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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode One: Types of Humor

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode One: Types of Humor


Key points: there are many different types of humor. Character humor depends on knowing the characters, and can be used in many different kinds of fiction. Cognitive humor depends on the reader filling in the punchline. Consistent character humor reinforces characterization. Physical humor is very subjective. Non sequiturs need good setup. And maybe a little cold medicine.

[Note: actually Brandon skipped the title in the excitement of the new season...]

[Brandon] Since last time we did the humor episode it was remarkably unfunny, we decided that we would do yet another one. Because we're gluttons for punishment. I don't know.
[Howard] This time, I'm on cold medicine.
[Brandon] Yes, Howard's on cold medicine.
[Dan] For added humor.
[Brandon] And Dan is hopped up on candy sent to me by my...
[Dan] On fancy cheese.
[Brandon] By my agent and cheese things sent to me by my publisher.
[Dan] Thank you, Joshua and Tom.

[Brandon] I wanted to approach doing another humor podcast not because the previous one is bad... I actually liked the previous one, but I think this is a topic which we can speak on at great length and there's just a lot more to explore. What I did for this podcast is I said, "What does Howard do that's funny?"
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Dan] In terms of his web comic.
[Brandon] I thought about Schlock Mercenary and thought, "What are the different types of humor Howard's using?" What we're going to do is, I'm going to throw these types of humor out as I define them. Then the podcasters are going to talk about why that type of humor works and how our listeners can use that type of humor in their fiction. Caveat number one, humor is very subjective. Just keep that in mind, what you find funny, others will not find funny. You just have to work around that when you're writing humor. That's why humor... really good humor pieces tend to shoot for a lot of different types of humor. So you at least find something funny. These are just my random definitions, this is by no means an end-all of all different types of humor that are possible. There are just too many different types. These are just some types of humor that you might be able to use. I am going to start off with the one that I believe Howard uses the most, which is character humor.
[Howard] Oh, good. I like that one.
[Brandon] Character humor. What is it?
[Howard] That's when the characters... something about the way they are making decisions, the way they are approaching the dialogue is inherently funny because of who they are.
[Brandon] Because of who they are. Exactly. This is humor that would not be funny or nearly as funny if you did not know the characters themselves. Since you know them, you laugh. How does it work? How do you do this?
[Howard] You do it... I do it in the same way that I think you do anything that's character-driven. You put the characters and situations that are uncomfortable, where they either have to change or fail or... something. They have to be outside of their comfort zones. Then you see what they do.
[Brandon] But that's...
[Howard] It's the vegetarian starving to death and settles for a ham sandwich.
[Dan] That's always funny.
Brandon] You're using the character humor in different types of... just breaking down characters. One of the reasons why I wanted to use this, by the way, is because it can be used in such diverse types of fiction. Generally, when I'm writing my serious books -- not the Alcatraz books, but the ones where I'm writing epic fantasy, I can use this type of humor when I can't use a lot of the other types of humor because they would break with the scene. But I can still make a character who does something funny. You're... that example you just brought up is actually when a character breaks personality it becomes funny. How do you make it just not seem inconsistent? A vegetarian eating a ham sandwich is inconsistent, and yet it is funny.
[Howard] I picked one that was way out of character.
[Brandon] That would be funny. But I think the funny moment is not eating the sandwich. The funny moment is they're starving, you know they're starving, they find a food bank, they open it up, and all that's in there is a can of Spam. You have that moment of them looking at it. That's the laugh. That's the joke. You can actually cut right there.
[Dan] That kind of humor comes, I think, from the inevitability of it. You have a connection to the character so you know what that character will do in a given situation. You almost don't have to tell the joke, because the reader is able to tell it themselves.

[Howard] That principle you just described right there, where we let the reader tell the joke, that is something that Gary Larson was brilliant at doing. I've heard it called cognitive humor, and that's what I call it myself. That's where you have been given three out of the four pieces to the puzzle, the fourth piece is the punch line. You are required to put that last piece in yourself. A lot of what I try to do is cognitive humor... fundamentally it is cognitive humor. It may be character humor, it may be slapstick, it may be any number of things, but it is still cognitive in nature. Because I think that the joke the reader tells themselves is almost always going to be funnier than the joke I spoonfeed them.
[Dan] Probably true.

[Brandon] But speaking on the same topic, taking a little different tack, sometimes characters are funny because they are consistent. The opposite reason from what we were talking about a little bit earlier.
[Howard] Oh, absolutely.
[Brandon] If you look at Mistborn, I will often make a character funny because they have a little quirk that they always use. Then you can begin to anticipate it. Then when they do it, they let you laugh. Why? Why do we laugh at that?
[Dan] A lot of it is because of that consistency, you are able to build an emotional connection with that character. That's the kind of thing that almost has to work in a long form story because you have to have time to build up a relationship with the character. Whether you love them, whether you hate them, whatever it is, you get to know them well so that that consistency can pay off.

