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Humorous Storytelling

by Tim Sheppard

This page of resources and notes is a supplement to an article by Tim Sheppard published in November 2003, in Storytelling Magazine vol.15 no.6, National Storytelling Network, USA.

Welcome to this brand-new page, which will be growing greatly over the next few days and weeks. If this is your first visit, don't forget to explore the rest of this site - Tim Sheppard's Storytelling Resources for Storytellers - it's probably the biggest resource on the web, and growing every month. The home page has news of all updates.


Telling with Humour

Mark Twain in 1897 wrote step-by-step instructions for telling humorous stories, including advice on timing for the classic 'jump tale' The Golden Arm, in How to tell a Story - read the full text here.



Every culture has its traditions and folktales about fools, from the Wise or Divine fool such as the Hodja, Nasruddin, to the plain idiotic numskull such as the 'wise' men of Gotham, and not forgetting the many kinds of clowns, jesters and others who play the fool. As well as the following links, visit the Storytelling Links page and explore the large section on Background Resources: The Fool.

Numskulls and Noodleheads

Noodleheads: The Wisdom of Fools
Barry McWilliams' comprehensive page on fools in stories gives an introduction to noodleheads or fools in general, the Merry Men of Gotham, the Wise Men of Chelm, Tyl Eulenspiegel, and the Hodja, along with many weblinks and books for each, plus a few sites with such stories.

At the Edge: The Wise Men of Gotham
A long and detailed article on fools and fool tales, from the archive of a magazine on archaeology, mythology and folklore.

Wise Fools, Holy Fools

Jesters in Religion - the Holy Fool
A brief collection of quotes and references to the Holy Fool in Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism (Islam). Jesus Christ, St Francis of Assisi, Abu Sa'id and of course Nasruddin have all been described as holy Fools. This subject hints at the true role and origins of the Fool.

Nasreddin Hodja
Erol Beymen's whole site about the popular wise fool. A preface and biography give lots of information. Over seventy short tales are categorised by subject. The graphics page has good high resolution scans of illustrations, but beware the download time for this 2Mb page! The training page has a children's study page of Hodja reading exercises, but beware the Learning Exercises - the java applets crash my browser every time. The bibliography runs to 22 books on the Hodja, and the 36 sites on the weblinks page makes this a great resource for finding out more.

Nasreddin Hodja's CV
A biography of this famous Wise Fool, and a linked page of almost 40 short tales about him.
(See the menu for the English language pages.)

God's Fool
An interesting article about C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia chronicles, the Screwtape Letters etc., comparing his life with that of a divine or wise fool. An insight into the relevance of Fooling to 'real life'.

Court Fools and Jesters

The Court Fool - His Origins, Golden Age, and Disappearance
Discusses the Fool in some depth. This page is acessed using the miracle internet archive, The Wayback Machine, as the original no longer exists.

The Court Fool: the tradition and in Shakespeare
A shortened précis of the long 'The Court Fool' article listed at the neighbouring link here, but still detailed enough to give a useful review of Fooling history.

Jester's Mask
An amazing cornucopia of a site, with masses of information and resources, and nicely designed, though with a very foolish colour scheme that's often hard to read and can make the navigation invisible. Contents include: a gallery of around 70 jester/fool images of all kinds; legend and history around the world; fools in literature and the media, including a good bibliography with annotations, and a filmography; and a very good collection of well-annotated web-links. Full marks!

Jester Pages
A useful and informative site, with pages on the history of the fool, costume, famous fools, modern fools, myth-busting, FAQs, and a range of links to more sites.

Decameron Web - Jesters
A short description of jesters, as related to those mentioned in the Decameron - an important collection of tales from mediaeval Italy. Mentions the crucial fact that good humour was thought to bring luck, hence jesters did also.

The Feast of Fools

Feast of Fools
A detailed description of this bizarre rite that was widespread for several centuries, where the normal sacred order was inverted, the Lord of Misrule presided in church, and the liturgy was officially profaned. This site gives actual examples of the liturgy and other historical detail.

Feast of Fools - Catholic Encyclopedia
The official Roman Catholic view gives some interesting and detailed history of this ancient practice, and links to articles on the related subjects of the Feast of Asses,and the Feast of the Boy Bishop.

The Fools Parade and the Feast of Fools
Short article, with a great passage from 1583 by an eye-witness of the public election of the Lord of Misrule.

Clowns and Tricksters

Clowning History
A short survey of the history of clowning and fooling, including a great story about Nasir Ed Din (Nasrudin), the wise fool of Tamurlane the Great.
(See History link in the menu.)

Multicultural Clowns
A brief collection of notes on clowns and fools in various cultures, including Asian and Native American, plus a non-annotated copy of a list of names that is better consulted at the Jester's Mask - see above. The names listed were used for clowns in various countries, but the other site gives explanations, which helps since some of these names were used more for entertainers of other kinds.

Fool's Paradise
Despite the fool being a different archetype to the trickster, this links site presents resources on the figure of the trickster, with just a few references to fools. But the range is excellent, with whole categories of sites from each of thirteen geographical / cultural areas, giving a thorough overview of tricksters around the world, topped off with a large bibliography.


Humour as a Tool

Enchanted Mind - Site Map
Combines humor, inspiration and special techniques to enhance creativity. Create flexibility in your brain and mind by expanding yourself daily with these simple exercises.

