Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Call of the wild

OF all the news reports I have read, the funniest ever must be this particular one involving handphones and monkeys.

The New Straits Times reported many years ago on the problem of macaques mounting raids on the quarters of a Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang, looking for food (‘Monkey woes at air force base’, July 26, 2004).

Soldiers guarding the base have been told to keep a sharp lookout for any monkey business, the report said.

The animals have been spotted rummaging through dustbins for food. Some have even entered kitchens.

“One family was even held hostage in their home when a large troop commandeered the roof and compound and refused to budge. The family was freed only when a bunch of bananas was tossed at the troop as a diversionary tactic.”

Ah, such choice words.

But the funniest part must be this paragraph: “One officer lost his handphone, which was last seen in the hands of a monkey as it swung through the branches to freedom. Calls to the handphone were not answered.”


Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his book The Joy of Work offers a few simple tips to writing humour.

First of all, he says, it would be ideal if you could pick a subject that in itself is already funny, one that makes you laugh even before you start writing.

Monkeys is a good example of this. They’re cute and they make you laugh without even trying. Other examples of funny subjects include Bush, pramugara terlampau and the Nigerian e-mail scam.

Second, keep it simple. And here in the NST report, we have a textbook example of how to keep it simple. Allow me to explain.

When I read the line, “Calls to the handphone were not answered,” I laughed so hard that I hurt myself in the back of the head (the only other time that happened was when I watched the Girly Man video on YouTube).

When I stopped laughing, I wondered about how that line could have come about.

I imagined myself as an editor. A reporter comes to me with a story: army guy loses handphone to monkey.

“The guy was frantic,” says the reporter during debriefing. “It was a Motorola Razr V3 clamshell phone costing RM2,799 and made of aircraft-grade aluminium.

“At 13.9mm, it is one of the thinnest phones in the market but for that price, you definitely pay for the style,” he says. Obviously the reporter has just joined the newspaper from an AiSeeTea magazine.

“Never mind the technical details,” I say. “What exactly happened?”

The reporter then shows the story he has done, the complicated version.

Complicated version of story (not funny):

After he lost his handphone, the officer was baffled for a while, unsure about what to do next. Then, he thought perhaps the monkey had dropped the phone somewhere and someone in the jungle might have found it. So he proceeded to call his handphone, hoping that someone would pick up the call. The calls, however, were in vain.

I take one look at the copy, hit Delete repeatedly until the whole para is gone and type this simplified version of the story.

Simplified version of story (funny!):

Calls to the handphone were not answered.

Then I burst out laughing. I laugh so hard until the back of my head hurts and I fall with a thud from my chair. This scares the reporter. He knows better now than to submit stories full of unnecessary details.

The NST report is a textbook example of how humour can be written. The subject itself was already funny to begin with, and the reporters, working with the editors I’m sure, managed to take the humour level up a few notches.

In the process, such exquisite humour was created.

So the lesson here is if you are looking to make an impact, do away with the details. People don’t remember them anyway. Someone once told me, “People will not remember the things you say or do, but they will remember how you make them feel”.


  1. An email to the Universiti Malaya student broadcast mail:

    Hi I'm Diana, am just lost my printer and looking forward to sell the newly bought printer inks (for Epson CX1500). You know, I left my room with the wide open curtain, light wasn't switched off, and when I returned the next morning, the room was so messy and I found that there were several printouts of monkey's palm on the papers. Since then, the machine does not working any more! Oh monkey...