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Where Does Humor Come From? - Mo's Journal
February 8th, 2007
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Where Does Humor Come From?
I'd love it if this becomes a meme. My previous entry on the Snickers commercial touched on this question. What I'm trying to do here is come up with a kind of taxonomy of humor, and then apply a few humorous moments from my fiction to that taxonomy.

Disclaimers:

1. I am not suggesting that my taxonomy is exhaustive. These are just the kinds of humor that came to my mind. I'd love to hear about more types.

2. I don't generally write comic fiction (I write movieverse fiction :-). Yes, that one's a pun). I write mostly serious fiction with comedic moments. So, I've excerpted a few comedic moments from my fiction for illustrative purposes.

3. I don't deal with humor as put-down in this, or the flip side: humor as in-group bonding. I think those are good things to talk about and I'd be happy to read something about them if someone wants to write it.


A Beginning of a Taxonomy of Humor

Surprise - You expect one thing and get another. This one is tricky to employ as surprise in a story can lead to laughter, shock, or derision at the implausibility. You usually don’t want the last one.

Irony – Words are used to mean something different – even opposite – from what they seem to mean. Sarcasm is kind of its evil twin: ironic remarks said in a hostile fashion.

Pun/Double entendre – humor arises from words or phrases having two meanings at once and both meanings fitting the situation. Generally when one meaning is “innocent” and the other sexual, it’s called a double entendre.

Superiority – We laugh at the people in the joke because we know we would not do the stupid things they do.

Recognition/Exaggeration – We laugh at the people in the joke because we know we would do the stupid things they do or because we recognize them as types we know. Often the humor comes from that recognition being paired with an exaggeration beyond what would happen in real life.

Self-referential humor – a combination of surprise and recognition, where the comic value comes from an unexpected self-awareness.

Relief – We anticipate something bad and it doesn’t happen.

Schadenfreude – A variation on relief: we anticipate something bad and it happens to someone else.

Contrast – related to surprise; humor often comes from a mismatch of tone and content or messenger and message, e.g. a small child saying something we expect from an adult can be humorous.



And now to apply that taxonomy, some excerpts from my fiction of things I hope are funny and categorization of same:



From Past and To Come
They’d been going at it for close to three hours. Jean-Paul lay back on the bed, breathing hard. “No more!” he said.

“Wimp!” his lover replied. “We’re just getting started.” Jean-Paul groaned. “Come on, when are we going to get another chance like this? Mom’s got Ezra, no interruptions.” Adam leaned over, stroking Jean-Paul’s cheek and kissing him on the mouth. “Please. Just a little more?”

“When you ask like that...” Jean-Paul sighed and said, “D’accord.” He got off of the bed and joined Adam, sitting on the floor of his old bedroom in his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn. There were two stacks of cardboard boxes by the wall. The “Throw Out” stack dwarfed the “Keep” one. “What’s left?” he asked.

Humor of surprise. The reader is meant to think they are having sex and they are really sorting through the stuff in Adam’s childhood bedroom.

From A Fine Romance
“I tried to ignore it,” she said, sniffing. “I mean, he wasn’t cheating on me. Not that he wouldn’t if he could, but she’s married. Happily. And I just tried to tell myself there’s nothing wrong with him being attracted to other people. It’s not fair to expect a guy not to even think about other women, is it?”

“You’re the only woman I ever think about,” he replied. It made her laugh, which is what he’d wanted. “You’re right, though. It’s probably hard being with a telepath."

Irony. When Jean talks about thinking about other women, she means in a sexual context. Scott is gay, and when he refers to her as the only woman he thinks about he means it in a non-sexual way in spite of that set up.

From Adult Education
But there's stuff you don't know. Stuff I didn't know ‘til the professor helped me get it back. It's kind of a long story. Hard to know what to say." I waited, anxiously, for him to begin. "I mean, I guess the first thing to tell you is you're not my first."

