5 Cautions in Adding Humor to Your Creative Works

Alpine Cow“The secret to humor is surprise. — Aristotle

We know humor adds much to engaging an audience. This is true whether our works are art pieces, presentations, dramas, novels, short stories or non-fiction. But we also know humor, unlike other elements in our creative works, has a greater chance of falling flat.

Here are tips that will make your humor less likely to produce deadpan stares or full-blown cringes.

Caution 1. Don’t keep trying to make something funny that’s resisting you. A good reason most likely lies behind the roadblock. The idea could be offensive or hurtful. The idea may need extensive background or setup and risks losing the audience. Or it may not be right for the setting of your work. Some ideas are too outdated to tickle current audiences.

See what you think of this example:

ID-10062080A 1958 film, Mon Oncle, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and other awards. It had audiences rolling, especially the kitchen scene. (I remember.) Here’s its IMDb blurb: “Monsieur Hulot visits the technology-driven world of his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew, but he can’t quite fit into the surroundings.” Check out this short clip and decide. Timeless or passé humor?

Caution 2. Don’t overdo the humorous moment in length or drama. But do give the moment what it needs to be recognized as a humorous tidbit. Look for a balance.

Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King have appeared in films of their works for a bit of humor. You decide whether the film professionals gave their appearances the appropriate length and drama for the work. Here are YouTube clips showing Hitchcock’s cameo appearances and one of King’s.

Image courtesy of Tina Phillips at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Tina Phillips at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Caution 3. Don’t create humor that’s complicated and makes audiences work hard for their laugh. Many enjoy slapstick because it’s easy to “get.” Others prefer wit and humorous situations that lead them to their laughs.

You decide if the table ballets in films, Benny and Joon and in Gold Rush, are simple and humorous (and timeless). See both clips here starring Johnny Depp and Charlie Chaplin.

Caution 4. Don’t repeat witty or slapstick elements for the sole purpose that the humor will work a second or third time in the same work.

Image courtesy of Lavoview at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Lavoview at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Unless perhaps you’re one of the Three Stooges, repetitions lose the element of surprise and become less entertaining with each re-appearance. Possibly, you can make the idea work again if you’re able to add a fresh angle.

Businessman Stepping on Banana Peel

Caution 5. Don’t include slapstick in writing, drama, or presentations unless it’s well planned and orchestrated.

Slapstick is defined as: “comedy based on deliberately clumsy actions and humorously embarrassing events.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) I think the key element is the humorously embarrassing event. Random clumsy actions alone have no story and can take away from the work. You decide if Mr. Bean, as he paints his room, has an effective embarrassing event for his clumsy actions.

What were your decisions on the film clips? What cautions do you have in using humor?

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The Secret Ingredient to Engaging Your Audience

“Communicating an idea juxtaposed with its polar opposite creates energy. Moving back and forth between the contradictory poles encourages full engagement from the audience.” —Nancy Duarte

Hot Dog and Chopsticks

You step back from your creative work and, no matter how hard you rationalize its appeal, you know in your heart something is missing. The ingredient that takes it from dull to fascinating.

Most of us know the secret ingredient already. Then why don’t we use it? I’ll address reasons why we overlook the secret ingredient after I give you some examples of how it’s been employed.

Secret Ingredient: CONTRAST.

Musical Instrument Keyboard KeysExample 1: My favorite rhythm activity with preschoolers is freeze dance. In Bible Study Fellowship and Sunday school, we danced to music pieces on the small keyboard I carried. Then I’d punch the stop button. The children froze arms, legs, and face expressions. I tried to catch them in a stumbling stop or moving when silence dropped. They enjoyed the dancing, the anticipation, and avoiding getting caught.

The freeze dance provides these contrasts:

  • freely moving bodies vs. rigid frozen bodies
  • doing our own thing vs. obeying the rule to stop
  • anticipation vs. fun result

When we solely put on music and let them dance with scarves, the children didn’t stay engaged very long. Unless they used their scarves as whips (creating their own contrast).

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Image courtesy of Suat Eman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example 2: If you sat in a waiting room with a blue wall in front of you, how long would you stare at the wall with interest? Now, say the wall was white with a foot-by-foot blue square painted on it. Would your eye wander to that blue square now and then? Would you wonder why someone painted a blue square on the white wall? Might you imagine what you would have put on the wall instead of the blue square? Or what you’d add to the blue square?

The contrast of blue and white, big and small, and the why and why not of the blue square creates more interest than a solid blue wall. That’s why artists use light and dark, shadows and highlights.

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Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example 3: Would you sit through a movie or play where the actors constantly shouted? Or issued nonstop dramatic emotion—always whining or always blubbering or always laughing? Actors and storytellers know sprinkling subtle and dramatic emotions, shouts and whispers, and movement and stillness engages their audiences.

??????????????????????????Too much of anything gets old and audiences lose interest.

