Humor and Melancholy

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 9:44 min

Malcolm feels that restraint is essential in the production of real emotion. Learn how to introduce humor and melancholy to form deep connections with your readers.

Malcolm Gladwell
Teaches Writing
In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.
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You know, we live in a society which fetishizes laughter. The production of laughter is something that is taken very seriously in our world. We pay people enormous amounts of money to make us laugh. We venerate comedians. I mean, Jerry Seinfeld is a cultural figure on an extraordinary level. I mean, he is a-- he's a guy who used to do stand up in New York bars who's now practically a billionaire and can't walk down a street anywhere in the Western world, I mean, maybe even beyond the Western world, without being recognized. That's an incredible social status for a joke teller. So we take that really, really seriously. It's an odd thing to take seriously because we laugh a lot. It's not like laughter is something rare. You know, if you just listen to the way people behave in everyday context, they're constantly laughing. Laughing is ubiquitous. Laughing-- I mean, I've never counted how many times I laugh in a day, but like, all of us, all of us are laughing all the time. So when you're producing laughter, what you're doing is you're producing a very familiar emotion. Sadness, on the hand is quite-- genuine sadness is quite rare. You know, we have-- you think about, in the course of in a given day, how many moments of genuine melancholy do you have? Pretty few. You might not have any. You might-- I mean, there's a reason why you can remember the last time you were very sad and you probably can't remember with accuracy the last time you laughed because laughter is cheap. It happens all the time. Sadness is something that's-- So that the task of producing, of inducing, strong, strong emotions, sadness, melancholy, in your audience is a very, very, very different task than the task of producing levity in your audience. So I like-- I think of them as being almost at opposite ends of the continuum from each other. And I've always been more-- I'm way more interested in sadness, melancholy, than I am in laughter as an endpoint of in my audience. I think that-- I don't think of it as a great accomplishment if I've made someone laugh, whereas I think of it as a extraordinary accomplishment if I have managed to provoke deep, reflective emotion in someone. [MUSIC PLAYING] The other thing that's different between laughter and sadness is that laughter can be induced by inauthenticity In fact, it almost always is induced by inauthenticity. You know, you laugh at-- when I'm out of character, if I do something you're not expected, if I play a role I don't normally play, whereas you can't make someone cry by being out of character. You make someone cry by being-- by exposing some aspect of your authentic self, right? So it's a totally different kind of operation, right? And so to kind of get to write something that comes from something deep within you and that opens up a genuine window into who you are or into who someone else is, that's an amazing, powerful, and really hard, really hard, thing to do. So if you think about th...

Transform the ordinary

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I am working on a high school English class in nonfiction and this is extremely helpful in terms of reading and writing as well as speaking and listening.

Brilliant, as only Malcolm can deliver! He gave a lot of insights and tips on his thought processes. I sure hope other Master Classes will live up to this one. 😉

Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass was not only endearing, refreshing and fun but also wonderfully insightful!

I've just watched all of Malcolm Gladwell's Masterclasses and I am left in awe. What a profoundly engaging communicator. His ability to keep me locked to the screen from one lesson to the next is something that not many (if any) teachers in the past have accomplished.



Gladwell has elaborated on the advice of " show don't tell" but imaginatively. He has in fact, shown not told. Sparking laughter or evoking sadness are acquired skills. In this day and age when there is so much sadness to go around, we become immune or move toward anger and perhaps rage, thus to evoke sadness in a reader already jaded by our access to numerous news outlets is doubly difficult. As for laughter, timing vocabulary, mood and probably more elements have to be manipulated, not an easy task in the written word.


Fine. I think some of the best Moth Story Hour stories are ones that are poignant or even sad or surprising. Many have been surprising and a sort of sadness. I think he's correct about humor being an easier emotion to evoke.


Brilliant and very informative! Provides encouragement, as well as both common sense and exceptionally intelligent tools, for the student to become a better writer.

Ekin Ö.

I don't entirely agree with Malcolm on this point. Perhaps I'm a victim of the terminology, but I tend to avoid melancholy at all times. I favor authenticity, yes, but not sadness. On the other hand, I agree with him on restraint. Genuine authenticity comes with no explanation; it is something that the reader should feel.

Julie M.

I really appreciated the advice about how to write about emotion, even humor. I tend to 'over-tell' my stories. This is a great lesson for those of us who tell too much, who work too hard and don't trust our readers enough. I need to give them enough to steer the ship, but allow their masts to fill and pull them along. I don't need to do it for them.


All right, someone has to ask, what if you start off with the unfamiliar? For example, you start off about Martians on Mars, and then all of a sudden, it gets way too familiar. This is so bizarre , and then all of sudden, wow, this is more human than human.... Reality is indeed stranger than reality, and what does this make me?

Robb L.

https://www.thinkingfunny.com/2019/01/29/malcolm-youre-wrong-woe-isnt-wonderful-humor-is/ I respectfully say that Malcom got it really wrong on this point.

A fellow student

Usually I wouldn't call it sadness but deep emotion that brings forth tears is what I've seen my songwriting and performing bring out. My serious non-fiction I hope encourages deep reflection and insight as well. But, I agree with Malcolm Gladwell that laughter is often a prop to avoid dealing with life seriously and authentically. The truth cuts through. No need to overplay things.

Laurie O.

In my circles, I'm known for my ability to make readers cry. What my readers don't know is that it takes a lot of time, thought, drafts and rewrites to get a scene right. That said, I love every minute of the process. Now, humor. That's another story altogether. I find that next to impossible and not so much fun. Hopefully, Mr. Gladwell's advice will help!


For me, it's the opposite. I find it easy to make my audience feel emotional about my stories, but people, they don't want to cry, they want to laugh! That's what I often think. I've refrained from telling emotional stories because I know a few will end up teary eyes. So I tell jokes instead. That's hasn't worked out well for me. Thank you, Malcolm. You have just freed me. Now, I'm the one crying.