[Howard] In the most recent storyline featuring Schlock, I had Schlock airborne at some point, and falling and asking himself, "Boy, I wonder if this new plasma cannon can take the hit when I land?" Then there's a pause. Because we as readers have seen Schlock use his plasma cannon for flight. Then he does the obvious and he zips away on his plasma cannon. It's funny because it's inevitable. We see it coming, we know he loves to do it, he shouts yeehaw when he does it, and we just enjoy those moments. That kind of humor... some people refer to that is a running gag, or if theey're poohpoohing it a little bit, they say, "Oh, you're just going back to the well. You're just... you've told us this joke before." That's true, but... character humor like that is important not only because it's... it depends on the character you've established, but it also reinforces that character. As you're telling the story, you need to be reinforcing your characters' behaviors. So yeah, I'll go back to the well.

[Brandon] I think that's true. I think that's wonderful because you are characterizing while you're... the best fiction is doing multiple things at the same time, a lot of different things. That's what we look for in fiction density is when you can have a short scene where a character uses dialogue and you laugh, you know that character better, and it moves the plot at the same time. What are the problems, foibles, that people could fall into when using character-based humor? What do you want to stay away from? I think you just mentioned one a few minutes ago, which use you could go back to the well too often, and you could make it not funny by using it too frequently.
[Howard] Characters can end up static.
[Brandon] They can become parodies of themselves.
[Dan] They become stereotypes that are just one-trick-ponies.
[Howard] Also if you... the vegetarian who eats a ham sandwich, who discovers the can of Spam... if you are always putting that character in a situation where they have to violate their principles, it stops being funny because these aren't real principles anymore.
[Brandon] Also, if you're not writing necessarily a humor book, but you're trying to use humor in your more serious fiction, you can undermine a character and undermine your story. You can turn someone who you want to be a dynamic, interesting character into comic relief. This is a real danger when you're making someone very funny. It's a very hard balance to walk. One of my complaints... it's a small complaint, I think Peter Jackson did a wonderful job... one of my small complaints with the Lord of the Rings movies is that Gimli became this.
[Howard] Nobody tosses a dwarf.
[Brandon] Instead of being the dynamic, great character I wanted him to be, he was the butt of jokes. You never really got to see Gimli be Gimli, you got to see Gimli be funny because he wasn't quite as cool as Legolas is really what it turned into. This was a sadness to me, even as I was laughing at it. He had some of the best lines in the movies, yet he -- as a serious character, you can't take him seriously the same way anymore.
[Dan] He just kind of fell apart. The opposite example, I think, is the character of Spiderman, who was always funny, he was always cracking jokes, but that actually strengthened his character, because in a lot of ways, his humor was almost a defense mechanism against all the crap he had to deal with. So it built him rather than broke him down.
[Howard] It was the angsty teenager sarcasms...

[Brandon] Let's do another one. Second one, this is very common outside fiction. It's more common in visual mediums. You use it a lot. It's physical humor. What makes physical humor work? Well, what is it first? Howard, what is physical humor? What do I mean by this?
[Howard] The classic example of physical humor is the pie-in-the-face gag, the pratfall, the Three Stooges poking each other in the eyes. That's physical humor. Part of what is funny about it is that if you watch it and are serious -- are unwilling to laugh at what you're seeing, you have to be horrified. Because that's really dangerous. He just stuck his finger in that man's eye! That's really dangerous. So I think that this is a case where humor is functioning as a defense mechanism because the alternative to laughing at physical humor is just being horrified by it.
[Brandon] This is kind of a weird thing about human psychology. I think we can expand physical humor into a larger topic that I actually put on the list, which is people in disastrous situations, people put through discomfort. When we were talking about this podcast before, Dan said, "Oh, yes, that's The Office." People put in uncomfortable situations, whether it be physical, emotional, mental... whatever... uncomfortable situations. People put through pain, we laugh at. That's interesting if we break it apart because in a lot of ways -- and we've talked about this -- fiction is about people put through pain, people put in difficult, hard situations and us watching them cope with it. What makes the line between you laugh at it and you just see drama in it? What makes it funny?
[Howard] For me, Road Runner and Coyote, the level of physical violence in there, I find hilarious. The Office, I don't find as funny. Because having been in a workplace that was kind of like that a lot of the time, I look at some of that you just feel depressed.
[Brandon] So you're saying the removal from realism is what lets us laugh at it?
[Howard] What lets me laugh at it. I know people who swear by The Office and just think it's the funniest thing in the world.
[Brandon] Well, Dilbert is another kind of example. These poor people. If you really think about it. These poor people. But it's taken to absurd levels and so therefore it's funny.
[Dan] I think that exaggeration is a lot of what makes it funny.
[Brandon] I think we'll come back to exaggeration a lot. I actually had that on my list, but I don't think that's actually the funny part. I think the funny part is exaggeration being applied to all of these. I think a lot of these are exaggerations. So talk about discomfort and exaggerations.
[Dan] I don't know why discomfort is funny. I think of all these types of humor, discomfort is arguably the most subjective one.
[Brandon] Right. I can't watch the movie What about Bob? Famous movie that a lot of people love. I hate it. It's too painful. I never laugh at a single moment in it, I just think... I'm empathizing with the character and I'm thinking, "This poor person is being tormented."
[Dan] Another one like that is Meet the Parents. Which is basically one thing after another, everything is horrible. Some people find that hilarious, and some people don't.
[Brandon] Why do they find it funny?
[Dan] I'm not sure why.
[Brandon] Should we skip this one? You do it in your comic, though, Howard. You will put people in uncomfortable situations and they will... terrible things will happen to them, you will have them... there was one moment where a character we loved is plummeting to his death and he looks down and there's just a moment where he's like, "Wow. Well, this is a terrible situation." And you laugh. The way he makes a quip about it. Why?
[Dan] You milked that guy's death for two or three jokes.
[Howard] I'll be honest with you. I don't how I did that.
[Brandon] That's not very helpful.
[Howard] I looked at it and looked at it and looked at it. I thought this is a dramatic moment and I don't want to undermine it, but I have to find the funny here.
[Dan] I'm going to posit the theory that it might be the reaction to the situation. You can see a guy get punched and kicked in a fight scene and it's very dramatic. It's an action scene. Until he gets kicked in the crotch, and his eyes go wide and he grabs himself in pain and falls over. All of a sudden it's funny because of the reaction to it. The guy plummeting to his death wasn't funny until he said something about it. Then it became funny.
[Brandon] So maybe it's a mix of two other things on my list. One of which is kind of the self-referential. Once you get self-referential, for some reason, we find that funny because it's... um... it might be even more the concept of the non sequitur. Which I think we will talk about next after we pause for a short advertisement.

