Why is it funny?

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A review of one of my books (Global Domination for Beginners) got me thinking. It said:

British humor is a subtle thing, often too subtle for a Yank like me. But this book is loaded with it. The jokes often sneaked up on me and left me laughing until I cried.

And that puzzled me. What exactly is British humour? Apart from getting the spelling right, of course.

I didn’t set out to write British humour. It was meant to be … well, humour humour. International.

So what makes something funny? And how can it sneak up on you?

A book definition might be that humour is when we make an unexpected connection between two seemingly unconnected things:

My dog’s got no nose.

How does he smell?

Awful

The humour comes from the fact that “how does he smell?” has two meanings. It is a surprising connection between the dog’s nose and what it smells like.

But while that works as a joke, it doesn’t have the “sneak up on you” quality that we are looking for. It’s a short laugh. A single event. Bang. Then nothing. It is an amuse bouche that does not linger long on the palate.

Let’s take a look at the classic dead parrot sketch by Monty Python. If you haven’t seen it (where have you been?), you can find it here.

At one level, the sketch is funny because of the language it uses. The John Cleese character uses ever more flowery phrases to make his point. This is a late parrot. It has ceased to be.

Part of the subtle humour in the scene comes from the two characters. The shop keeper is devious, but none too bright. He keeps looking for ever more ridiculous ways to dupe the customer. By contrast, the customer is an upper class twit. He is full of education but is only dimly aware that he is being conned.

As the scene unfolds we see more of their character. It is our old friend “show not tell” again. They don’t tell us what the characters are – they show it to us.

At another level, it’s a comment on the consumer society. The retail industry is constantly conning us and we usually fall for it. We could replace that dead parrot with anti-ageing cream or the latest diet or the magazines that promise to give you a six-pack in only ten days or the latest mobile phone or …

Another example. Last night I half watched, half dozed through the 2010 film of the A Team. I know, I know, it’s not the height of literature. Or even a very good film. But there is this one scene where our heroes find themselves in a tank falling from a military aircraft on parachutes. Meanwhile remote controlled drones are trying to shoot them down.

They escape by firing the tank’s gun to change their trajectory so that they land in a lake instead of hard ground. Very cheesy, but fun. Here’s the link.

Half way through the scene, one of the characters says “They are trying to fly that tank”.

And again we have comedy working on two levels. At one level we have the absurdity of flying a tank. We all know that tanks, like elephants, can’t fly. Except here is one that can.

On a more subtle level, the scene is funny because it is in character. Yet again the A team are finding an ingenious way to escape. It’s an extreme example of the sort of thing we expect to see them doing.

Good comedy nearly always come down to character, not a one-off pun or joke. It’s the joke we notice first. It may be the thing that we remember. But it’s the underlying character that makes the joke work as well as it does.

That is the thing that has surprised me most about my writing adventure. Readers have talked more about the characters than anything else.

I don’t start with character when I am planning a book. I start with a premise. In the case of Global Domination for Beginners, the basic premise was that the hero would be the bad guy in the James Bond style story. From that I had to invent a character who would want to take over the world and have the capability to do it.

That meant I had to give him a back story and a personality. And surround him with other characters who also have depth and texture.

And as I wrote the story, more and more of the main character’s personality developed. It felt at times as if he was a real person telling me what he wanted to do. On several occasions I started writing a scene with one ending in mind, but then my characters would rebel. If I asked them to do something out of character they would refuse.

That may be the answer. The sneaky humour that the reviewer is talking about is not necessarily British. I think it is character driven.

Characters make stories.

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