Picture the scene: you’re reading David Sedaris.
“Although I had regularly petitioned fo ra brand-name vacuum cleaner, I’d never said anything about a guitar. Nothing about it appealed to me, not even on an aesthetic level. I had my room arranged just so, and the instrument did not fit in with my nautical theme. An anchor, yes. A guitar, no. He wanted me to jam, so I jammed it into my closet, where it remained until he signed me up for some private lessons…”1
In your brain, a core network of cortical and subcortical structures are warming up.2
Your temporo-occipito-parietal patches are putting their glasses on and detecting incongruity — a mismatch between the stimuli they’re expecting, and the stimuli they get.
Meanwhile, something surprising has woken up your mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic system and your amygdala, which are yawning and stretching and demanding sweets.
Which means you’re probably laughing, or at least chortling inwardly, because David Sedaris can be very, very funny; and when we laugh, shit gets complicated.
Which is to say — lots of brain areas are involved with finding things humorous, and it has to do with being surprised, dopamine, and things that stand out.
The passage above contains all of those things: the surprising fact of a young boy asking repeatedly for a brand-name vacuum cleaner (and note the specific details here). The juxtaposition of an appliance with a musical instrument. And the final syllepsis, where the word “jam” does extra work.
It’s good value for money, that paragraph.
I know a lot of writers want to be funny — who doesn’t, really? I do.
But it can be tricky to achieve, because there’s a big misunderstanding for most of us about what “funny” really is — especially because what people mostly mean is they want to write humour.
And, as my LinkedIn buddy, stand-up comedian, and funny expert Kathy Klotz-Guest3 says, humour and funny are not necessarily the same thing.
Making people laugh (or chuckle, or just smile) is not always about telling jokes; in fact, it’s rarely about telling jokes.
Thank goodness, because I am probably the world’s worst joke-teller; I can watch someone tell a simple joke, laugh at it, then 30 minutes later utterly mangle it when I try.
(Seriously, ask me to tell you the wide-mouth frog joke. Or don’t. Probably best not actually.)
And yet, as long as I’m not attempting to tell jokes, I am funny.
I know I am, because I make people laugh all the time, in person, on video, on the podcast, in writing, and at least 75% of the time they’re laughing with me, not at me.
I’m the queen of physical self-deprecation: watch me bust out a hawwwwwt pole move in 8-inch heels, then deflect a compliment with my signature sausage roll stage-exit that resembles a hippo in a mud wallow.
I almost certainly won’t win a sexy pole dance contest, but I’m the 2020 Pole Theatre Champion in the comedy category.
I use my body for comedy, which I’m fairly sure is a defense mechanism because I was such a weird kid, I was never going to fit in or be popular.
And, of course, I write. Sometimes I write funny stuff.
So let’s dig into what makes something funny, or humorous. If it’s not jokes; what is it?
Write funny: be unexpected
As the neuroscientists said, at the core of humour is surprise: we’re reacting to something unexpected. The mismatch between what should happen and what actually happened.
Here’s another example of something I found funny, from Jarvis Cocker’s excellent memoir Good Pop, Bad Pop (which is full of chuckles):
“Rock & roll couldn’t have happened without electric guitars. Acid House relied on the invention of the Roland TB-303 for its signature sound. & the early ‘80s indie music scene in Sheffield would have been nothing without photocopiers.”
It’s not guffaw, ROFL funny; but it is funny. Cocker sets us up to expect another musical instrument: we’ve seen that rock needed electric guitars, and acid house needed a keyboard — and 80s indie music in Sheffield needed a large office appliance because without photocopied flyers, Pulp would not still be touring today.
But surprise isn’t enough. Sometimes surprise is unpleasant, so what else goes into making something amusing? How do we write funny?
Write funny: use gratuitous specificity
This is really just another way of making your writing unexpected. We want to create images in our readers’ minds, and to do that we need details. Go further than simply specific; be gratuitously specific.
Like Georgia Pritchitt describing her physical appearance:
“The problem was, the way I looked was not the way women in magazines look. I have the shoulders of a muppet. My freakishly long torso coupled with my unusually short legs makes me look like an eel is taking a ride on a gerbil. The overall effect is more ferret than human.”4
She could’ve just said, “I don’t look like a fashion model. I have a long body and short legs.” But that’s not funny at all.
Put the two together — the gratuitous specificity and the unexpected juxtaposition — and you have humour.
I’ll be back with more about writing the funny stuff next week, but before I do, there’s one key thing you need to remember:
Make it relatable.
If we can’t relate to something, we probably won’t find it funny — which is part of the reason why some people find one thing funny, and others will just not get it.
How can you introduce the unexpected?
Practice including gratuitous details, and don’t worry about “over-writing” or “being funny”. Just play.
- When you find a piece of writing that makes you laugh, either out loud or internally, please send it this way for my notebook collection.
- If you found this helpful, please share it with someone.
1 David Sedaris, “Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities” from Me Talk Pretty One Day.
2 Pascal Vrticka, Jessica M. Black, & Allan L. Reiss, 2013, “The neural basis of humour processing” in Nature
4 Georgia Pritchitt, My Mess is a Bit of a Life