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9.7: Humor

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    chapter 9.5: humor

    Humor\(^{112}\) 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!

    student example: “Snow White, Take II.”\(^{113}\)

    ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a princess. She was hot\(^{114}\). Apparently everybody in the kingdom thought so, too, because they fawned over her in an extreme display of celebrity-fever. They oohed and ahed over her porcelain skin, even going so far as to nickname her “Snow White.” Because that’s cool. Under their breath, the townspeople declared quietly and between themselves that Snow White was the “fairest of the fair.” She was sweet, and pretty, and everyone loved her, and life couldn’t have been more wonderful. There was only one teensy weensy glitch.

    Her step-mother, the queen. This chick was insanely jealous of Snow White. Like, would-attempt-murder jealous\(^{115}\). Only, she was queen, so dirtying her own hands over that little matter was well and truly beneath her. However, hiring a hit-man wasn’t. So she did that. Queeny\(^{116}\) did not consult her magic mirror over this dilemma, as she knew her mirror would advise against it. She consulted her mirror every morning with the same intense reverence some grandfathers reserve for their daily newspaper. Every single morning without fail she’d ask the mirror, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” And her mirror would have liked to have said, “Well I can tell ya who’s off the wall, toots, and you bet your britches it ain’t me.” But instead he’d sigh and tell her she was the best, by poll of about three or so more than the princess (though he decided not to tell her the last part). He was glad the queen never asked who the sweetest person was because that would have sharply ended his career as royal advisor. 

    Day after day the queen would ask the same question, and day after day it was taking longer and longer for the poor mirror to find creative ways of disclosing the ever-narrowing gap between her and her step-daughter. One day the gap closed for good as the last loyal and blind peasant kicked the bucket and the queen was no longer getting pity points. The mirror was finally able to report with thinly-veiled glee that the princess was now the most beautiful girl in all the kingdom, by consensus of literally everyone with working eyeballs\(^{117}\). The queen became super upset by this revelation and decided that the only way to regain her status as an attractive older woman was to have the kid bumped off. So she ordered a huntsman to take the girl into the forest, rip out her heart, and then bring it back in a little jewelry box for the queen to keep. Which is exactly what a normal person would request. Except the hit-man somehow had more of a conscience than this fruitcake, since he brought Snow White into the forest and proceeded to explain that her step-mom was planning to have her murdered and that Snow White should probably just hit the road and not plan to come back. 

    Understandably, this sort of news hits a little hard, so Snow White started to run through the woods, terrified and alone, trying to figure out what was to become of her. Now, in all honesty, death was most likely what was going to become of her until some woodland creatures decided to step in and save the day. As woodland creatures do. They led her to this tiny little cabin in the middle of the woods which was empty and by all appearances abandoned, so Snow White checked the front door, found it unlocked, and decided to just go ahead and make herself at home. Because breaking and entering is okay when a little birdy tells you to\(^{118}\). 

    So there they were, all singing and doing the dishes, birds and a doe sweeping out the place, raccoons and turtles hanging out the wash, and it’s just a party all up in there. And after it was all over the princess was a little exhausted, (hallucinating will do that) and decided to go take a nap. She conked out across seven little beds upstairs, which was strange, since the fact that nobody was home during the day surely meant it was free real estate. It’s at this point in our story that seven little dwarves show up. Because even fairytales need to be inclusive\(^{119}\). 

    These seven old and short dudes with names matching the most commonly-felt emotions came home to find their house much, much cleaner than they left it and with a surprising variety of small animals inside, which naturally freaked them out a little bit, so they tip-toed upstairs to see what else had happened while they were at work. There they found this chick had taken over their beds and was out for the count. Rather than do anything, they just sort of stared at her while she slept until she woke up. Which she did, and when she woke up she was quite forgivably alarmed at these tiny intruders to her new house. Upon the explanation that this domain was not her own private property but rather was to be shared collectively, she was apparently ecstatic with the idea of her new roommate situation and proceeded to make them all dinner. The duration of the rest of the evening was rather jovial. As the days went by, this whole situation became fairly convenient for everyone. Snow White had a rent-free living situation, and these little guys had a live-in maid who cooked and cleaned for them, as well as helped them to establish more frequent and careful hygiene practices\(^{120}\). This continued for some time, until our villain of the story, Ms. Queen discovered the well-hidden secret of her hit-man and mirror. 

