ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: H is for Humor

Posted by on Jul 13, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.09.35 PMComedy in nonfiction is invaluable. It is a relief and a delight. Practically speaking, it decreases hostility, breaks tension, creates neutral ground, introduces commercial viability, adds energy to a piece, increases the writer’s likeability, and entertains.

How can we, as writers, hone our humor? Just as we study characterization, plotting, voice, persona, beginnings, middlings, and endings, humor is just another literary tool in our shed that, with practice, can be more expertly wielded.

Let’s take a quick look at comedy. Let’s unpack jokes and examine their inner workings so that we may learn to assemble our own. Let’s study the techniques of the ticklers.

Peter McGraw at the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) claims the key to comedy is to create a benign-violation. Benign, in this case, means safety in the joke, an alignment with your readers’ understanding of the world. And violation means the opposite—a misalignment with your readers’ worldview. Too far on the left of the benign-violation spectrum and the joke is, well, not a joke. It’s a bland statement. Boring. Too far to the right and you risk offending the reader.

Let’s put this theory to the jest.

In Nora Ephron’s collection I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman, she writes, “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

What’s the violation of the joke? The mere idea that your pet is more excited to greet you than your children. And the benign? That it’s true.

The angst of teenagers and the devotion of dogs are ideas with which readers can identify, and when a writer describes something the reader deems to be undeniably true (an alignment with their worldview), endorphins are released in the reader’s brain. The reader discovers an ally, and that gratification provokes a mental squeal.

Here’s an example more on the violation end of the spectrum. In David Sedaris’s essay “Ashes” from his book Naked, he writes:

“The first time I met my future brother-in-law, he was visiting my parents’ home and had his head deep in the oven. I walked into the kitchen and, mistaking him for one of my sisters, grabbed his plump, denim-clad bottom and proceeded to knead it with both hands. He panicked, smacking his head against the oven’s crusty ceiling. ‘Oh, golly,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry. I thought you were Lisa.’”

Here, Sedaris finds the sweet spot on the benign-violation continuum. Pinching a strange man’s rear-end is a transgression—a violation—but Sedaris’s incorrect assumption that the person is his sister renders the gesture harmless, or benign. Had Sedaris knowingly harassed his future brother-in-law, intending to make him uncomfortable, the action would have more of a malevolent edge and wouldn’t read as humorously. The flavor of violation would be too strong and would overwhelm the reader’s palate. Alternatively, consider if Sedaris had walked into the kitchen and simply greeted his brother-in-law by his sister’s name. The mistake would be the same, but the action would be too benign to amuse. Here, where benignity and violation live in harmony, Sedaris, his future brother-in-law, and the reader are comfortably tense.

With the benign-violation theory in mind, let’s inspect self-deprecation. Self-deprecation, the act of undervaluing yourself, is a delicate trick of comedy. When done poorly, the writer is too hard on himself, looks pathetic (a violation), and puts off the reader. When done well, the writer invites the readers to laugh along with him, while simultaneously maintaining confidence and saving face. You don’t want your reader to sympathize with you but, rather, to align themselves with you.

“The reason I look like this is because my father was from Sweden and my mother was Elton John.”—Jim Gaffigan

The self-deprecation in the above excerpt is obvious—Gaffigan is making light of his appearance. But he does so in moderation. After all, it isn’t necessarily belittling to compare yourself to Elton John, one of the greatest musicians of our time. True, it’s a little harsher to compare your mother’s physical appearance to Elton John, but still. It would have been more of a self-abuse had a humorist written, “The reason I’m so utterly repulsive is because my father was Swedish and my mother was a blobfish.” Even though blobfish is still a comical association, the first half of the sentence, the use of “utterly repulsive,” makes this alternative too brutal to fully enjoy.

Self-deprecation in humor writing is a safer alternative to ridiculing others. When you joke at someone else’s expense, you risk sounding cruel, which detracts from the potential comedy in the joke. There are, however, ways to benign-ify your insults. Gaffigan uses one tactic here. The sole person who might take offense to the above statement is Elton John (and, I suppose, Gaffigan’s mother). But when the reader senses the butt of your joke is so successful that he isn’t vulnerable to your tease, it’s safe to laugh. You can additionally create distance between the joke and the subject of your joke by choosing a person who is long dead, like say Frank Lloyd Wright. So, good news—organic architecture jokes are finally up for grabs.

So when you are faced with a line that just isn’t funny enough, here’s the basic technique for revision: determine where it falls on the benign-violation spectrum. If it reads too bold, soften it. How? Create distance between the reader and the subject of the joke, choose a subject who isn’t vulnerable, or temper the joke with quiet word choice. If, on the other hand, it reads too banal, add some spice. How? Consider stronger word choice and the element of surprise.

Now that I’ve sliced the above jokes into a bloody mess and probed their innards, hopefully the benign-violation theory can be added to your literary armory and sharpened over time. If not, I think we can all agree on at least one thing: there is no faster way to slaughter a joke than by explaining what makes it funny.


Alena Dillon is the author of the humor collection I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean, available on Amazon. Her work has appeared in publications including Bustle, The Rumpus, The Huffington Post, and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review. She earned her MFA from Fairfield University and teaches writing at St. Joseph’s College and Endicott College.

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