Friday, July 10, 2009

How To Write Humor--Using Humor Devices Part III

-John Philipp

In a previous article, we discussed Stealing From The Barry Best (July 3rd) But you don't have to steal the joke itself, you can steal the device, the method used by the writer to achieve a desired effect.

When you read humor you should not only enjoy the joke but observe the devices an author uses to achieve his effect.

Here are some examples of humor devices you may be able to use in some article somewhere. (All examples are by Dave Barry unless otherwise noted)

  • Make up Absurd Holidays: Dave Barry uses this device all the time to exaggerate a point e.g. "Of course, congress will be unavailable as they will be celebrating National Peat Bog Awareness Month."

  • Describe a bad trait of a character, then use a word such as "yet" to indicate you are going to balance this with a good aspect and, instead, describe another bad trait e.g. "(He is) an abrasive mayor who really gets on some people's nerves, yet at the same time strikes other people as a jerk."

  • Describe an experience with an absurd analogy e.g. "As an emotional experience, it ranks right behind having a gallstone operation, without anesthetic, performed in a blizzard on the top of a 100-foot tower erected at the North Pole." Jon Carroll

  • Use a real name to thinly disguise another real name e.g. "…a large organization that, out of respect for its privacy, I will refer to as "The Episcopal Church" (not its real name). Even though The Episcopal Church pretty much runs Utah, it's trying to keep a low profile during the Olympics."

  • Use a descriptor to describe an item and then misuse the same descriptor in a humorous way e.g."…to watch the men's 90-meter ski jump, which gets its name from the fact that a sane person would have to drink a 90-meter-high glass of gin before he would even consider attempting this sport."

  • Play "blame the editor e.g."…who have since become the most famous Canadians in world history, surpassing even (EDITOR: Please insert names of some famous Canadians here)."

Another favorite device of Dave Barry's, for those of you who like word puzzles, is to jumble letters in a proper name of person or place e.g. "The letters in 'Marie-Reine Le Gougne' can be rearranged to spell "An eerie groin legume."

  • Make a purposeful error, then correct it e.g. "How a Bill Becomes a Law-First the bill secretes a substance that it uses to form a cocoon, and then it … No, sorry. That's how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. The way a bill becomes a law is: . . ."

  • Split words into syllables to make up a funny definition e.g. the word aerobics comes from two Greek words: aero, meaning "ability to," and bics, meaning "withstand tremendous boredom."

  • Use the phrase "which, for want of a better term I will call (the obvious)" e.g. "From time to time I receive letters from a certain group of individuals that I will describe, for want of a better term, as 'women'."

Footnotes can also be used as a humor device:
For example, the device I call 'none of your business with a titillating footnote' e.g. "which is truly one of the most fascinating episodes in American history, although it is quite frankly none of your business (1). (Below Barry footnotes: "1) Especially the part about the dwarf goat.")

Then there is always the condescending footnote: "If there's one thing Americans love, it's satire." The footnote reads: "For an example of satire, reread this sentence."

I'll end with one of my Dave Barry favorites. You figure out the device. "There are two major schools of thought on how to pack for traveling. These are known technically as "my school" and "my wife's school."

Now you need some humorous articles on which to try out your new humor observation skills.
John Philipp is a weekly humor columnist for four Marin County, California newspapers and has won numerous humor and memoir writing awards. His humor columns are posted at wisdom (with Phil Frank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes


~Sia McKye~ said...

John, my friend a warm welcome.

I'm enjoying this series of yours. I actually used some in my current WIP in dialog.

Anonymous said...

Or folks could just read Barry. I'd say his position is safe. Hiaasen too. No competition around here.

John Philipp said...

Dave Barry is in a league with few contenders. (The only humorist beside Art Buchwald to ever win a Pultitzer).

Carl Hiaasen is also very good. I f you like his novels, try Tim Dorsey. Even a little more over the top. What is it about Florida that drives people to write humor?

Just as people like different kinds of humor, I find my "what I'd like to read right now" tastes fluctuate. Currently, I'm revisiting Ogden Nash and marveling at his ability to craft the English language into whatever form he needs and make it work.

