Types of Comedy: Part Two – Verbal Comedy

Posted on 03 August 2011

We often use verbal comedy in our every day interactions with people. It’s a way to get people to relax and not take an exchange too personally or seriously. It shows that you are genial. It’s a way to share uplifting emotions.

The jokes themselves are largely about playing with language. Even when a joke is about the absurdity of some aspect of life, like companies pandering to the health-conscious without making an effort, it might be done through an oxymoron such as “all natural artificial flavouring.”

This means that verbal comedy does not alway translate well from one language to another. However, it’s not impossible. Puns exist in Japanese as well as English. So if you wanted to perform in Japan in Japanese, you would have to do some research to create different puns for your routine. Many Japanese parents joke that their children are kawaii/kowaii: the one word means “cute” and the other “scary”. The words sound similar and, yes, children are often both cute and scary.

So here are some categories and examples of verbal humour.

What You Say

It may seem obvious that WHAT you say is crucial to verbal comedy, but remember that not everyone knows HOW to tell a joke to make it funny. I will deal with that later in this post.

Overstatement and Understatement

These are forms of exaggeration that often work with other types of verbal humour such as simile. Types of overstatement and understatement include:

Hyperbole—exaggeration that is not meant to be taken literally. “The baby weighed a ton.” “She was as light as a feather.” However, sometimes the humour comes from saying something that sounds like hyperbole, then demonstrating that it is fact. “The baby weighed a ton; not surprising since it was twelve foot by twelve foot at birth.” We could be talking about an elephant, whale, or an outrageously large human baby.

Meiosis—a euphemism that understates a situation. “The Pond” as a reference to the Atlantic. “It’s just a flesh wound” said when a knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail has his arms and legs hacked off.

Litotes—Using a double negative to express a positive. This is very popular in Australia. “(S)he’s not half bad” referring to a good-looking person. “Gran’s not unhappy with the move” could mean Gran likes the new place. However, Australian humour being what it is, this could be meiosis and she’s spitting mad.

Poetic Language

Calling this type of comedy “poetic” may cause people to think we’re getting hoity-toity. But isn’t the very word “hoity-toity” funny? And it’s a rhyme. Poetic language gives a lovely texture to comedy, adding an extra layer of pleasure when you are playing with sounds and rhythms as well as meanings.

Rhyming—when words sound the same. You can have both full rhymes and half rhymes. Full: kitten/bitten. Half: ladies/bodies. Cockney slang is based on rhymes. Many people have heard “apples and pears” as the Cockney slang for “stairs”. Dr Seuss created humour by inventing absurd words to fill in a rhyme.”When beetles fight these battles in a bottle with their paddles and the bottle’s on a poodle and the poodle’s eating noodles…they call this a muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle.” (Fox in Socks) Ever hear of “tweetle” before? Lewis Carroll is famous for absurd rhyme, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

Alliteration, assonance, consonance—These all deal with same individual sounds. Alliteration is when all the initial sounds are the same, as in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Assonance is when you repeatedly use certain vowel sounds, “I like white tires, they slice ice with wide files.” Consonance is when you repeatedly use certain consonant sounds, “The putrid dappled donkey galloped wide of the dandelion field.”

Onomatopeia—when a word sounds like the thing it is describing. A steak “sizzles”. A child “hiccups”. I will warn people, many words are only considered onomatopeia because of cultural expectations. In English we say, “meow” for a cat, “hoot” for an owl, and “woof” for a dog. But in French you would say, “miaule”, “hulule”, and “vaf”. In China the dogs go “wang wang”.

Simile/Metaphor—making a comparison. Similes frequently use the words “like” or “as”: her eyes were like sapphires. Metaphors will describe something by calling it something else: her eyes were sapphires. Similes and metaphors are a particular favourite for creating comedy. Rowan Atkinson was regularly using them as Black Adder: “Since then, we’ve made as much ground as an asthmatic ant with a heavy load of shopping.”

The Misuse of Language

We all enjoy laughing at a slip of the tongue. Sometimes it is used to show a character is flustered, foolish, or perhaps drunk.

Malapropism—accidentally swapping words with similar sounds and sometimes creating a humourous new meaning. Stan Laurel, “We heard the ocean is infatuated with sharks.” (instead of “infested”) In New Scientist an office worker described a colleague as “a vast suppository of information”. (instead of repository) When the worker apologised for his “Miss-Marple-ism” New Scientist reported it as possibly the first time “malapropism” has been turned into a malapropism.

Spoonerisms—transposing letters between words. When someone meant to say “Is it customary to kiss the bride?” and instead says “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”, you might assume they are extremely nervous or drunk. The phrase is funny, but so is the vulnerability that it reveals. One of my favourites was a British announcer saying, “All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor.” Ducks are funny.

Mondegreens—Mishearing words in a phrase and replacing them with close sounding words. The one I’m guilty of is mishearing the song “Kyrie Eleison” as “Carry a Laser”. Others include: “There’s a bathroom on the right” for “There’s a bad moon on the rise” and “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” for “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” from Purple Haze.

