Writing Funny: Meeting Halfway
Here’s a joke for you.
Q: Where do you weigh whales?
A: At a whale-weigh station.
Pretty cringe-worthy, right? That joke appears to be a whole joke, but it’s actually only part of a joke. Here is the full works:
Q: Where do you weigh whales?
A: At a whale-weigh station, because it sounds like ‘railway station’ and a railway station is a tangible location, so there’s a parallel there. It’s a play on words.
…except you’d never tell a joke like that, would you?
Why not? Well, simply because the people you’re telling the joke to would say that you’re over-explaining the joke. When you heard the joke for the first time, your mind made the connection on its own. That connection is part of the joke — it’s needed in order for the joke to be funny in the first place. At the same time, however, we dare not put that part in the delivery of the joke. We simply say ‘whale-weigh station’, let the penny drop, and enjoy the laughter (or suffer the groans).
When we’re writing funny, it becomes a hell of a lot harder to do this.
The fear is that the joke will go over the reader’s head. They’ll come to the part where your MC has a Sperm Whale that they desperately need to know the mass of, and they’ll ask a friend if they know, and they deliver the joke, and you suddenly have a strike of doubt. Will the reader get it? I’m not sure. I best really hammer it in, just so they can get it.
This is not a very smart move!
Have you ever felt like a piece of writing is regarding you like an idiot? It’s horrible. The author sits you down, pats you on the head and says “I’m going to be doing some very strange things with the English language right now, so I need to hold your hand thoughout the entire process”. At which point you say “Excuse me?” and refuse to be babyfed the point the author is trying to make. The problem is, if you do this with something funny, the people who did get it without your explanation will feel this way. They’ll feel that you’re treating them like an idiot, that you feel they can’t understand your well-refined sense of humour. I don’t doubt you at all — I bet your humour is so sharp, it makes lemons blush. It’s just that you shouldn’t be doubting those who read your humour.
What’s the worst that can happen? If you tell a joke, don’t explain it, and someone doesn’t get it, they shrug and move on. If you explain a joke and someone gets it, they feel like you’re making them out to be a moron. I don’t know about you, but I’d place my chips on the former while the roulette wheel spins.
And the best part? Making the reader meet you halfway sometimes amplifies the joke. Forcing them to use their imagination means that, when you give them a funny concept, they use their own sense of humour to fill in the gap. If I wrote the line “Dreadlord Galvash was renowned for three things; his inability to show mercy, his unrelenting and uncounterable battle tactics, and his ballet performances”, the reader makes his own image up. Some people would imagine a Lord Sauron-styled being in a tutu. Some would have a cartoon-y vibe to it when they imagine the scene. The point is, the reader will almost tickle their own sense of humour when they meet you halfway.
So don’t be afraid. Let the readers do a bit of the legwork. Lay down only as much as needed to ‘get’ it, and let your readers fill in the rest of the gap. They’ll love you a lot more for it!