Tips on Writing Humor, Part Two

Really, Spring? Is this some kind of joke?

This month, Part Two of Tips on Writing Humor takes a peek at how farce and sarcasm are used in fiction.


In my search for humorous reads, I picked up the perfect book: The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs,  from the hilarious trilogy about Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld, author of that great triumph of Germanic scholarship, Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The book is by Alexander McCall Smith, the prolific and illustrious author of many other series, including the popular No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I enjoy all of McCall-Smith's books, though I found the Von Igelfeld trilogy the most delightful. Anyone can take these books at face value and enjoy them. But I had to keep my wits about me, for I was on an important comedic quest. So, hang on. Some of what I found may not seem to pertain to writing, but as I quickly learned how LARGE the subject of humor is, I realized I wanted to learn as much as I could in order to use humor effectively.

Von Igelfeld goes to America

In his article, "An Anatomy of Farce," Michael Arditti helped me make sense of the premise behind Von Igelfeld's shenanigans.

                           "The action of a farce is propelled by panic, with characters lying to save
                           face, which compounds their troubles since they now have to deal not only
                           with the original problem but also they lie and hence they behave even
                           more bizarrely."

Not to be outdone by his colleague, Printzel, who had been invited to America, Von Igelfeld connived to obtain an invitation to visit America himself, and leave before Printzel had a chance to go. He believed he better represented German philology, his area of expertise, far better than the inferior Printzel. Off Von Igelfeld went, not to prestigious-sounding New York or California, but to the University of Arkansas in the Ozark mountains. Upon arrival, Von Igelfeld is flummoxed by his host's insistence on visiting his hog operation before anything else. The professor  " . . . sniffed the air; it was distinctly malodorous."

                          "In farce, after the first ten minutes there’s no time to make jokes because
                          they’re so busy running around;  the laughs come from character and situation.
                          The biggest laughs in farce are on lines like “what?”

Von Igelfeld is equally confused by the farmer's questions on doses of vitamin C, B, potassium. We soon realize Von Igelfeld's dilemma when he finds he has been mistaken for Professor Martin Igelfold, author of Further Studies of Canine Pulmonary Efficiency, and the world authority on sausage dogs, from the University of M√ľnster. While Von Igelfeld had come to America to discuss verbs, he finds that he is expected to lecture to an audience of scientists, veterinarians and dog breeders on a subject he knows nothing about: sausage dogs. (He didn't know that sausage dogs were first brought to America by German settlers in the 1890's and bred  here ever since). And so the lies begin. And grow to monstrous proportions in the professor's attempts to save face. Even later he maintains his cool when confronted by a guest who pulls him aside to tell him how sorry he was to read about his death. But no worries, professor. The guest assured him his obituary had been a glowing account.

Satire 101

Satire can be directed toward an individual, a country, or even the world. It can be serious, as when used as a protest or for exposure. In humor it is used to make fun of something or someone. At its best, satire is used as a vehicle for improvement. Here is as example of how Mark Twain used satire:

                         "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written shortly after the Civil War,
                         in which slavery was one of the key issues. While Mark Twain's father had
                         slaves throughout his childhood, Twain did not believe that slavery was right
                         in any way. Through the character of Jim, and the major moral dilemma that
                         followed Huck throughout the novel, Twain mocks slavery and makes
                         a strong statement about the way people treated slaves."

Verbal and Dramatic Irony: In irony, words are used to show the opposite of the actual meaning. An example of verbal irony is when a friend shows up for dinner and the host says, "Look who the cat dragged in." Described in several ways in the article "Types of Irony," dramatic irony is:
  • considered by many writers as a potent tool for exciting and sustaining readers' interest
  • a plot device used to create situations where the reader knows much more about the episodes and resolutions before the characters
  • involves the reader, raises expectations, intensifies episodes, and propels stories forward.
Examples of dramatic irony include Shakespeare's plays, such as Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet; Animal Farm by George Orwell, where the reader is aware of many more facts than the animals. O. Henry's short story, "The Gift of the Magi" is an excellent example, found on the online resource Your Dictionary:

                        A poor couple, very much in love, want to give a Christmas gift to
                       one another. "She is very proud of her long, beautiful hair and he is equally
                       proud of his pocket watch. The irony comes in to play when she cuts and
                       sells her hair to buy him a chain for his watch, and he sells the watch to buy
                       her combs for her hair." 