"Somehow I figured you weren't a virgin when I met you."

He glared at me again. "Do you want to hear this or don't you?"

"I'm sorry. Yes, I want to hear it. I make jokes when I'm nervous. I'll try not to. It doesn't mean I'm not taking this seriously. I really want to know. Okay?"

"Okay."

"So, I wasn't your first. Your first what?" He looked like he might be getting mad again. "I'm not joking now. I'm just trying to understand."

"My first… I don't know. The first time I got really close to someone. The first time I had somebody that we were trying to make a life together. The first time I was in love." He looked away saying the last part. "I know I told you there never was anybody like that before, anybody I got close to. I wasn't lying. I just didn't remember."

"I understand, Logan. I didn't think you were lying." He didn't say anything more, so I thought I'd prod him a little. "Okay, so there was somebody else. Or a few somebody elses?"

"Two. Well, two that I know of. I don't think there are more but I can't be sure." He sounded in real pain saying that. I tried to take his hand but he pulled it away.

"Okay, so you had two serious lovers before me. Men or women? Not that I'm insecure about whether you're really interested in men or worried that this thing with me might just be a fluke or anything."

That got a smile out of him. "One of each. Okay with you?"

Sarcasm at the beginning and self-referential humor at the end. Scott’s sarcastic joke falls flat, but Logan smiles at his joking self-awareness a minute later.

From After the Fall Comic sex scene shown here.

Pun/double entendre and Recognition. Logan’s comment that “it’s harder than it looks” can be interpreted in two ways and is. He means it one way and Scott (understandably distracted) hears it in the other meaning. More generally, the humor is intended to come from recognition of canonical elements of their personalities applied in a different setting (i.e. the macho one-upmanship that Logan exhibits towards Scott would still show up during sex). There's also humor of recognition in the lighthearted mocking of a recognized slash trope, along with reality intruding into fiction (i.e. a sex act that is often presented as executed perfectly the first time in slash is shown to be difficult to accomplish by a novice, as more likely would happen in real life).

From Anything Can Happen
Scott contemplated banging his head against a nearby wall. After reflecting on the fact that he would probably have a perfectly adequate headache even without doing so, he decided against it.

Irony. Headaches aren’t really “perfectly adequate” and banging one’s head against something is meant to indicate an expression of pain, not an attempt to cause pain to oneself.

From Past and to Come
Alex thought about what he’d said. “Son? You and your... boyfriend have a child?”

“Yes. Ezra. He’s two and a half.”

“How did you do that?”

“It’s part of my mutation. I can fly, travel at super speed, and also get pregnant and give birth.”

“Really?”

Jean-Paul laughed. “No. I was joking. Trying to prove I’m not completely humorless.” Alex smiled and Jean-Paul continued. “There are many strange mutations, but men do not give birth, even among our kind. Adam and I adopted Ezra.”

Self-referential humor. Reference to mpreg in slash.

From Different From All Other Nights:
Jean-Paul was having a fine time. He was perfectly relaxed and comfortable, or would have been if Adam hadn’t kept shooting him intense are-you-alright looks. Miriam was Jean-Paul’s idea of a perfect hostess, warm and welcoming, yet totally down-to-earth. They’d arrived at her place in East Midwood in the middle of the afternoon, several hours before the other guests. She had kissed them both and immediately put them to work — peeling potatoes, setting up tables, polishing silver. Miriam talked to them both the whole time, with a kind of natural intimacy that made Jean-Paul feel like one of the family. He much preferred that — and keeping busy while they got to know each other — to being treated like a guest. Truly, he had no idea why Adam had been so nervous about their meeting.

“Jean-Paul?” Miriam asked. “Would you get the good dishes down for me? They’re in that high cabinet there. I can’t reach them without the ladder, but you’re tall enough to get them on a step stool.”

