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12.2: Humor

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    Composition theorist Peter Elbow\(^{160}\) declares that writing pedagogy could be improved by “more honoring of style, playful ness, fun, pleasure, humor,” so clearly it’s time for a right ribbing. Humor demands close attention to language at all levels. Making comedy requires a writer to consider diction, of course, but also to be deliberate about intricacies such as sound and rhythm—after all, it’s often just a matter of a few syllables that enables one to be silly. Humor also is an effective means by which to teach the second-most-difficult thing to teach young writers: style. (The most difficult thing is how to spell ukulele.) Style often is the first element of writing to go when it comes to teaching young writers—in favor of elements such as developing a thesis, supporting that thesis with evidence, and putting a staple in the upper-left hand corner. But in comedic writing, style is an absolute requirement. In comedy, it’s not word choice, but the hunt for the choicest word. And sentences must be tightly woven to serve as the fuse that carries the spark right to an ending that blows readers away. And maybe even enlightens them. On a much larger scale, humor requires vivid descriptions, dazzling metaphors, splendiferous speech acts, and the skillful interrelation of such elements. Writing comedy entails seeing and creating in content and language those productive occasions and opportunities, requiring the writer’s willingness to capitalize on them, to see everything as potential set up, and then to land the punch.

    In terms of process, it’s industry standard for comedy writing to be collaborative. (My friends had to leave before we finished the last paragraph.) About writing in general, many are convinced of the myth of the lone genius, those gassy know-it-alls, picking off ideas in isolation. But that notion of the writer is so bad there’s an essay on it in this collection! With humor, students will need each other in order to generate and to test out material. And there’s a model for it: the comedy writers’ room. And this model has even made it into pop culture—the writers’ room is visited again and again in the television shows Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock. Sure, the writers’ room in 30 Rock smells, and the writers play pranks on each other, but they get their work done, and seem to have fun doing it. And they eat a lot of pizza. The collaboration humor calls for is not just collaboration with other people—it’s also collaboration with other texts, other sources. It takes a great deal of knowledge to make a joke work. True, a lot of it can be done with oodles of Googling, but who knows? That could be a gateway drug, something to fight the lack of information fluency.

    Humor not only can help teach the elements of writing and thinking while emphasizing collaboration, but it also powerfully makes the case for writing. For so many students an explicit argument needs to be made for writing because they are always asking themselves this: Why write when I can speak it into my phone and the phone will dutifully transcribe my thoughts? (And the NSA will keep a back-up file!) Humor makes the writing process matter. In this process, invention is true invention: You’re creating something never thought of before. (Unless your essay is about airplane peanuts. In which case, change your topic because you’re writing a Seinfeld rerun.) Comedy helps authors barnstorm brainstorming. It makes the drafting and revising process more multifaceted, open, searching, continuous—it moves from drafting and reviling to drifting and revving, to riffing and devising, through drafting and revising to after drafting and revisinging (it’s not unusual for performance to be a part of the creation of comedy, which must have voice… even if it’s Gilbert Gottfried’s). Authors who try to create comedy at the spur of the moment most often find out it simply can’t be done—it’s just too demanding. It’s like… like…like…see? It’s really hard!

    Of course, just as in any writing class, in a writing class that focuses on comedic technique and process, some communal rules very likely should be established. Is there anything that can’t be included in a humorous piece? How do we work together to make the classroom respectful but also lively and productive? Is it really okay to admit that Carrot Top is occasionally funny? It certainly is the case that, as founding members of the International Society for Humor Studies, Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen, note, “humor is a good tool for teaching about censorship”; however, it also must be recognized that humor simply tends toward the irreverent, and that this is, frankly, ideal. Thus, empowered, young writers—who can feed off of transgression, off of calling power into question—are more likely to tip over and crack up some sacred cows. How much better than to have students be scared cowards! Studying comedic techniques, students also become better, more perspicacious (look it up!) readers—they know how humor works, and so might be less apt to fall for it when some pernicious politician or idiot ideologue trumpets venom cut with a little laughter. Armed to the teeth, they’re also better able to bite back.

    There are three theories of humor: incongruity (putting together what doesn’t fit leads to fits of laughter), superiority (seeing others slip on bananas is appealing), and relief (comedy as the jocular discharge of subconscious energies). So, clearly, though initially it may seem incongruous to teach humor while teaching academic writing, such writing—edgy, engaged, careful and powerful—will be superior to so much of what’s come before it. And what a relief that will be!

    Want An Example?

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    \(^{160}\)Snippet from = Theune, Michael. “Excellent Academic Writing Must Be Serious.” Bad Ideas About Writing. Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Libraries, Digital Publishing Institute, 2017. CC-BY.

    This page titled 12.2: Humor is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sybil Priebe (Independent Published) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.