Monday, 22 October 2012

The Art of Slipping On A Banana Skin

This weekend I went to a workshop about writing humour. And it's not as simple as slipping on a banana skin.

It was led by Paul McDonald, author of The Philosophy of Humour (click here for Amazon link) and led to some interesting discussions about how to inject some humour into your own work.

Many people know that some of the best sitcoms (written in both the UK and the USA) are produced by a team of writers. It's because humour can be competitive. There's a phrase called 'Topping the Joke' where one person will try to come up with a funnier punch line than the previous one, something that is frequently seen on quiz panel television shows where the panelists comprise of stand-up comedians (who always seem to be sitting down ... but I digress.) One will say something funny, and another will try to come up with something funnier to get a bigger laugh, and so it goes on.

Whilst we can't all be part of a comedy writing team, being in a humorous mood can make us more creative, so it might be worth spending some time watching a few sitcoms to get you in the creative mood. But what makes something funny?

Paul McDonald suggested the following:

  1. Incongruity. (I've never written that word as many times as I did on Saturday's workshop!) This means something that is incompatible, or unexpected, from what we normally perceive, and features in most humour. Often, the punchline of a joke uses incongruity because what makes it funny is the joke leads us to one expectation and then the punchline is something completely different.
  2. Exaggeration. This can make things funnier. Or perhaps I should say exaggeration makes things SO funny, you'll laugh your head off, split your sides and force a fart from your bum.
  3. The Rule of Three. Having three things leads to repetition, which can be funny, especially, if each of the three elements use the 'Topping the Joke' theory and try to be funnier than the last item. Look at the final sentence in point 2 - there were three things listed there - laugh your head off, split your sides, and force a fart from your bum. I'm not saying that forcing a fart from your bum is funnier than the other two (because humour is subjective) but the rule of three certainly came into play there.
Editors like humour, so try injecting some into your next  piece of writing. 

Good luck.


  1. Thanks for sharing these humour tips. I often find a comic story does better than expected in a competition, perhaps because humour is so rare in short stories these day.
    I also heard David Nobbs talk at Swanwick this year - his workshop on comedy writing was wonderful. He could barely utter a sentence without ending on a laugh. A real comic genius.

  2. It was a great workshop, Simon - But is farting funnier for the farter or the fartee? Julie xx

  3. That sounds like a fun workshop. I shall take a look at the link, thanks! And I have to say, your 'rule of three' worked on me. What with that and Julie's comment, I have a happy case of the giggles now :)