One of the things that children taking Common Entrance exams at either 11+ or 13+ find most difficult to explain is humour. Here’s a quick guide to various different types with explanations, examples and a short quiz at the end.
Slapstick comedy or farce
This is a type of physical comedy that relies on the fact that we find it funny when other people hurt themselves. It’s called ‘Schadenfreude’ in German, and it really shouldn’t be funny…but it is!
Example: A man slips on a banana skin and falls over.
Deadpan or dry humour
This is any joke that’s told with a very matter-of-fact tone.
Example: “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport’.”
The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, by Douglas Adams
This means putting oneself down in a self-mocking way.
Example: “If a book about failures doesn’t sell, is it a success?”
Toilet and bodily humour
What we do in the toilet or in the bedroom has given rise to a LOT of jokes over the years…
Example: “It’s just a penis, right? Probably no worse for you than smoking.”
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris
Puns, wit and wordplay
These are jokes based on double meanings or a play on words.
Example: “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse
An epigram is just a saying, and some sayings can be very funny – whether deliberately or not!
Example: “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
Dark humour is usually about death or the gloomier aspects of life.
Example: I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, by Bill Bryson
Sarcasm and irony
Sarcasm is saying exactly the opposite of what you mean, but irony is much richer and more popular because the meaning for the reader can be anything from the literal truth of the statement to its exact opposite. It’s up to you…
Example: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Finding a rude double meaning in a word or phrase is called innuendo.
Example: “Headline?” he asked.
“‘Swing Set Needs Home,'” I said.
“‘Desperately Lonely Swing Set Needs Loving Home,'” he said.
“‘Lonely, Vaguely Pedophilic Swing Set Seeks the Butts of Children,'” I said.”
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
This expression just means the writer or speaker is being insincere in an ironic and/or mocking way.
Example: “In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Exaggeration and hyperbole
Exaggeration can lead to a powerful punchline in a joke because it relies on shocking the reader with something unexpected.
Example: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
Parody and mockery
Pretending to write in a certain style or copying the format of a particular writer or type of text can be done humorously – although the implied criticism may be affectionate.
Example: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen
This is making fun of something usually in religion, politics or current affairs.
Example: “They say the world is flat and supported on the back of four elephants who themselves stand on the back of a giant turtle.”
The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett
‘Surreal’ just means absurd, nightmarish or like a fantasy.
Example: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Like a lot of sit-coms this form of humour relies on the personality of the characters. Things are funny because they are so typical of a certain type of person – often a stereotype.
Example: “As a boy, I wanted to be a train.”
Machine Man, by Max Barry
A lot of stand-up comedy is based on observational humour, which means simply picking up on the typical habits of people in the world around us. We laugh because we recognise the behaviour and often the reason for it.
Example: “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”
Matilda, by Roald Dahl
The shock value of an insult lends itself to humour.
Example: Two whales walk into a bar. The first whale says to the other, “WOOOOOO. WEEEEEEEEOOOOO. WEEEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOO.” The second whale says, “Shut up Steve, you’re drunk.”
If a situation is particularly cringeworthy or awkward, then it will often generate nervous laughter.
Example: “I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.”
Breaking Up, by Bill Manville
Blue or off-colour jokes
Using rude words or swear words has the shock value that can generate humour.
Example: “If this typewriter can’t do it, then f*** it, it can’t be done.”
Still Life With Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins
How would you explain the humour in these lines?
- “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day, you must be a stranger to one of your parents. your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
- “There’s a door,” he whispered.
“Where does it go?”
“It stays where it is, I think,” said Rincewind.
Eric, by Terry Pratchett
- “It’s not because I want to make out with her.”
He grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then looked back up at me.
“I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of s**t.”
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
- “I came from a real tough neighborhood. Once a guy pulled a knife on me. I knew he wasn’t a professional: the knife had butter on it.”
- “A word to the wise ain’t necessary. It’s the stupid ones who need advice.”
- “To win back my youth, Gerald, there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early or be a useful member of the community.”
A Woman of No Importance, by Oscar Wilde
- “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major, it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction, he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
- “Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
Jingo, by Terry Pratchett
- “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'”
“The mood will pass, sir.”
The Code of the Woosters, by PG Wodehouse
- “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by CS Lewis
- “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
- “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
- “For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
- “For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple – I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.”
Seven Up, by Janet Evanovich
- “It wasn’t until I had become engaged to Miss Piano that I began avoiding her.”
Into Your Tent I’ll Creep, by Peter De Vries
- “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde