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What makes humor tick?

Humour exists not just for its own sake.

It can be thought of as the brahmastra that helps in making any speech powerful. The genius of the device is such that it can be used to convey any feeling, be it love, hate, anger, grief, jealousy, disgust, cynicism, and so on, and ironically, it can also be used in bringing down the impact of those very feelings, when deployed in a different way.

All the same when used well, it can work wonders by effectively communicating any subject. Case in point: Comedian John Oliver’s weekly show “The Last Week Tonight”.  While Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert established the style and foundation for satire and  sarcasm laced examination of “serious” subjects, it was John Oliver,  in this author’s opinion, who popularized it so much that his show is considered  a serious contender in the  category of mainstream journalism despite the anchor’s vehement insistence that it’s just a  comedy show. Oliver’s brand of humour  takes the form of sarcasm,  slapstick, innuendo and self-deprecation,  many a time. But it also  succeeds in telling the story of the day. It manages to  CONVEY. That’s a near perfect demonstration of what humour can do to any kind of  messaging.   

What makes humour work? For the sake of brevity, let’s examine the most important  components in a speech that gets humour working.   

  1. Conflict For any story to work, it has to stay within the boundaries of logic, even if its  basic premise is as unearthly as possible.  Conflict, a.k.a the second act, gets the audience’s’ interest and keeps them guessing until resolution, i.e. the climax.  A humorous speech or  story works along the similar lines. Even if the idea  is to  make the audiences laugh, a humorist should also get  them to  care. Once the laughter dies out, they should still be interested in  knowing  what  happens to the story.    
  2. Characterisation A corollary to the previous point, great characters help in making a story  interesting.  Great characterizations make humour a lot more situational. Those situations  can be made more relatable with the use of localisms, and cultural references easily  identifiable to the audience. It’s here that a humorist strikes the chord.    

While writing this piece, I was wondering if I should make it humorous for the reader, just as  a way of presenting the purpose of the article in a subtextual  manner. And that’s when I remembered another cardinal rule ­ No humour is better than bad humour. Bad humour,  short of getting a  few laughs, can create  controversies. Nothing leaves a worse aftertaste  than forced or misplaced humour.   

Unless an individual is very skilled, including humour in speeches takes serious thought and  preparation. When it’s done right,  it’s an excellent tool  to have in one’s communication arsenal.  

This article was first published on the Deccan Chronicle VIT’s blog section.

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