302 – Humor in Stories
What’s that, you want to know how to tell jokes in fiction? I guess we could… humor you. Yeah, that’s about the level of comedy you should expect from this podcast, but on the bright side, we do have some actual insights into how humor works in fiction. We talk about why some jokes are funny and some aren’t, how to add humor when you’re inexperienced, and when you absolutely shouldn’t make something into a joke. Also, witty banter. So much witty banter.
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Once Upon a Trope
- Dead on Arrival
- The Lower Decks
- Roll Dice Already
- Lesson From the Terrible Writing of Eragon
- Nancy Drew TV Show
- Fred Colon
- Nobby Nobbs
- Captain Carrot
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- The Orville
- Dragon Prince
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Wes and Oren. And we are talking about humor, but I hope you were not actually expecting this opening to be humorous. We are very dull people. We are here to study humor on a purely theoretical level. There will be no joking around, and absolutely none of those liberal puns, which are not funny by the way.
Oren: They’re definitely not. They’re a sign that your humors are out of balance. [Wes laughs]
Chris: No. No puns. [Wes and Oren laugh harder]
Oren: I’m sorry, Chris. I don’t know what you expected.
Chris: This is a very serious topic. We’ll be examining theoretical humor. It’s a dry and dull subject.
Oren: I’ve actually decided that comedy is not allowed anymore, because every time we explain storytelling rules, some very big brained person comes along and is like, “But what about this comedy that doesn’t do that thing you’re talking about?” And I don’t have time to explain to you that comedy is different than drama. So, instead, I’m just going to ban comedy. That’s my solution.
Wes: Probably a safe one.
Chris: “A site for a speculative fiction storytellers, except for comedians. Go away.”
Wes [laughing]: Yeah, go away.
Oren: None of that nonsense around here, sir.
Chris: So, yeah, we’re going to talk about humor. I’m not going to go out of my way to create jokes. I was being totally serious. Don’t make me make jokes. Okay. But I’ll talk a little bit about how humor works. Definitely humor affects the story. We’ve discussed that a little bit recently in the blog, and we’ll get into that here. My first rule of being funny is to never believe you’re funny.
Oren: Yeah. Right. I mean, easily done. [Chris and Wes laugh]
Chris: Wes, you had a quote from one of my Q and A’s, I think, you wanted to bring in. This might be a good place.
Wes: I really liked this one. It gets to the point of your introduction to this. Chris has this quote that basically says, “Generally, when I’m writing humor into a story, I aim to rely on the humor not working. That means making sure all the witty lines also have a storytelling purpose, and aren’t just there as jokes. If you do that, then it’s okay if it doesn’t come off as funny as you were hoping. You can keep practicing without worrying about getting it wrong.”
And that’s great because – I will say everyone, but it’s probably just me – I’ve made plenty of jokes that didn’t land. And then I just sit there staring at everybody.
Oren: That’s why you should only ever tell puns. Because the whole point of a pun is that it doesn’t work. No one likes puns. It’s beautiful. I love it.
Chris: Doesn’t that just defeat the point of a joke though? Isn’t the purpose of a joke to bring joy into people’s lives?
Oren: You know, that’s what I thought, but then I discovered puns. Apparently not.
Wes: The purpose of Oren’s puns is to induce groaning. [groans exaggeratedly] The worst thing about a pun is that the second someone says it, everyone knows it and everyone hates it.
Chris: Basically, I think that if you think of yourself as a funny person – and hey, maybe other people do manage to think of themselves funny, and they’re still funny and that’s great, good for them – but that’s the point where you start to go out on a limb and rely on your lines to be funny to work, instead of slipping them in there.
It’s the same principle for references. We’ve talked about references before, where some stories will slip in inside references to the world, or to the actors playing the characters, or other things like that. And for some of them, if you don’t understand what it’s referencing, it’s just weird. Like, why did we take a dramatic pause introducing this character? It turns out this character is being played by a really famous actor, or a famous one within the community that they expect to watch this story. That’s weird. Or there can just be a familiar actor you can take joy from that doesn’t do a dramatic pause that makes other people scratch their heads.
