All About Learning, Writing, and Creativity

Lesson #16

This week we explore story and symphony. The idea came from Daniel H. Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainer’s Will Rule the Future. Pink writes:

“Symphony, as I call this aptitude, is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specifc answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”

Indeed, how we put the pieces together is what makes our stories unique. The more pieces you acquire the more options you have to use in your writing. I find comedy to be more difficult to write than tragedy. So today I thought it would be good to add to our comedy toolbox.

Types of Humour

Catalyst Humour

  • Catalyst: speeds things up, gets things rolling
  • Self-deprecation, surprise, lampooning, self-professed ignorance, debunk grandiose, make yourself more human

 Self-Deprecation Humour

  • Powerful tool if used properly
  • Self-deprecation is a form of humor in which people or comedians make jokes about themselves, their shortcomings, or their culture, usually without being guided by any underlying self-esteem issues.
  • Many comedians use self-deprecating humor to avoid seeming arrogant or pompous, and to help the audience identify with them. A number of comics, including Chris Farley, Conan O’Brien, Phyllis Diller, Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Jon Stewart, Artie Lange, Rodney Dangerfield, Dave Attell, Woody Allen, David Letterman, Seth Neller, Sean Rouse, Larry David, Jim Gaffigan, Dave Hughes, Brian Regan, The Chaser and, later in his career, George Burns – built their entire acts around their own perceived unattractiveness, weight, age and/or lack of appeal to the opposite sex.

 Emotional Humour

  • Upbringing, child, universal, people connect to this type of humour
  • Recollect and reminisce

 Physical Humour

  • Strictly rooted in the here and now
  • Pie in the face, banana peel, running gag (top 10 list)
  • The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Don Knotts, “Rob” Petrie (Dick van Dyke’s character on the The Dick Van Dyke Show), Jack Tripper (John Ritter’s character on Three’s Company), Kramer (Michael Richards’s character on Seinfeld), Chris Farley, and Mr. Bean are all examples of physical comedy characters.

 Mental Humour

  • The same conclusion has been arrived at
  • Mind reading and mental telepathy; observed irony
  • Unspoken word

 Spiritual Humour

  • Grain of salt about most deeply held belief systems
  • We use humour to prevent us from becoming fanatical
  • EXAMPLE: A little boy opened the big family bible. He was fascinated as he fingered through the old pages. Suddenly, something fell out of the Bible. He picked up the object and looked at it. What he saw was an old leaf that had been pressed in between the pages. “Mama, look what I found”, the boy called out.” What have you got there, dear?” With astonishment he answered, “I think it’s Adam’s underwear!”

 Sadistic Humour

  • Pain perpetuated on a human by another human (“Kick Me” sign in a biker bar; falling down a man hole)
  • “I didn’t want to laugh but I just couldn’t help it.”

Screwball Humour

  • An act of God (piano falling on your head)
  • Something greater than your control
  • “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.”
  • Infinite frontiers—aliens, miracles

 Sophomoric Humour

  • “Oh, that’s so high school”
  • Loud, obvious, overstated, just plain stupid

Dirty Humour

  • Overt sexuality, digestive system, racist, sexist humour
  • Anything politically incorrect


  • The exploitation of follies or vices (i.e. adultery, gambling, bad judgment calls, lying)
  • “Find the wound and rip it open more” (i.e. joke about Bill Clinton and Monica)
  • Classic French satire looks at the mistakes people have made


  • Humourous take-off: Weird Al
  • Subverting expectations
  • Contrast is a huge trigger
  • Comparing the exaggerated one to the original


  • Nothing more complimentary
  • Risky; you can use too much; can be intimidating
  • “That’s smart. I wish I could come up with stuff like that.”
  • A great wit should always have some mustard on his tie.
  • Must be humble.

Absurd/Surreal Humour

  • Monty Python; has a select and faithful following
  • Is as much fun to create as it is to witness
  • Based on bizarre juxtapositions, absurd situations and nonsense logic. A common element of surreal humor is the non-sequitur, in which one statement is followed by another with no logical progression.
  • The television shows South Park, Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Family Guy, Futurama, and The Mighty Boosh all use surrealism as a major part of their appeal.

Gallows Humour

  • Dark humour (i.e. your BFF’s father dies; the next day you go dressed as the father to the funeral)
  • Repulsive and repugnant
  • “Let them eat cake.”