Form and Space: John S. Morgan
An article on humour as a communication tool, and information technology.

The Nature of Humour

Stevie Ray's Medium-Sized Book of Comedy
A few short and interesting excerpts on what makes us laugh, from a book that looks excellent for understanding how humour works.


Verbal Contests and Lying

One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night...
A humorous lie in verse form, with many variations. This page gives a few variations and speculates on their traditional origins.

Playing the Dozens
This contest of exchanging witty insults has deep roots in the humor, personality, and social relationships of Black Americans, and is related to similar contests in many other cultures especially Africa, but including Northern European bardic contests. There are many other names for it, such as dissing, signifying, yo' mama, and snapping. In Scotland it's called flyting, in Trinidad it's extempo war. Playing the Dozens is more than a game of fun--it is a battle for respect, an exhibition of emotional strength and verbal agility, a confrontation of wits instead of fists. This page gives a full description, including tips on how to play and win, and a long list of example 'snaps' to insult with.


Funny Stories

Just a taste of the many sources for humorous oral tales on the web.

Stories for Scouts
From MacScouter Resources Online. Around 150 tales in various categories: Indian stories, Ghost Stories, Humorous Stories, Western Stories, Stories with a Moral, Scouting Stories and Story telling tips, Shaggy Dog Stories -- Or, Complex Extended Puns, Short Shaggy Dog Stories -- punny jokes, Ghost Stories, Audience Participation Stories, Tall Tales.

Darwin Awards
The official Darwin Awards and Simple Human Travesties, commemorating those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it. This site is full of mind-boggling true stories, of people doing very stupid things. You've got to laugh...


Navajo First Laugh Rite

What Is Laughing?
A gallery of people from around the world, in balloon hats, giving their answers. Seventh down gives a short description of this Navajo custom.

Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Navajo

Scroll to the tenth paragraph, describing the ceremony.


Quotations on Humour

Searchable and browsable database of quotations with author and subject indexes. Quotes from famous political leaders, authors, and literature. Literary, inspirational, and humorous quotations. This page starts you off with quotes specifically about humour.



A traditional form of Japanese comic storytelling. Rakugo is visual, using two props - a fan and a towel - that are used to represent any objects needed in telling the story. There are three hundred tales in the repertoire. Although Rakugo has declined in popularity for some time there are still around four hundred professional rakugoka in Japan today.

Rakugo - Traditional Narrative Art
A brief description of the yose (Japanese vaudeville) theatre where Rakugo is performed, and a quick guide to the other forms of Japanese narrative performance. (If your browser asks you to download support for displaying Japanese, don't bother - this page hardly has any.)

Rakugo: Japanese Sit-Down Comedy
A history, and description of the form and training for this very traditional Japanese comic storytelling.

Rakugo: universal laughter
A wonderful photo and a short but revealing interview with a Rakugoka - an artist performing Rakugo.

What Makes the Japanese Laugh? The Art of Wordplay and Story-telling
A detailed article giving a history of rakugo, observations on Japanese humour, and a very abbreviated rakugo story.


Urban Legends

Urban legends are those tales that definitely happened to a friend of your friend, often outrageous or horrifying, but with a dark humour too.

Urban Legends Reference Pages - Snopes
A comprehensive site, constantly updated, with huge numbers of tales, along with research and references giving details on how true each tale is.

Urban Legends and Folklore - The Mining Co.
Explore Urban Legends and Folklore on the Web: Internet hoaxes, rumours, urban legends and urban myths debunked.

Books about Urban Legends
Compiled at the Urban Legends Reference Pages (aka Snopes), these books are pictured and described, in the categories of: Urban Legends (General Audience), Urban Legends (Young Readers), Folklore Textbooks, Business, College Folklore, Cokelore, Curious Collections, Factual Fallacies, Fiction, Humor.



Jacobson, Howard (1997) Seriously Funny - from the Ridiculous to the Sublime, Viking, London.

A great book on the nature and forms of humour around the world - what makes us laugh and why.

Adams, Scott (1998) Dilbert - The Joy of Work, Harper Collins, New York.

Full of well-crafted humorous writing and cartoons, but the gem is the detailed masterclass in creating humour with Adams' 'Two of Six' rule, hidden near the end of the book.

Taylor, Rogan, The Death and Resurrection Show.

A fascinating journey from the origins of performance to the modern forms of showbusiness, taking in shamanism and fools of various kinds on the way. Some of the connections are a bit wildly speculative, but interesting nonetheless.

Lee, Joe, The History of Clowns - for beginners

A mischievous and crazy romp through various fools and clowns in tradition and folklore, with a few tales.

Brewer, D.S. ed, Mediaeval Comic Tales

The folktales that had them in stitches centuries ago.

Alexander Afasanyev, Russian Secret Tales

The great folklorist never managed to publish these peasant folktales due to their extreme scatalogy and obscenity, but these are what were once popular - and there are still some great stories. In fact the book's own story is funny, in how the taboo was apparently broken by a mysterious order of Swiss monks finally publishing this body of folklore just a few years ago.

Bryson, Bill, Mother Tongue - The English Language>

A constantly funny survey of the common language that separate Britain and the USA - a gem for word-lovers.

Martha Hamilton & Mitch Weis, Noodlehead Stories: World Tales Kids Can Read & Tell (August House, 2000)

Extreme foolishness.

Tim Sheppard, 2003.

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