This is why I think banter also works really well in tech stories, because a lot of times your conversation is also accomplishing something else. It could be an argument or a conflict or otherwise moving the plot forward, but you can also slip some wittyness in there. And if people don’t think it’s funny, it’s okay. It’s still moving things forward and maybe people just think it’s amusing and not funny, that kind of thing. Certainly that’s my go-to when it comes to putting humor in stories: To not try to call attention to it, to multitask.
Oren: All right. Can I put two jokes before you? Two movie jokes that I have very opposite reactions to, and see if I can get your take on maybe why I’d have those reactions. Because I have a really hard time intellectualizing my response to humor.
Chris: Okay. But first: Are those jokes puns?
Oren: No. And also they’re not my jokes. I didn’t make them up.
Wes [impersonating Oren]: “Can I test some material out on you guys?” [all laugh]
Chris [also impersonating Oren]: “I swear these come from movies!”
Oren: Welcome to my open mic night. I guess maybe even calling these jokes is wrong, but they’re supposed to be funny. One of them is from Thor: Ragnarok and the other is from Avengers: Infinity War. The first one is near the end, the rock character that Taika Waititi plays. I forgot that the rock character’s name, but he has this weird line as they’ve just fled Asgard, and are watching it basically fall apart.
And he’s like, “Well, the damage isn’t so bad, as long as the foundation lasts, then we’ll make this a haven for outcasts from around the galaxy -” and then the planet explodes. I hated that line. I was like, stop talking. No one asked you to talk. This is an important moment. Why are you talking? I hate you.
Then in Infinity War there’s that line where Peter asks Doctor Strange, “What’s your name?” and he’s straight like, “I’m Doctor Strange.” And Peter’s like, “Oh, we’re using our made up names. Then I’m Spiderman.”
And at that joke, I laughed so hard. I feel like I shouldn’t have, I don’t think it’s that funny, but it just really made me laugh. And I’m trying to figure out, why do I hate the first one but think the second one is hilarious? What is going on?
Chris: Should we get into how humor works and then we can loop back to these a little bit?
Oren: Alright, alright. Sure.
Chris: Because I think that, that kind of brings up some of the things we’ll talk about. For one thing, a lot of people say that humor is subjective. I think that’s a cop out. That’s not our approach at Mythcreants. Technically, sure, stories are subjective. That’s not helpful, right?
We want to know, if there are differences, why are those differences there? And, how can we anticipate differences? All those things are useful.
So humor, first of all, it requires surprise.That means, generally, that events deviate significantly from expectations. Often the opposite happens. For instance, in our Ragnarok joke that you just brought up where he’s like, “Oh, this is going to be a Haven, blah, blah” – the purpose of that is to set up an expectation that is then suddenly subverted – basically all humor is subversive at some level – by the planet suddenly exploding. So we’ve got the surprise, the opposite happens. But: It can’t be an unhappy surprise.
I noticed this with myself, especially, because I really like morbid humor. I think that’s partly because I’m not bothered by – I can throw out the idea of people getting their heads chopped off or whatever. As long as it’s silly and light, and I’m not building attachment around those characters, I’m not bothered by it. I’ll just think it’s funny. Other people: Not so on board.
I have a weekly gag comic I’ll probably talk about more. I’ve been trying to give my comic less morbid twists and punchlines, because I don’t think that many people besides me think that they’re funny. [laughs]
Oren: I did have to remind you about that recently. That was an interesting experience.
Chris: I had to edit that comic, but you know – I’m not a big fan of horror, but I do like things a little on the darker side. So it takes a little bit more negativity to impact me emotionally in a story. I will find some things that a little darker funnier, where other people will just be like, gosh, that’s so sad. So one reason, for instance, the Ragnarok joke might not work is if you just find that sad, and are just unhappy that that planet exploded. That joke’s not going to land so well.
