If you’ve ever told a joke or made a pun, you’ve used a humor device. From the time we’re children to the time we have grandchildren of our own, people engage in humor devices throughout their life.
Humor devices are communication tools with the primary purpose of producing amusement. There are several different humor devices, each contributing to a different aspect of humor. Some are better suited for children than others, such as exaggeration, slapstick, surprise, and incongruity.
Just as several different humor devices exist, there are also many different intended audiences for humor. Though humor can be enjoyed by all, research tells us it can also “be like walking a tightrope” trying to navigate types and appropriateness for intended audience. In this article, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of what you need to know about humor devices and how they relate to younger audiences in particular.
What Is A Humor Device?
Just as the name suggests, a humor device is a tool that causes laughter and amusement. Humor devices are found all around us, in literature, movies, art, advertising, and more. Though there are different types of humor, it’s generally used to make people happy and lighten the mood.
These can be utilized by teachers trying to keep the attention of students, actors trying to convey a feeling in a scene, writers in an attempt to prompt an emotion in the reader, or even a grandad trying to get a chuckle out of his grandkids. We all use them (some of us better than others) in many of our daily interactions.
Some common devices for humor include:
- Exaggeration – When something is represented as being larger, better, worse, etc. than it actually is. The classic ‘fish story’ comes to mind when exaggeration is used as a device. Example: calling a paper cut a terrible injury.
- Incongruity – When something is inconsistent and lacks harmony, often breaking expectations. Being wrong on purpose gets them every time. Example: seeing a blue flamingo or the sun rising in the west.
- Irony – When the expected differs, often radically, from the stated or expected; there are three types of irony: situational, rhetorical, and verbal. Example: A character saying “Everything will be okay” when the audience knows trouble is coming.
- Sarcasm – Saying the opposite of what you mean; the verbal use of irony to convey contempt, humor, or irritation. This one works wonders with middle school ages kids and older. Example: Saying “the service here is great” after waiting two hours for food in a café.
- Slapstick – A form of physical comedy characterized by deliberate clumsiness, exaggerated physical action, and ridiculous situations. For ages 6 and up SpongeBob SquarePants is a great show to pull from for slapstick inspiration. Examples: throwing pies into faces and slipping on banana peels.
- Surprise – An unexpected event, fact, person, etc.; something unexpected that causes shock, astonishment, and/or similar emotions. this one is great to catch the attention of younger kids. Example: seeing a clown in the Amazon rainforest.
- Understatement – The opposite of exaggeration; when something is represented as being smaller, better, less significant, etc. than it actually is. Example: comparing a terrible injury to a paper cut.
- Puns – Jokes or humor based on the different meanings of words or words that sound alike but have different meanings. This right here is the essence of every ‘Dad Joke’ every told or written. Example: “The pilot’s career really took off.”
Humor devices can increase interaction, engagement, and retention when properly woven into lessons by parents, instructors, or teachers. They grab attention and are useful for emphasizing instruction or simply making it more personable for students or the group of kids playing in your yard.
Humor Devices “Ratings” And Examples
It’s important to tailor your lessons or your delivery in general to your audience, whether you’re teaching about humor devices or simply want to infuse your classroom, group, or club with some levity.
This means that all humor taught or used should be age appropriate. When in doubt, use the youngest person in the room as a marker. When done correctly, humor devices can be enjoyed by everyone, whether they’re in kindergarten, college, or a career.
Everyone has bombed at one point or another when trying out a humor device. The worst is when we use a word, phrase, or imagery that is not appropriate for the children involved. There are methods to help us keep ourselves in check and avoid such embarrassing situations.
A useful way of categorizing humor devices is using the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) rating system. This system was established in 1968 to provide parents with information to determine if a film’s content was appropriate for their children.
The ratings are as follows:
- G (General Audiences) – Content is safe for all audiences and contains no material that would offend children or parents. This doesn’t mean that certain political or religious views will not appear. Small children should still be considered when exposed to this level of material.
- PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) – Content may contain material that could upset or be inappropriate for children. Most children should also be considered at this level, no matter the age.
- PG-13 (Parents Strong Cautioned) – Content may contain material that is inappropriate for children and pre-teens. Here, even teens should be considered as there are many different views on what it appropriate for different age groups.
- R (Restricted) – Content contains material with adult themes and is inappropriate for children and teens. This type of content should not be presented in the presence of children or teens.
- NC-17 (No One 17 Or Under Admitted) – Content contains material with adult themes that is inappropriate for anyone under 18 years of age to view. Most parents would agree that this material is morally compromised and should not be considered for nearly any group, young or old.
Themes that are considered “adult” include violence, nudity, sex, drugs, and swearing. This is not always explicit in the delivery or context of what is said or written. Many times even the insinuations that are made can be a bit over the line.
It is a common mistake to assume that even though the theme of a joke or story may be a bit age inappropriate, that it is okay since the younger children or most of the kids in general will not ‘get the joke’ anyway. This can lead to problems.
It is best to make sure that all material is age appropriate even if the humor device is very effective. Just because the kids in the room laugh, doesn’t mean they should have.
Examples of Works from Different Rating Tiers
There is no such accepted and established system in place for literature or art. Thankfully, the MPAA rating system is easily adapted to all mediums through which humor devices are presented.
All literature, movies, theater, entertainment displays, orations, songs, etc. can be considered art in one way or another. These rating categories apply nicely to most any of them. This is true mostly because they are general in their delineation and make no specific calls to any type of medium.
With that framework in mind, here are some examples of humor devices rated for difference audiences. These are great for demonstration purposes and to keep students engaged by breaking up lessons that may otherwise grow tedious. It is also great for families and many other types of children’s groups.
