Its main purpose is to entertain, amuse, and lighten the mood. It can also be used to break up a more serious storyline, relieve boredom, make a particularly dark story less foreboding, and make the audience relax after a tense passage. Humor takes many different forms and can be used in novels, short stories, plays, films, and every other form of entertainment and communication. There are many different examples in advertising, television programs, and even some poems.
Definition of Humor
Humor is part of comedic writing. It’s used to make the viewer of a play, the reader of a story, or another literary work laugh. This should be a pleasurable experience that makes them want to continue watching/reading the content. Sometimes, if a story gets too dark and too overwhelming, it might drive the reader away. This is why it’s often a smart choice to include a comedic character, even in one’s most terrifying and foreboding stories. When humor is injected into a storyline, it can lighten the mood considerably and make the reading experience more fun.
There are numerous variations in humor. They include:
Types of Humor
- Incongruity: the juxtaposition of two things that don’t quite make sense together. When a reader encounters incongruity, they should be surprised.
- Irony: the real meaning of words is different from their literal meaning. It is often ambiguous and can reveal more about the characters than they realize.
- Sarcasm: a verbal type of irony that expresses contempt and mocks someone or something.
- Understatement: describing a situation or person with language that’s not quite what the reader expected. It’s often present in satire, such as in the works of Kurt Vonnegut.
- Slapstick: the most basic type of humor. Includes drunkenness, pranks, and other physical activities. Props are often involved.
- Hyperbole: the use of exaggeration to make the reader laugh. It uses words that are too dramatic of the situation.
Examples of Humor in Literature
In this famous Ogden Nash poem, the speaker uses short lines to describe what he thinks his upstairs neighbors are doing. They’re so incredibly loud that he can’t imagine it’s anything less they jumping on pogo sticks or using a bowling alley. This piece is a great example of how hyperbole and exaggeration are used to create humor. Here are a few lines from the poem:
They try to get their parties to mix
By supplying their guests with Pogo sticks,
And when their fun at last abates,
They go to the bathroom on roller skates.
I might love the people upstairs more
If only they lived on another floor.
While it’s doubtful the upstairs neighbors are actually doing what the speaker suggests, it’s clear that Nash knew the suggestions would be entertaining. They’re also quite relatable. Many readers, young and old, will have experienced how loud someone living above them can be and how confusing the noises can sound.
Read more Ogden Nash poems.
While the novel focuses primarily on the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet and is therefore fairly serious, humor is also used. Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Bennet, features in the story for that purpose. She’s at the center of several different scenes in which she makes funny statements, exaggerates her nerves, and banters with her husband. One of the best occurs when she’s complaining about how Mr. Bennet doesn’t understand her or her nervous disposition, and he replies with the following lines:
You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.
The relationship between Elizabeth’s parents is, overall, a good one. It’s something that readers can see duplicating itself between Elizabeth and Darcy as the two teases one another and start to draw close, despite saying they dislike one another. A reader might also find humor in the social customs of the time and the rules that regulated marriage, and what one person can do when.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
This very popular novel is a satire of the Second World War. It was published in the 1960s and uses a non-linear storyline. It follows Yossarian and examines military-like and the outrageous expectations the war placed on Yossarian and his fellow soldiers. There is a very famous passage that uses satire to create humor. Yossarian is discussing what it takes to be declared insane and therefore grounded from flying bombing missions. The following interaction occurs:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
The doctor goes on, repeating this same sentiment trying to make it clear to Yossarian exactly what the issue is. He continues to say:
Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Even Yossarian, who is desperate to get away from the possibility of death, has to respect the complex web the United States Air Force has woven to keep men fighting. The use of repetition in these lines, as well as the implementation of the catch-22, makes this passage a classic example of satire.
Related Literary Terms
- Historical Fiction: a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events.
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based on science.
- Satire: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or humorously chastise them.
- Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
- Antihero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and a villain.