VA said...

John, you make it look so simple, but seriously, it is anything but. Excellent primer here, for the quick and dirty on humor.

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Vivian.

I didn't mean to imply that it's easy. It's quite hard. A lot of trial and error. But if you know some of the devices and techniques, you know some things to do and then just keep at it until it's funny :)

Kat Sheridan said...

Dear John: Ignore the trolls. As to your query, What is it about Florida that drives people to write humor? It's that one needs to be slightly twisted, (as in bug-sh!t crazy)to move there in the first place. After that, the daily battle with mutant-bugs-and-plants takes its toll, so that the only hope left is to write humor. My nother (a Florida-dweller, which should explain a lot) calls them "beach crazies". She's one to talk. And now I'm about to become one of them. I'm hoping to be bit by the same mutant bug that turned out Barry and Hiaason and Dorsey (all of whom I love!)

And that humor device you used? It's called "the woman's way is always right so you may as well surrender now!" Thanks for sharing great tips, and Sia, an iced espresso would be lovely!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Just so happens, I have iced expresso just for you Kat.

John, what I like about the articles you're doing is taking the information and breaking it down into workable lots. First training the eye with examples and encouraging reading the masters to get the full idea. All good teachers do that.

I'm trying bits of it here and there. At least I have several 'formulas' in this series so it allows me to experiment.

Ken Coffman said...

Good post, John. One of my favorites is saying the most absurd things with a serious tone. Here's an example from Adina's work:

She made a mental note. A naked man should not sit crossed-legged…under any imaginable circumstance.
- Adina Pelle

Anonymous said...

Sia, where can I find parts I and II of this article? This is GREAT STUFF!

Diana Duncan

~Sia McKye~ said...

Di, look in my archives. John's been doing an article each Friday and the first one was June 17th and one on Friday, June 19th and this is the third one on Friday.

He's a wonderful humorist and a good teacher with all the info.

John Philipp said...

Kat, thank you.
BTW, "the woman's way is always right so you may as well surrender now!" is not a humor device, it is a survival technique :)

"At least I have several 'formulas' in this series so it allows me to experiment."
And that's all it is, Sia. Messing around with humor following a few techniques or guidelines.

Ken, "saying the most absurd things with a serious tone" is an excellent device and Adina's quote an excellent example.

VA said...

Re: Florida

The reason it drives people to humor- gravity.
Increased gravity clearly pushes in on the brain creating pulsating waves within the cranium; therefore, activating the humor obligata. Otherwise it wouldn't be so flat.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I'm laughing here. Ken the mental picture and its applications....Y'all are hilarious.

Some great examples. To tell the truth, this series feels like a mini workshop, sans the requirment to turn in written examples or being critiqued. And honestly, I know if I wrote something I wanted a critque on you would do it, John.

John Philipp said...

"humor obligata"

Ooh. I like that.

I'll trade you that for "lazybonectomy."

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Sia.
Be happy to try but I've found editing humor to be a tough job.

~Sia McKye~ said...

John, I think that's true with most editing, imo.

Anonymous said...

Nice lesson. I appreciate your points. it's always nice to detail the witty stuff. Bob Orben, a great humorist and former speechwriter for President Ford, came up with this line, "An honest politician is one when he's bought he stays bought." Look around the political game today and it sure sounds up to date ... and funny.

Harry Covert

John Philipp said...

Good one, Harry.

I read one the other day in the Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin (not from her).

""In Alaska, a liberal is someone who carries a .357 or smaller."

John Philipp said...

Probably true, Sia though I suspect it's sometimes easier to suggest why a paragraph doesn't work than why it isn't funny.

~Sia McKye~ said...

That's all you can do, John, with any editing. Suggest why it doesn't work or ask questions to get them thinking in the right direction. The author has to get it and then put it in their words.

I like the political one liners Harry and John.

~Sia McKye~ said...

John, thank you for this weeks lesson in humor. I'm looking forward to next Friday's lesson. :-)