Humour works on surprise.
It’s all about the ‘juxtaposition of inappropriateness’, which is a complex phrase describing the exaggerated way in which comedy puts something next to something that doesn’t quite fit. The key thing, normally, is to do this quickly.
That’s why jokes have punchlines and why taking apart a joke to explain it feels dreadful: what you have to explain why something is funny, you are both adding time and reducing exaggeration as well as taking away surprise - you’re not just being ‘unfunny’, you’re being ‘anti-funny’.
You can spend time trying to figure out why some books are funnier than others, but very quickly you’ll realise that it is to do with the above: funny stories or scenes establish an exaggerated set of expectations and then suddenly violate them. Think of the funniest television sketch you can, and see how that applies.
There’s a famous one where television comedian Dave Allen, as a ‘man in the street’, encounters a £20 bill trapped under the wheel of a car. Trying to be unobtrusive, he attempts to tug the bill out, to no avail. He notices a cafe across the road and decides to wait there, ordering tea after tea as he waits for the driver of the car to arrive and move the vehicle, and getting more and more nervous as he watches passers-by almost finding the money themselves. Time passes by; eventually the driver arrives and moves his car. At that moment -suddenly- the entire population of the cafe jumps up and rushes out to collect the money.
Our expectations have been aroused: we identify with the sketch’s ‘protagonist’ in his miserly desire for the ‘free’ money. It’s an exaggerated desire - while in reality a passer-by would have passed by, the humour comes from the overstated interest of this one in the trapped money. We wait out the magnified little drama with him, but suddenly we are surprised: everyone in the cafe, unexpectedly, shares the same aim. It’s inappropriate in the sense that it is highly unlikely - and the fast placement of it in our line of vision makes us laugh.
But even taking this example apart is showing you what ‘anti-funny’ means.
Here are a few one-liners from a master author Charles Dickens, known for his humour. Look for the juxtaposed images - the basis of humour, in a way, is the oxymoron. There are plenty of those here:
Bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.
He would make a lovely corpse.
Here's the rule for bargains: ''Do other men, for they would do you.'' That's the true business precept.
I do not know the American gentleman, God forgive me for putting two such words together.
I never had one hour's happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.
The word of a gentleman is as good as his bond; and sometimes better.
There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.
With affection beaming in one eye, and calculation shining out of the other.
You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer.
The sudden and exaggerated juxtaposition of inappropriate things leads to our instinctive reaction of laughter. Laughter is an odd thing biologically -evolutionary scientists are puzzled by its function. But it feels like a form of relief: when we laugh we are letting go of something. It’s as though the exaggeration implicit in comedy heightens our senses, and the juxtaposition of something that doesn’t fit then releases the tension: we see that we didn’t have to worry in the first place.
Adjust this slightly - make the exaggeration terrible - and we get the reaction of horror. Our perceptions are heightened, our awareness increased, and there is no relief: in horror films or stories, rather our worst exaggerated fears are confirmed or even exceeded, with sometimes sickening effect. But take any scenario by which we are horrified and suddenly reduce the exaggerations with the appearance of something quite ludicrously outside our expectations, and we laugh.
So to master humour, one has to master exaggeration and then the sudden bringing in of the unexpected and unfitting.