Emirates Literature Foundation Blog (ELF)

Knock Knock! Who's There? A Writer's Guide To Comedy!

By: Karuna Luthar

Stretch your comedic writing muscles and tickle those funny bones

A humorous book  a panacea for many ills  has my firm vote as possibly one of the most challenging and yet most satisfying forms of writing. John Cleese, comic writer, actor and coach, has an interesting tip while telling people how to learn humour writing; he suggests one can  ‘Steal your way to success’. In other words, imitate the style of a favourite author as a start to understanding how to write your brand of humour and then put your own stamp on it. 

Pondering this advice, I began researching the different styles of humourous writing in books I’ve enjoyed. As I learned, this can fall into two main categories: irony and its variations, which portray something completely differently, and situational humour, which might describe an incident more literally, but highlight reactions and consequences for comic effect.

To better illustrate what I have since gleaned, here is a break down of some of them:


Bill Bryson’s books seem like a good starting point to understand how humour is created. His narration is often of familiar, everyday events that anyone may experience and he embellishes these with a distinctive wordplay. 

In his book Notes from a Small Island, he arrives in Dover in the United Kingdom, and wanders around, completely perplexed by words, attitudes and turns of phrases that are new to him as an American. Within a couple of days of landing he sees “…a tourist edifice called the White Cliffs Experience, where I presume from the name, you can discover what it feels like to be 800-year-old chalk”. Later, bitter about his experiences with his landlady’s stern demands and instructions, he hopes that “..the staff [at the imaginary nursing home where she may now be] have the compassion and good sense to scold her frequently for dribbling on the toilet seat, leaving her breakfast unfinished and generally being helpless and tiresome. It would do so much to make her feel at home”.

These are examples of verbal irony, where the intended meaning is the opposite of what is actually said. They are familiar speech patterns used in regular conversation, such as “Wonderful weather!” when its burning hot outside, or “I cleverly left my wallet at home,” to an interested query about shopping. 

Not just used for comic effect, irony also refers to other ways to create  an unexpected ending that will captivate an audience. O. Henry uses situational irony in his story The Gift of the Magi, where Della and Jim both sell their most precious possessions to enhance the other’s most treasured object, which has already been sold. Of course, Shakespeare is a master of dramatic irony, as when Romeo poisons himself, not knowing that his adored Juliet is unconscious and not dead. Of these different types of irony, verbal irony is generally used most for humour, along with its variations of understatement, exaggeration and sarcasm.


This subtle form of humour  which intentionally representing something as much less than it actually is  creates an element of surprise and contradiction that, in turn, causes laughter. The comedy is inherent in the description and phrases used to downplay a grave, tense situation. 

P. G. Wodehouse frequently uses understatement in his depiction of young-man-about-town Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves. In a passage he wrote in his book  Over Seventy: An Autobiography with Digressions, he illustrates how he might handle a bear attack scene:

Jeeves: If you will turn your head, you will observe that a bear is standing in your immediate rear inspecting you in a somewhat menacing manner.
Bertie (as the narrator): I pivoted the loaf. The honest fellow was perfectly correct. It was a bear. And not a small bear, either. One of the large economy size. Its eye was bleak and it gnashed a tooth or two, and I could see at a g. that it was going to be difficult for me to find a formula. “Advise me, Jeeves,” I yipped. “What do I do for the best?”
Jeeves: I fancy it might be judicious if you were to make an exit, Sir.


The exact opposite of understatement, this is an extreme way of saying something, but not meaning for it to be taken literally. Similar to slapstick comedy, it uses overstatements to highlight the comedic aspect through embellished dialogue or exaggerated descriptions. 

A passage from the inimitable Jerome K Jerome’s 1896 classic Three Men on a Boat (to say nothing of Dog), is a great illustration of this kind of humourous writing. In it, three hearty young men who are clearly in the pink of health are morosely discussing their physical condition. The author, J, is convinced that not only is his liver is out of order, but in fact he suffers from nearly every ailment known to man. He says, “It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.”  Soon after, he visits the British Museum to research the Encyclopaedia for a minor disorder and sorrowfully proclaims, “I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.” This, he feels, makes him a unique case for medical students to study. “All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma.” 


Hyperbole can also be used in a sarcastic manner, as when a teacher writes “Fantastic effort!” on a poorly presented critical paper, demonstrating how cutting or hurtful this kind of speech may feel. Even its Greek root word means the somewhat disagreeable ‘to tear flesh’. However, there is good news for sarcasm enthusiasts : a 2015 Harvard study tells us that creating and understanding sarcasm actually leads to ‘greater creativity’ by ‘activating abstract thinking’. This is apparently true not just for the sarcasm expressors but for recipients as well, giving us all something to look forward to.

