Now, let’s expand a little.
Relating one thing to another, or one person to another, seems like a very simple formula for humor, and it is. While not the only possibility for humor, the funny relationship is the most prevalent.
Funny relationships actually take numerous forms. The most common are:
- Relating a thing to a thing – Examples: a cat to a dog; a car seat to a lounge chair
- Relating a person to a thing – Examples: the previously mentioned old classic — a walking man and a banana peel; guys and cars; women and lingerie
- Relating a person to a situation – Examples: a person fired from their job; an argument; an accident
- Relating a person to an attribute – Examples: habits; gender-related traits such as wearing makeup (primarily female), or living on pizza and beer (primarily single males); negative qualities (greed, stinginess, jealousy, etc.); and of course, bodily functions
- Relating a person to a person – Examples: any male-female difference; young and old; Democrat and Republican; parent and child
The humor in funny relationships arises from the familiarity of the relationship itself. Recognition of this familiarity is always followed by a twist in the tale.
Normal and Abnormal
Funny relationships can be called dysfunctional. They take our perception of normal and twist it toward the abnormal. Yet another very simple formula:
Normal + Abnormal = Funny
Note the funny relationship can be blatantly obvious:
My blind date could have been better. Cute girl, but I couldn’t stand her dog.
Or more obscure, requiring a bit of thought. It can even be unspecified as in another old Henny Youngman line:
How’s your wife?
Compared to what?
You can also mix up relationships, such as giving an animal human attributes:
What did the talking frog say?
I toad you it was easy.
If you’re five years-old, that’s hilarious.
Granted, dissecting funny is a bit like deposing the king — the power goes away. Funny dies ignobly in any explanation. Still, such dissection is good practice, and using old jokes is a good place to start dissecting bits of humor.
OLD JOKE: In a Wild West town, an Indian brave stands near the entrance to the general store. As an attractive young lady enters the store, the Indian raises his hand in salute and says, “Chance.”
The pretty young lady ignores him and enters the store.
As the young lady exits, the Indian again raises his salute and says, “Chance.”
The young lady now stops. “I thought the traditional Indian greeting was ‘How’,” she said.
“Me know how,” said the Indian. “Me want chance.”
Here, the traditional (normal) Indian greeting (“How”) becomes abnormal (“Chance”) when our very male Indian friend become enamored of an attractive member of the opposite sex (a very normal and familiar relationship).
Why look at old jokes?
Old jokes actually have a few advantages in becoming hackneyed and no longer funny to us.
- Since you likely already know quite a few, there’s no research involved.
- You’re no longer laughing, so it’s easy to examine them dispassionately.
Pick a few old jokes that made you laugh way back when. Look for the familiar relationship(s).
Next, how would you characterize the funny aspect of each joke — the twist in the tale? Is it based on truth? Pain? Superiority? Exaggeration? Surprise? Something absurd? Etc. Your answer here can literally be anything.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter what abnormal perception or characteristic caused you to laugh. Without a familiar (normal) relationship, overtly stated or implied, the humor would not have worked.
Parting Funny: My husband said he needed more space. So I locked him outside. – Roseanne Barr
Next Up: Listing Funny
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