Parody: Directly mimics a subject for a humorous effect. A well-known example is how Saturday Night Live often parodies movies, commercials and television shows. As described at, in literature Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, parodied, " . . . in the style of Spanish romances of the 16th century to mock the idealism of knights in the contemporary romances." When combined with satire, parody can make satire more effective. It adds flavor and helps keep the reader's interest. In order to be successful, the original subject must be thoroughly known. 

Sarcasm: Sharp or cutting remarks get their meaning across with sarcasm, but need to be made with a light touch in order to be humorous and not hurtful. Some of the most famous funny sarcastic remarks were made by Groucho Marx: "I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception," and ""Marriage is the chief cause of divorce."

For Kicks and Giggles

Screwball Comedy: Now I learned something here. At first, movies like Dumb and Dumber immediately came to mind as examples of screwball comedy. But according to the Wiki definition, Dumb and Dumber is an example of slapstick comedy, the type of comedy portrayed by absurd situations and physical antics. Screwball comedy originated in Hollywood, and lasted from 1934 to 1942. Like Some Like it Hot and The Philadelphia Story, this type of movie offered up romantic comedies with farcical situations; such films provided escape and offered hope during the Great Depression. The current romantic comedy Date Night, starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, is noted as containing some screwball comedy elements. Goodreads provides a short list of current screwball comedy books at

Dark Comedy: Takes an otherwise serious subject and makes it humorous, such as in HBO's True Blood series about vampires living among the residents of Bon Temps, Mississippi. Examples in literature include, Kurt Vonnegut's books, Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, and A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess.

More Ways to Exercise your Funny Bone
  • Amuse yourself, and take honest pleasure in your amusement. Dinty Moore, from How to Be Funny, edited by John B. Kachuka
  • Be honest. Characters need to make choices that feel real in the context of the world that you've created. Dinty Moore, from How to Be Funny, edited by John B. Kachuka
  • Your humor must move the story forward or illuminate your theme. Justin Halpern
  • Surprise Yourself: Take the world as it is and show it to us upside-down. You must surprise yourself first. You must be . . . a bit of an anarchist, someone who doesn't mind shouting a bit, or telling ani-knock knock jokes. Robin Hemley, "Relaxing the rules of Reason," from How to Be Funny, Kachuka.
  • Keep a Humor Log: Collect funny names and incidences. When you find yourself laughing at something, or something funny occurs to you, write it down. If writing for children, note what age group the humor might appeal to."Writing Humor--But, Seriously, Folks," by Esther Blumenfeld and Lynne Alpern, Writer's Digest, January 1982.
  • Listen to humor in TV shows: Go into another room and listen to television comedies; listen for the plot development, the setup, placement and rhythm of funny lines and the building to a climax. "Writing Humor--But, Seriously, Folks," by Esther Blumenfeld and Lynne Alpern, Writer's Digest, January 1982.
  • Read humor analyses by such comics as Jack Benny and Johnny Carson. I've begun by buying, How to Write Funny, edited by John B. Kachuba, which is a compilation of essays by humorists and is chock full of good advice.


Next month: You Know You're a Writer When . . .

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-10 year olds. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Magdalena Ball said...

A very informative post, Linda. Some of the novels you cite as dark humor are actually a long cry from being funny, but as you clearly demonstrate, humor isn't just about slapstick and laughing outloud. It can also be powerful and thought-provoking.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Maggie. Learning about humor has been an eye-opener. Like everything else in writing, it's a challenge to try for laughs. And the challenge has made writing more fun!

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great post Linda. Writing with humor is not an easy task.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, this is an excellent article. You break down the different forms of writing humor and give easy to understand explanations. There is certainly a lot that goes into it.

I love the screwball comedies Arsenic and Old Lace and The Philadelphia Story!

Thanks for sharing this with us!

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Mary Jo and Karen. I'm glad I now know what screwball comedy is! I love the movies but didn't know what that type of comedy was called.

Unknown said...

Great post, as always!! And I LOVE the picture :)

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Tracy! At this point I think Kona (the dog in the picture) is the only one who still loves snow in the entire U.S.!

Melinda Brasher said...

Great post. Humor is so hard to pin down. And I too, loved "The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs."

Linda Wilson said...

Yay, another sausage dog fan! I'm still laughing. I haven't read the other two--must get them at the library today. :) I said it in Part One, but will say it again. The biggest thing I learned about writing humor is that like everything else, it has to move the story forward and/or highlight the theme. Wow, what a big help. I had humor in my story but it stopped the action. Now I'm making the humor fit one of those two categories. Thanks for writing, Melinda.

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