The Comic View

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Writers want to appeal to readers.

Shocking, I know!

Humor certainly helps in this regard, although humor is not designed simply to appeal. It has a much broader range that runs from amusing to disarming to irony to aggressive to offensive to charming and much, much more. This causes an obvious problem when one tries to define humor. Mind you, not a dictionary definition, but any in-depth analysis that attempts to pin down the essence of human laughter. It’s analogous to showing up at Area 51 and asking to see the alien spaceship. Success is problematic.

As a writer, you can easily manipulate characters. They can be heroes or villains. They can be sympathetic, sad, triumphant, arrogant, wise, stupid, attractive, ugly…basically anything that you desire. Any competent writer can create a character to fill any shoes — even clown shoes.

The new Chevrolet Prankster seats fifty circus clowns or your average teenage MacDonald’s run.

A writer’s range of characters and character traits (physical and psychological) is unlimited. Your range of humor should have an equally rich palette. One way to accomplish this is to read a ton of dreadfully dry neurological and psychological studies on our sense of humor. Or, more effectively, you can turn to the people who make their living as humorists.

I choose Option B.

Book Cover image


Professional comics and humorists make their living by littering the landscape with laughter, but they also have strong opinions on what makes the average human giggle like a three-year-old. Despite being experts at making us laugh, the more theoretical insights of humorists rarely become widely known, yet there’s much to be learned from the Comic View of these jokesters. So, let’s examine some insights from old masters and up-and-comers who are walking the walk. We’ll start with a nearly unequalled Grand Master:

George Carlin
George Carlin (b. 1937 – d. 2008) was a wordsmith extraordinaire. He could twist the English language into more shapes than carnival balloon animals. Here’s one of his insights:

Comedy is a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression. That is what comics do, stand the world upside down.

While I don’t agree that this is true in all cases, that’s an interesting insight.

It’s also a useful one.

Socially acceptable hostility and aggression? Hmm…

Humor is very effective in any scene where you want to put characters at odds. From a terribly light romantic comedy to real-life political campaign commentary, you can use humor literally anywhere to slam the opposition.

George W. Bush was the first US president to be handed an appropriations bill and start looking for Waldo.

That’s pretty hostile, unless you’re a Democrat. Then, it’s just history.

Let’s try something more personal — characters considering a divorce in the midst of an emotionally charged argument.

    Exhaling forcefully in exasperation, Thomas headed for the exit. “This was a bad idea.”
    Margo immediately jumped to her feet. “You’re not leaving. You promised.”
    “You’re just wasting time with a damn magazine.”
    “My damn magazine still interests me.”
    “Right.” Thomas rudely pulled the magazine from her hand, showcasing the cover for her. “No point in talking. I can’t possibly compete with… Hey, what do you know? PMS is a lifestyle.”

While this argument was hostile, was anyone seriously hurt? No. You can see that these characters could be easily reconciled in the proverbial happy ending. Humor doesn’t negate the hostility, but it does, almost inexplicably, soften the barbs’ long-term effects for your reader.

Carlin is correct in noting that humor’s hostility and aggression are socially acceptable. When you get a useful tip from a master, give it some thought!

NOTE: Please comment on this post if you’d like to see more insights from master humorists (with a little commentary) in future posts. I’m inclined to think that The Comic View is entirely worthwhile for all of us as an ongoing (perhaps monthly) feature, but I really would like some feedback. Please, let me know what you think.

Parting Funny: Misers aren’t fun to live with, but they make wonderful ancestors.David Brenner

Next Up: Beat That Joke

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