There are two basic types of humor: verbal-based humor and content-based humor. With verbal-based humor you play around with the meanings of words and if you use different words than the ones initially used in the joke, then you will lose the humor.

We have looked at verbal-based humor or play on words in the last post. In this post, we will focus on content-based humor or what I like to call play on things.

Play On Things

With content-based humor, the humor is not in the words used themselves, but in the entire idea that is being conveyed. As such, a play on things passes the translation test. You can retell the joke in different words and the humor is still there.

Let’s have a look at some of the main types of content-based humor.

5) Using exaggeration or understatement

Exaggerations and understatements are one of the most effective ways to create humor. They create a mismatch between the actual situation and the words being said, which then produces the laughter.

Exaggeration by itself does not create humor and is in fact often used in normal non-funny ways. To make things funnier you have to exaggerate so much that it is obvious that you are exaggerating. That’s the key to exaggeration in comedy.

If you want to put an emphasis on someone being fat, then make the comparison as unrealistic as possible. This unrealistic comparison is what makes it funny. Say the guy weighted more than a pick-up truck or that he weighted two tons.

There are several ways of creating funny exaggerations, for example through the use of hyperboles, metaphors or analogies.

Hyperboles are extreme exaggerations in order to make a point. They are comparisons just like similes and metaphors, but very extravagant and over the top. They amplify what you are trying to say.

For example if you are trying to make the point that something is too expensive and unaffordable, you can say that it costs a gazillion dollars. Or when someone says that they are buried under a ton of paperwork, they don’t mean that the ceiling suddenly opened up and inundated the room with a bunch of paper. Instead what the person means is that they have to fill out a lot of boring forms.

I knew a girl so ugly, I took her to the top of the Empire State building and planes started to attack her.” Rodney Dangerfield

If it weren’t for pick-pocketers, I’d have no sex life at all.” Rodney Dangerfield

All my wife does is shop – once she was sick for a week, and three stores went under.” Henry Youngman

I have been a gigantic Rolling Stones fan since approximately the Spanish-American War.” Dave Barry

Went to the paper shop – it had blown away.” Tommy Cooper

Metaphors, similes and analogies are also good ways to exaggerate the description of a particular scene or situation. These types of comparisons often paint vivid pictures in your head.

Our primary living-room sofa looks like a buffalo that has been dead for some time.” Dave Barry

In the example above, in order to illustrate the point of how decrepit his sofa is, Dave Barry compares it to a dead rotting buffalo. Can you picture the dead buffalo and can you imagine how the sofa must have looked like? 🙂

Jokes also often rely on the use of stereotypes (about blondes, Scots, hillbillies…etc.). Stereotypes are a type of exaggeration.

They say that a “True Scot” in North America is one whose ancestors came from Scotland – but who were born in North America to save the fare.

The above joke uses the common stereotype that Scottish people are cheap, which is the premise of many ethnic jokes.

Understatements are the opposite of exaggerations in that they downplay the situation instead. They are correct in a literal sense, but fail to convey the magnitude or graveness of a particular event.

Understatements are especially used in British humor, as opposed to American humor, which tends to instead rely heavily on the use of exaggerations.

People use understatements in everyday speech all the time. It happens for example when you say “it’s a little chilly today” when it is – 40 degrees outside and everyone is freezing.

Listen to the conversation that happened between Apollo 13 and the ground control in Houston on the fateful day of the accident:

Those were some serious understatements! Nothing funny about it. Those guys out there had to keep their cool and their speech reflects it. A lot of times in movies, when they want to show a character as being cool under pressure, they have him speak using understatements.

Understatements also play a great role in humor. The comedy happens when you contrast the actual situation with the words that you use. You can use it as part of a story you are telling, in your joke, or in normal conversation.

One day you are talking to a colleague and they are complaining about a restaurant they went to. They say the restaurant was horrible, the food was awful, the service even worse.

You then give them a serious look and reply with: “So I guess you wouldn’t recommend it?” 🙂

Sean Connery’s (in the role of Indy’s father) reactions here are an example of an understatement which creates a pretty good comedic effect.

A great example of the use of understatement (and making fun of a situation) is the remark that Mark Twain gave when he heard that there were widespread reports of his death in the media:

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Understatements are a good way of making a tough situation look light and in an underhanded way can make you look more badass. Who looks better: the guy who understates and overdelivers or the chump who boasts and underperforms?

6) Reverses

Sir, you are one of the most foul, disgusting, immoral, perverted men that I have ever known. Have you considered a career in the church?” from Blackadder


Reverses are structured in such a way as to maximize surprise, one of the main elements of humor. The key behind a successful reverse is a sudden switch in the point of view. You lead the audience to think that the resolution will end in a predictable way, but suddenly you pull the rug under their feet and come up with an unexpected ending.

A mysterious man was knocking all night long on Paris Hilton’s door. Come morning, she was fed up with it, so she let him out.” David Letterman

A very important part of reverse is the beginning. This is where you drop hints that lead the audience in the wrong direction. People will often come to a conclusion before the end of the joke, expecting things to finish in a predictable way. However, then comes the reverse punchline where you totally change everything up. This creates surprise and laughter.

There has to be some logic to the reverse though. Reverses are not about absurdity, they are about the unexpected.

Approach things from a different perspective. You can construct good reverses by looking at the opposites of different situations. In fact, you can create reverses with just two words which are the complete opposites of each other. Just think of different antonyms and plug them in.

