Want to be funny? Not sure how to explain your sense of humor to others? Here’s an analysis of the basic styles of humor to help. With this information, you’ll be able to decide exactly what kind of joke will work best in your novel, presentation, or dinner with in-laws. Since I’m a writer, this post focuses on using humor in books.
Everyone is familiar with slapstick humor. When you’re a kid and you laugh at another kid who trips on the playground, that’s slapstick humor. When you’re an adult and you laugh at The Three Stooges or the people who fall off of things in America’s Funniest Home Videos, that’s slapstick humor. Slapstick humor is all about people falling down, running into things, getting pied in the face, and generally becoming injured, messy or otherwise encumbered by their situation. Slapstick is very, very easy to write. In your novel, two characters are walking down a road and one falls in the mud. That’s slapstick. In your memoir, you recount the story of how you fell down the stairs in front of your first date. That’s slapstick. Slapstick can be a lot of fun, but it loses its effectiveness very quickly. With most audiences, you will seem less funny the more you use it, but it can be a quick and easy way to get in a laugh here and there.
Effectiveness: High, but rapidly diminishes with overuse.
Conclusion: Fits in most genres when used sparingly.
Body humor encompasses jokes that rely on references to body parts or functions as the source of humor. Sex jokes and fart jokes are the most common types. Fart jokes are often found in children’s cartoons, while sex jokes are usually common in stand-up comedy. And just in case you think body humor is a modern phenomenon, you should know that both were also frequently used by the ancient Greeks and by Shakespeare in various plays. Both are easy to do, but like slapstick, both tend to have diminishing returns. As an additional obstacle, many people find body humor either offensive or annoying. If you use it too often or too obviously, you risk alienating potential readers and finding yourself considered a lower-level talent. However, when applied subtly, body humor can prompt uproarious laughter without causing too much consternation.
Effectiveness: Low to high, depending on audience. Diminishes with overuse.
Conclusion: Use subtly and sparingly.
Ever wonder where the “sit” in “sitcom” comes from? It’s from the word “situational.” Situational comedy is exactly what it sounds like: characters are put into a situation that is funny. The laughs usually come from the characters’ reactions to the situation. (The show Seinfeld uses this style of humor to great effect by having characters display strong emotional reactions to rather trivial situations.) This humor can also be from characters’ reactions to each other. Situational humor is, in my opinion, the most commonly used type of comedy, and though it takes a little more thought, it’s usually easy to employ. Dream up a situation (or choose one from your own life) that is awkward, strange, embarrassing or otherwise funny. Put a character (in nonfiction, the characters are the people who were actually there) into the situation. Write how they react. The beauty of situational humor is that it tends to get funnier the longer it continues. For instance, a character can spend an entire scene trying to have two phone conversations at once, and the confusion between the two strings of dialogue will only get funnier as the scene progresses.
Conclusion: Use often.
Verbal humor includes sarcasm, puns, and joke telling. Verbal humor is tough to employ in writing, as it often relies on tone of voice to carry the humor. However, particularly in nonfiction, a strong narrative voice with a bit of sarcasm or other verbal humor can be used very effectively to draw a reader in and make them chuckle. Comic poets also often make good use of puns to make their writing funny.
Conclusion: If you can make a joke work, go for it, but don’t go too far out of your way to incorporate this style.
Irony is tough to do well, but it can be hilarious. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters don’t, such as in stories where two characters are long-lost twins, happen to be in the same city at the same time, and keep getting mistaken for one another. (Shakespeare liked this plot device.) Other forms of irony include situations or events that are the opposite of what they are purported to be. A scene near the end of the movie Chocolat shows the man who worked feverishly to destroy the protagonist’s chocolate shop devouring chocolate as fast as he can. The irony of the situation is highly entertaining. Humorous irony is often overlooked by readers, but can elicit uproarious laughter from those who get it. Irony often blends into situational humor, but it adds another level, and thus has its own category. Irony also tends to arise naturally from the work being written, and can be difficult to create for its own sake.
Difficulty: Medium to Hard
Effectiveness: Medium to High
Conclusion: If your particular piece of writing involves an ironic situation, you can most likely create humor out of it, but don’t try to infuse irony into situations where it doesn’t belong.
Meta humor is my absolute favorite kind of humor, so I saved it for last. Meta humor is when the story or piece of writing comments on itself. This is sometimes known as “breaking the fourth wall.” This is a difficult style of humor to use, and not everyone will appreciate it, but it can create some of the best laughter. (Yes, I am biased.) The book If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino makes fantastic use of meta humor by placing you, the reader, in the role of protagonist. The book is written entirely in second-person and comments on the reader’s actions as the story progresses. The movie George of the Jungle also uses meta humor in the scenes where the characters and the narrator talk to one another. If you want to use meta humor, have your book or presentation say something about itself, or about books or presentations in general. This style is not appropriate for all genres or all situations, but for those in which it works, it can be a lot of fun.
Effectiveness: Medium to High
Conclusion: Use when it fits.