Humour’s Techniques and Forms

AUSSIE HUMOUR – Humour’s Techniques and Forms


Contributed by Ian M Johnstone



The wonderful thing about humour is that the techniques for achieving it cannot be adequately summarised, or put in a formula.  There is no recipe for humour.  That is what makes it so precious.  Joking is a form of mental nimbleness.  It is the mental equivalent of skipping, or goosestepping, or jumping, or hopping, or dancing a quick step, or doing a lavolta (jumping and clicking feet together), in that it is unexpected, appropriate, and an assertion of our vitality.  Light heartedness and being light on your feet seem to go together.


A lot of humour depends on contrasting what is sensible with what is silly, what is natural with what is false and a sham, and so on.  So humour uses exaggeration and understatement.  It uses inversions and the unexpected.  It uses the calm, cool, dry laconic tone, as well as the warm, friendly, genial sardonic tone.  It uses parody, mockery, satire, sarcasm and irony.  It uses yarns, rhymes, anecdotes and shaggy dog stories.  It is protean in its techniques and in its forms.  It can’t be fully described or prescribed or contained or suppressed.

All humour, which is not farcical, relies on indirectness.  It is the obliqueness that appeals to us, much as we enjoy the hints, innuendoes and suggestiveness of poetry.  No-one likes trying to explain their joke.  We feel ‘If you don’t get it now you never will’.  Explained jokes seldom stay funny.  So sharing a joke helps to create companionship, with implicit understandings, like body language shared in an intimate embrace.


Transposing words and phrases typically used in one area of talk over to another area of talk can be quite effective.   Consider this recent example of mixed political and racial satire:

 The satirical newspaper The Chaser of 10 July 2000 has this news item:

Indians, Pakistanis sign Convenience Store Non-Proliferation Treaty

SYDNEY, Tuesday: In a desperate attempt to head off a full scale escalation of convenience store proliferation, the Minister for Consumer Affairs and Defence yesterday called on Indians and Pakistanis to honour the Convenience Store Non-Proliferation Treaty (“the LaStore Declaration”) …

The Minister confirmed the incident in a brief statement to the media.  “Today at 1545 hours (1015 GMT), Rahul Singh opened three, fully lit convenience stores in the Sydney CBD.  Initial intelligence confirms that the stores are operational with full tepid hot dog stand capabilities and substantial close-to-expiry-date instant noodles. …

Indians have had convenience store capabilities since 1973, which they developed independently of the America’s 7-11 Corporation, a world leader in so-called “smart” convenience store design, which has led to such innovations as the installation of laser lighting, microwave-equipped hot dog stands and satellite-style video-driven spy surveillance techniques.

The Pakistanis more recently developed convenience store capabilities …  American analysts are reportedly concerned that Iraq may soon be able to develop convenience store capability of its own. …  Head of the UN Taskforce, Mr Richard Butler said the UN bans must remain.  “At the moment, Iraq has all the infrastructure necessary to develop their own convenience stores, except food. …  Greenpeace estimate the number of convenience stores in the Sydney CBD alone is enough to destroy the world. …

Treating convenience stores as if they were nuclear bombs amuses us because it tries to transform the trivial into the vital.   The opposite technique of treating a disaster as if it was planned and normal also tickles our fancy.

 The Chaser of 7 August 2000 has this news item:

Concorde Breaks Hotel Barrier

Airport to hotel in under 2 mins
Paris, Tuesday: The Manager of Hotelissimo Hotel today claimed that he made it perfectly clear to Air France that he did not have enough room for the 109 passengers on the Concorde.

Speaking at a press conference, Mr Pierre Simenon claimed that the wholesale destruction of his hotel is entirely Air France’s fault.  ‘ want to make it clear that at no stage did I claim to Air France or any of its employees that there was parking for a Concorde at the hotel. …

Rejecting Mr Simenon’s comments, Air France has vowed to seek similar relationships with other hotels.  ‘Our research shows that many passengers would like a service which takes your luggage straight to your room and drops you off directly in the reception,’ said Mr Jean-Cyril Spinoza, the President of Air France.  “While the initial trial wasn’t entirely a success this does not mean we should give up.”

Spinoza explained that the Concorde can fly from Paris to New York in less than half the time taken by a regular jet plane.  ‘It takes nearly eight hours in a 747, but only three-and-a-half by Concorde,’ he said.  ‘That advanced technology meant that it took only two minutes to fly into the hotel – a 747 would have taken at least six.’ …

While the crash has appalled most people a spokesperson for several South Pacific nations, including Muraroa Atoll, applauded the French decision to move large French-made explosions to Charles de Gaulle Airport and away from their islands.

Humour plays with possibilities.  It is a romp with the improbable.

Stan Cross’s cartoon in 1933 of the man dangling from a plank on a building site with his trousers around his legs plays with the possibility, or rather the impossibility, of there being some situation too dangerous and terrifying for a joke.  ‘For gor’s sake, stop laughing –  this is serious.