So if you think Saturday Night Live has become lame, you can do one simple tweak to the title and voila, you have stated your opinion without needing to go on a long rant:

“Saturday Night Live” vs. “Saturday Night Dead”

Try to observe what conclusions your brain comes up with when hearing or reading a joke and how you react when you see or hear the real resolution. If you read the jokes, you will see that you are expecting an answer and then boom something else hits. That’s what reverses are all about.

I asked my good friend, Arnold Palmer how I could improve my game. He advised me to cheat!” Bob Hope

She got her good looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.” Groucho Marx

You can also create surprises by having people focus on two different aspects of a situation. Just like you can interpret two different words differently, you can also do so with situations. This can be a basis for a good reverse.

Here is a joke I came up with that illustrates how two people in a conversation can misinterpret what the other is saying. This misinterpretation is the starting point of a reverse.

Wife mentions to husband: “You know Claire? Her husband brings her flowers every day. Why don’t you do that?” the husband responds: “I would, but I don’t know where she lives.”

Reverses are actually perfect for the standard setup + punchline structure of a joke. With a reverse, you have the setup creating the misdirection and the punchline creating the surprise ending, the reverse.

Listen to the following classic Jack Benny joke:

Robber: “This is a stickup! Now come on. Your money or your life.”
[long pause]
Robber [repeating]: “Look, bud, I said ‘Your money or your life.’ “
Jack Benny: “I’m thinking it over!”

See how he created the reverse? Notice the buildup? What was the expectation? And how did it turn out?

Jack Benny was a master at creating reverses:

Jack Benny: “It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but your bathing suit is a bit snug and skimpy.”
Mary: “If you don’t like it, go in and take it off!”

Here are some more examples of reverses:

I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.” Jonathan Winters

Artificial hearts are nothing new. Politicians have had them for years.” Mack McGinnis

A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kickboxing.” Emo Philips

7) Putting together two or more contrasting things (incongruity)

One classic theory of humor states that it is incongruity that is behind people finding things to be funny. Nothing brings out apparent incongruity more than the technique of putting together two or more contrasting things.

In this type of technique it is the juxtaposition of two or more things that creates the humor. The scenario that you come up with however has to be plausible and logical (even if unlikely).

You are putting together things with unexpected connections. You can for example place two opposite concepts besides each other: “all is fair in love and war“. In this quote you are playing with the concepts of “love” and “war”, which usually don’t go together, but the way the sentence is structured a hidden similarity between them is revealed.

A very powerful juxtaposition of two things and one which can be exploited in jokes is the oxymoron. An oxymoron juxtaposes together two things or concepts which appear to be contradictory (military intelligence, friendly enemy, sweet sorrow).

Is it good if a vacuum really sucks?

Juxtapositions are the basis of satire. The jokes made by guys like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert are largely structured around incongruities.

If they don’t want to work, then how can they be taking all our jobs?” Stephen Colbert

Look at the juxtapositions in the two quotes below. What people, ideas or concepts are being compared and contrasted here?

Chinese President Hu Jintao is visiting us. When a country owes you a billion dollars they have a problem. When they owe you a trillion dollars, YOU have a problem. We’re too big to fail!” Jon Stewart

This is inarguably a failure of leadership from the top of the federal government. Remember when Bill Clinton went out with Monica Lewinsky. That was unarguably a failure of judgment at the top. Democrats had to come out and risk losing credibility if they did not condemn Bill Clinton for his behaviour. I believe Republicans are in the same position right now. And I will say this: Hurricane Katrina is George Bush’s Monica Lewinsky. The only difference is that tens of thousands of people weren’t stranded in Monica Lewinsky’s vagina.” John Stewart

8) Absurdity

You can have a juxtaposition of things that have some sort of a logical connection and then you can also have a juxtaposition of things, where the audience just goes “WTF?

That’s absurdity for ya.

Would you rather have sight, or insight? I’d rather have a double cheeseburger.” Jarod Kintz (“A Zebra is the Piano of the Animal Kingdom”)

Jokes based on absurdity are usually not supposed to make sense.

Sometimes absurd jokes come out of normal statements of not so bright (or seriously misunderstood 🙂 ) individuals.

That restaurant is so popular, nobody goes there anymore.” Yogi Berra

One form of absurdity is called a non sequitur, where the second part of the joke has absolutely nothing to do with the first part of what the person were saying.

However, even if the jokes don’t really follow anything logical, and the subsequent statement has nothing to do with the previous statement, they can still be strung into a narrative.

An example of this are old Old Spice commercials.

Or take this example from the Simpsons:

Ralph Wiggum: “Martin Luther King had a dream. Dreams are where Elmo and Toy Story had a
party and I was invited. Yay! My turn is over!”
Principal Skinner: “One of your best, Ralphie.”

9) Irony

The “American Heritage Dictionary” defines irony as:

Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.

Irony is when something opposite of what is expected happens, or where someone says the opposite of what they mean. A lot of jokes are based on this.

Irony can be contructed through different ways, for example using word play, but also through the use of litotes (a form of understatement) or using juxtapositions of different things.

This is irony at its best: 🙂


Let’s do some practice:

1) Think of some common situations that happened in your life that involved a misinterpretation. How could these be reformed into a joke?


If you haven’t read it already already, go back to read Part 4 of this series on humor. Or go to read Part 6.


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