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Let's talk about non sequiturs, which you use quite a bit, Howard.
[Howard] Monkeys.
[Brandon] Yes. What's a non sequitur?
[Howard] Non sequitur is something that quite literally does not follow in the expected sequence. In that last sentence -- or that last bit of dialogue, monkeys didn't follow. I find non sequitur funnier when the reader can actually draw a connection between the non sequitur and what's really happening. I think it's a form of cognitive humor because when your brain tries to make that connection and can't, the defense mechanism triggers... or the defense mechanism gets interrupted and we just have to laugh. The world stopped making sense.
[Dan] If you want to see that principle in action, go ask a five-year-old to tell a joke. They will tell you a joke that makes no sense at all. The reason is they don't understand non sequitur humor which is how most of adult jokes are. So they think funny means this doesn't make sense. It's because they lack that subtle connection that adults have when they tell jokes.
[Brandon] Yeah, but at the same time, I find that non sequitur humor works very, very well for the audience on writing Alcatraz for. In fact, it works way better than any of the ones we have just mentioned for young kids. That's because if you...
[Dan] That's how they define humor at that age.
[Brandon] That's how they define humor. If you say... if you give them a... in here... how do you do this? There are many different ways to approach it. You have to be much more subtle if you're not writing a humorous sort of thing. But if you're writing just to be funny, you can say, there are three things you need to remember when you do X. The first two are perfectly rational, normal situations, and the third one can be don't forget your underpants or something like that. It's completely unexpected. If you make it just a little bit that it would make sense, they'll laugh. The kids will love it, the adults will love it. It seems to be an all-ages type of humor.
[Howard] Again that... but what you just described. Again that comes back to, it's a non sequitur, but there is that tiny thread of tenuous connection that you can draw. If the reader is forced to make that connection before you explain it, them trying to do it is what makes it funny.
[Brandon] Right. Sometimes you don't even explain it, though. I have often found... I'll be signing a kid's book in the Alcatraz books. I'll say, "There are three things you need to do to write a great book." I'll write, "a pencil, a book, and a penguin you set on fire." The kids laugh and laugh and laugh. Why is that funny? It doesn't follow, it makes no sense. Yet you have to at the same time set it up right. Because otherwise you get the jokes that your kids are telling, Dan, where they make no sense at all. How do you do the setup?
[Howard] I'm concerned that we're going to have Brandon Sanderson fans...
[Dan] I know. This big animal cruelty lawsuit coming down soon...
[Howard] At the zoo, with kerosene.
[Brandon] I think personally what you need to do is you need to set it up so that they don't see it coming.
[Dan] Definitely.
[Brandon] So you blindside them. You blindside them and that's why you want to see... that's why the list version works so well. It's a very obvious one. It's not something you want to do too much, but it's... you're giving a list. This thing makes sense, this thing makes sense. The third one is going to make the most sense. It makes no sense.
[Dan] My brother recently pointed me to an interesting kind of scientific analysis of humor, what humor was and why it worked. They basically broke it down into two principles. The one was set up, and the second was cognitive dissonance. Which is you establish what the norm is, and then you break it. That's... non sequitur is that taken to the extreme. You set something up, and then you break it.
[Brandon] We are going to have to do another podcast sometime where we talk about more funny things that Howard does. I don't think we'll do it next, because I don't want to have next week be the exact same topic. But sometime in the future, we will get back to you, why Howard is funny.
[Howard] I will make sure to have more cold medicine.

[Brandon] All right. This is been Writing Excuses. Do we have a writing prompt?
[Howard] Yes.
[Brandon] All right. Howard?
[Howard] Write something funny using non sequiturs and cold medicine.
[Brandon] All right. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: character humor, cognitive humor, cold medicine, humor, non sequitur, writing excuses
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