Humor — Written, Spoken and Visual

Is there a difference between written humor and spoken humor?  Most definitely.

The Words and The Delivery

Written humor relies almost entirely on the words and placement of those words.  Spoken humor, in addition to words, adds delivery style into the mix.  Because of the impact of delivery, spoken humor has more options, is more flexible and is often funnier than written humor, but not always.

One of the reasons that spoken humor is more powerful than written humor, is the impact of the characters which deliver the funny lines.  When you’re delivering a speech, the character may be YOU.  Or you may play the part of a character in a story which you are telling.  It’s easier to deliver a funny line with an accent when speaking, for example, than to put the accent on paper.  Consider lines delivered by a strong comic character (like Lucille Ball).  They will usually have more power than the same lines delivered in written form.  Lines delivered in a dry style (like Steven Wright) will sometimes be almost as funny when presented in writing.  This is one reason we frequently see lists of Steven Wright’s clever observations in written form, but almost never do we see written dialogue from an old I Love Lucy show.

The lesson is to maximize your physical delivery when presenting spoken humor.  Although the words are still critically important, it’s the vocal and physical delivery qualities that really add the extra punch to your humor.  Words in print don’t have the added impact of changes in rate, pitch, volume and the energy or force changes that your spoken presentation provides.  Even more critical is the power of pacing and the pause.  Although you can use a pause technique in written form (I usually do it using the ellipsis…as I just did here), you don’t have the precise control over the length of the pause that you would have while speaking.  It’s the pause that adds focus to the key words and also adds the power of tension, in the form of anticipation, to magnify the humor.  Control of this process is so much more precise and powerful in the spoken form, compared to humor in writing.

What is often missing in the written form is the ATTITUDE that the speaker or comic can use when delivering a line.  The speaker may be happy, angry, sarcastic or flavor his or her delivery with some other attitude.  In writing, also missing is the speakers REACTION to the funny line.  In the humor business, this is called the TAKE.  For example, a speaker delivers a funny line, then raises his eyebrows.  It’s a reaction to the punchline intended to magnify the impact of the line.  This technique, the physical take, is normally missing when humor is in the written form.

Power From Written Humor

Although the spoken form is usually funnier, sometimes the written form has more impact.  The specific word choice may make the written form of humor more powerful than the spoken form.  For example, let’s look at this line:  The over use of puns is an extreme form of audience PUNishment.  Although, in the spoken form, this line may be an obvious play on words, the pun part of punishment could go totally unnoticed.  In the written form, especially with the use of capital letters, the intended word play is unlikely to be missed. 

Another example:  Three cows walk into a bar.  The bartender says, “We don’t serve cows in this bar.”  The cows respond, “we’ll just go to an udder bar.”  In the written form the intended word is crystal clear.  In the spoke form, the word play could be missed and the listener could just hear “other” instead of the intended word.  Humor based on word-play is often stronger in the written form.

While word selection and placement are important in both written and spoken humor, they are more critical in the written form since they carry almost all the weight of the humor impact.  A line which is not structured for optimal humor impact when spoken, can still be funny because of the power of the physical and vocal delivery elements.

Also, it’s probably true that the more complex the humor, the better the written form is for the delivery vehicle.  When humor is spoken, the listener has only one shot to get it.  Although, in my opinion both forms, written and spoken, should be kept simple and direct from a humor structure standpoint.  Even though written humor allows the reader to go back, re-read and analyze your attempt at humor; excessive complexity is rarely a humor enhancer.  If they don’t catch it the first time, most people won’t dedicate the time to solve a humor puzzle!

Visual Humor

Good humor, both written and spoken, is often visual.  With our words we paint pictures in the mind of the reader and listener.  Often, written humor paints stronger visual images in the mind of the reader than spoken humor does in the mind of the listener.  Consider the power of visual imagery created by the fiction novel.  Compare that to the visual images in a movie.  At first glance, you might think that the imagery in a movie is more powerful.  But in reality, the images left to the imagination of the reader are often more powerful because the reader creates a picture in his or her own image.  It’s the reader’s past experience that allows him or her to paint a picture exactly the way that he or she thinks the scene SHOULD look.  The visual experience can actually be richer and more powerful than seeing a scene visually acted out by a speaker. Say, for example, you’re sharing a personal story with an audience, perhaps an embarrassing moment in your life.  That same story may actually be more powerful in writing because it allows the audience to see YOU as they want to see you.  In their mind, they may actually create a funnier picture of the story than watching you actually tell the story from the platform.  But knowing which delivery form, written or spoken, is more powerful is never an exact science.  It’s complicated by the factors of physical delivery elements, structure of the lines, specific word choice and other considerations.  The key is to remember which format you’re using and to optimize the elements which you can control for maximum impact of your humor.

Combining Written and Spoken Humor

Sometimes the written or printed humor comes in the form of a cartoon, a photograph or a headline.  What we’re talking about is a visual-element which is not just a classic joke line.  A printed picture or cartoon is very similar to written text. It stands on its own with no delivery style attached to it.  And as a speaker, realize that you are often combining the elements of written and spoken humor in a speech.  The key is to consider when when you know that your laughs come from a picture, a cartoon or a headline is: “What makes it funny?”  What specifically is the punchword or the trigger of the laughter. 

In some cases the picture is actually just the set up for the joke, and the written or spoken words that follow the viewing of the picture are the trigger to the laughter.  An example is a Gary Larson cartoon of two deer, one with a huge target-pattern on its back.  The one deer says to the other deer with the target-hyde, “Bummer of a birthmark Hal.”  The cartoon is only the set up.  The bummer-line word caption actually triggers the joke.

Sometimes the trigger is just seeing the picture, the cartoon or the headline.  Some cartoons, pictures or headlines are funny all by themselves.  But then, some visual humor needs a written or spoken set up, after which the picture itself is the actual trigger for the humor.  Example:  I use two newspaper headlines to get audience laughter.  Although it’s part of a spoken presentation, the visual elements of the headlines are delivered in written form.  Each headline generates a humor response for a different reason.  The first headline:  Police Stop Car with Twenty Naked People.  That headline, by itself is funny.  It needs no spoken setup.  It needs no spoken punchline.  A second headline is actually a photo of a freeway exit sign for the Las Vegas Strip (also known as Las Vegas Blvd).  The photo needs a setup to trigger the humor.  After showing the car-with-twenty-naked-people headline, I ask, “Have you ever seen a freeway exit sign that says “Take Off All Your Clothes Before Your Leave the Freeway?”  I then show the highway sign which says, “Las Vegas Blvd (Strip).” By itself, the sign isn’t funny.  With the setup lines, and set in the context of the first headline…it gets a great laugh.

When creating humor, remember to take advantage of the elements which magnify your laughs for the style, written or spoken, that you’re using to deliver your humor.  You may be serving your humor in writing or spoken to an audience.  Or you may be using a combination of both.  Blend your mastery of words and delivery to add punch to your funny lines.  It’s an art.

Copyright 2007 by John Kinde