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How to Write Humor: Oddly Specific

This is part of series of blogs based on humor techniques I studied during my brief tenure as Serious Humorologist at the University of Oxyintelligent Oxymorons.  

“Newt did not smoke, because he did not allow nicotine or (until today) alcohol entry to the temple of his body or, more accurately, the small Welsh Methodist tin tabernacle of his body.” - Good Omens 

“Good Omens” is all the rage right now because of the excellent series which just came out. The book it's based on is also terrific. Perhaps even better (for reasons I’ll rant about someday somewhere but not this day and not this where). 

No, we are gathered here today to talk about how to write funnily (which is a word. Merriam and Webster have my back on that one). Specifically, one flavor of joke you can use to add pizazz to your novel. This element of humor writing doesn’t have a name, so I’m going to name it here and now, as if I have that right. 

I’m calling it: Oddly Specific. 

In the book “Good Omens” Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman use this technique frequently. “[S]mall Welsh Methodist tin tabernacle” is funnier than “temple” because it’s oddly specific and a little ridiculous. 

Douglas Adams also uses this technique frequently in the Hitchhiker’s series which is well regarded as god-tier humor. So much so that literally any book that has ever made anyone chuckle even once is touted as, “Reminiscent of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” 

A favorite and oft quoted line from “The Hitchkers-“ ah damn my fingers are tired. From H2G2 is “They hung in the air in exactly the way that bricks don’t.” 

It’s a great line. It’s oddly specific. Even the word “exactly” hints to the specificity. I think you’ll find that omitting that word hurts the humor. 

“They hung in the air in the way that bricks don’t.” 

I mean, it’s funny, but it does lose something. It loses that specificity. 

Here’s another example: 

The word “kumquat” is exactly 97% funnier than the word “citrus." The phrase “disgruntled straight snout weevil” is 72% funnier than the phrase “bothered insect.”

Now, I’m not a statistician, but those are fairly high percentages and I think this might be something that warrants further examination, don’t you? 

Why is the word “kumquat” funnier than “citrus”? 

It’s well known that hard “K” sounds are the funniest sounds. Why? Because the Simpsons decreed it. Season 11, episode 11. Sideshow Mel announces that Krusty “paralyzed his vocal cords cramming too many ‘K’ sounds into a punch line.” And if you’re superstitious about numbers they really were on the right track with this one. 

Kumquat’s got the hard ‘k’ sound TWICE! Count ‘em. Don’t worry, I’ll wait while you sit there and whisper “kumquat” at your computer, tablet, or phone. 

It’s also oddly specific. It’s a strange fruit. When was the last time you ate a kumquat? (If you own a kumquat farm or live in an area where kumquats are plentiful, please don’t answer.) 

And, finally, the first syllable is “kum” so… I mean… ah never mind. I can’t stoop that low. 

So there you have it, a way to add some humor to your book without summoning the spirit of Douglas Adams all the way from his cozy house in the nicest neighborhood in Atheist Heaven. 

If the books and shows I name-dropped in today's blog are your cup of tea, might I recommend some tea-like coffee? Sign up to get notified about the launch of "The Audacity" here!

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