The playwright and author Oscar Wilde sounds as if he too, more or less, approves of sarcasm, with his much-quoted description that it is ‘the highest form of intelligence but the lowest form of wit’. He is not alone; from grown-up wit to teenage banter, people of all ages are often drawn to use sarcasm to make their point, whether gentle or unkind. 

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a great example of someone who comes out with quintessential put-downs. In the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry responds resignedly to his angry uncle, Vernon Dursley, saying that he'd been listening to the news outside their window. 

Vernon: Listening to the news again?
Harry: Well, it changes every day, you see.

Later, at Hogwarts, Harry is in class with Professor Snape with whom he is at loggerheads. Harry responds to a question with a monosyllabic  ‘Yes’ and the professor admonishes him, emphasizing ‘Yes, sir!’, to point out the missing appellation. But Harry sasses him right back: “There’s no need to call me ‘Sir,’ Professor.” 

Situational Humour

Moving from dissimulation in irony to more direct comedy brings us to what I perceive as a different category: situational humour. A combination of circumstances, the colourful language an author uses, misunderstandings, unusual situations or a comical perspective on a real or imaginary incident are among these light-hearted ways to generate a laugh.

A hilarious instance is Gerald Durrell’s account of the scorpion scene in his book My Family and Other Animals. Gerry, as he’s called, is the youngest child in the family and is fascinated by wildlife. He has been forbidden to keep scorpions despite his pleading, but happens to find a ‘fat female scorpion covered with babies’ and captures her in a matchbox to secretly watch the babies grow up. Unfortunately he forgets and puts the box carefully on a mantelpiece, and what happens next is a comedic masterclass: 

“At last Larry, having finished his meal, fetched his cigarettes and reached for the nearest matchbox.

Now I maintain to this day that the female scorpion meant him no harm. 

She was agitated and a trifle annoyed at being shut up in a matchbox for so long, and so she seized the first opportunity to escape. She hoisted herself out of the box with great rapidity, her babies clinging on desperately, and scuttled across Larry's hand.

There, not quite certain what to do next, she paused, her sting curved up at the ready. 

Larry, feeling the movement of her claws, glanced down to see what it was, and from that moment things got increasingly confused.

He uttered a roar of fright that made Lugaretzia, who had been enlisted by Mother to help us around the house, drop a plate and brought Roger out from beneath the table, barking. 

With a flick of his hand, Larry sent the scorpion flying down the table, where she landed between my sister Margo and my brother Leslie, scattering babies like confetti.

Margo, in a vain attempt to stop the scorpion's advance, hurled a glass of water at it. The shower missed the animal completely, but drenched Mother. Meanwhile the scorpion, by now thoroughly enraged, sped towards Leslie, her sting quivering with emotion.

Leslie leaped to his feet, overturning his chair, and flicked out desperately with his napkin, sending the scorpion rolling across the cloth towards Margo, who let out a scream any railway engine would have been proud to produce.

'It's that bloody boy again!' bellowed Larry. 'He'll kill the lot of us!' The scorpion had now gone to ground under Leslie's plate, while her babies swarmed wildly all over the table. 

Roger, mystified by the panic, ran round the room, barking hysterically."


From autobiography to fantasy and for everything in between, writers use humour to create depth in their characters, allow readers to bond with them, entertain, inform and delight or, like Charles Darwin with his famously modest line, “Light will be thrown on man and his history,” gently indicate the earth-shaking results his On the Origin of Species would have on future research. 

One wonders how these humour writers, who must have their own share of trials and tribulations in their lives, are able to provide us with such constant bubbling effervescent joy for our bookshelves. Some may be able to just knock off a snappy bit of dialogue in the morning before their cup of tea. Others, to use Wodehouse’s line, may have to “write every sentence ten times”. Whichever it might be, my warmest gratitude goes out to them; merrymakers spreading laughter and creating delight through the written word. 

To conclude, following Cleese’s guidance seems like a perfect win-win to me. Whether one learns to write that perfect punchline or not, at the very least it gives an opportunity to revel again in old favourites. As I did, chortling to myself all week. 
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Karuna Luthar is a freelance writer on anything that catches her imagination. Her motto is ‘Grey hair, grey cells’, signifying her belief that growing older brings with it the enthusiasm to explore old and new delights in every aspect of life. Karuna’s other passion is mentoring social enterprises to improve their impact and effectiveness, an area she has actively participated in throughout her career. She is a long-standing Board Member for the India arm of  international NGO Operation Eyesight and previously spent  a number of years in the corporate sector, working with international banks and consulting companies.