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Example 4: And for me, the greatest contrast of all: Creator and created. If the Bible were only about humans and their sinful natures and fleeting brief lives on earth, our future would be hopeless. But the Bible reveals the nature of the almighty Creator who sent His Son to earth to save us from our sins, give us eternal life in His kingdom, and make us whole.

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Why doesn’t a writer, an artist, or presenter use contrasts? Here’s reasons that came to my mind:

  • He does, but uses less than polar contrasts. The contrasts fall short of appearing different to the audience. The actor reduces his screams to shouts.
  • He fails to put the contrasts he sees in his mind into his work. This is a common problem of novice writers. They imagine a scene and its emotions but fall short of transferring what they’ve created in their minds to the page.
  • He uses an experience in his personal life. His emotional struggles with the experience convince him to avoid one side of the contrast. Contrasting costs too much pain.
  • He thinks the one element that intrigues him is sufficient to attract his audience. He forgets his passion must be related to the audience. Contrasting that element to its opposite helps the audience see his viewpoint.

Can you share an example of how you’ve contrasted elements in your creative work?

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4 Steps to Jumpstart Your Stalled Creativity

“If people never did silly things, then nothing intelligent would ever get done.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Tired of staring at a blank screen? Are all your ideas frozen inside your brain?

Try this exercise. It’ll thaw your brain cells.

4 Steps to Jumpstart Your Stalled Creativity

Step 1. Randomly select a book from your bookshelf. Open the book and plunge your finger to a page. Choose the nearest noun to the left or right of your finger. The one you like best.

MP900201252I plucked a book from my bookcase. A suspense novel. This was going to be exciting. Maybe my finger would land on murder, stabbing, glock, or scream. I looked under my finger and shifted my gaze to the nearest noun. Tickseed? I kid you not. The noun was tickseed. Ew.

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Step 2: Look up your word online. Even if it’s a common word like man. List facts about your noun. Ten or so. Keep it simple.

I searched tickseed coreopsis online, which led to other pages about their enemies. Here’s my list of facts:

  • Yellow wildflower *
  • Requires a sunny spot *
  • Heavy summer bloomer
  • Perennial
  • Attracts birds and butterflies
  • Suitable for cut flowers
  • Pests: Aphids, Beetles, Leafhoppers
  • Aphids live on stems and the underside of leaves; they’re sucking insects; soldier beetles eat aphids *
  • Beetles are leaf eating or predators; have powerful chewing jaws *
  • Leafhoppers jump, fly, and suck the juices from plants *
Image courtesy of SweetCrisis at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of SweetCrisis at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Step 3: Choose the 5 most interesting facts.

What drew my attention, besides the gross name, was the tickseed’s enemies. So I chose the facts with the asterisks (*).

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Step 4. Now create something from your five facts. Something silly or profound. Have fun. Use all five facts but don’t spend a lot of time on the activity. This is simply to get your creative juices flowing.

From my online research, I could’ve printed pictures of aphids, beetles, leafhoppers, and a tickseed plant. I could’ve made a collage of the pests attacking the tickseed coreopsis. But I’m a writer, so I wrote a short story.

Jumpstart Story:

Alf looked up from sucking the green stuff in time to see a black-and-yellow striped tank land on a nearby leaf. What kind of alien was this? He extracted his sucking mouth part from the stem and scrambled over Buddy, Dominic, and a few other aphids from his colony to check out the invader.

Image courtesy of papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The tank spoke. “What plant is this?”

“Tickseed Coreopsis.”

The tank took a step to the left and to the right. “Where? Where? I hate ticks.”

“Tickseed Coreopsis is a plant, you dolt. Don’t you know your asteronomy? Tickseed Coreopsis is one of the unigarden’s nine plants. The one closest to the sun.”

“Dolt! Watch what you call me, aphid. Be thankful I’m not a soldier beetle or I’d chew you up and digest you.”

Alf regarded the beetle’s powerful jaws. “Okay, okay. So you’ve checked out Tickseed Coreopsis. Now take off.”

“Why? I can see  this is a plant of many suns. They’re what attracted me to it.”

Alf sighed. “They’re not suns. They’re yellow blooms.”

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A leafhopper landed on the beetle’s leaf.

The beetle crawled toward it. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Leaf hopping.”

The beetle flexed his jaw. “Then hop off!”

Alf lifted his head toward the sun. “For sucking out loud. What is this plant coming to?

The leafhopper inspected the leaf at his six feet. “What plant is this?”

The beetle spoke up. “Tickweed.”

Alf rolled his sucking mouth part. “Tickseed. Seed!”

The beetle stiffened. “I will not cede. I’m going to eat this entire leaf.”

Alf kicked the pollen off his feet and turned. Let the hopper and the tank have it out over the leaf. He was going back to his stem.

What was your noun and what creation did you come up with?

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