Writing humour is not an easy thing to do. Scott Dikkers of The Onion says, “writing humour that’s funny – really, gut-bustingly funny – is one of the most difficult and challenging literary crafts.” Yet Robert Munsch writes funny books all the time. Since 1979, he has published at least one new story every year, for a total of 69 books and counting. Year after year, he makes us laugh.
When I was a kid, I loved Robert Munsch. I had pocket-sized versions of his stories that I carried with me everywhere I went. Now that I’m grown-up, my admiration has only grown. But now, I want to learn from him. I want to know: How does he do it? What makes Robert Munsch so darn funny?
I went to my Munsch collection. I read. I laughed. Then I read some books on how to be funny, and I put together a theory.
Munsch has a magic formula that goes like this: honesty + exaggeration = laughs. He begins with honesty. He starts his stories with a problem that is so candid, it’s funny. Then, he exaggerates. He escalates the situation to absurd heights until he reaches a preposterous ending. He starts with reality, and then blows that reality up.
Let me clarify with an example. In ‘No Clean Clothes’, Munsch begins with brutal honesty. The main character, Lacey, only has one clean shirt left in her wardrobe: a lame sweater from her grandma. Lacey’s mom suggests she wear it, but Lacey says: “When I was five, Grandma gave me a shirt that said CUDDLY WUNKUMS, and everyone laughed at me. Now I am six, and Grandma gives me a shirt that says KISS ME - I’M PERFECT. I am NOT wearing that shirt to school. Only a grandma would choose a shirt like that.”
Munsch begins with a problem many people can identify with (sorry Nana, I love you!). Even though receiving bad gifts is a relatable issue, most children’s authors wouldn’t write about it. Or at least not so frankly. Grandparents often read picture books to their grandchildren, and authors don’t want to insult their readers. But Munsch chooses honesty over potentially hurt feelings on this light-hearted problem. As they say, it’s funny because it’s true.
Next, Munsch exaggerates the situation. Lacey walks to school in her KISS ME – I’M PERFECT shirt. On her way, she is kissed by a cat, a dog, a moose, and an eagle. She likes all the kisses and begins to love the shirt from her grandma.
That is, until she’s kissed by a boy, in which case she yells “BOY KISS! AHHHHHH!”
This type of exaggeration is called hyperbole. Scott Dickers says to successfully use hyperbole for humour, “the writer needs to exaggerate so greatly that the laws of science or reason are violated.” This sounds like Munsch to me.
So why does this combination of honesty and exaggeration make us laugh? The contrast. It’s shocking to see an accurate truth paired with a ridiculous outcome. We read about Lacey’s predicament and we think, “Spot on, Munsch! I would never wear that shirt to school. I bet all the kids will laugh at her.” But what we expect never happens. Instead, we’re surprised to find out that the kids don’t laugh at Lacey, they kiss her. It’s an unexpected ending, and the shock of it makes us laugh.
Let’s look at an example from one of Munsch’s classics.
‘Mortimer’ begins with honesty. On the first page, Mortimer is put to bed by his mom, who yells “MORTIMER, BE QUIET.” Note here that Mortimer was yelled at before he even made a noise. This introduction is an honest portrayal of a parenting behaviour we see in reality, but not in picture books: a parent yelling out of habit. It paints the scene of a mother who has a boy who, for who knows how many days in a row, has not been quiet. She gets so used to his loud behaviour that she expects him to misbehave. We may identify with the tired parent or the loud child. Either way, we laugh at the truth of it.
Now for the exaggeration. We are expecting Mortimer to be loud in some way. But how? Will he call out to his mom and dad? Will he get out of bed and rummage through his toy box? No. He sings: Clang, clang, rattle-bing-bang gonna make my noise all day. Clang, clang, rattle-bing-bang gonna make my noise all day. He shouts aloud, rhyming, catchy tune.
It’s no coincidence that honesty and exaggeration make for a funny picture book. Munsch has refined this technique over years of telling stories to children when he worked at a daycare. He would tell his stories verbally, with just his voice and body language - no pictures - and he would watch how the children reacted. This is how he created his stories, by telling them to children. He paid attention to what topics they liked, what they laughed at, and when they got bored. A story was finished when children were captivated from beginning to end.
I think the combination of honesty and exaggeration stemmed from Munsch’s verbal form of storytelling. By starting with an honest, familiar situation, he grabbed the child’s attention. Then he kept their attention by exaggerating, making his voice louder, using his hands, and making the plot more and more preposterous. Young children lose interest in stories easily, but if you start singing Mortimer’s catchy tune, the children are bound to pay attention.
Let’s look at one more example. First, the ‘honesty’. In ‘I’M SO EMBARRASSED!’, the main character, Andrew, is asked to go to the mall with his mom. He tells her, “NO! You always embarrass me when we go to the mall. You always say you are not going to embarrass me and you always do, so NO! I am not going to the mall.”
When Munsch told this story verbally, Andrew’s protest against going to the mall was the hook. Children like to test out saying “NO!” to adults. They see Andrew’s firm revolt and need to know what happens next.
Of course, Munsch exaggerates, and continues the plot in unexpected ways. Here’s what happens: Andrew goes to the mall because he does need new shoes. His mom embarrasses him. He hides in a tree and a dumpster to evade her embarrassment, until eventually he runs into his friend who is experiencing the same problem. The two boys have had enough. They decide to embarrass their moms by announcing to a mall full of people: “Our moms snore like grizzly bears and blame it on our dads!”
No listener would have expected the child to rebel in such a way. But you can imagine Munsch thinking, what could the child do? Well, he could run up a tree. He could hide in a dumpster. He could embarrass his mom right back! Munsch is thinking about what will entertain the child. What will keep the child engaged? He’s not thinking about how children should act. He’s thinking about what children will be entertained by.
Munsch has figured out a unique way to write humour: honesty + exaggeration. He takes a real-life situation, portrays it as honestly as possible, and then pairs it with a hyperbolic, ridiculous plot. This combination ensures that the child is hooked to the premise, intrigued by the plot, and delighted by the end.
Munsch developed this magical combination through trial and error. He tested his stories verbally on children. More than tested: he developed his stories with children. So, what makes Munsch so darn funny? Honesty, exaggeration, and (perhaps most importantly) creating his stories with children.
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