The secret of humour


What makes something funny?

This is an important question for those of us who write humorous fiction or blogs. Or hopefully humorous. Occasionally humorous. Allegedly humorous.

A couple of days ago I blogged about the differences between men and women:

It was my most popular blog yet, but the response was mixed  – to say the least.

Someone said that it was hackneyed. Another said it was funny because it was true. Several people said they really liked that bit or that one. But they didn’t like this other part, because they never did that. I got comments saying “I’m a woman and I never spend ages fishing in my handbag to pay at the supermarket.”

This was voted the best joke at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe: “I’ve decided to sell my Hoover … well, it was just collecting dust.”

More information here:

So what makes that funny? Is there a general rule about comedy that runs through jokes like that, humorous blogs, television sitcoms, Monty Python and the non-PC humour of end of the pier comedians?

I’ve got a theory …

But I don’t think we should start from comedy. As the old joke goes, “if you want to go there, you shouldn’t start from here.” Instead, I want to talk about what good conversations. Then we’ll get to comedy via what defines a good relationship and the secret of good fiction. Confused? Don’t worry, it will all make sense in a moment.

For me, a good conversation is one with a lot of sharing. If you think back to a really great conversation that you had with someone, there is a good chance that it went like this:

… you told them a story about yourself. They listened. Then they said something like “that’s really interesting. Tell me more.” So you did.

… then they told you a story about themselves. You liked this story because it included feelings and experiences that interested you. You listened. Then you asked them to tell you more. So they did.

… the cycle repeated, taking it in turns to be the giver and the receiver.

It’s a social game of tennis where you are taking it in turns to hit the ball to each other.

By contrast a not so successful conversation can be when the other person is telling you a story that doesn’t connect. They might be talking about a subject that doesn’t interest you. A bad conversation can also be when they don’t listen to you. Instead they want to jump in and tell their stories all the time. You  can’t get to your punchline because they’ve started off on a new story.  These conversations don’t work so well because you’re not sharing. You are firing off your opinions and your point of view.

It’s a competitive game of tennis where you are trying to hit the ball so that the other person can’t return it.

The same principles apply to good relationships, whether this is between family, friends, work colleagues or romantic relationships. I’ll have that person calling me “hackneyed” again, but I’ll say it anyway. A good relationship works when you have things in common and you take the time to share them with each other.

My north and south, my wife, came back from her mother’s yesterday. So we’ve spent a good while telling each other what we have been doing. I’ve shown her this blog. She has told me about her mother’s medical issues. And to be perfectly honest, neither of us was all that interested in what the other had to say. But it was important to share these experiences, to listen, to allow the other one to talk.

And, surprise of surprises, we found that what the other was saying was quite a bit more interesting than we had expected.

Good fiction works in the same way. The author invites you to share an experience. When it clicks, you feel what the characters are feeling. If they are happy or sad, then so are you. Whether there are zombies banging on the door or Mr Darcy is climbing out of the lake in his wet shirt, you find yourself wondering what you would do next.

And when it works – whether it’s a good conversation, a relationship or a book – you feel a crackle of electricity, a spark between you and another person. A connection has been made.

This matters because it is self-affirmation. You have feelings and beliefs and experiences. All humans do. It would feel pretty lonely if you were the only person in the world with those feelings. So it feels really good when you connect with someone who has those same feelings, beliefs and experiences. You are not alone. What you are saying matters. You are right.

It can sometimes feel as physical as a jolt of electricity, a crackle-zap as a spark flies from one person to another.

People talk about finding their tribe, or finding a soul mate. Someone who agrees with me. Someone who is interested enough to listen to what I have to say.

Comedy needs this connection, this sharing of experiences but it also needs an unexpected connection. The sharing spark has to come from a direction that takes you by surprise.

My “men and women” blog worked for some people because they could recognise some of the stereotypical character traits that I was talking about. Of course not all men take their house keys out of their pockets half a mile before they get home. But some do. I’m one of them. That’s the sharing of experience. The humour comes, I hope, in the way that I expressed it, but the core element is the sharing of an experience.

The Edinburgh Fringe joke works in part because we’ve all got domestic appliances gathering dust. More than that, the comedian (Tim Vine) is sharing another experience with us. He has spotted that the phrase “gathering dust” has two meanings – and a vacuum cleaner is the point at which those two meanings intersect.

By telling us this joke, he is sharing that connection. We see it too. A spark flies from him to us. Bzzt.

Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch is the sharing of an experience about pushy and dishonest salesmen through the unexpected connection of a Norwegian Blue pining for the fiords.

End of the pier racist and sexist jokes “work” by reaffirming the racist and sexist beliefs in the audience. That’s the kind of sharing that we can probably do without.

There you have it. The secret of comedy via good conversations, relationships, fiction and the dead parrot sketch.

Thank you for listening.



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