A famous actor lying on his deathbed was once asked if dying was difficult, and with great effort he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Dying is easy. Comedy’s hard.”
Apparently meeting one’s Maker takes less effort for some than coaxing a laugh out of an audience. But it can be done. Comedy includes many elements, but it’s important not to neglect the humor found in individual words.
Monty Python member Graham Chapman once mused in an interview about how some words are simply funnier than others, even when they may have similar meanings. In writing a sketch for Monty Python, he explained, he would often choose the individual word whose sound or rhythm was funnier than another, more obvious word. The word bird he explained, was not nearly as funny as the word parrot.
For reasons I can’t even articulate, I agree and understand that parrot is inherently funnier than bird. Could it be the number of syllables? (possibly). The visual image it evokes? (maybe). The hard consonant sound at the end? (probably). Where birds are concerned, toucan is also funny. So is parakeet. Dove? Not so much.
Consider dogs: German Shepard? Not funny. Poodle? Better. Schnauzer? Now that’s funny. Shia-tzu? bloody hilarious. If we consider the entire animal kingdom, we see that even Adam had a sense of humor: platypus, quail, squirrel, woodpecker, hippopatumus, chinchilla, and horned toad (although we used to call them horny toads which, of course, is even funnier). The list goes on.
Pants is another funny word. In the Facebook game “25 Things About Me,” I wrote that “the iPod is the machine I’ve waited for my whole life because I can carry my entire CD collection in my pocket. As an added bonus, I get to say that I have music in my pants.” While the word bonus is also kind of funny, almost any joke that ends in pants is going to get a laugh. This is also true for the word cheese. I don’t know why. Not so with other dairy products. Milk? Nothing. Ice cream? Leaves me cold. Yogurt’s a maybe.
As I mentioned earlier, hard consonant sounds that appear in the middle or at the end of words can often increase the potential for comedy: cluck, ticket, butter, harken, trick. Is it a coincidence that the word sex ends in a hard consonant sound? I think not.
In my most recent young adult novel, I wrote a scene that took place between the main character and his best friend, who happens to be a computer whiz with a bit of a mischievous streak.
I needed a joke to help build to the climax of the scene. Here’s what I came up with:
“Coming over after school?” Ben asked.
All I could think about was the pile of homework on my desk.
“Maybe,” I said. “I’ve got—“
“’Cause you know those signs on the freeway that tell you the road conditions?”
“Yeah?” I said.
I couldn’t help it; I was intrigued.
“I figured out how to hack into them,” Ben said. “So yesterday I told drivers to avoid 5 North because there were Zombies in Tustin.”
“Brilliant,” I said. “Remind me to come visit you in San Quentin. You’ll be the one going to the prison prom with the drug runner named Spike.”
Ben looked pensive for a moment.
“Vest or cummerbund?” he asked.
First of all, I think the freeway sign story is funny all by itself (it was based on a true story). Secondly, I tried to write short sentences to quicken the pace, hopefully intensifying the humor. Thirdly, I admittedly went for the easy laugh on the prison joke–guilty as charged. Finally, I used a number of individually funny words: Zombies, Tustin, Quentin, drug runner, Spike, and cummerbund. I was also pleased with the alliteration of “prison prom,” but that’s for another blog post.
Let me leave you with a list of random words that usually make me giggle when I hear them: pontoon, gringo, Wikipedia, Crisco, meatloaf, decaf, karaoke, lazy susan, kayak, chaise lounge, raffle, lunge, truncate, head of lettuce, merkin, botulism, mirth, knucklehead, bunion, jazzercize, shoebox, sausage. . .
What words make you blow milk out of your nose?