This week marks 15 years that I’ve been writing this column for The Sherbrooke Record, and it’s the longest thing I’ve ever committed to outside of marriage, fatherhood and not watching the Harry Potter movies.
I never get tired of answering the question, “Why do you write humour?” And the reason I never tire of it is because no one has ever asked me. But that doesn’t stop me from cornering people at cocktail parties and orthodontist offices to explain. As I hold them in my startlingly strong grip (because of all the typing!), I tell them that humour provides me the opportunity to take life’s frustrations, humiliations and restraining orders and redirect them into humour, a sort of catharsis that regains control of my story and saves a bundle on therapy bills.
I sometimes refer to humour as “the magic act of writing.” Like magic, if humour fails, it fails miserably. You don’t want to see a magic trick that almost works, just like you don’t want to read something that’s almost funny. Also like magic, humour involves a lot of rabbits, and you’ll have enhanced success if you write it wearing a sparkly tuxedo.
Pure humour – as opposed to, say, a comic novel or humour that is 12% cellulose filler – has one job: to elicit a very specific emotional reaction. You can read a poem or a novel and come away with… feelings… an impression… paper cuts. With humour, it’s either funny or it isn’t, or, in the case of this column, it’s either funny or you are dead inside.
Having the ability to control someone’s emotions, even if it’s a single, very specific emotion, that’s power. Humour is power, and power, they say, is the greatest aphrodisiac. It’s true; I can’t tell you how many times over the years girls have laughed at me.
I know what you’re thinking: let go of my wrist. Also: how can I get me some of that humour power? Are you born with it? Do you have to drink the preserved blood of Robert Benchley? Does anyone read Robert Benchley anymore? And doesn’t that make you, as a humour writer, a little bit depressed? Yes. Yes, it does.
Here, then, are some tricks of the trade so you can become a humour warrior, and, like me, when people hear your name, they will say, “Yeah, 15 years is probably too long.”
The Rule of Three
We see this in jokes all the time (“A priest, a minister and a rabbit walk into a bar…”). Humans like things in threes: tanned, rested and ready; tall, dark and handsome; Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. It’s all about patterns and expectations. In normal threes, the first item introduces the idea, the second establishes a pattern and the third reinforces the pattern. With humour, the third item overturns the expectation of reinforcement, thereby surprising the reader. For example, instead of “tall, dark and handsome,” I would say, “tall, dark and LOOK OUT, THERE’S A ROTTING CORPSE OF A 1920S HUMORIST BEHIND YOU!”
Instead of breaking patterns as in the Rule of Three, humour sometimes establishes patterns. This taps into our love of repetition, whether it’s listening to nursery rhymes as a child or, in my teenage daughter’s case, watching the entire “Friends” series from start to finish for easily the twelfth time. But in order for it to be humorous, the repetition has to be presented in an unexpected way. For example: Are you watching “Friends” again? Why are you watching “Friends” again? There are a lot of other, better shows than “Friends.” Instead of watching “Friends,” why don’t you read a book? Ooo, shove over; this is my favourite episode of “Friends” – “The One Where Ross Apologizes to Everyone Else in the World Named Ross.”
A callback is a reference to an earlier joke or comment. Again, it’s a sort of pattern, but it also appeals to the reader by giving them an “Aha!” moment as they recall that earlier reference and feel clever about it, which is exactly the kind of pandering you’d expect from a power-hungry humorist. A callback is also what I never got from all those girls who used to laugh at me.
End with the joke
It’s called a punchline for a reason. You want to end with a punch. Let’s take an example from above: “you’ll have enhanced success if you write it wearing a sparkly tuxedo.” Think how much less fun that would have been had it read, “you’ll have enhanced success if a sparkly tuxedo is what you’re wearing, you waste of precious oxygen, you.” So remember: always end with something funny. Which is why this definitely won’t be my last column ever.