Play on Meaning

Puns—when words sound like one another but have different meanings and/or when words look like one another and have different meanings. “I did a theatrical performance about puns. Really it was just a play on words.” In this case the word “play” both looks and sounds the same in the two senses it is used, but the punchline relies on meanings of either “play” meaning theatrical production or “play” meaning a game. Tom Swifties are a pun based on the description of how something is said. “We just struck oil!” Tom gushed. “Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily. I would classify “syllepsis” as a form of pun, though it relies solely on the different ways a verb can be used. Michael Flanders wrote in “Have Some Madeira M’Dear”, “She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes and his hopes.”

Euphemisms—a way to delicately describe something that might be considered offensive. “Airbrush your undies” for farting. “Reviewing today’s menu” for burping.

Double entendre—most often sexual innuendo, but any straightforward statement that has a second potentially offensive meaning. Puns are frequently used for this: “A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.” These only work if you are familiar with various euphemisms. So, it requires some knowledge of common spoken culture: “hole” for “asshole” or “anus”. In the movie Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen’s character famously appears to be looking up Priscilla Presley’s dress and comments, “Nice beaver”. She then passes him a taxidermied beaver.

Oxymoron—a pair of words, often adjective-noun, that are apparently paradoxical. Well known oxymorons are bitter sweet, living dead, and virtual reality. George Carlin is well known for making a humorous case that military intelligence, business ethics, and freedom fighters are oxymoronic.

Non sequitur—a factual statement followed by an absurd conclusion. “If the sun is 23 degrees off of high noon, and we haven’t had daylight savings yet, I would say it’s time for an ice cream.” Ralph Wiggum from the Simpsons: “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!”

Paraprosdokian—Hah! Say THAT one fast. This is basically a word that describes the one liner: a statement that ends with a surprise. The two part one-liner is a simple setup and payoff joke: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it,” Groucho Marx. Slightly more complex is the introduction, validation, violation joke: “Every successful date will include three things–romance, respect, and a ton of chocolate.”

How You Say It

Timing is certainly an important part of verbal comedy. You don’t want to rush into a punchline, because people need a moment to be prepared for the full impact of your surprise ending. You don’t want your pacing to be too slow, or people may lose interest in what you have to say. Understanding where to put emphasis through starts, stops, and pauses is tightly linked to comic characterisation.

Prosody is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Take a simple phrase like, “Could you please smile.” Someone about to take a photograph might say this in a calm even tone. “COULD you please smile,” might be said in a way that indicates frustration and anger. If you add a tight smile to the person saying this, a certain irony creeps in. “Could YOU please smile,” indicates a particular person is called upon to smile. “Could you PLEASE smile,” is begging. “Could you please SMILE,” indicates that people are doing something else, like crying or arguing.

Sarcasm is when you say one thing and mean something entirely different. Often prosody is involved to make the sarastic intent clear. “I am SO happy you invited me,” may be how someone sarcastically expresses being unhappy about an invite. The emotion expressed in the reverse may be funny in itself…a bit of vocal absurdity. However, humour may also be derived from the fact that we understand the subtext, when others do not. If the inviter doesn’t recognise the sarcasm of the invitee, that person may inflict more unwelcome invites.

Mimicry is when you imitate the speech characteristics of another person. This can be done in a cheeky manner, whereby the comedian is directly sending-up the person with whom they are speaking. It may be used to emphasise the strangeness of foreign accents. A comedian can also be caricaturising public figures by exaggerating their speech habits. People enjoy the sense of recognition. They also enjoy some of the mockery.

Funny voices takes mimicry to a meta level. The comedian extracts those elements of speech that we find funny no matter to whom we apply them: high voices, low, voices, fast-talking, slow-talking, mispronunciations, etc. You don’t even need words. The space aliens in Sesame Street are well-loved for their nonsensical alien speech.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t exhausted this subject. I hope you find enough here to start playing around and using maybe a few twists of language you haven’t tried before. Verbal comedy is a place where real wit can be brought into a story, play, television show, or film.

Peace and kindness,


Types of Comedy: Part One – Physical Comedy
Types of Comedy: Part Three – Situational Comedy

6 responses to Types of Comedy: Part Two – Verbal Comedy

  • […] Types of Comedy: Part One – Physical Comedy Types of Comedy: Part Two – Verbal Comedy Category: Comedy Elements, […]

  • Jen McGahan says:

    Katherine, never have I seen such a list as the one you provided here. I didn’t even know that half this stuff had names.

    By the way, My husband’s favorite spoonerism is “Flop when stashing.” He says it every time we approach a “Stop when flashing” sign.

  • Adam Floyd says:

    How do you explain why some people find puns funny while others don’t at all?

    • Katherine says:

      I wish I could find the article I read once about how people used to genuinely laugh at puns and thought they were clever. What changed, I believe, is too much familiarity with the form. When a song becomes too popular and is heard too many times, people start to switch it off and then dislike it. We are constantly inundated with puns from the newsmedia and marketing. It isn’t surprising that people groan now when they hear a pun, even when they enjoy it.

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