How to Tell a Funny Story

“The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the MANNER of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the MATTER.” -  Mark Twain

 No one has had better grasp on the art of the funny story than Mark Twain. In October 1895 The Youth’s Companion magazine published a article that pulled back the covers on his views.

“How to Tell a Story” attempts to show how to spin a funny tale without spinning out of control. But does it? We live in immensely faster times, under pressures inconceivable in Twain’s time. At the same time, we’re as human as people in his time.

Humor Versus Comedy

Twain said that, “The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.”

Maybe he’s right. Look at the bada-bing shock gags of most standup comedians to see comic and witty stories at work. On the other hand, at the same time they string the audience along with a deliberate persona, like the hapless lover, the annoyed urbanite, the bewildered parent, the pissed off rebel.

“The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard,… the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you–every time.”

The Comic Method

Twain’s example of the comic method was an anecdote had been making the rounds in his day:


 In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot off appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear, informing him at the same time of the loss which he had sustained; whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate, proceeded to carry out his desire. The bullets and cannon-balls were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter took the wounded man’s head off–without, however, his deliverer being aware of it. In no long time he was hailed by an officer, who said:

 “Where are you going with that carcass?”

 “To the rear, sir–he’s lost his leg!”

 “His leg, forsooth?” responded the astonished officer; “You mean his head, you booby.”

 Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:

 “It is true, sir, just as you have said.” Then after a pause he added, “BUT HE TOLD ME IT WAS HIS LEG!!!!!”

 Twain was a fan of the American humorous story, vastly superior as he saw it to simple comic stories like this.

” It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form… Put into the humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened to–as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.”

The Humor Method

“He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny, and is trying to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can’t remember it; so he gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round, putting in tedious details that don’t belong in the tale and only retard it; taking them out conscientiously and putting in others that are just as useless; making minor mistakes now and then and stopping to correct them and explain how he came to make them; remembering things which he forgot to put in in their proper place and going back to put them in there; stopping his narrative a good while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier that was hurt, and finally remembering that the soldier’s name was not mentioned, and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance, anyway –better, of course, if one knew it, but not essential, after all –and so on, and so on, and so on.”

To Twain the meanderings on the way to the punch line were the funny parts.

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one where thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause…

“The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length–no more and no less–or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended–and then you can’t surprise them, of course.”

What he is talking about here, pure and simple, is delivery, that element that is the lifeblood of the standup comedian. It’s a thing distinct from the gag itself. His advice – accelerated and abbreviated – could coach any standup comic, or a late night television host today.

More from Joseph JK . . .