by Jim Foreman
WHAT IS HUMOR AND WHY IS IT FUNNY
What is love?
Well, it's awfully hard to precisely describe the physical sensation of love, but basically it is a mental attitude and process which comes when a person finds himself in a very interesting situation which he anticipates will ultimately result in great pleasure. That anticipation is usually associated with increased blood pressure and respiration. Occasionally love will spring forth almost spontaneously but the greatest satisfaction usually comes after a certain amount of time and stroking, allowing it to develop and grow in intensity. Above all, the greatest pleasure can be found when love happens at the right time and in the right place.
What on earth does love have to do with humor?
Actually, the physical response to both lovemaking and humor are very similar although few people break out in laughter during lovemaking. Conversely, I have always found it to be rather difficult to generate much of an orgasm while laughing about something funny. A person involved in either of these situations finds great pleasure in savoring the moment while it builds to the ultimate climax, which is followed by a period of warmth and good feelings. Although humor and love may be similar in many ways, I've never heard of anyone getting pregnant from a good joke and by the same token, very few people experience heartbreak when a joke dies.
Humor, like love, usually comes from a situation in which a person is not only physically interested but is also mentally involved. Like love, the pleasure of humor can be experienced again and again if it is applied properly. In humor, there is always the right time and the right place for it to happen and should one of those two parameters be missing, there is little chance that the desired response to humor will result.
So what is humor?
Humor is the product of a surprise ending applied to a normal situation, and the more unusual the surprise ending, the more intense will be the humor. Charlie Chaplin best described what was funny. "You take a woman walking down the sidewalk. Show the audience a banana peel in front of her. Everyone knows that she is going to step on the banana peel and do a pratfall. At the last instant, she sees the banana peel, steps over it and falls into an open manhole that neither she nor the audience knew was there." However, there are limitations to both the situation and the surprise.
Take the most successful situation comedies on television, such as the Lucy Show, the Mary Tyler Moore Show and several others in which many people could relate to the situations which were depicted in the program. Although most of the situations were a bit on the ridiculous side, they were totally possible and believable. The humor in those shows was built on the surprise endings to those situations and was usually rather funny.
Any situation has to be believable and one with which the audience can relate. An example of this would be that few people who never played a round of golf would understand or appreciate most jokes about golfing. To a golfer, there is nothing funny about the clothing that they wear, simply because it is the accepted way that most of them dress. However, since the stereotype of plaid pants is so familiar, you will find that cartoonists always draw a golfer dressed like a rodeo clown. Most golfing jokes are based far more on the frustrations involved with the game than on the situation. Frustrations is another area of humor which I will discuss further along.
Not only must the situation be logical and believable, but the same thing applies to the surprise ending or punchline. A golf ball which explodes when it is hit might be funny to a non-golfer but even the worst duffer knows about those trick exploding golf balls which show up from time to time. So to them, it wouldn't be funny, just silly. This isn't to say that something can't be both silly and funny. If both the situation and the surprise ending are equally silly and absurd, the whole result can be funny. In the proper context, even the silliest situation can be rather humorous.
There was a young lady in France,
Now that was funny, or at least most normal people would think so. What makes it funny? It's that silly last line. I can think of at least half a dozen last lines, some of which are downright vulgar. They might all have the proper rhyme and pace; but none of them would come close to being as funny as this one. It's that silly mental picture created by the last line which makes it work.
Most, if not all limericks are based on total nonsense with both the buildup and the punchline being equally as silly. If either portion was allowed to become too serious or logical, the whole joke would go out the window. Silly humor has to be sudden because if it was allowed to last more than a few seconds, the reader would realize just how absurd it was and the moment of humor would be lost. Also, it would be nearly impossible to produce humor from this type of situation if one were to try to write it any other form. If you don't believe me, just try to rewrite this, or any limerick into a narrative form and see if you can make it equally funny.
One of the oldest foundations to play humor against is conflict. I don't mean conflict which leads to blows, but simply mental of situational conflict. It can be man against man, man against machine or even man against some outside influence such as weather, government or society. Humor comes from allowing the man to think that he is about to win and then pull the rug out from under him. Chase someone up a tree and chop off the limb. When he hits the ground, you have what is known as Whiz-bang humor. The old pie-in-the-face or being hit by a flying brick might have been funny stuff back during the depression, but we have to be a bit more sophisticated any more. When you chopped off the limb and let the guy drop, let him fall into water--then throw him a life saver which deflates just as he reaches for it. You can even take the story a bit further. Just as he is about to go down for the third time, his faithful dog leaps into the water and swims to him. Instead of saving him, the dog bites him and swims back to shore with the deflated life saver.
