We’ve all heard that when you try to analyze humor, it dies in the process. But we writers and storytellers have to understand how humor works. You don’t become a surgeon without dissecting some cadavers.
How humor works is pretty simple, really. Comedy writer Brad Schreiber says, “Shock or surprise is the undergarment that holds in the unsightly flab of humor writing.”
Yes, humor, largely powered by SURPRISE, lives in the GAP between what a reader expects and what she gets. Even the simplest pun—HEN & INK—relies on twisting the expected.
Producers of the unexpected include incongruity, exaggeration, understatement, absurdity, embarrassment, and even recognition of the (uncomfortable) truth. They all fuel humor. The last is one of the most important. The truth at the core of most of what’s funny, is pain.
Carol Burnett said, “Comedy is pain, plus time.”
Another great comedienne, Lily Tomlin, asked, “If olive oil comes from olives, and peanut oil comes from peanuts, where does baby oil come from?”
This is a perfect example of the power of three in humor: there’s 1) setup, 2) repetition, and 3) surprise.
Pairing two normal oil producers, olives and nuts, with a BABY is unexpected. Also, olive oil comes from crushed olives, peanut oil comes from crushed peanuts, and baby oil does NOT come from crushed babies. That’s sick.
OK, you see how dissecting it kind of kills it.
But the power of three, just like a pun, works because of an unexpected switcheroo.
Now, it’s NO surprise regarding humor’s subjectivity: its reception varies greatly across lines of age, gender, culture, education, etc. To examine something foreign and surreal, let’s take a look at what makes seven to nine year-old boys laugh. I suspect they are predictable around the globe—into the absurd and potty humor. Not at all what makes a 50 year-old woman laugh (well, most of them).
Captain Underpants was a huge hit in our household when each of my sons was in that age zone. So I analyzed what Dav Pilkey did to render my children helpless with laughter.
In The All New Captain Underpants Extra-Crunchy Book O’ Fun 2, in a section called “The Night of the Terror of the Revenge of the Curse of the Bride of Hairy Potty,” absurdity runs rampant. Pilkey also uses in addition to overstatement and exaggeration, the old comic trick of parody. Parodying J.K. Rowling’s venerable Harry Potter with a hairy potty is not just surprising, it’s so off-the-wall that it is difficult to discuss soberly.
But I’ll try. A female and male hairy potty (drawn just like they sound—toilets sprouting hair all over, with eyes and legs) run amok vandalizing signs, such as “THEATER: Now Showing, Bridget Jones’ Diary,” into “Bridget Jones’ DiarRHEA.” That got my youngest son going, but he laughed apoplectically at the page that shows a sign reading first, “Please drive very slowly over the tracks. Children at play.” This is already absurd as children are generally not playing on train tracks. The male hairy potty zaps part of it, leaving a broken sign that now reads, “Please drive slowly over children.”
The shock that a sign might invite people to drive over children playing, astonished and delighted him, although perhaps appreciation of dark humor runs in the family. Pilkey’s books also rely heavily on the scatological that relies on the embarrassing. And anti-authoritarianism and plenty of rule-breaking are hard at work. The characters do nothing BUT the unexpected.
How could a reader possibly know what to expect from talking toilets?
Oh, I forgot. The male and female hairy potties fall in love, usually another source of hilarity to young boys. Throw on top of all this the threat of death or serious dismemberment and Pilkey had a huge winner.
When the unexpected touches on a truth, especially a dark one, the surprise and emotional response are all the deeper and more satisfying. Children’s worlds are full of bigger and more powerful people and institutions, and an infinite number of potentially frightening and humiliating situations. Is Hairy Potty’s vandalized sign to run over children getting close to the uncomfortable truth of the oppression and danger of the world? Perhaps. Regardless, it’s burlesque in spades and it rocks a seven-year-old’s world.
About Ann Jacobus
Ann Jacobus grew up in Texas and Arkansas but has lived all over the map, including in the Arabian Kingdom of Bahrain, and Paris, France. She earned a B.S. from Dartmouth College and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut YA thriller, Romancing the Dark in the City of Lights, came out from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Griffin in 2015 and won the 2016 Housatonic Book Award for Young Adult Literature. She’s published short fiction, essays, and poetry in magazines and journals in the US and the U.K. She lives in San Francisco with her family where she writes, teaches writers of all ages, and volunteers at San Francisco Suicide Prevention.