Writing Humor: Know What Your Reader Thinks Is Funny

Whether you plan to write humorous fiction or work humor into your nonfiction, it pays to know what your audience finds funny.  Part of that is a matter of personal taste.  Even when his classmates were rolling around on the floor over the latest antics of Sponge Bob or Captain Underpants, my son couldn’t be bothered with either.  That said, he loved Cyberchase and Veggie Tales.

But another element of humor is development.  A preschooler may laugh when you laugh but that doesn’t mean they get it the same way that preschool humor doesn’t always make sense to adults.  We drove from LA to San Diego with our son, who was then a preschooler, making up knock-knock jokes.  They were funny not because the humor was funny but because he just didn’t get what made a knock knock joke funny. “Knock Knock.”  “Whose there?”  “Potato.”  “Potato who?”  “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”

Picture book readers love extremes and things that are over the top.  That’s why cumulative stories appeal to them.  My favorites include One Dog Canoe by Mary Casanova and The Mitten by Jan Brett.  There’s another one but I can’t think of the title but it is really hard to look up a picture book sans title!  Puns in picture books are for older readers.  That works because not all picture books are written for preschoolers.  Puns appeal to elementary aged readers and the parent who may have to read the picture book 467 times in one evening.

Slightly older readers like bathroom humor – thus the wild popularity of Captain Underpants among the early to mid-grade school set.  Adults may find the books disgusting and offensive but many kids find gross wildly hilarious.  Thus the humor potential found in farts.

It is important to keep in mind what your reader understands about the world.  Humor often works because something is out-of-place and doesn’t quite work.  The surprising  and the jarring can be wildly hilarious.

Humor can also be used to diffuse a tense situation.  One of the best examples of this is the bogart scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban. The students each see the bogart as whatever they fear the most.  One student sees Professor Snape.  This same student defeats the bogart by making it laughable, in this case picture it in his grandmother’s favorite outfit complete with handbag.  A harsh professor?  Acceptably scary.  But a bloody corpse would have been taking it too far.

Although every writer must know their audience, the changing developmental levels of children makes this especially important.  Know where your audience is in life so that you can write fiction and nonfiction that cracks them up.



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