What Makes a Story Humorous?

john-quick-cc09
“Don’t Tell the Truth!”

A few months ago, I spoke to the Club Awesome Toastmasters about a technique for adding humor to stories. The speech was titled “Don’t Tell the Truth!” and the basic concept was to take a normal situation and put an unexpected spin on it to make it funny. My evaluator, David Carr, wondered how I came up with this advice. Was it just personal experience or had I referenced an authoritative source on the subject?

In this case, I relied upon what feels like my natural sense of humor and didn’t seek any external validation. However, as someone who enjoys and employs humor, David’s question got me thinking. Indeed, I started crafting this speech with much loftier aims. However, upon realizing how vague and complex the job of dissecting humor is, I decided to share just a small, practical piece. For the bigger picture, perhaps I should seek a deeper understanding of humor’s finer points as analyzed by those who have come before me.

max-eastman-photo
Max Eastman

Surprisingly, this pursuit led me to a book nearly 100 years old. In the 1930s, Max Eastman published an extensive analysis of humor in Enjoyment of Laughter (ISBN: 9781412808446). This work covers humor from many angles. It is filled with examples demonstrating that humor has likely been used effectively in, and been of psychological interest to, America for as long as it has existed.

The foundation of Eastman’s argument is that humor is an emotion which we can only experience when we are in a playful mood. Under these conditions, humor arises when our expectations are defied: we think we are headed towards a specific destination, not only to find that we didn’t arrive there, but better yet, that we arrived in an entirely different place.

For instance, this process takes place when we imagine a well-groomed anchor in a fancy suit sharing an urgent news report. After signing off to the camera, the anchor stands up from behind the desk to reveal nothing but casual shorts are worn below the waist. Further, the camera zooms out to show us that the city skyline in the background is just a small painting. The anchor steps back onto the beach and is handed a coconut with a straw in it.

If you didn’t find that last paragraph humorous, have no fear. Eastman would be the first to tell you that analyzing a joke is a certain way to ensure that all humor will be removed from it. For many more details and analyses, Enjoyment of Laughter (ISBN: 9781412808446) is an excellent historical resource that can make us more aware of the techniques we apply as authors and orators of humor. Think about defying expectations in a playful manner the next time you want to share a humorous story with your audience.

Leave a Reply