I think our patient has expired. But maybe we learned a couple of things before he gave up the ghost.
For a more interesting (and much more humorous) look at this subject, check out Writing with Banana Peels by Jim Watkins.