“I don’t need a step stool,” he replied, flying up to the ceiling and hovering there as he unloaded dishes, then carefully landing with them. Miriam stared at him, open-mouthed. “Mon dieu!” Jean-Paul said, belatedly realizing that he had felt so at home that he’d forgotten that Miriam had never seen him fly. “I’m sorry, Miriam. Did I frighten you?”

“No, not at all. It’s just... something to see. And so useful, too,” she added. She walked out of the kitchen and Jean-Paul and Adam exchanged puzzled glances. But before they could say anything, she was back with a wet, soapy rag. “Would you mind washing the ceiling fans for me?” she asked.

Surprise The reader, like Jean-Paul, expects Miriam to be put off or shocked or overwhelmed by seeing him fly, but instead she’s thinking of the utility of his powers. There’s a certain amount of recognition, as well, in Miriam’s character. We’ve all known people who are able to get something out of even unexpected occurrences.

From A Time to Every Purpose:
Scott shook his head. “Doesn’t seem likely. It works, apparently, but it sounds like it’s too late for him. I wish I’d figured this out earlier.”

“You didn’t even know he was sick earlier. You beat yourself up over shit that’s totally out of your control, Cyclops.”

“Thanks, Logan. That never occurred to me before. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I won’t do it anymore.” He smiled to show he meant it ironically, not angrily.

Irony and Recognition Scott’s remark is meant ironically, as the text indicates. There’s also humor intended both from the recognition that his desire for control is so central to him that it’s unlikely just naming it is going to make it go away, and from a larger recognition that insight into our problems does not cure them.

From Commencement:
Diana nodded in agreement. "It would have been wonderful to have this kind of a school when I was a teen. I felt totally on my own. I was so relieved when my vision cleared and I could see through objects in a controlled way, only when I wanted to."

"So that's why you call it voluntary transparency?"

"Yes. What does Oliver call his powers?"

"X-ray vision," Jean answered and Diana cringed. "Don't blame him, though," she added. "I came up with it. I do agree that it's not as… dignified as your term."

"Not dignified? Oh, I think it's worse than that," Diana answered. "X-ray vision," she repeated derisively. "No offense, but I think that it sounds like something out of a comic book."
And, at the beginning of the next chapter:
“No offense, but I think that it sounds like something out of a comic book.”

Scott shrugged, unconcerned. “No doubt it does. Hey, we were kids; we thought ‘X-Men’ sounded cool and impressive. Mysterious, too. Scary to the bad guys, you know?” Logan looked at him askance and Scott laughed. “Okay, so we were young and dumb. What else can I say?”

Self-referential humor. The reader knows that the X-Men are comic book characters, but the characters don’t know that they exist outside of these stories. Beyond that, there’s another layer of humor in Diana’s exchange with Jean. They’ve never heard of the term “X-Ray Vision” until Jean makes it up because they are Marvel characters, so they don’t know Superman.


Okay, meme anyone? What would you like to add to my taxonomy?
Where does the humor come from in your stories?

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
[User Picture]
From:talktooloose
Date:February 8th, 2007 07:55 pm (UTC)
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You messed up your /cut tag. LAUGH OF SUPERIORITY!

I didn't read this, btw. Discussing how humour works is... well, not funny. But God bless, dear child, God bless.
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From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)
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I fixed it. Thank you for pointing it out, and also for only reading enough to point out errors :-).

[User Picture]
From:talktooloose
Date:February 8th, 2007 08:10 pm (UTC)
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My eyes are magnetically drawn to the imperfect! Especially after I get the books back from printer!
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From:talktooloose
Date:February 8th, 2007 08:12 pm (UTC)
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Also... No, you didn't. Still the same. The final "t" in the tag is outside the brackets.
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From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2007 08:36 pm (UTC)
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Oops. I thought I fixed it. Now I really think I fixed it.
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From:talktooloose
Date:February 8th, 2007 10:53 pm (UTC)
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Do you ever write a scene around a joke? I certainly have. In fact, the clincher for including the Mike/Jubilee bit in the upcoming DOB 9 was the punchline for the scene.