Wes: I’ll offer a little bit more of my thoughts on that. I also didn’t find it that funny, but I wasn’t like, why is that? That character just kind of runs his mouth whenever he’s on screen, so it’s not that out of place. But it’s a good example of situational irony: He’s trying to set something up and then boom, the entire situation changes on you. But you never felt like it wasn’t going to do that. I never did anyway. And that’s why it wasn’t funny.
Chris: You weren’t surprised.
Wes: I wasn’t. Yeah, exactly, Chris. I was not surprised at all.
Oren: Maybe it’s just because they’d already said they were going to destroy Asgard, so I was expecting to watch it explode. And then having this guy who’s not even from Asgard kind of making light of it just seemed rude: “Let me make a joke about your planet as it’s exploding in front of you.” And it’s like, maybe you could not?
Chris: Yeah, it does have to surprise you. If somebody spoils the surprise or you see it coming … they try to set up this expectation, and if you don’t jump on board with that, if it doesn’t actually set your expectation before it subverts it, then the joke will not be funny.
And then, even though you’re surprised by something that significantly deviates from your expectations, it still has to make sense at some level. If it’s just a bizarre twist that comes out of left field, it’s not funny, generally.
Oren: It’s Dadaism.
Chris: This is where a similar set of cultural expectations and cultural references actually become really important. References in the sense of a shared feeling of familiarity about something. It makes a huge difference.
So then we get back to the joke that is funny. That joke is built off of a shared experience with watching all of these movies, where we have this concept of people having two names. This conceit, where they have their real name, and then they have this other name that they give people and it’s inherently kind of absurd, but we’ve just been accepting it. So then when somebody kind of makes a twist based on that, you have that shared experience and the expectations that are set there. And that is what helps it be funny.
My gag comic again is about storytelling tropes. And one thing I’ve learned is that for it to be funny, people do actually have to be familiar with the trope.
And that’s one of the trickiest parts about it, because if I am referencing a trope that not enough people have heard of, it’s not going to be funny to people. They’re just not going to get it. They’re just not going to understand it. At the same time, if it’s so familiar, people have already seen too many jokes about it. It also might be less funny because it’s a little bit cliché. It’s not as surprising.
So it’s trying to find the thing that people aren’t familiar with. Probably my biggest victory in this area is a recent comic that made a joke about how, when you see somebody in a spinny chair, but they’re facing away from you, how they’re always dead. [Wes laughs]
Oren: Or they’re about to do something shady, that’s for sure.
Chris: But either they’re dead or, you know, there’s one other situation in which they’re a villain that has a cat in the lab, but there’s just been way too many TV shows that have just used the same surprise where somebody gets murdered and the protagonists walk up from behind the chair and they’re like, “Fred…?” and they reach out and then the chair suddenly turns around and they’re looking at a slit throat. And we see this horrific-looking expression on their face. It’s just been done so often that people recognize that pattern and the joke becomes funny, and if they don’t, they don’t. So there’s, you know, a certain level of shared experience.
I used to always wonder how the Sunday comics are never funny. I don’t understand how these are successful, but I think the main reason is because they were just for baby boomers. They’re for a different generation of people that have different cultural expectations, and cultural references that help set those expectations, that help make the punchline make sense to them and all those other things.
Oren: Man, if I ever have an arch enemy that I’ve captured and put in a room, I’m going to make them watch Lower Decks without having seen Star Trek before. [Chris and Wes laugh]
But I mean, that was the reason why I decided to retire my role playing comic strip. The jokes that I was making were just too obscure. I don’t want to make D&D jokes, and D&D jokes are the only jokes that the RPG community as a whole can be counted on to get.
Whereas when I’m like “Let me make a joke about how this one mechanic in Torchbearer works.” It’s like, “Okay, first of all, what’s Torchbearer? And second, what are you talking about?” And for me it’s like, Oh, I think that’s funny.
Chris: Well, honestly, it’s sad, but that’s a big reason why we almost never do role-playing content anymore, because we are one of the people sticking it out for all the different indie games. And it’s just D&D, all the way down, everywhere.
Oren: Except for, you know, we have my brother come on to write D&D posts, because those do really well traffic-wise.
