from Photoplay Magazine
Ten Rules for Humor
by Ellis Parker Butler
Ellis Parker Butler, author of "Pigs is Pigs," "The Jack Knife Man," and other humorous stories, has Ten Rules of Humor as clearly defined as the Ten Commandments. This fact became known the other day in California, where, with Mrs. Butler and all the little Butlers, four in number, he is enjoying the weather, writing a new novel, and overseeing preparation for the screening of his novel, "The Jack Knife Man," a First National attraction, for the picture rights of which King W. Vidor recently paid $13,000.
"How do you make people laugh?" Mr. Butler was asked.
"Well," said he, "y'know you can get just as big a laugh by poking a baby in the ribs as you can by composing the finest line in the world. There isn't much degree in laughter. Humor is largely mechanical. It has certain paces, rules, systems. All humor is merely a variation of these methods.
"Wit, however, is different and originates in the mind. Goethe once said that every bon mot he coined had at least $25 worth of education, reading and knowledge behind it. "
Mr. Butler outlined his Ten Rules of Humor as follows:
"The first Method of Humor is what I might call a breezy exaggeration. It predominates in American humor. It is an inflated chest expansion. You take something only slightly important and permit it to grow, to wax large, until it is extremely important. A slight variation from the normal, aggrandized, enlarged tremendously. is a sure-fire success. Mark Twain was fond of this style. I used it in my article "Movies Is Movies" in Photoplay for July.
"Second, we have the use of the other person's real or pretended ignorance. Almost all child humor is founded upon the child's ignorance of something we fully understand. International and rural humor of various kinds emanate from this. Wrong use of words, or, even to go further, another person's faults or peculiarities, may be classed here.
"Third is what I call the naive mode, which Barrie so often employed in his early Scotch stories. By that I mean a seriousness, an alertness, about something that is really impossible, absurd or ridiculous. For example, I read a story just the other day about a postage stamp society which, at a meeting called to deplore the unornamental designs of postage stamps, appointed a committee to do away with the plain stamp now in use in the United States and persuade the government to issue a series of stamps displaying the scenery of California. That is the height of naive humor.
"Fourth is the ridiculous, the calling direct attention to something we consider impossible in connection with ourselves -- the fat man, in the silk hat, on a slippery pavement for instance. This is probably not funny to fat men in silk hats on slippery pavements.
"Fifth, the repetition of something more or less unexpected. 'Pigs is Pigs' is a good illustration of this. It starts as a sane story about an express company, an express man and a pair of expressed guinea pigs. Due to the well known rapidity of guinea pigs in multiplying, every time the express man comes around there are a few more pigs. Then there are a lot more. Each time, it's funnier. This is what I call beating upon the drum of humor.
"Sixth is the sudden let down from the extremely serious to the extremely frivolous. Mark Twain uses this where he is describing a young man who receives a severe calling down. The arraignment is noble, serious, solemn. But when he described the young man, he says he reminded him of a spider dropped on a hot skillet. First, a look of wild surprise, then he shrivelled.
"The sixth example likewise explains the seventh method, the use of extreme analogy, calling attention to an agreement or likeness between things in some circumstances or effects when the things are otherwise entirely different. This is the basis of many cartoons.
"The eighth is the more or less disguised practical joke, horse play, physical humor -- the custard pie in the face. Strangely enough, if this is led up to in the right way, it is not raw or coarse, but is apt to be more effective than any other form of humor.
"Ninth is the gradual expansion of an idea that has ridiculous possibilities, on the theory that if a little of a good thing is good, more is better.
"The tenth is intempestivity, untimeliness, something that has no particular humor in itself happening at an opportune time -- mal apropos humor. For example, things happening at a funeral, a wedding, a christening, or a gathering of a serious nature.
"Of course, it is understood that the author and the reader set themselves up as a superior set of persons. Humor is always laughing at something and the author must convey the impression that he and the reader are laughing together at something.
"Characterization is not humor. Characterization is the setting for humor. The better the setting, the more effective the humor. The contrast of action is more sharply defined. Things are often funny because of the character of the person who does them.
"The after dinner speaker who starts out by saying 'Mike and Pat were walking down the street one day' is the bunk. Everybody at the table knows instantly that he has taken a stock setting -- or no setting -- for some words. There is no humor.
"The great American novel? A myth -- a symbol -- an impossibility. None can write THE great American novel any more than he can describe the spectrum in one word."