There is just so far that you can take something like this. You can't kill the off the poor soul, just keep him dangling with a little hope that things will get better. If you don't provide that little ray of hope, the audience will feel sorry for him and everyone knows that there is no humor in sorrow.
Frustration is often the basis for its own form of humor but one must be very careful how he handles it. In this form of humor, it is always the person who is a witness to the frustration who will find any humor in it, not the person who is involved. Actually, the witness finds it humorous because it makes him feel superior. This form of humor works only on situations in which a person has knowingly placed himself in the frustrating environment rather than where he is being frustrated by something which he cannot control. A golfer standing knee deep in a water trap wasn't forced to place himself in that position. He could drop the ball on dry land and take a penalty, or he could have avoided the situation completely by staying at home and cutting the lawn. One might say that the golfer is not being degraded but is simply getting what he deserved.
One should avoid any humor which is based on frustrations which are neither self-created nor deserved. Take for instance all of those little moron jokes which were going around several years back. Naturally, it is still possible to find sick individuals who find humor in what has come to be known as cruelty jokes, but they are getting to be fewer in number all the time. This is a type of humor which is far beneath the abilities of most writers and should never be used in order to get a cheap laugh.
Another form of humor is based on pomposity and one which is fair game to everyone. After all, what could be more fun than deflating a pompous ass. These people are human whoopee cushions which need to be sat upon at every opportunity. Most of these people are so self-centered that often, they will save you the trouble of writing a suitable punchline by doing their own verbal pratfalls. I'll never forget the time when Dwight Eisenhower stepped to a microphone and began to move his lips without any sound coming from the public address system. After a couple more attempts to be heard over the speakers, he turned to an assistant at the same instant that the sound man found the right switch to flip and over the speakers came the booming voice of the president, "This son of a bitch doesn't work."
There is an instant vision in the mind's eye of the stereotyped pompous ass. Fortunately for the humor writer, there is a whole range of people who fit into this category. They are most often found under the heading of the rich, powerful, famous, or those who are in a position to control other people. At the head of that long list are the elected politicians, who have been fair and open game for humor writers for thousands of years. The bigger that they are, the bigger target that they present. All that the writer has to type is, "Senator Batson Belfrey stepped to the microphone......," and every reader will instantly be with him. He doesn't have to describe the senator any further nor does he have to set the stage past that one statement. In fact, he is much better off to simply set the idea of the situation and leave the rest up to the reader's mind. Everyone will see an overweight, overdressed, overbearing and a totally obnoxious man in their mind's eye. The reader's instant concept of your subject is far more vivid than anything which you could ever put on paper. They have mentally placed him in the same position as a blindfolded man in front of a firing squad and are waiting in anticipation for you to pull the trigger. From this point, the writer can go in just about any direction which he selects for the punchline.
It isn't that I'm a sexist or chauvinistic when it comes to connecting pomposity with the male gender because many, if not most, females in the same position are on an equally long ego trip. Evidently, it is because chivalry isn't totally dead when it comes to poking humor at them. In today's society, while a woman politician might be just as pompous and obnoxious as her male counterpart, she sill enjoys some shelter from her gender. She will know that she has finally reached total equality when she sees a cartoon of herself in which she is depicted as being at least a hundred pounds overweight, dressed in an ill-fitting plaid suit and smoking a cigar.
Up to this point, we have discussed humor directed at another person or situation. Now we come to another area which always makes good humor. This is self-directed humor in which a person makes himself the butt of the joke. In doing this, one can get away with far more than he would ever have been able to do had he been directing his arrows at another person. In fact, there is almost no limit to what a writer can do when he talking about himself. He can even exceed the bounds of reason if needed. Have you ever noticed that some of the most popular standup comics use this type of humor. A good example was when President Reagan made a joke about his own age. He said something about when Lincoln was nominated for president and added, "That was my first Republican Convention." By joking about his own age, he brought the house down. Had anyone else attempted to use his age to make a joke, it would have come out mean, crude and not the least bit funny.
A short person can get away with making short people jokes where a tall person can't. Remember when Randy Newman, who stands a good six feet tall, recorded a very degrading song called "Short People". It drew the wrath of just about everyone shorter than what is considered to be normal height. Five foot tall Paul Williams could have recorded the same song without evoking a word of protest. Self-directed humor works only when the reader or listener can relate to you. In writing this type of humor, it is necessary to keep reinforcing the reader's identification with you in order to keep the humor going. Think how many times Rodney Dangerfield will say that he gets no respect during one of his routines.
The best way for a writer to test his humor is to write it down and set it aside for a few days. If the humor is still there when he reads it again with a critical and unjaundiced eye, then there is a fairly good chance that it might be funny to some other reader.