What makes something funny? I’ve been trying to analyze humor, but humor to me is like obscenity to the Supreme Court – I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it. I’ve been reading through the backlist of one of my favorite romance writers, Jennifer Crusie. If you haven’t read any of her writing before, do yourself a favor and go out and buy (or borrow) yourself one of her books. She can be laugh out loud funny. I like how her romances always feel a little more realistic than the average romcom – sometimes the first-time sex isn’t that great and not everyone is a drop-dead gorgeous supermodel.
While reading two of her earlier works, TRUST ME ON THIS and CHARLIE ALL NIGHT, it struck me how similar in feeling they were to a 1930s or 40s screwball comedy. The stories are full of mistaken identity, fast-paced repartee, and some classic battle-of-the-sexes elements. Since they were her earlier works, I didn’t think the stories were as developed as her more recent books. Then again, that just might reflect my type of humor. I like screwball comedies – to a point. Sometimes the scripts just seem too forced, and I got that feeling from some of the situations in these two books.
So, I recognized the screwball comedy in Crusie’s work. But what makes screwball comedies funny? Sometimes I feel like a monkey when I write. I can copy the elements of a type of humor, but without understanding why those elements are actually funny. Some people subscribe to the superiority theory of humor – that people laugh at the misfortune of others. Sigmund Freud argued for the relief theory – the idea that humor is a way for people to release psychological tension. And others believe in the incongruity theory – that humor arises when there’s an inconsistency between what people expect and what actually happens. All those ideas are great, but I can think of examples of each of those theories where the results aren’t funny.
Sigh. My study of humor goes on. For now, I’ll just write about things that I’ve personally heard of or seen that have made me laugh, and hope that other have the same sense of humor as I do. And maybe it’s time to watch some more Cary Grant flicks. He was always good for a laugh.