You know that serious meditation and scrupulous study of the Buddha’s wisdom leads the fortunate few to the edge of a precipice, beyond which there is nothing at all. It’s a void. Experiencing the emptiness that promises nibbana after you fall off the cliff means, among other things, that you embrace the ultimate truth: there is no soul, or God, or life after death. This knowledge frees you from the bonds of conventional wisdom, and it is oddly comforting. The ultimate happiness is the sound of one hand clapping. That’s when you realize that most people are boobs.
For one thing, effective humor is ambush humor. It is a grave mistake for writers to think that readers remember the first part of a paragraph, when what makes the most impression is what comes last. People walk away from the paragraph above chuckling about the delusions most people suffer from.
“Boob” is a very funny word. It means one of two things: a harmless stupid person, or a woman’s breast. Women use “boobs” a lot, since they come in pairs, but when women use the singular “boob” it can refer either to a mosquito bite or her husband. (See how that works?)
Now I am going to re-structure the sentence so that “boob” isn’t a punchline. By moving the one sentence, I am able to leave the reader with a completely different impression.
You know that serious meditation and scrupulous study of the Buddha’s wisdom leads the fortunate few to the edge of a precipice, beyond which there is nothing at all. It’s a void. Experiencing the emptiness that promises nibbana after you fall off the cliff means, among other things, that you embrace the ultimate truth: there is no soul, or God, or life after death. That’s when you realize that most people are boobs. This knowledge frees you from the bonds of conventional wisdom, and it is oddly comforting. The ultimate happiness is the sound of one hand clapping.
Get it? You could start the paragraph with a joke if you wanted, but if you end it with the words there is no soul, or God, or life after death, that is what the reader will take away.
You can avoid clichés by turning them on their heads. If he eats like a horse, but gulps his food down and is finished eating before anyone else, it means that in reality, he eats like a Labrador retriever. And since most people don’t know Labrador retrievers for the gluttons that they are, you’ve made a tired cliché funny, and you’ve also educated the public about watching your plate where there are Labrador retrievers around.
Schnauzers are funnier dogs, but they don’t eat like Labs do.
Metaphors are the stuff of life. Labels are meaningless, but comparing things to other things is how we understand stuff. Other than word choice itself, metaphors are also ways to brand your style with some flair and pzazz. Consider:
The meeting went fine until Jeremy announced that he was leaving the firm. Borrr-ing.
The meeting went fine until Jeremy dropped a bombshell by announcing that he was leaving the firm. Cliched.
The meeting went fine until Jeremy threw a grenade into the room by announcing that he was leaving the firm. Not cliched and more descriptive about the effect Jeremy’s announcement had on the people in the meeting. Hand grenades are funny. The only two sports where “almost” counts are horseshoes and hand grenades.
Writing in the active voice provides additional opportunity to use more vivid language. Avoid qualifiers. It may not be as grammatically correct as Mrs. Grundy expected in 11th grade English, but readers appreciate it. (Not readers will appreciate it, although that might be more accurate.)
Maggie walked to the corner store to buy some apples.
What’s the backstory? Did she lumber down to the corner store because she is overweight, or dance down the street, providing a kind of Holly Golightly feel, or did she limp down the street? Dashed down the street. Stumbled down the street. Skipped down the street. Dragged her tired ass down the street. Roller skated down the street. In each instance you’ve livened your writing up considerably by using a more active active voice, and added detail that tells you a lot more about Maggie than her mere destination and purpose. It’s funnier if you replace the apples with gefeltefish.
Maggie is having an affair with Kurt. Or, Maggie is shagging Kurt. Little turns of phrases, playing with single words, it’s that kind of thing that makes a writer’s work entertaining. For humor, it’s absolutely essential.
He flew through the air like a bird. Or, he flew through the air like a rock shot out of a slingshot. Once during a training exercise in Key West I accidentally got launched 30 feet into the air and landed 150 feet out into the Caribbean, and had to be rescued by Coast Guardsmen who were laughing their asses off. I did not feel like a bird. I didn’t choose to fly that day. I was definitely a rock.
My mom was a well-known laugher. Even her 1942 High School Yearbook talked about how she loved to laugh, and be around people who made her laugh, which was not hard to do.
But mom had a friend who was one of the most unpleasant, humorless woman anyone could meet. In a community context, my family was retired military in a community full of retired military people, and were friends with a number of retired guys who’d married German girls after World War II, until all the men died off, leaving my dad holding the bag for at least a half-dozen former frauleins. Among them was Hildeborg, the sourpuss no one could stand to be around except for Mom. But Hildeborg and my mother shared a passion for riverboat gambling and made several trips a year together to hit the casinos. No one understood why they were so close.
When my mother died in 2010, I wrote and read her eulogy. In homage to her sense of humor, I started with this story:
I don’t know how many of you know this, but in 1943 my mother Dorothy DeBolzo, who was only 18, parachuted behind enemy lines with the OSS in German-controlled Italy. Before she was extracted, she had stolen the secret plans the Wehrmacht developed for their retreat. She also seduced an SS Nazi Colonel, and then cut his throat while he was sleeping.
A hush fell over the room. I continued.
And that’s just the kind of story that would crack my mother up.
Mom did serve in the WACS during World War II, but I doubt that she killed anybody. She was a clerk-typist. But I didn’t hear the rest of the story until several years later at the VFW, where I meet my dad and his Teutonic harem once a month for community breakfast. On one occasion, Hildeborg wasn’t present, as she had flown back to Germany to visit her family. In her absence, all the other German ladies took the opportunity to gossip about her.
That’s when I heard the rest of the story. I don’t know that any of the German women made the connection, but it seems that Mom and Hildeborg had more in common than slot machines.
“She vass in the German army, you know,” one of the women told me. She and Mom were veterans, once mortal enemies, then the best of friends.
The gossiper continued. “She vass a Nazi!”
Mel Brooks once said that his goal in life was to get people to laugh at Adolph Hitler. Brooks was in combat engineers during the latter part of the war. You know what combat engineers do? They find and defuse land mines.
I saw the humor in my mom’s relationship with Hildeborg, and when the punchline “She vass a Nazi” came up, I couldn’t help but laugh.
Mel Brooks would have chuckled, too.