June 13, 2020
You’ve heard of microaggressions. Now try microhumor. It’s things that aren’t a joke in the laugh-out-loud told-by-a-comedian sense, but still put the tiniest ghost of a smile on your reader’s face while they’re skimming through them.
I learned this art from Dave Barry and Scott Adams, both of whom are humor writers and use normal macrohumor, but both of whom pepper the spaces in between jokes with microhumor besides. Your best best is to read everything they’ve written, your second best bet is to listen to me fumblingly try to explain it.
Here’s a paragraph from my “about” page: Topics here tend to center vaguely around this meta-philosophical idea of how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs, and especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all.
There are a couple of things here that might qualify as microhumor. Take “especially whether this process is spectacularly broken in a way that may or may not doom us all”. It’s not really a joke. If I were a comedian and recited that sentence, you wouldn’t start laughing. But it’s kind of funny to be starting with what sounds like a pretty dry academic idea (“how people evaluate arguments for their beliefs” and whether the process is broken), and then confound expectations with an exaggerated (well, maybe) warning about it dooming us all. The phrase “may or may not doom us all” does the same thing on a smaller scale: “may or may not” is a pretty reserved, careful sounding phrase, whereas “doom us all” is obviously the opposite of reserved (I also like the similar construction “it might have sort of kind of been the worst idea ever”).
You can actually go a long way toward microhumor just with hedge words (“vaguely”, “sort of”), exaggerations (“the worst thing ever”, “doom us all”), and sometimes the combination of the two.
I think this microhumor stuff is really important, maybe the number one thing that separates really enjoyable writers from people who are technically proficient but still a chore to read. Think about it with a really simplistic behaviorist model where you keep doing things that give you little bursts of reward, and stop doing things that don’t. There are only a couple of sources of reward in reading. One of them is getting important insights. Another is hearing things that support your ingroups or bash your outgroups. And a third — maybe the biggest — is humor. Who ever had trouble slogging through a really hilarious book of jokes?
Updated Jun, 14 2020