Chris: Yeah. I’ve got to take advantage of that search engine reputation in role-playing.
Oren: We need the SEO juice. The juice!
Wes [laughing]: Juice!
Chris: That SEO juice that we now use for the D&D stuff we never wanted to write before. Okay. Anyway, so sometimes I wonder if humor is how we’re rewarded for having a realization that something is not at all what we previously thought. Because it makes sense, but it’s really surprising. We had an assumption, that assumption turned out to be wrong. That’s kind of the basis of humor.
Wes: And then after that – you have your assumption, it’s wrong, it gets flipped – but it becomes that that character has that quirk and was introduced that way. And then it repeats throughout, but we still tend to find it a little funny. I’m mostly thinking about when Detritus, the troll, is first introduced to The Watch in Discworld. He salutes so hard that he knocks himself out.
The way the narrator keeps making that known to you does keep it fresh. But it’s the same slapstick humor. The first time it describes it very well, he salutes, hits himself on the head, and knocks himself out. But then it eventually gets to where Vimes is addressing the Watch and says an order and it’s just – thunk. And everybody turns around and sees Detritus on the ground. It’s the same thing, but it’s packaged differently to still try to keep it fresh. And I think that works in some cases.
Chris: I’m wondering if one of the reasons that running jokes work as if they continue to be surprising. I don’t fully understand running jokes. Just as an example, we have this joke that I made in my Eragon critique post, where at the very beginning there are these lines from the villain. He’s commanding his minions, and he was like, line up and attack the protagonists as they come… or die.
It was just – what a bizarre line. And it was just in the dialogue, you know, dot, dot, dot, or die. I was making fun of that, and so I was like, okay, every time I give somebody a command ever, I’m just going to add “… or die” to the end of it. So I snuck several “… or die”s in the text of my posts.
And people thought this was hilarious. Then I did it again to my Eragon sequel post, and people still thought it was hilarious. We’ve done it a number of times now, but I think one of the things that makes that joke continue to work is the fact that I just do my normal writing, and then I look for opportunities in what I’m normally saying to stick that in there.
So it’s always surprising when it crops up, because I’m talking about something totally else. You’ve been lulled into a false sense of security, and then it suddenly pops out at you. So it’s always surprising when it happens.
Wes: Especially since the stakes are suddenly so high. [laughter] Oh my God. I have to listen to Chris!
Oren: I feel like we’re getting into like meme theory now: It’s funny because we get it, and we know other people don’t. I’m not an expert on meme theory, I just understand that’s one of the basic things about why memes are funny, and how memes have this weird contradiction where you want a lot of people to get them, but you don’t want everyone to get them. It’s weird. But I feel like running jokes might have something similar to that.
Chris: Right, certainly for insider jokes and running jokes, part of their appeal is the fact that you are identifying yourself as part of an exclusive group because you get it. Considering how much jokes rely on those types of references, yeah, that might be a factor in a lot of jokes. It’s hard for me to say for sure right now.
Oren: But that does show the value of a shared cultural experience like Star Trek. There’s Lower Decks and there’s also John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts, both of which are basically Star Trek jokes. Scalzi’s is not officially licensed, but they both basically depend on you having seen Star Trek. They do have their own stories, they aren’t just nothing but jokes, but there is a lot of jokes in there.
I wouldn’t recommend that most of the time, because, if someone watches or reads this who doesn’t get it, it’s like, oh, well, I don’t know, what’s the point of this. But with something as common as Star Trek – if your entire audience is people who have seen Star Trek, I feel like you’re okay. You can manage that, especially if you call it Redshirts – that’s advertising to Star Trek fans. It makes it much less likely that someone who doesn’t know the references is going to pick this book up.
Chris: When I do punchlines in my kind of weekly gag comic, which is on storytelling tropes, it’s interesting how much I have found that punchlines are basically plot twists. Because you have to surprise people, but it still has to make sense, which is exactly how you set up a plot twist. I do think it would be really hard to do that kind of gag comic with any kind of overarching story though, because very few stories can sustain lots of plot twists. You’re just going to ruin the story at some point by sacrificing everything else to making things unexpected.