    One day, as the Queen preened before that poor mirror and asked him to tell her once again who was the most beautiful thing in all the land, the mirror had to declare honestly that since Snow White had not, in fact, kicked the bucket, bought the farm, cashed in, or any other analogy for having her life abbreviated, she was still the fairest of them all. Including the queen. Based on past experience, we should be able to tell pretty accurately what happens next. The queen rolled up her sleeves and decided, “Well, they always say, ‘if you want a job done right, you gotta do it yourself.’” So she dug out her cauldron, set the flame on “medium,” then poured in a bunch of various obscure liquids and stirred well to combine. Her dipped apples were her specialty, so she decided to make some for the exiled princess as a housewarming gift. Then she disguised herself as a creepy old witch, (because who would ever know the difference, right?) boxed up the apples, and set off for the forest. 

    Meanwhile, Snow White was happily singing away while she did the daily housework. The birds and forest animals were gathered around to listen to her, as she was just so enchanting and trusting that everything that saw her or heard her automatically fell in love. This was what the wicked stepmother was counting on, as she hobbled into the woods with her basket of totally unsuspicious apples. Somehow the Queen actually managed to find the little cabin, too. I mean, that part was really just glossed over entirely if I remember right. Like, the forest seemed pretty dense and deep, and if that house was all the way in the middle, how in the world did she make it there from the castle in one day? Where was the part where she stopped and tried to ask a turtle for directions? One way or another, she showed up at the Seven Dwarves’ house and announced her arrival by knocking on the window, of all things. Snow White opened it and was charmed by the old lady peddling apples, so she accepted a proffered one, took a bite, and BOOM! Dead as a doornail. Or so the Queen thought. So she happily toddled back to her castle, and the mirror once again was forced to say that she was the fairest of them all, and life was grand. For the queen. 

    For the company of little dudes arriving home that evening, however, life was about to have another very large surprise in the form of their housekeeper and roommate lying dead on the floor and all the woodland creatures mourning her. Which was unfortunate, to say the least, and they were so distraught over the fact that they were going to have to remind themselves to wash their own hands again that they built Snow White an above-ground crypt with a glass top so they and anyone passing by would be able to see how beautiful she was. Apparently nobody noticed that she was still breathing to some extent, but, ya, know. Whatever.

    So there they all were. Deer, rabbits, turtles, skunks, perhaps a goldfish or two, and some birds and raccoons for good measure were all gathered around Snow White’s coffin with the seven little men, grieving the loss of their beloved princess. Tears swept down everyone’s faces and snouts while sobs shook the forest trees which now also have feelings because I said so. Do I know that it’s Disney accurate? Well, do you know that it’s not?? And they’re all sad, and crying, and everything is depressing until who should ride up but some dude out for an afternoon galavant on a horse through the woods for no apparent reason whatsoever! He saw this dead girl, and everyone so sad and upset around her coffin, and thought to himself, ‘Whoa. She’s hot. I should kiss her. That would be respectful and also would probably make everyone feel better.’ So this little necrophiliac\(^{121}\) took off the glass lid covering Snow White, leaned over this by-all-accounts dead person, and planted a wet one on her lips. Now, to someone who’s not actually as dead as people thought they were, that would be somewhat surprising. 

    Since Snow White’s indefinite hibernation was so rudely disrupted by this guy macking on her, she sat up. Which did not, for some reason, seem to have the same effect on the dwarves and forest friends as it would have on me. Everyone was just delighted that her royal hotness was alive and well after all, and Snow White was delighted to find that the random stranger who had broken the spell of the Wicked Witch was actually a handsome prince with daddy’s money and a sweetheart smile. So she allowed him to scoop her up onto his prancing steed, and with a goodbye wave to all her woodland friends and a kiss on top of each of the seven little bald dudes’ heads, she and her hot stranger rode off into the distance. Presumably to get married and live more-or-less happily ever after.


    The End, I guess.


    questions / activities / exercises.

    <Students might be assigned – as part of the final project? – to create questions and activities and exercises for chapters that do not contain those pieces quite yet.>

    \(^{112}\)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.

    \(^{113}\)“Snow White, Take II” by Megan Guenther is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA. It was created for NDSCS English 211 in the Spring of 2021.

    \(^{114}\)Love the bluntness.

    \(^{115}\)What great little sidebars!

    \(^{116}\)Great nickname!

    \(^{117}\)I adore the sass/snark throughout!

    \(^{118}\)Again, the sidebars are fantastic.


    \(^{120}\)Hee hee.

    \(^{121}\)Yep, call him what he was.

    This page titled 9.7: 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.

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