Sunday, April 1, 2012


Note: This post is a retread of a post from last July, but it's a fitting post for April Fool's Day, so I'm cheating and using it again. But before we get started, here's an April Fool's Day joke for you, in the form of a 55-word story:

It’s for You...
Alexander Graham Bell requested an audience with Queen Victoria, to whom he presented his new invention.
“A telephone, Your Majesty. You put this part to your ear, like this.”
She did so and heard a voice saying, “Hey lady, you got Prince Albert in the can?”
She hung up and said, “We are not amused.”

Okay. Lessee. Okay. A guy slips on a banana peel and falls on his butt. No, wait. The guy's all dressed up, on his way to the career interview of a lifetime, and he slips on a banana peel and falls in a steaming pile of dog feces. Make that cat feces.

Did you hear the one about the man who was so poor he was reduced to eating his own shoes?

How about the woman who reads someone else's mail by accident, misunderstands, and thinks the man she loves is two-timing her. It breaks her heart.

This working-class married couple lives in an apartment in New York. They yell at each other constantly. Their best friends are neighbors, a couple that also yells at each other. Sometimes the two couples get together and they yell at each other. By the way, one of the men is obese, and both of the men frequently threaten their wives with violence.

So this salesman runs out of gas on a country road. A farmer takes him in for the night, but the salesman abuses the farmer's hospitality by seducing the farmer's teen-aged daughter, making her pregnant and ruining her life. The farmer forces the two strangers to get married at gunpoint, thereby ruining both of their lives.

There's this starving coyote, see. His prey eludes him and he accidently runs off a cliff and falls thousands of feet to the rocks below.

A nice Italian or maybe Jewish or maybe both fruit vender is minding his own business when a gangster, a yuppie, and a cop all bash their cars into his pushcart, destroying his inventory and scattering all the money he's earned that week.

A homeless drunk needs to urinate so bad that he.



That stuff isn't funny.

Maybe I'm not telling it right. People have been laughing at this material forever.

It's not funny. It's sad.

I didn't say it wasn't sad. What do you think humor is, anyway?

Humor comes from sorrow, suffering, pain, cruelty, loneliness, and anger. Why is it all the Warner Brothers cartoon characters have speech impediments? What's funny about speech impediments? I don't know either, but those voices make us laugh. And speaking of cartoons, check out the topics covered by the comics in today's paper. An average day might serve up unruly children, meddlesome parents, nagging wives, boring husbands, divorce, overeating, poverty, taxes, crime, political corruption, sexual harrassment, job stress, school stress, traffic accidents, sports accidents, phobias of all kinds, greed, jealousy, illnesses ranging from the common cold to Alzheimer's Disease, and many different kinds of death, from shipwrecks to the electric chair. For starters. Real thigh-slappers.

There are two reasons not to be surprised that funny short stories originate in pain. First, good short stories must have conflict. Second, good short stories are about life, and life is full of pain. The Buddhists are right: the human condition is full of suffering.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that we have humor to help us carry the load. In fact, the humor can carry the load for us. Got a problem? Turn it into a joke. Why do so many overweight people, of all ages, laugh so much?

If suffering is essential to humor, so is surprise. Another word for surprise, when we're talking about skillful writing, is irony. Irony is a one-two punch. A good cop/bad cop routine. You set your reader up gently to expect one thing, and then pow. This device can work wonders at the sentence level, with twists of phrase that leave the reader reeling and rolling. Irony is even more important at the plot level, with events seeming to lead in one direction and ending up in another. Irony in a plot often involves the concept of karma or so-called poetic justice.

Another essential quality of good short fiction is originality: the humor has to be fresh. It's true that there are only a certain number of jokes in the world, and they've all been told before, but there is an endless source of fresh humor in our imaginations. Even when we deal with familiar ideas, we can be original.

