Recognizing Successful Humor

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

You know what’s funny to you, but do you recognize successful humor concerning others? It’s more than simple laughter.

Objectively, what is funny?
Forget the theories that dissect our sense of humor. This is not a PhD thesis, and neither is your book, short story, or email to your overly uptight sister who still hasn’t realized that you replaced her Tic-Tacs with Xanax.
No theory will help you write a single humorous line. Instead, focus on the commonalities that, simply as human beings, we all share. When you laugh at something, do other people laugh as well? Assuming that you’re not on the ragged edge of anyone’s bell curve, your answer is likely and honestly, ‘yes’, which means that your sense of humor is shared by others. That’s enough to work with while writing.
If you are on the ragged edge, please don’t jump if beneath you is a blue 2014 Prius with Maryland plates—and I thank you.
What is funny? The correct answer paraphrases the response used by the Supreme Court in Jacobellis v. Ohio to characterize pornography. That is, you’ll know it when you see it.
Recognizing Funny
She said I was her only reason for living. I told her not to worry; I’d send flowers.
Is this funny? According to the audiences that heard this line, yes.
Now, think about your audience (i.e. readers) for a minute. How do they react to a joke? Laughter? Maybe, but that’s not our only response to humor. We actually respond in a variety of ways:
  • Identification (or recognition) – Aha! I know that.
  • Identification with pride – Aha! I figured out the joke.
  • Identification with a groan – Aha! I figured out the joke and wish I hadn’t.
  • A smile – A mild facial display of amusement.
  • A smile with vocalization – A mild facial display with a ‘huh’ (or similar noise).
  • A smile with others – A mild facial display while looking at others to see if they also got or figured out the joke.
  • A chuckle – A person’s mildest laugh.
  • A short laugh – Consider this a mid-range response.
  • A hearty laugh – Longer than short, but with modest body engagement.
  • A belly laugh – Long laughter with full body engagement.
  • A rolling laugh – So forceful that it easily carries over to the next joke, or two, three, four. . .
  • A knockdown laugh – So forceful that a person loses control of motor skills, eyes tear, and here, I will intentionally avoid any comments concerning required changes of undergarments.
Progressions such as this have been described with many variations over the years. The important point is that spotting any one of these reactions indicates that you have been successful with your humorous line or joke.
How is this helpful?
While writing, you can test your humorous lines on those around you. Choose the joke that gives you the best reaction. If your best reaction is simple identification and you recognize this, you will know that you have written a successful line. If you get a belly laugh, you’re very successful. If someone needs new underwear, be a sport, chip in.
Note: I don’t recommend trying more than one line on any one person. You’re looking for a spontaneous reaction, not an opinion.
Lastly, ‘You’ll know it when you see it’ did indeed come from the above mentioned court case, but so did quite a large volume of published and performed humor. Eighty year-old Supreme Court justices reading pornographic magazines and watching stag films at the taxpayers’ expense—that’s just funny!
Next Topic: Humor Writing vs. Joke Writing

Parting Funny: I asked my mother if I was adopted. She said, “Not yet, but we placed an ad.”Dana Snow


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