If you’re studying literature or considering how to make your own writing funnier, it helps to learn about the types of humor used in books and poetry. Literary humor can take several forms, and learning to recognize them is both fun and useful for your own work.
Common Types of Humor Used in Literature
Surprise and Incongruity
One type of humor used in literature is incongruity or surprise. This type of humor can be something as simple as a ridiculous sight like a pig in a submarine, or it can be based on a surprise in the situation. Something unexpected happens, and this makes the reader laugh.
Consider this example from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
“So this is it,” said Arthur, “We are going to die.”
“Yes,” said Ford, “except… no! Wait a minute!” He suddenly lunged across the chamber at something behind Arthur’s line of vision. “What’s this switch?” he cried.
“What? Where?” cried Arthur, twisting round.
“No, I was only fooling,” said Ford, “we are going to die after all.”
Self-deprecating humor is when the speaker or a character makes fun of himself or herself. This makes the character vulnerable to the reader, but at the same time, it also shows strength. It’s a unique type of humor, but you see it in some of the great stories.
Here’s an example from Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse:
“Beginning with a critique of my own limbs, which she said, justly enough, were nothing to write home about, this girl went on to dissect my manners, morals, intellect, general physique, and method of eating asparagus.”
A situation can be downright hilarious when it’s described properly. The situation, whether real or imaginary, is just funny. Throughout literature, there are many examples of situational humor that leave readers laughing.
Often situational humor is based on perspective as in this example from The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler:
“Ever consider what pets must think of us? I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul - chicken, pork, half a cow. They must think we're the greatest hunters on earth!”
Irony as Humor
Many literary texts use irony in a humorous way. There are several types of irony, but they all involve the contrast between what is said or seems to happen and what actually happens. One specific type is dramatic irony, in which the reader knows something the character does not. You’ll also see situational irony and verbal irony.
In Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons offers a great example of verbal irony in the difference between what her character Flora says and what she really thinks:
“‘That would be delightful,’ agreed Flora, thinking how nasty and boring it would be.”
Understatement in Humor
When the writer describes a situation or event in an obviously understated way, this can be hilarious for the reader. The key here is that the reader knows the full extent of the real situation and is conscious of the ridiculous understatement that is happening.
You can see understatement in action in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:
“Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.”
Overstatement or Hyperbole
Similarly, overstating a situation can be funny too. In this case, the reader understands the real situation and is amused when the writer exaggerates it.
Steve Martin uses overstatement in this passage about dieting from his book Cruel Shoes:
“The problem with the diets of today is that most women who do achieve that magic weight, seventy-six pounds, are still fat.”
When a writer uses a serious tone to discuss a ridiculous subject, that type of humor is satire. You’ll find many examples of satire in literature. This technique is popular with everyone from Shakespeare to Douglas Adams.
One famous example of satire is A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. In this essay, Swift pretends to propose that people should eat children to take care of the hunger problem and overpopulation at the same time:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
The Why of Humor
If you enjoy using humor in your writing or identifying it in books you read, consider looking at more examples of humor. You’ll find that with enough familiarity, you’ll be able to explain exactly why something is funny in one of your favorite books.