3 Examples of Sharpening Humor for Kids

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I am working on an short chapter book and I want it to be funny. My kids say I have no sense of humor and they are right. But fortunately, I have a quote for that:

I love revisions. Where else in life can spilled milk be transformed into ice cream?”
~ Katherine Paterson, Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (1982) p. 63

You can be funny–I’m told–if you just revise. Here are some ice cream recipes.

Place holders. First, it’s important to know that it’s OK to write a joke-lets or jokoids, places where it could be funny, but it isn’t yet. Or places where there is irony or humor, but I haven’t milked it yet. These placeholders mean that I’ve put into the story the elements that need to be there–I just haven’t exploited them yet. That comes in the revision.

Funny Technique #1: Setup, Setup, Payoff


Here’s a possible set up for a joke from my WIP. The two characters are discussing where to have an Alien Birthday Party.

“It will be at my house, maybe in the back yard. Is it big enough for an alien space ship to land there?”
“Oh, yes.” Her yard was huge enough for three of our spaceships. Of course, ours was just a tiny spaceship for one family. Back on planet Bix, there were spaceships large enough to fill up three Earth-sized football fields. Maybe more.

NOT a joke, not even a good joke-let. It’s nothing but a question and answer. But can I make it a joke?
What if I use a Setup, setup, payoff: big, bigger, tiny.

Back on Bix, there were spaceships large enough to fill up three Earth-sized football fields. There were spaceships large enough to fill up Lake Michigan. Our family spaceship, though, was only as big as a bathroom.

Interesting, but not there yet. What I need is two comparisons and a third that is ridiculous in comparison? What small things are in a kid’s experience, what space or size would they think is tiny? The school janitor’s closet. The boy’s bathroom. A submarine. Kids packed into a school bus. A school bus would seem like a mansion compared to our family space ship. No, flip that and put the payoff last: Compared to our family space ship, a school bus would rank as a mansion. Let’s try that one.

“It will be at my house, maybe in the back yard. Is it big enough for an alien space ship to land there?”

“Oh, yes.” Back on Bix, there were spaceships large enough to fill up three Earth-sized football fields. There were spaceships large enough to carry a dozen blue whales. But compared to our family space ship, a school bus would rank as a mansion.

Is that better? Yes. Of course, it is. Not hilarious maybe, but sharper, bettet.

Funny Technique #2: Doorbell Effect or Setting up Expectations

“What kind of games could we play at the party?” Bree started jumping up and down. “I know. We could dress up in space suits and helmets and everything like that. Can your parents do that?”

Human girls do like to change clothes a lot. But what was a space suit? And why would you wear a helmet? It was another thing to look up later. “Yes,” I said. “My parents can do space suits.”

Another Jokoid! Is this another place for a setup, setup, payoff? No, I tried several comparisons with an absurd third, but couldn’t make it work.

What other techniques might work? Humor uses expectations, it’s the Doorbell Effect.

“We’ll be fine as long as the DoorBell doesn’t ring.”
Bing, bong. Avon Calling.

We set up expectations that are then thwarted or exploited. Will this work here? What are the expectations? We expect a girl to dress up in prom clothes and Fancy Nancy stuff. Not a space suit.

What is the set up?
The funny part is that girls like to dress up and dressing up in space suits is odd. I get the funny part, but I’m not telling it right, am I?

Bree started jumping up and down. “I know. We could play dress up.”
I had seen Bree play this before. “I don’t think aliens wear dresses.”
“No. We can dress up in alien space suits and helmets. Can your parents do that?”

No, not much funnier, if any at all. About the same. It’s a strange little premise, that dress up can be played with space suits, instead of tutus.

Oh, that word, “Tutus.” Would that make it better?

Bree started jumping up and down. “I know. We could play dress up.”
I had seen Bree play this before. “I don’t think aliens wear tutus.”
“No. We can dress up in alien space suits and helmets. Can your parents do that?”

The mental image of the traditional Alien dressed in a tutu is much better. Probably the best I can do for now. At least the humor/irony is sharper for the exaggeration.

Humor Technique #3: Call Back

How else can I sharpen the humor of this story? By using a Call Back.
Because the main character is an alien, I am starting every chapter using a “strange fact” that he notices.

Here is a strange fact about schools and teachers. They like to put lots of kids in a small room and then ask the kids to be quiet. Do they think that is possible? I was still trying to figure out how to survive in an Earth school.

Does this work as a jokoid? Or a joke? No, it’s ironic and a commentary about norms of Earth schools. But that means there should be a joke somewhere, right? Where?

The Setup, setup, Payoff didn’t work.
The Doorbell Effect didn’t work.

Another humor technique is to use something as a callback? You state something once, and then later refer to it in such a way that it’s funny. Is there another place to have the kids to actually BE very, very quiet in school?

I looked through the chapter and found a place where the kids could be abnormally quiet in response to something. It’s a funny place for them to be quiet and to notice this is funny. It’s a call back that works.

Our hero, as an alien, is deathly afraid of bugs and when he spots a red wasp in the lunch room, here’s his reaction:

But I took off my shoe and knocked the red wasp to the ground and then hit it with the shoe. That red wasp was dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. I hate all Earth bugs.

And everything in the lunch room was quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Ok, it is possible to put lots of kids in a small room and get them to be all quiet.

Then, I sat down hard. And everyone started talking again.

In the story’s context, this is a funnier way to present the scene.

Are these examples hilarious. Nope. But my kids say I have no sense of humor and I never promised you ice cream. Just an ice cream recipe.

For more: Read about writing running gags in your story.

3 Comments
  • Andrea
    March 22, 2012

    These are great tips – thanks!

  • Vonna
    March 22, 2012

    Great examples, Darcy. I’m revising a MG now and these tips will help punch things up.

  • Loriee Evans
    November 19, 2012

    The line at the end, where all you promised us was an ice cream *recipe*? That was funny!
    Circular story-telling always works for me. Or, I guess that’s an example of callback. Will have to try it.