What Makes Things Funny?

By Jennifer Munro, Sharing the Fire 2016 Workshop Presenter
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I am fascinated by what makes things funny; in particular, I am intrigued when audiences respond to moments in my stories by smiling and sometimes actually laughing out loud. This I take to be a real compliment, which never fails to surprise me. Though I believe humor can enhance almost any story, as a rule, I never set out consciously to include it; however, since my English heritage has left me with a dry, ready wit and an overdeveloped sense of the ridiculous, I just can’t seem to help myself! Having said that, humor is a challenge to write and also difficult to pull off effectively in a live performance. Andrea Martin, who has been heralded as one of the funniest women on Broadway, believes that comedy comes from a commitment to the role. In a recent interview in the New York Times she said, “To go into something thinking, How am I going to get a laugh? is really disastrous in a play.”

I think the same is true of writing and performing a story, which for the sake of this article let us say is made up of a series of connected scenes. Consciously angling for laughs will bring an air of manipulation to your words and will ultimately fail to capture the essence of the scene you are trying to describe. Rather, it is better to approach all scenes with the same serious commitment. One’s job is to render each scene as faithfully and “accurately” as possible. Usually, when I am recalling an incident from my experience, I relive the scene in my mind’s eye: I “see” what people did, the expressions on their faces, and what they said. I play it over repeatedly. Even if I have memory gaps, I still bring the people to mind and imagine the details I’m missing. After all, I’m going for authenticity not factual recall. Then, I simply write what I saw, and if I continue to give each scene the serious attention it deserves, the emotional response from the audience – whether laughter or tears – will be assured.

I have noticed that humorous scenes (or even lines) in my stories tend to have similar structural patterns. Some of these “patterns” correspond to various theories that seek to explain why we laugh at certain things. Today, linguists tend to subscribe to some sort of “incongruity” theory, which postulates that we laugh when there is an inconsistency between what is expected and what actually happens. And I have to say, this is certainly true of many scenes in my stories. I sort of “set up” the audience to expect a certain outcome, but at the last minute, I take them in an entirely different direction, which nearly always elicits laughter. However, I also have scenes where I do the set up and follow through with the anticipated outcome, and it, too, elicits laughter. Joel Warner and Peter McGraw support this finding in their book The Humor Code. They cite an experiment by two professors at the University of Tennessee, which demonstrated that predictable punch lines were rated funnier than the unexpected.

But enough about theories and their application to story! I want to end with an explanation of why I think humor is such an important element in our stories. In his book, Unprofitable Servants: Conferences on Humility, Nivard Kinsella states, “A sense of humor is essentially a sense of perspective . . . Humor is not a matter of laughing at things, but of understanding them. At its highest it is a part of understanding life. It is an ability to see ourselves as we are, and to smile at the comic figure that the biggest of us cuts in strutting across life’s stage.”

From this perspective, then, we can see that humor is a powerful tool that allows our audience to understand more effectively and efficiently the deeper meaning that lies beneath our words. Humor allows the audience to transcend the intellectual bureaucracy of the mind and go straight to the emotional seat of the heart, which understands and forgives the frailty and foibles of human experience. It’s about helping our audience understand something about life, about what it means to be human. Lastly, let us not forget the laughter that is most golden of all when we laugh at our own short-comings. When we do this, our audience will laugh because they will recognize themselves in our words.


Want to learn how to inject more levity into your stories? On Saturday, April 2 at Sharing the Fire 2016, Jennifer Munro will be presenting her hands-on workshop, Humor Is No Laughing Matter. Learn more about Sharing the Fire and register today!

Learn more about Jennifer at https://jenniemunro2015.wordpress.com/about/.

Have humor tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment.


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