Hello and welcome to chapter eight on the use of satire and humor in a story. I’ll let you know right off the bat – I’m not that funny of a person until you get to know me a bit better. I’m much funnier in person. Writing humor is difficult, I encourage you to use your own instincts with this chapter and teach yourself as much as you can by absorbing media you find funny – especially creative non-fiction writing.
There’s this guy that always passes by my house and hasn’t ever said “hello” to me. He’s younger than I am, but we are both alumni of where I did my undergraduate degree – Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.
Is it the way I smell? – Yes, the days have been hot and it can be hard to smell “fresh.” Is he judging me on my bad habits? – Who is the heck he? Last time I checked Brad Pitt doesn’t live in my neighborhood – though I love the community where I live. Often I have days where I don’t leave the area and I live in a big city.
Whatever the reason, there are so many things in life which can inspire humor. Like yesterday’s rainfall when my Dad came to my door with a big box on his head. I didn’t even recognize him at first.
Using satire and humor your writing can be a great way to entertain your reader. Keeping things light-hearted – when it is called for can endear the reader to you, the writer. Here’s a sample from Utopia: Towards a New Toronto edited by Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox. This selection is called “I love infrastructure” by Dale Duncan:
I’m hiking through the woods of Algonquin Park with my nature-loving small-town friend Beth. Beth is one of those people who are always overflowing with curiosity, and here in Canada’s largest provincial park, she’s like a little kid at the Science Centre. Beth’s interest in quirky details in one of her most endearing qualities; she once took me gallivanting through an arboretum to net butterflies, stopping to categorize and record each specimen in her butterfly journal before setting it free.
Beth spent a summer working at Algonquin, and as we hike along a familiar trail, she tells me about Moth Boy, famous throughout the park for his love of everything to do with moths. The seventeen-year-old had snagged a good job working in the park as a naturalist that year due to his obsession with the natural environment; months in particular were his passion. According to Beth, a one- hour walk with Moth Boy turned into two hours because, well, “he just loved to identify moths.”
Nature often inspires such behaviour; there’s always the cousin who stops to collect different rocks, the little boy who searches for snakes, or the aunt who points out various birds. It’s hard, in fact, to find people who don’t like nature, or, at least, those who admit to it. Everything’s connected to nature. There’s so much diversity, so much complexity. You can’t hate nature. It’s pure and innocent, tainted only by the hands of humans. To Beth, the city is cold and empty in comparison. It’s representative of the follies of the human race: depressing, sterile and uninviting.
From the example above, Duncan uses satire and humour effectively by describing his friend Beth as “small-town.” He calls the boy who loves moths – “Moth Boy” and also I’ve included the third paragraph where he reflects on nature with a more serious tone.
Duncan was able to switch from a light-hearted beginning to a serious tone by remaining consistent with his writing style. There is not a moment in the excerpt, or in the entire essay, where his “voice” doesn’t seem to come through.
MID-CHAPTER ASSIGNMENT 8.1
“Moth Boy” – think of someone you can nickname for the purpose of a story. “He’s like a fat kid with a smarty” –. Comparisons are a common device used in humor. Think of a funny metaphor you can come up with that is unique.
“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” – This is known as exaggeration. Many times exaggeration makes for great forms of comedy. Other examples of this include:
Q: Did he take the drivers exam? A: He wrote the drivers exam
Try this kind of humour yourself
“He makes George Clooney looks like Alf” – this is a form of humour known as a people comparison and can often be used humorously because it is a ridiculous statement. When using this form of humour, you have to know who your audience is and make sure you’re not insulting anyone. Give this form of humour a try.
This next selection comes from William Zinsser in On Writing Well. He comments on using humour in writing this way:
Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool – and sometimes their only tool – for making an important point (Zinsser, 230).
He gives some examples of humourous incidents and writing:
Luckily, my vigil was at last rewarded. I was browsing at a newsstand and saw four magazines side by side: Hairdo, Celebrity Hairdo, Combout and Pouf. I bought all four – to the alarm of the news dealer – and found a whole world of journalism devoted solely to hair: life from the neck up, but not including the brain. The magazines had diagrams of elaborate roller positions, and they also had columns in which a girl could send her roller problem to the editors for their advice. That was what I needed. I invented a magazine called Haircurl and wrote a series of parody letter s and replies. The piece ran in Life and it began like this:
I am 15 and am considered pretty in my group. I wear baby pink rollers, jumbo size. I have been going steady with a certain boy for 21/2 years and he has never
seen me without my rollers. The other night I took them off and we had a terrible fight. “Your head looks small,” he told me. He called me a dwarf and said I had misled him. How can I win him back?
HEARTSICK Speonk, N.Y.
You have only yourself to blame for doing something so stupid. The latest “Hair- curl” survey shows that 94% of American girls now wear rollers in their hair 21.6 hours a day and 359 days a year. You tried to be different and you lost your fella. Take our advice and get some super-jumbo rollers (they come in your favorite baby pink shade, too) and your head will look bigger than ever and twice as lovely. Don’t ever take them off again.
Comedians like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Will Farrell, Ellen Degeneres and Whoopi Goldberg have made profitable careers from being funny. Part of the reason I’m sure why Whoopi Goldberg gave named herself as such is because it sounds funny.
Draw from what brings a smile to your face, makes you laugh, makes others laugh, etc. to add humour to your stories.
Remember satire is a form of humour which usually makes fun of life in some way. It’s closely related to irony. Just as with any good comedy sketch, you need to have good pacing, timing and structure.
The best way to know how to do humour is through exposing yourself to as much funny stuff as you can. It is widely understood in writing circles that through exposure and constant and consistent reading – you will be able to better understand the concepts I’m teaching and writing here.
The use of satire and humour in stories is a powerful weapon because it can engage your readers – help you to connect more with your audience. If you don’t find yourself a particularly funny person – get inspiration from books, movies, songs, comedians, even emails that make you laugh. Laughter does the soul good.
Write a one page story that includes humour and satire. To encourage peer review, plus the review from myself – post your assignment to your personal website. Humor is an extremely subjective thing. The only thing I ask as your instructor is that refuse to read and grade anything that is vulgar or is an insult to any cultural, religious, political, etc. group. Some of you may think these rules out all comedy. That should make this assignment all the more interesting because then it’s more of a challenge.