Updated: Oct 23
I'm (tongue-in-cheek) guessing this was sculpted
right at the moment when the subject stubbed his toe.
This afternoon, I introduced one of my tutor-ees to ancient Rome. Of course, that required some talk about Julius Caesar and veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered," which is how Caesar supposedly described one of his military victories).
Interestingly, while many people know this phrase, most of us have probably been butchering its pronunciation our whole lives. According to my brother "Z," who took classical Latin in high school, the v's are actually pronounced like w's. Hence the title of this post. 🤭
If you now "get" the wordplay, that perfectly illustrates my point. I'm convinced that when humor falls flat, the problem typically isn't with the humor; it's with the context.
If you've been on this email list a while, you might remember this email-turned-blog-post about how humor works. Essentially, it arises when someone is following the wrong "script" for a situation. In other words, their speech and/or behavior doesn't make sense for the context they're in. For the audience to find the situation funny, they have to understand both scripts so they can recognize the incongruity.
When you first read the title of this post, you knew the script for pronouncing the English word what, but most of you probably didn't know the script for classical-Latin v's. Without it, you didn't know what I was trying to do, so I doubt you laughed. But now that you have both scripts/contexts, hopefully the wordplay at least makes you smile. 😉
This is why setup is critical for using any kind of humor in our writing. We have to make sure the audience understands both scripts for the situation (the right one and the wrong one), or they won't find anything to laugh about.
Some attempts at humor take more setup than others. Often life experience is enough for the audience to understand the two scripts and find the humor. People who encounter the Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride, for example, laugh because they understand (a) that weddings tend to be formal, serious occasions and/or (b) that most adults don't have trouble pronouncing everyday words.
In other cases, an author has to start setting up a humorous situation and giving context for it long before it actually takes place in the story. The novel The Elusive Pimpernel (a sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel) is a good example. <spoiler alert> The villain, Chauvelin, spends the entire book enacting an elaborate scheme to manipulate the Scarlet Pimpernel into coming to France to fight a duel—whereupon Chauvelin reveals that he has hostages and coerces the Pimpernel into writing an incriminating letter for publication. Chauvelin has every intention of carrying out his threats; not only has the Pimpernel humiliated him in the past, but Chauvelin's own head is on the line. As far as any of the characters can tell, the plan is airtight: the Pimpernel can't possibly extricate himself without either sending innocent people to their deaths or destroying his own reputation. Either way, Chauvelin wins. But once the letter is on its way and the prisoners have been released, the Pimpernel reveals that he managed to switch papers right under Chauvelin's nose, sending a mocking poem in place of the libelous letter. Suffice it to say that Chauvelin's superiors will not be pleased. </spoiler> After the certainty of disaster that the author has set up, the surprise not only is completely unexpected but provides such poetic justice that we can't help but laugh. (Oops—pun not intended.)
So if the funny bone of your piece seems broken, don't despair. Try adding more context to make sure readers understand both scripts for each amusing situation. Or you could save yourself some time and send your piece to me. Having provoked genuine laughs from professors who either rarely smiled or had serious political differences with me, I'd like to think I know a thing or two about humor. 😁 Click here to schedule a time for us to talk about how to give your audience the giggles.