11.32: The Element of Humor

“Talking about humor is the least funny thing you can do.” —Howard Tayler

You have been warned! and with that out of the way…

What is the driving force that gets readers to turn pages in a book that is primarily a work of humor? More importantly, how do we as writers get that driver into our books? We cover this, and provide some starting points for writers seeking to improve their humor writing, along with a bunch of neat techniques, and (as apparent from the liner notes) a long example for deconstruction.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Liner Notes: here are the lyrics we cited from “Love is Strange” (Galavant). We’ve added superscript numbers from the Rule of Three exercise.

¹Love is strange,
And sometimes kind of gross¹
It’s embarrassingly gassy²
And it leaves its dirty underwear
In piles around the place³

²Love is rude, it has a sort of smell¹
And it thinks that you don’t notice²
And it blurts out things
That make you want to smack its stupid face³

³And it’s awkward and confusing¹
It annoys you half to death²
Then it grins that dopey grin
And you can’t catch your breath³

The full song is available here, for $1.29 (link provided out of courtesy to the original artists whose work we deconstructed for educational purposes.)


Get a funny book, and highlight or underline appearances of the rule of three, and comic drops.

Death by Cliché, by Robert J. Defendi


8 thoughts on “11.32: The Element of Humor”

  1. I don’t usually comment, but there was something that really struck me in this podcast, and that was the mention of horror and comedy being similar. I’ve kind trying to explore that concept ever since I read John Dies at the End by David Wong, which despite being both crass and vulgar, it is a very good book. Sure, the pacing is weird and the plot is a bit disjointed, but it was originally written as a serial, so I can forgive it that. It’s also one of the best Lovecraftian horrors and absolutely hilarious. Sure, there’s a lot of dick jokes, but they’re well delivered dick jokes. The parts that are funny feed into and are part of the horror in a way I’m not entirely sure how to describe. There are moments where I was laughing while being absolutely horrified. I would use a different book for examples if I had one, but again, John Dies at the End and its sequel (not as much the movie) do a great job of delivering on this idea. Sorry it’s a crude book.

    There is a scene where the big bad is revealed, and it makes fun of the protagonist’s dick size, and you realize that this Eldritch horror that has been guiding an entire world for at least decades has the mentality of a 12 year old and it slowly dawns on the reader that something with that much power and the mentality of a 12 year old is even more horrifying.

    The book is also interesting because it deals with a lot of base and cultural fears. For instance there’s a scene where a doorknob turns into a big flaccid penis, and the protagonists determine that the door can no longer be opened. It’s funny, their reaction is funny, but they don’t try to use the knob after that, they just mutually agree that they’re going either die in the sewage or find another way out, because they’re two twenty something males from middle America, of course they’d rather die than touch a penis, it’s an ingrained cultural fear. Even aside of the homophobia, touching genitalia in general requires a bit of trust and/or alcohol.

    Ok, I’m not doing it justice and I’m not really here to talk about that book except as one of the only instances of horror and humor coming together and building off each other that I have seen.

    It would be really interesting to hear further thoughts on this idea, and if the podcast cast has seen this happen much of anywhere else. I’m also wondering if perhaps using both can increase tension because you’re not always sure if you’re going to be exposed to something funny, horrifying or both.

    Seriously, this relationship, and the lack of information on it, has been driving me insane for years. I tried to write a paper about it for writing classes more than once and just could not find enough to make anything of it. Did manage to write a paper about why Saruman was not irredeemably evil though, so I’ve got that going for me.

  2. Another enjoyable episode, as always.

    I’m curious, have you guys come across the ‘benign violation’ theory of humor? I ran across it recently, and it seemed to do a good job at boiling it down to a fairly simple set of principles.

    1. Yup! I read The Humor Code the day it came out, and I use that model all the time. It’s not a very good troubleshooting tool unless you have a zillion other tools at your disposal as well, because it’s too low-level. Electron shell models don’t help you troubleshoot your souffle.

  3. How many humor writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Three. One to set it up, one to screw it in, and one to give it a great twist (surprising, yet inevitable!) at the end.

    And in this case, four writers, talking about humor, bring us the rule of 3, reversals, comic drops and plenty of other hints to help you, too, make people laugh. So…

    Knock, knock.
    Who’s there?
    Tran who?
    Transcript is in the archive, and also over here…


    I know it’s not funny, but… read the transcript!

  4. @Mike B

    Thanks for that tip. It’s just what I needed. I think making the attempted humor seem benign (to the audience) has been a specific weakness of the humor in my writing. Thanks.

  5. I was struck by the correlation between horror and comedy. I actually just rewatched “What About Bob?” recently with the context of genre in mind and it occurred to me that you wouldn’t need to change the script at all for it to be a horror instead of a comedy. You would just need to change the delivery of the lines and the choices of music and cinematography.

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