Offensive Humour

  • Uncomfortable; the trivialization of the profoundly important (i.e. to defecate on a list of sacred dead)
  • The worst thing you could say
  • Michael Richards (Kramer) used this type of humour to the detriment of his career—why did he swear and use such derogatory language? To a comic there is nothing more offensive than people not listening so he wanted to offend people as much as they offended him.


  • Humourists deny puns but they make up the bulk of humour
  • The best joke in the world is a really great pun…the worst joke in the world is a really bad pun.
  • A pun (or paronomasia) is a phrase that deliberately exploits confusion between similar-sounding words for humorous or rhetorical effect.
  • A pun may also cause confusion between two senses of the same written or spoken word, due to homophony, homography, homonymy, polysemy, or metaphorical usage. Walter Redfern has said: “To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms”[1]. For example, in the phrase, “There is nothing punny about bad puns”, the pun takes place in the deliberate confusion of the implied word “funny” by the substitution of the word “punny”, a heterophone of “funny”. By definition, puns must be deliberate; an involuntary substitution of similar words is called a malapropism.


  • Commonplace (i.e. I would love to go to the store—NOT.)
  • Comedians would love to one day be considered Hack.


Picture this: The clip in “Shrek” depicts the capture of Princess Fiona by Robin Hood, who mistakenly thinks that the Princess has been taken against her will by the ogre, Shrek. After “rescuing” the princess, Robin Hood and his Merry Men pause to introduce themselves by performing a ridiculous song and dance number. In the middle of the routine, Princess Fiona screams, “That’s enough!” and single handedly attacks and subdues Robin Hood and all of his Merry Men.

  • Exaggeration: Princess Fiona fights and successfully defeats Robin Hood and all of his Merry Men without any help and without any weapons.
  • Incongruity: Princess Fiona uses her ponytail to deliver a knockout punch to one of the Merry Men. While frozen in a mid-air martial arts kick, Princess Fiona pauses to fix her disheveled hair before knocking out two of the Merry Men.
  • Reversal: The roles of the hero and the damsel in distress have been reversed. In this clip, it is Princess Fiona, the rescuee, who fights and defeats the foe.
  • Parody: The fight scene is an exaggerated imitation of the martial arts style and special effects used in movies such as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I enjoy song parodies. Click here for a list of them. You might like to try writing one of your own for your writing warm-up today.


Here is today’s audio clip:

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To create his Mr. Bean sketches Rowan Atkinson and his team would come up with an everyday situation. For example: going to the dentist. Then they would brainstorm all the things that could go wrong in that situation. Once they decided on a handful of events the team pieced together the story.

Use the Mr. Bean process to create a scene. Select an ordinary event in your life. Determine everything that could go wrong (or could be funny). Put the scene onto paper. Decide which types of humour you would like to include. Experiment with bringing a comedic scene to life.



BONUS QUESTIONS: Choose one or more


  1. Write a fifth-generation computer language. Using this language, write a computer program to finish the rest of your novel for you.
  2. Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist Controversy and the Wave Theory of Light. Outline a method for preventing these effects. Criticize this method from all possible points of view. Point out the deficiencies in your point of view, as demonstrated in your answer to the last question.
  3. Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your stand.
  4. Describe the history of the Papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its Europe, Asia, America and Africa. Be brief, concise and specific.
  5. Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat.
  6. Sketch the development of human thought. Estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought
  7. Perform a miracle. Creativity will be judged.
  8. Define the universe, and give three examples.

3 Responses to Humour and Symphony: Putting Together the Pieces

  • I will come back to this (no time right now), but wanted to say that Mr. Bean really does stand on Charlie Chaplin’s shoulders…

  • I especially love the rap you’ve included. Writing is a fun, but hard business and putting in humor that people understand is tough, I’ve found. Humor is so subjective and your attempt could fall flat. That’s why it’s nice to see it done well, but I’m not sure I have it in me…

    • The other challenge with humour is that it dates faster than drama. I think there are a number of jokes in Shakespeare’s plays that fly right over a modern audience’s head. Will the things we find funny today be funny tomorrow? Aye, there’s the rub!

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Stories I Only Tell My Friends
Eat, Pray, Love
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
You Can Heal Your Life
Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time
Angela's Ashes
Angels and Demons
The Kite Runner
Life of Pi
A Fine Balance
Three Day Road
Late Nights on Air
Clara Callan
Through Black Spruce: A Novel
Memoirs of a Geisha
Girl With a Pearl Earring

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