In Chapter 4, I came up with the idea of St. John entering with the Fight Club line ("Is this cancer?") and it was only then that I thought to add the cancer rhetoric in the evangelist's speech at the beginning. In fact, it's possible that I only thought up the evangelist at that point, following my intention to make the joke.

It is my hope to someday create a multi-part science fiction epic of galaxy sweeping proportions all for the sake of setting up a groaner of a pun on the last page of the last book.
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From:mofic
Date:February 9th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
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That's funny about the Mike/Jubilee scene - I loved that line.

I don't think I've ever built a scene around a joke, although I've often had jokes that waited around until the scene appeared in my brain for a joke that had been around for a while. And when I was teaching I always felt that the jokes had to come first and then the lecture would just write itself.
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From:realpestilence
Date:February 9th, 2007 02:38 am (UTC)
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Assuming my fictional humour is actually funny, I think for me it comes from the situation. I'm crap at writing dialogue, it's all stilted and unnatural-all the "he saids". But I can build up a descriptive scene to be very funny, piling on the details-I'm hell with adjectives, y'know.

I thought this was a very interesting essay. Every time I thought of a humor type, I looked further down the list & there it was. I'm wondering if you've written anything that's been published, in magazines or scholastically? Forgive me if you're famous, please. *grins nervously* But you sound very professorial in an approachable way.


Pesti
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From:mofic
Date:February 9th, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)
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But I can build up a descriptive scene to be very funny, piling on the details-I'm hell with adjectives, y'know.

That's interesting - so where does the humor come from in the description, do you think? Btw, what fandoms do you write in and where can I find your fiction?

I thought this was a very interesting essay. Every time I thought of a humor type, I looked further down the list & there it was. I'm wondering if you've written anything that's been published, in magazines or scholastically? Forgive me if you're famous, please. *grins nervously* But you sound very professorial in an approachable way.

LOL! I'm not famous. I've always had writing hobbies and when my hobby was writing essays on lesbian and gay parenting I had a few published in various places you never heard of :-).

As to the professorial part, I'm a bit of an English teacher manquee. I meet that need by writing literary slash :-) and publishing literature guides to go with it.
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From:sailorptah
Date:February 9th, 2007 03:19 am (UTC)
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You should take a look at The Joy of Work, by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame). It contains a section on a theory he calls "The Six Dimensions of Humor", which look pretty similar to the elements you've mentioned.

His theory was that you need at least two of the following dimensions to make a joke work: cleverness (this includes puns), bizarreness, recognizability ("I've been there"; running jokes), cuteness, meanness (when not overdone), and naughtiness.
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From:mofic
Date:February 9th, 2007 01:12 pm (UTC)
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That sounds interesting - particularly the part about using two or more dimensions. I'll have to think about that a bit.
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From:rushin_doll
Date:February 9th, 2007 08:59 pm (UTC)
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Here from metafandom

This is interesting. I've tended to go with a much broader (and thus less specific) idea of humor which I picked up years ago as a college freshman: Humor is perceived incongruity. Still rings true for me. Something to think about, perhaps.

Thinking about how funny it is that "funny" is an ambiguous term,
Ana
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From:mofic
Date:February 9th, 2007 09:57 pm (UTC)
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But what makes some perceived incongruities funny in the sense of humorous, others funny in the sense of peculiar and still others just disturbing? And why are puns funny (or maybe you don't think they are) when they are a kind of super-congruity :-)?

Anyway, an interesting concept for humor and thanks for dropping in! I'll use a kind of incongruous image for the icon on this one...
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From:rushin_doll
Date:February 9th, 2007 11:17 pm (UTC)
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Fair questions, I was going to fire off a snap response, but I think I'll think about it instead...

Ponderingly,
Ana
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From:mofic
Date:February 10th, 2007 12:09 am (UTC)
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Oh take your time. You're so cute when you're pondering...

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