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