- G (General Audiences) – Disney is a reliable source of humor for children, often marked by exaggeration, surprise, and slapstick. As a bonus for anyone 13+, there’s often mature jokes also subtly woven into the content. With the move of society and entertainment towards pushing alternative lifestyles, children need to be considered at even this level.
- PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) – Charlie Chaplain, Buster Keaton, and Jackie Chan have both perfected integrating humor devices into their movies, though the most prevalent device is undeniably slapstick. Children of all ages should not be included in this level of humor.
- PG-13 (Parents Strong Cautioned) – Shakespeare is one of the greatest literary masters of humor, evidenced throughout all his works no matter their genre. The now-antiquated language may mask this, but his humor was often bawdy and lascivious. Parents should be consulted before teens are exposed to this level.
- R (Restricted) – Films from Mel Brooks, John Hughes, and Wes Anderson are three examples of comedy directors that produce hilarious, if mature, films like Blazing Saddles (1974), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). There is a wide variety of adult content here. Some is more offensive than others. Caution should be used.
- NC-17 (No One 17 Or Under Admitted) – Terry Jones’ mature, often irreverent works make use of nearly every type of humor device, from understatement (“’tis but a scratch”) to surprise (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) and more. For those wanting to be inclusive, this type of material should be avoided.
Humor devices are best demonstrated by using real-world examples that people can actively engage with. People love narrative and stories that use these devices can say much more than a simple explanation. The humor will cause those listening to engage much more.
The benefits to this method are twofold: students learn about humor devices more easily and instructors can more easily implement these same devices in future lessons. Because of their more engaging and inclusive medium, movies and TV shows dominate the suggested content above. However, there are many literary sources of humor devices, as well.
These include Jane Austen, Sophocles, Dr. Seuss, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, among others. Humor devices exist in literature, plays, poems, and even children’s books. One of my favorite children’s books to use with students big and small that incorporates a slew of humor devices is Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (on Amazon) by Dr. Seuss.
Considerations For Humor Devices
Laughter should be shared with everyone. Ideally, students should be laughing with, and not at, each other. The same is true even when parents, staff, and faculty are involved.
We all know the uncomfortable feeling that arises when a comedian mistakes shock for humor. Many times these comedic bits stray into the excessively offensive for lack of the ability to be funny. It is easier to shock than cause genuine surprise with intelligent humor.
This also goes for jokes in and out of earshot of children when the conversation involves derogatory comments about someone no matter the intent. Kids will mimic what they see parents and teachers do.
Though groups of men in a military aircraft hanger repair shop might not have the same precautions in mind, when kids are involved the rules are different. Everyone should feel included and not the spotlight of any ridicule when joking.
To ensure this happens and no one feels left out (or worse, hurt), keep the following considerations in mind:
- Inclusivity – Make sure everyone can enjoy whatever humor you employ, even if they have a visual or auditory impairment. Closed captions and braille alternatives are two examples of assistive devices that ensure everyone can join in the laughs.
- Exclusion – Critically examine the source of the humor and the device’s content. Does it make fun of someone’s sex, race, religion, etc.? If so, it may alienate and exclude people instead of making them laugh. This should not be taken to extremes, but consideration is in order.
- Age – As discussed in an earlier section, age is a major consideration when it comes to humor devices. Not all humor is appropriate for (or made for) all audiences; some are directed toward children, while others are designed for adults.
- Warnings – Depending on the humor itself and content presented, it may be necessary to preface it with a warning or explanation of the context surrounding the humor device. This may or may not be applicable in every situation, but either warnings or editing can be applied.
Remember these points not only when teaching humor devices, but also when you use them yourself. Are your jokes funny for everyone? Or are they funny at the expense of someone?
Are there times where someone being the butt of a joke is funny for everyone including that person? Sure. This is sometimes the entire purpose. A roast is one such instance. Many public figures are honored to be roasted by their peers and friends.
The problem is that these people being roasted consented to the ‘abuse’. A group of adults that are used to joking with each other in this way also give their unspoken consent.
A problem can arise when someone hasn’t agreed to this form of joking. This can happen when someone is new to a social group. This is nearly always be the case when children are involved.
Humor Devices and Children
Though simple in theory and mission, humor can be tricky in execution. Too often are jokes unintentionally offensive, complex, or harmful, especially for younger audiences. Like I stated before, it is not a good practice to push a theme that may be inappropriate through in the hopes that many of the children ‘won’t get it anyway’.
Also, as stated above, this is often a necessary consideration for older movies, plays, or tv shows that you might want to show your children. Without becoming overly sensitive and taking context into account, it is usually a good idea to preview even things you have experienced before, just to be safe.
Consider how jokes that make sense to you might be relying on humor devices that the younger children might not fully grasp, or they might inadvertently introduce topics or ideas that are too mature for them at their stage.
When possible, carefully vet the humor you use to ensure it’s actually funny for everyone in the audience—a laughing child is an engaged one!
By all means use humor and humor devices in many of your interactions. They can most definitely lighten the mood and help people of all ages connect with one another. Just be sure that kids in the crowd will be included and not subjected to content too mature for them.
The Humor Devices Punchline…
It takes practice and a few times failing to develop your sense of style when it comes to Humor Devices. There are several variations of the techniques and not all will work in every situation.
For those working with kids, much of what makes any of them work is energy and enthusiasm.
- For teachers wanting to use them in a classroom setting, they can be applied to instruction in many ways.
- For parents and grandparents, simply throwing them out at unexpected times can keep them on their toes.
- For coaches and instructors, keeping the kids motivated and inspiring that extra effort can be accomplished with a few of these at just the right time.
Remember to be aware of the audience and tailor the age appropriateness and themes to fit the group. Keep everything on the level of the youngest children in the room is a great rule to operate by.
Most of all, have fun with them and your authenticity will be contageous.