The basic premise of humor is truth. No joke gets a laugh if people do not recognize it as real. For example, in many parts of the world the black market flourishes for sugar, tobacco, eggs, meat etc. In the USA no jokes about the black market are heard, because we have no basic lack and therefore no under the counter sales. We do have a big flesh trade of prostitution, women and children – but clearly that is not funny to anyone except smarmy sex perverts. We do have a lack of honest politicians but they are getting their licks now on stage and later at the ballot box.
Rule 1: Make fun of yourself. This gets a laugh and no one is hurt. Humor that is directed to someone personally is usually not funny, although there are exceptions, like celebrities and politicians. A good example is President Abe Lincoln who was accused of being two-faced. He answered; If I were two-faced would I be wearing this one? 150 years have gone by and it’s still funny.
Rule 2: Physical humor. Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Danny Kaye made a fortune falling down and getting laughs. Van Dyke tripped over the same ottoman every week. Unfortunately 3 of these comics paid a price in physical ailments later in life. But it is still funny and especially with children. The movie Beethoven continues to be a top seller, and I’ve shown it in China to roaring laughter with all ages. So physical humor can teach without language.
Rule 3: Verbal jokes, puns, or a phrase turned on its head. The stage play staring Mrs. Malaprop is a good example. A phrase I like is “Time wounds all heels.” Of course you expect to hear time heals all wounds. However, that is actually not true. Time heals nothing, although it may cover it over with a thin layer. And remember, something must be true to be funny. But time wounds all heels is a statement many people need if they have been mistreated.
Rule 4: Understatement/Overstatement. This is a subtle way to declaw a problem situation. When people are laughing or even smiling a touchy mess can be averted. But it takes some real thought. I started being funny when I was about 10, and seeing other people, even strangers, laughing at me was intoxicating. I had some failures of course but I learned. Here are 2 examples:
1. An angry customer comes into the shop with a damaged item purchased there. After a few minutes of what might turn out to be an hour of haranguing, what do you say?
“I am sorry Ma’m. Perhaps I should kill myself.”
Don’t say this with a question mark at the end, as you don’t really want an answer. I heard this exchange once and it had everyone at the complaint desk chuckling.
2. For understatement, word humor, surprise and ridiculousness this little poem by the late very funny Ogden Nash is an example:
I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”
Rule 4: Surprise. Maybe this should be at Number 1. All humor has within it an element of surprise. Your audience is expecting one thing and gets another. Most of the examples above have surprise endings. Stand up comics use cursing mostly because (a) they have thin material and (b) they know the shock value of swearing always gets a laugh because the audience is embarrassed. But the top notch comedians don’t have to go there. Jay Leno is funny every night; yes we know he has writers, but his timing is perfect too. (Fred Allen turned the pregnant pause into a standard laugh line in every show.) Leno edits what they write to fit his style. He really is never hateful to anyone. He shows real people acting incredibly stupid.
Rule 6: You can create a character to do your humor for you. I don’t have this talent but ventriloquists use dummies to say true or even savage things. I especially like Jeff Dunham and the dummy who says he plans to kill everyone. Most dummies do not swear, but they use their caricature bodies to send a message too. And frequently they make fun of the voice-masters. Dummies, like Lamb Chop, can have nice and kind messages too. Humor works with children as well as adults, and kids are more likely to remember animals words than adults. The gospel can use humor. The new Superbook video series is all of the above.
There is humor in the Bible – often missed. I’ll do that some other time.