You’ve been that person.
A crowd of people are doubling over in laughter and you’re still trying to figure out the joke.
You didn’t get it.
You’re confused, replaying the lines over and over in your head, trying to figure out the twist, the connection, the disconnection.
What does it mean to get a joke anyway?
Contrary to popular belief, laughing at jokes requires thought.
To get a joke, you have to understand it.
Anyone who’s ever tried to write jokes knows how hard it is. You have to be clever. You have to see things in ways other people usually don’t. You have to notice hidden contradictions and parallels. You have to craft language so that other people can notice what you notice.
This is the subject of chapter 19 in Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. She quotes Billy Collins as saying humor is, “not simply . . . a source of amusement, but . . . a way of seeing, a mode of perception.”
Addonizio says bad humor is easy, boring, and one-dimensional. The humor people truly crave has layers.
The poems she uses as examples in this chapter (“Wishes for Sons” by Lucille Clifton and “No Time” by Billy Collins) prove that humor isn’t necessarily the same as telling jokes.
Jokes stand alone. They’re autonomous and have a single or foremost purpose of eliciting laughter.
Humor, rather than standing alone, is a sort of vein that pumps a bit of laughter through your writing. Maybe it just pumps a grin or two. Humor is like a thickening agent that’s part of a gumbo filled with other tasty substances. Really, you can use any number of analogies.
What Addonizio also demonstrates by using Billy Collins as an example is that we can weave humor into our writing without turning it into a funny piece. The poem, essay, or story can have moments of comedy or an undercurrent of wit, yet maintain its general affect of sorrow or melancholy or anger or fear.
The humor acts like a pressure release valve.
So, have you been trying to write funny stuff? Maybe your approach is wrong. Instead of reducing the amount that readers have to think, try showing them a different way of thinking about everyday life. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking new theory, but merely your unique perspective on the world.
As always, Addonizio shares some wonderful strategies for approaching humor and incorporating that element of funny into any kind of writing. I can’t lay them all out here, but you can read them for yourself.
What do you think? Are jokes any different from other types of literature that use humor?