We were talking about Nancy Drew, I think, a while back. Nancy Drew has lots of twists in the story, and it does a good job with it for a surprisingly long time. But, by the end of the first season, things stop making sense. There’s only so many plot twists you can put in a story.
So not having a story connecting all of the comics allows you to actually bring in those strong punchlines. Whereas if you have a comic that has more of a story to it, yes, you can have jokes, but it’s not going to be that same, with regular punchlines, or those punchlines won’t be as strong, I think.
Wes: Should we talk about banter?
Wes: I think witty banter is nice. We were talking about needing to be in on the joke, and witty banter and misinterpretations of the meanings of words – that opens up the territory for us to get in on the joke, just by virtue of maybe a word getting misunderstood, as part of a banterous exchange between people. I’m currently reading Jingo, one of the Discworld novels.
And so there’s a, there’s a ton of Colon and Nobby, obviously, and any time Colon and Nobby are talking to each other, I lose my mind. It’s just too much for me. They’re funny because they’re both watchmen but they’re very different types. Nobby is maybe humanoid-ish, but he’s set up to be this just kind of scoundrel. And Colon takes himself way more seriously and thinks he’s way more serious than he actually is. Then whenever Nobby asks him for advice or what things mean, he always replies and he’s almost always wrong. And then Nobby follows up, and you don’t know if Nobby is serious or not, if he’s being sarcastic to try to put him down.
There was something where they’re in the submarine or whatever Leonard calls it, not a submarine, something great.They overhear the word hieroglyphs and Nobby asks Colon what that means. And he says, it’s something to do with the sea life that they see out the window. And then Nobby says, Oh, okay. So if it was farther down on the ocean to be a lower glyph. [laughter]
And of course Colon is absolutely stone faced. Uh, boy, I just can’t handle it. Buffoons doing witty banter is too much for me.
Chris: But speaking of Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I think probably one of the reasons why Discworld has never been as funny to me as it is to a lot of other people, is a lot of the references, the witty things that Terry Pratchett says, does depend on you having a certain interpretation of specific tropes in fantasy.
The whole idea of wizards and how he introduces them, having lots of power, but it’s like a contest about how little you can use it. Once you’ve seen enough Gandalf, that becomes funny because that’s exactly how Gandalf, for instance, is, and Dumbledore also has that thing. But you have to have thought about the wizards and stories that way before that becomes funny.
Wes: Yeah. That’s a good point. I think his narrative presence and commentary on tropes obviously is one of the best parts of Discworld. I enjoyed The Watch because I feel like his voice is in it, there’s such strong characters and their interactions, independent of a narrator commenting on them, generate a lot of amusement for me. Just Captain Carrot, you know, he’s just so straight-laced. His foray into Ankh-Morpork to go arrest people when that’s not what they do. It’s a great introduction to the character.
And then how he’s just not bothered by Angua turning into a wolf, like at all. I don’t know, I just think the characters are so strong and their personalities are so distinct that they can play off each other really well because of their distinctiveness.
Chris: I do think that’s important to banter in general. You’ve got to start with characters that have some distinctive niche, that have some reason to clash and have some contrast with each other. That’s kind of an important part of banter. It’s hard to generate banter when you don’t have those characters, figuring it out in that way. And The Watch is nice, beause there’s so many of them they can be paired up or mixed and matched a little bit more.
Oren: The Watch does kind of have a certain TV show-like aspect to it. I guess that’s why they’re making it into a TV show and everyone’s really mad about it. That’s a whole nother topic.
Chris: Oren, why aren’t you mad? You’re supposed to be mad.
Oren: I just don’t think we know enough about it to be mad yet. I saw the trailer and I don’t know, it looks okay. We’ll see. Everyone else is very upset. Very concerned. It’s like, “It’s not my Discworld.” And I don’t know. I wasn’t that attached to the way it looked in previous adaptations. So I guess we’ll see. Also, for reference, the submarine is the Going-Under-The-Water-Safely Device.