Another essential ingredient of successful humorous short stories is intelligence. That should go without saying, but there's so much dumb humor in our culture, even dumb humor that's funny, that I make a special point of requiring intelligence before I'll call a short story good. It can't trade on its humor alone; it has to engage the brain, not just the funny bone. The story must be, on some level, about something that matters. Obviously a story is first and foremost a story, and its first job is to entertain. This is especially true of humorous stories. But if you don't give the reader something to think about, your story won't last in the memory any longer than a comic strip or a sitcom.

Finally, of course, a good humorous story requires style in spades. Why is it that all the jokes I told at the beginning of this chapter introduction fell flat? No style. Zippo. Dullsville.

Everyone knows that the joke itself is only half the reason we laugh at a good comedian-if that. At least as important is the delivery. To tell a good joke you have to love language and practice daily all the many magic tricks you can do with it.

Become a magician and make your readers laugh so hard they hardly notice that they're crying as well.


  1. I think the most interesting thing about humor is that each person has a different sense of humor. What I find funny, someone else might see as tragic and vice versa.
    I guess the trick is to use subjects that are universal - like many of the 55 word stories you post every week.

    1. I think you're right, Pat. A sense of humor is like a fingerprint: only one per customer!

  2. Great subject John. Pain and humor. Always together. Laughter is to a great extent our instinctual way to let others know that everything is all right. Something might have looked bad, but it's not as bad as it seemed. Without the initial sense of pain, there can be no laughter. There are other kinds of laughter of course, but what I like about your post is that it suggests something really beautiful about humanity. A big part of the reason be laugh is out of relief that someone else isn't truly in pain.

    --John Brantingham

    1. John, you appear to be a generous and kind-hearted person, wishing for others that all will be all right. Good for you.

  3. The reader can tell when the writer is trying too hard to be funny. One of the funniest, if most contoversial, humorists is Rosanne Barr. If you watch her old shows, she is the master of getting a first, second and sometimes third laugh with a single word, expression or gesture (NOT her most famous one!). Thanks for reminding us of what is and is NOT funny.

    1. Good point, Jinx. Somehow I have missed ever seeing Rosanne Barr, but I've been told I would admire her.

  4. We often fail to notice the best comedians are the ones who poke fun at themselves. As you so aptly point out, we also often overlook the close link between humor and pain.

  5. John I agree with you that some of the best comedians are self-effacing. One of my favorites was George Gobel. A genius at just that.

  6. Thank goodness I kept reading past the zipless jokes. It was worth it. I liked your analysis of humor. Great definitions and ideas. Thanx.

    Marta Chausée

  7. Life deals us some ugly situations, but I find that many times I can laugh about it later -- sometimes much later. Humor and laughter are great coping mechanisms, and I sincerely appreciate your blog. I know a woman whose first reaction to any horrible situation is to laugh. It's nervous laughter, but it works. It lightens things up.

    1. I agree with you, Marja. Where would any of us be without the ability to laugh?

  8. I really appreciate your remarks on humor, John. So well thought out. I've actually run writing workshops on humor, knowing that you really can't teach humor. I use examples, reading from a collection of books I have here, including some old ones that belonged to my father, a punster (as I became, too) and a perpetual dumb joke teller (repetitive,too). He always got the laughs which, I feel, was in his delivery of the jokes and puns, not often in the content. I love writing humor, have published quite a few humorous essays and stories and studied with Jules Feiffer - two semesters - on Humor and Truth. At 86 Jules is still teaching, writing, and drawing cartoons. I love that man!

    1. Puns are a noble, curious form of humor, because they come from the brain more than from the heart. They are, curiously, the one form of humor that doesn't arise from pain. And yet, curiously, they usually provoke a groan, not a laugh!

      Let's hear if for the pun, Eileen. An art form cherished by your father, as well as by Shakespeare and Nabokov.

  9. Funny is definitely in the 'eyes of the beholder.' I am such a visual person. My best laughs started years ago with the likes of Red Skelton, Laurel and Hardy, Abott and Costello and I hate to admit-The Three Stooges. I can groan about that today. Thanks for this piece. See? I'm smiling.