How to Get a RISE Out of Your Audience
In Four Key Elements of Humor, we learned that a funny story begins with a crisis. Now we’ll talk about how to build on that crisis so your story will RISE like a veritable flood of funniness! (Yes, I realize that’s a really cheesy statement.)
Ridicule – There may be no more basic form of humor than ridicule. We all do it. Wives make fun of their husbands. Employees lampoon their bosses. Kids mock their parents. Ridicule is directed at what others are proud of: authority, self-image, dignity, expertise.
- I had an epically pompous college literature prof; once he made a pronouncement, there was nothing more to be said. The class was aching to see him taken down. One day he proclaimed, “All books titled after a character are named for their protagonist (hero).” He rattled off examples: “Huckleberry Finn, Anna Karenina, Don Quixote…” Then the class anarchist Stuart quietly muttered, “Moby Dick.” And the class cheered.
- Ridicule yourself. You’re the person it’s safest to make fun of. Plus, self-mockery buys you the right to make fun of others (and besides, you probably deserve it).
Inappropriateness – Inappropriate behavior has always been a comic staple (Shakespeare used it). It’s big in modern entertainment, too. On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon displayed shocking disrespect for scientist Stephen L. Hawking’s disabilities. What made it work were Hawking’s hilariously rude responses.
- A comedian I saw referenced a news story about a man who was bitten by his pet cobra. Insensitively imitating the snake owner, the comedian admonished, “No! Bad cobra!” making a teaching moment out of his last seconds on earth. Dark. But funny.
Exaggeration – (I know, E should be last. I have my reasons.) Remember, humor is about truth, and exaggeration is the most fundamental way to emphasize truth, because it holds a magnifying glass up to how people feel.
- A high school friend and I argued constantly. One day we argued all the way through Gym class, in the showers, and back to our lockers. We tossed our towels in the bin and walked out onto campus, arguing–until we heard laughter. We looked around. People were laughing at us. Why? We looked down…and discovered we’d left the gym naked. When I tell the story, I say, “Two million people were laughing at us—on a campus of eight hundred,” because that’s how it felt.
Surprise – Identify the funniest thing in your story and save it for last. And don’t “telegraph” the ending–that is, don’t tip off your reader/audience in advance. The biggest laughs come from two s’s, actually: Set-up and Surprise. Read a funny writer like Dave Barry or watch a good stand-up comedian and you’ll see this two-punch at work.
- My 2 1/2-year-old daughter Beth had reached the stage where she was ready to use the potty-training seat all by herself! “Squeak, click,” went the bathroom door. A moment later, there was a blood-curdling scream. I turned into SuperDad and flew to the loo. Shake! Rattle! The door was locked! “What’s wrong, honey?” I was answered by a plaintive cry of despair. Bam! I kicked the door open and tumbled into the bathroom where Beth stood cradling her finger. I grabbed it and kissed it all over. “Ohhh, what happened honey?” Tears in her eyes, she said, “I got poo-poo on it.”
Humor is truth.