My uncle recently passed away. He'd been suffering with cancer for a while, so it was expected, but of course that doesn't make it any easier. On the night of his viewing at the funeral home, it was storming horribly outside. At one point the sky turned an odd, white-green color and it was way too bright for 7:30 at night. Then tornado sirens went off.
My mother, who is a nervous person anyway but is especially nervous during storms, leaned close to me and whispered, "You think this place has a basement we can hide in?"
I turned toward her and said, "Yeah, Mom. It's called the morgue, and I think I'd rather not. So let's just hope the storm passes, okay?"
Which isn't really that funny now that I think about it, but man, my mother lost it. She got to giggling so hard that tears were running down her face. Then she relayed my "joke" to all our family members who were close by, who started laughing too.
The next day at the funeral, my husband got a bad case of the church giggles (you know the ones, the silent, shoulder-shaking giggles that don't stop and only happen when you shouldn't be laughing) because he started thinking about how my uncle would call his dogs home by firing off a shotgun from his front porch.
Thank goodness I'm from a long line of people who laugh at funerals, and that says a lot about how my family operates that we can do that.
Really, humor can tell you a lot about a person. What they find funny, what kind of jokes they tell, when they joke and when they laugh are as big as clues to character as you can really get. What can you conclude about someone who has a quick wit? Someone who is slow to understand the punchline? Someone who tells a racist joke? What if they tell a racist joke at a whisper, looking over their shoulder the whole time? What if a guy you thought was smart and nice laughed at it? What do you think of him now?
Chandler Bing on Friends is a great example of how humor can fill out your characters with just a few words. Chandler had a joke for everything, but his jokes changed. When he was around people he trusted, his jokes were funny and easy. Around strangers, in situations where he was uncomfortable, his jokes were often embarrassing to himself and others, or a way to deflect attention. We knew a lot about what he was feeling and a lot about his upbringing from the way he used humor.
In PERFECT 10, Sam has a natural wit that shows off his intelligence and his ease with others. It's actually when Sam tries to be serious that he gets a little tongue-tied, when he's really feeling deep emotions that the jokes don't come. And that's telling as well. In ALIBI, Lindsay uses a sharp tongue to cut others down, and reveals her own insecurities. Travis uses humor to charm, and to soften some of his crude behavior when he knows he's gone too far.
What are some other examples of humor as a character device? What examples do you have from your own writing?