How to Write Humorously (Hint: Put Colonel Sanders on LSD)

The image here is a photo of one of my favorite shirts. If it’s not clear to you, it’s Colonel Sanders with a maniacal look, with the unsubtle graphical suggestion that the good Colonel has had a snootful of LSD. That amuses me on several levels, but the one that’s instructive here is based on a two-step of moving from familiar to farcical. You can employ this comedic trip of incongruity in your writing (though never in your cooking).

Of course, the expression and interpretation of humor is as subjective as declaring that the piccolo is king of wind instruments, hands-down. (Never forget the pan pipe!) What some folks think is funny is just whistling wind to others: Some jokes might have your entire Mongol horde spitting out their teeth, while another of the same caliber might only make your cat laugh. For some it’s poop jokes, for some it’s palindromes, and never the twain shall meet. (Except for this instance, since “poop” is a palindrome.)

So, neatly sidestepping the sheer subjectivity (and the poop) of our subject, I’ll concentrate on a single comedic element that works for me as a writer, and as a consumer of comedy: incongruity. It’s as broad as the princess with the corn stuck in her teeth, or as peculiar as a man in a business suit with briefcase, walking a crocodile, or as off-balance as a garden gnome giving a speech on metaphysics to an assemblage of frogs.

The Setup
Dave Barry is a master of the incongruous in his writing, and a lot of the funny in what he does is structured on a one-two-three of situations or circumstances, where the one and the two are prosaic, but the three is preposterous—but the preposterousness only works because the one and the two are banal enough to lull the reader, and the three puts a moustache on the coffee cup. What’s THAT doing there?

Here’s a Barry quote from an interview that asked him what book changed his life. (Note, Barry has said or written much funnier stuff than this, but this is a good example of the structure of what I’m talking about).

Barry’s reply: “The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. I was supposed to read it my freshman year in college, but it’s 18 million pages long and I could never get past the first 43. Nevertheless I wrote a paper about it, and I got an OK grade, which taught me that I could write convincingly about things I did not remotely understand. This paved the way for my career in journalism.”

Emily Dickinson, Notable Joker
It’s the old ba-da-bing, done twice here by Dave. Straight answer, a bit of elaboration, and then a kicker; rinse and repeat. The incongruity I’m talking about is often a matter of rhythm: you set up the reader by offering some conventional understanding, and then you goose that understanding with a cheeky thrust. Though it’s not always going for the belly laugh; sometimes it’s more a “Huh? Ah, you’re nuts.” But nuts in a winning way. It’s a variant of ol’ Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

So exactly HOW do you do this? Sheesh, I’m no Svengali; when you try to write funny, it often comes out a miserable hairball-like thing, shaggy and sad. It’s more of an attitude or perspective. Check out this article I wrote on the travails of travel a bit back; it has some of what I mean. Sometimes it’s as “simple” as that Jack Benny stare and shrug that coming from another man would only produce indifference, but from Benny it was hysterical. And sometimes you have to go out on a limb: you have to give an avuncular icon dangerous drugs. It’s the Colonel that gets fried, not that chicken of his.

Bonus Colonel Sanders Sighting!
One reason why I probably find the Colonel reeling on chemicals comic is that when I was 11 or 12, I was selling candy bars outside the local liquor store (it had lots of traffic) in my hometown, fundraising for my Catholic grammar school. I was with my best friend, who can verify: we sold a candy bar to Colonel Sanders. I’m not talking about a guy dressed up like Colonel Sanders: this WAS the Colonel, with the white suit and string tie, the man himself. He was alone, and we gawked at him, and I mumbled my “Wanna buy a school candy bar?” pitch to him as he passed into the store, to no effect.

But when he came out, he stopped and chatted for a moment, and he bought a bar, paying five times as much as it cost (and, like most fundraising candy, it cost five times as much as it should to begin with). The Colonel popped it into his bag (which probably held some of the distilled elements of his secret herbs and spices recipe), and went on his merry way. As a kid, it was a crowning moment for me. I now like to think of the Colonel in chicken heaven, dropping acid every day, and musing over his chance encounters with youths in front of liquor stores. Incongruous, but funny. At least to me.