100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 17: Humor Writing Tip: Things Go Wrong
The Key to All Things Funny
By Dave Fox
One of my early humor mentors was a guy named Bill Stainton. Bill worked for many years on “Almost Live,” a sketch comedy show like “Saturday Night Live” that was based on local Seattle topics.
Bill described the most basic element of humor this way: “Humor is what happens when something goes wrong.”
I wrestled with this idea and came to a broader definition myself. If you can’t find anything “going wrong” in a funny situation, look for an element of surprise, conflict, or incongruity. That element of surprise is the key to virtually all humor; you lead your audience down a path, then yank them in a direction they aren’t expecting.
If you’re just getting started in comedy writing, one of the best things you can do is reverse engineer funny moments. You can do this with anything that makes you laugh, whether it’s intentional comedy or a random event. What was happening initially, and what then happened that was unexpected? That change in direction might be an accident, an outrageous statement, a disagreement between two characters, anything that changes the flow.
As you grow more adept at spotting these moments and seeing the range of ways they can occur, you’ll strengthen your ability to create them when you write. That’s one of the joys of studying humor. The more you write, the better you’ll get – just like practicing a musical instrument or a sport. But when you’re not up for writing, you can also learn by kicking back and observing, paying attention to the funny things around you. Figure out why you laugh, and you’ll figure out how to make people laugh in other situations too.
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