If you want to write or create anything funny, this just might be the most important blog post you’ll read this year.
I have a universal formula for creating humor, and I’m going to try to relate it to you in a single post that you should be able to read in under five minutes, ten if you're a slow reader.
So pay attention, and take notes if you have to. There WILL be a test, and I’m not the one who will be grading it. That privilege belongs to your audience. You will either pass or fail. As Yoda says, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” You’re going to want a laugh, or, at the very least, a smile or a smirk.
Are you ready? Here it is.
When I was a teenager, I used to sit with a spiral notebook and a pen in front of the TV while I watched shows like Soap and Taxi. (Yes, I am that old. Shut up.) I took apart and analyzed these shows, trying to figure out their formula. Why were they funny? I had to know.
In college, I studied English Literature and Theater. One of my Theater professors taught a class on Comedy, while another taught a class on clowning. Both turned out to be cases of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” The Comedy class taught the classic formula, which is pain+distance=comedy.
Now give that a little bit of thought. First take something painful and add distance to it to see if that makes it funny. Then take everything you know that’s funny and see if you can find the pain and the distance in it. You’ll discover, as I did, that this formula DOESN’T WORK. It only explains SOME comedy, but not all comedy. You can’t take something painful, add some distance to it, and then expect it to be funny. Is the Lincoln assassination funny just because it happened about 150 years ago? No. And what about the other way around? Is there any pain and distance in “Why did the chicken cross the road?” No.
So I knew I had to keep looking.
About a year and a half after I graduated from college and earned a teacher’s certificate, I started to work as an editorial cartoonist, a job I held for seven years. During that time, I came up with about a thousand cartoons. That’s when I discovered my universal humor formula. I reduced it to just three S-words, and for reasons that will soon be apparent, I called it the House of Funny formula.
Here it is, everything you need to know about creating any kind of comedy:
This formula works for all kinds of comedy and humor. All kinds. I have yet to find any joke or comedy or funny cartoon or comic strip that didn’t utilize this formula. A humorist, cartoonist, comedian, or comedy writer might say, “Well, I don’t,” but when pressed, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you how he comes up with funny stuff. Most funny people use it‑‑they just aren’t aware that they do.
So how does this formula break down?
The Setup part is easy. That’s whatever your funny thing is about. If you’re a comedian, your setup is probably either your life or a character or characters you’ve created. Then again, maybe your comedy is more like an editorial cartoonist, and your setup is the news. If you’re writing a comedy or humorous fiction, your setup is the plot and your characters. Your setup can be anything, really. That’s one of the beautiful things about humor. It can be about anything.
Surprise, and in a way Sense, are the parts that make this the House of Funny formula.
Like a House of Fun, the House of Funny is made up of mirrors and lenses that show you something in surprising ways.
To turn your setup into something funny, just look at it through a House of Funny mirror or lens.
In a House of Fun, there’s a wavy mirror that makes you look like something you’re not. It can stretch your neck to make you look like a giraffe, or it can shorten your neck and legs to make you look like a penguin. In the House of Funny, there are also microscope lenses that take something small and make it big, and there are lenses that take something big and make it small. There’s a rosy lens that makes things that shouldn’t be happy happy, and a blue lens that makes things that shouldn’t be sad sad. There are all kinds of character lenses that simply take things and show them to the audience through the filter that is the character. There are regular mirrors that flip things from left to right and concave mirrors that turn things on their head. There’s that strange mirror that puts something in a surprising place or puts together two things that don’t go together, like that mirror in Disney’s Haunted House that puts a ghost in the seat next to you. And finally, there are those cool mirrors that show you things exactly as they are, which is surprising since standard mirrors always flip things from left to right. In some ways, this is the ultimate House of Funny mirror. There’s nothing more impressive that showing people a truth that’s always been there but that they’ve never really seen. This is the mirror of wit.
Many of these mirrors come with their own sense. For example, if I take something and exaggerate it, it’s still the thing, so it makes sense. Or if I take something and show it through a character lens, both the character and the thing are still the same, so they make sense. Or if I’m showing you a similarity between disparate things, like how you look in a House of Fun wavy mirror and a giraffe or a penguin, you can see that makes sense with your own eyes. It’s mostly when you use the mirror that puts together two things that don’t belong together or something in a surprising place that sense is something you need to create. It doesn’t have to be something that makes sense in the real world. It can, but it doesn’t have to. It just has to make sense in some kind of context. For example, the sense of a pun is a linguistic one. Puns make sense because this word or these words are like that word or those words that make sense in another context. For example, “Why do cows wear bells? Because their horns don’t work!” Cows have bells and horns, and so do bicycles. By taking something that make sense in the context of bicycle bells and horns and applying them to cowbells and cow horns, you have a pun. Pain, however, generally doesn’t make sense to the person feeling the pain, no matter the distance. Causing your audience pain is something you want to avoid if you want your joke to make sense.
It’s all about the Audience
Each part of the House of Funny formula only works if it applies to the Audience.
The Setup has to be known to the audience. Sometimes you need to explain it in advance, and sometimes you don’t. For example, if I did a joke today in America about Donald Trump, I can assume the audience already knows the setup: that Donald Trump was on a show called The Apprentice, that he likes to put his name on buildings and water and pretty much anything else, and that he’s currently running for president. If I were doing the same joke in, oh, France, I might have to explain the setup. I might also have to explain it in America in ten years. But in America today, I don’t.
The Surprise only works if it’s surprising to the audience. For example, if you’ve heard the joke before, it won’t be surprising, so you won’t laugh.
And, finally, the joke has to make sense to the audience. There has to be a moment of “oh, I get it!” in the audience’s mind. If the audience doesn’t get it, it won’t be funny. Duh!
So that’s the House of Funny in a nutshell. Now all you have to do is take whatever setup you’re using, look at it through a House of Funny mirror or lens, and find the sense in it. As long as you do all these things within the context of your intended audience, you’ll be able to pass the test.
Two other things to keep in mind:
Brevity really is the soul of wit. In general, keep is as short as you can to keep it funny. I can’t tell you how many times something that should have been funny lost me because it took just enough time for me to figure out the punch line seconds before it came. If your audience can figure out where you’re going before you got there, you’ve lost that all important element of surprise.
Take it as far as it can go, all the way to the edge of the cliff . . . and then push. If you’re using a microscope to make something small big, make it as big as you possibly can. As I’ve told members of my critique group, “Don’t do anything half-assed. It’s full-assed or nothing.”
If all of this seems too overwhelming, I suggest you start by taking something you find funny and breaking it down to its parts. What’s the Setup? What’s the Surprise? What mirror or lens was used? What’s the sense? Be teenage me sitting in front of a TV set with a notebook and a pen, and analyze everything that makes you laugh. It’s a great place to start.
Good luck! I hope this will help you bring more laughter into this world. We certainly need it.