Wes: Yes! Thank you.
Oren: I can’t say exactly why Discworld is funny. Other than that one section in one of the Guards books, it might just be Guards! Guards! where they’re talking about how, if you ever have to make a one in a million shot, you’ll always make the one in a million shot.
Wes: Oh my God. Yes.
Oren: So they have to set up the one-in-a-million shot, but they mess up and accidentally create a one in 200,000 shot. So then they just miss. Because it wasn’t hard enough. And I was like, okay, this is very funny. I get the trope they’re referencing and I feel like I’m in the in-group there, so there we go.
One thing that I want to say just as a cautionary warning is: There are a lot of ways humor can go wrong, but I think the broadest way that it can fail, at least in my experience, is when it’s punching down. This can follow bigotry lines, like making jokes about gay people or people of color or whatever, that’s – don’t. But it can be more basic than that, when someone is in a position of power and they make jokes about someone who is less powerful than they are. It’s just generally not funny.
Chris: It’s mean.
Wes: It is mean.
Oren: It is mean, and I don’t know, there are some exceptions. I laugh when I watch Blackadder and Blackadder is constantly making fun of Baldrick, who is his servant. I don’t know why I find that funny when in a lot of other situations I wouldn’t. But generally speaking, if someone is more powerful than somebody else, making fun of them isn’t going to seem funny. It’s just going to seem cruel.
Wes: If you can, punch up.
Oren: I feel like that’s the point of comedy. If you’re not speaking truth to power, what are you doing?
Chris: And even if it’s funny, it’s just not the right thing to make fun of marginalized traits. That includes things that you don’t normally think of as marginalized traits, like baldness and shortness. If somebody is regularly made fun of for having that trait and it’s something they can’t change – oof, that’s not a good sign.
Oren: I would not do that.
Chris: But otherwise humor can definitely ruin stories. I think anytime that you have a joke, you’re taking something in the story of less seriously. It is designed so that you laugh at something. So for me, I think the big question you should ask is what is that thing that the joke is taking less seriously? Whose expense or what’s expense is it at? And is it good for your story to reduce that to the butt of the joke. If it’s your villain: No. No, your villain should not be the butt end of jokes. Your villain needs to be threatening. That’s a bad idea.
Oren: Please don’t do that.
Chris: The issue with slapstick is that you’re laughing off what could be the actual stakes of the story. This is the Harry Potter problem, where we have a Quidditch game where we’re supposed to laugh at these bludgers that knock people off of their brooms. They’re supposed to be funny slapstick, but then we have a storyline where there’s a bludger that’s been enchanted to go after Harry specifically, and it breaks his arm. That’s supposed to be very serious stakes, and we’re supposed to do those things simultaneously.
Oren: That’s the Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 problem there. All Marvel movies have this problem to a certain extent, where the fighting makes the characters feel like they’re made of rubber, but in Guardians 2, they really went overboard with it. They’re like, this scene is funny because the characters are getting blown up by landmines and those throw them into the air, and then they land and are fine. I’m like, okay, I guess nothing is dangerous. But it insists that, no, things are very dangerous. This scene is very tense and scary because a guy might die. And I’m like, ah, sorry, man, you already wasted that one.
Chris: I’ve also run into some popular storytellers who clearly have a confidence issue when it comes to the more dramatic, serious scenes. It’s almost like they’re self-conscious about whether or not their drama will work. So then they’re like, oh, I’ll just stick a joke in there, so they don’t take it too seriously, and maybe because I’m afraid that my audience’s attention will wander. They won’t pay attention unless I put some jokes in there.
It’s like, no, no, the drama is also important. You don’t need to be self-conscious about that.
Stick with your drama. Don’t use jokes at the expense of your important dramatic moments. Just take them seriously, please. This is the Orville problem, and this also happens in Dragon Prince.
Oren: Yeah, it does. Well, since now we’re talking about how jokes can ruin stories, that’s a good place to end it. Because you shouldn’t ruin your stories with a joke. No joke is worth that.
So we’ll go ahead and close the podcast on that. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.