Writing Humor: Oddly Specific

Way back when I first started writing, I attended a conference workshop on how to write humor.  At the beginning of the session, the presenter encouraged us to imagine our character’s backpack.  What would be inside?

He explained that the expected items might include a math book, a spiral notebook, a pencil, even half a sandwich.  Humor comes in when you make things oddly specific.

Instead of a math book, your character might have Escher’s Basic Geometry.  Half a sandwich?  That’s going to depend what type of sandwich.  PBJ?  Boring.  Half a peanut butter, bologna, onion, and pickle is something else altogether.  I have to admit that I’m only so-so at this.  My son?  He’s a natural.  Three of the five items in the script below were his.

In fact, he’s the one that reminded me of this exercise.  He was telling me about a class exercise in sociology class.  It was about societal expectations and how people react when unexpected things happen.  Each student was asked to write down four things – a place, a food, an item, and a dollar amount.  It turned out that the professor was using them in a Mad-libs style script that went something like this.

Him:  I’m sorry we’re at the food court.  If I’d had ($3.26) more, I’d have taken you to (Paris).

Her: That’s okay.  This is great.  I’ll take (Church’s Chicken) and (zebra cakes).

Him:  And thank you for my gift.  I’ve always wanted (a bootleg copy of Incredibles 2).

This would have been a lot less funny if he had said he wanted to take her to the country or the beach.  Paris. That’s a place we can picture and seems a bit out of reach for anniversary food court types.  Again, chicken and cake?  So what.  Church’s Chicken and zebra cakes?  It’s a combination worthy of pregnancy.

Specific and off.  It isn’t what makes all humor funny but it is something that you can slip into most any type of fiction.  Instead of a favorite teddy bear, your character could have a stuffed bullfrog.

Play around with some details in your story and see if you can bring a smile to your reader’s face.