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Humor writing is everywhere. Take Macbeth, for example. Why else would Shakespeare have a scene with a drunken porter discussing the pros and cons of alcohol on libido right after Macbeth murders the king? “Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes;/ it provokes the desire, but it takes/away the performance. (Act II, Scene III)”
Shakespeare’s drunken porter was more than just goofy; he is a perfect example of contrast and dramatic irony.
Humor analysis is never black and white, but it’s important to explore, even though, in the words of E.B. White, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” To learn to write better novels, we as writers need to take things apart, even if it gets a bit slimy. So don’t be a worrywart. Even if some jokes end up croaking, the ones you make in the future will be better.
Like the Shakespeare example, the collage of information in this article will spice up your writing, inspire you, and make you laugh.
4 Key Qualities Of A Humor Writer
What characteristics of a writer make them into a joke machine? The first is …
1. The Superpower of Observation
Find the hidden humor in any situation through your power of humor hyperawareness:
- Keep a journal of jokes you make as well as funny quotes! You never know when they’ll come in handy for your novel.
- Freewrite humor. As in improv, always say “yes, and.” Take everything you observe and add more to it. Reject no idea!
- Notice patterns. Patterns are a key to good writing, particularly humor writing.
2. Timing, Delivery, and Language Choice
Want to write good jokes on the page? Learn how standup comedians do it on the stage.
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My love for standup comedy and recent performances have helped me discover in real time what will make audiences laugh. To practice delivery, try it out yourself: see if your town has an open mic night here.
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Even if you aren’t a performer, you can still observe the techniques for writing a good joke that standup comedians use, such as mixing jokes that are easy to understand with jokes that require a little more thought.
In addition to the timing of language, speech patterns, and sentence structure on a small scale, be aware of pacing on a larger scale. Make sure your piece has clear direction through the beginning, middle, and end.
Everything in writing is a balance, especially language and timing. It’s important to get to the point and make the reader laugh before they lose interest. Even if you’re building up to a bigger joke, you need to have some smaller jokes to work your way up to it. As Terry Pratchett said in his novel Small Gods, “Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.”
Another great example is this joke by Amy Schumer, where she talks about “getting some work done”…on the guy she’s seeing. But he’s not too ugly! He looks likes one of the guys from “The Hills…Have Eyes.” These jokes are totally reliant on timing and the contrast between expectation and reality. It wouldn’t have worked with many shows or movies, but since The Hills and The Hills Have Eyes start the same and conjure very different images, this language decision is clever, effective, and well-timed.
3. Relevance (How to Find Humor In Everything Around You)
That Amy Schumer joke wouldn’t have worked if nobody knew The Hills or The Hills Have Eyes. While the best writing uses timeless techniques, that doesn’t mean the subject matter can’t be a trending topic. Since 2016 is an election year, it’s the perfect time to dole out some humorous observations about the candidates! Here’s a brilliant Hillary Clinton parody that aired on SNL a few months back.
Other “hot topics” include:
- breaking news
- pop music
Get in touch with these common themes, such as this astute observation by Douglas Adams in his novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that is quite relevant during the current election year: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
In addition to the aforementioned topics, think small! Write a piece that involves a joke, scenario, or subject matter that is local. It’s always best to write about something that’s close to your heart, or at least your house. For example, think about your current town, and brainstorm some responses to these mini-prompts:
- What kind of tourists does it attract (or repel)?
- What celebrities have lived here (or better yet, how would they change by spending a day in your town)?
- How’s your local government/police force/DMV? Exploiting agencies and government is timeless, tempting, and universally appealing when done right.
- Delve into the culinary life of your town.
- Think of some local language quirks, from accents to made-up words. In my town, we pronounce “Eldorado” with a long A, which is just as funny as it is deeply concerning.
- Compare your town to and with another.
This exercise is great practice for paying attention to specifics and escalating topics until they’re out of control — two techniques that I will explain soon! It will help your writing because there is no limit to the level of detail you can include. Plus, it’s a great way to find your voice. And who knows? You may even find a niche outlet in a local paper or online publication, or your piece may be relatable to people in similar scenarios.
Watch your favorite funny YouTube video, or an episode of Parks and Recreation, Friends, or Seinfeld, and take note of what makes you laugh and why. Do the same with jokes that don’t make you laugh.
As any humorist will tell you, a joke’s effectiveness is dependent upon its delivery. For instance, in Tina Fey’s Bossypants, her section about beauty is only funny because it’s clear that she really doesn’t care (take note of this effective use of sarcasm, which, as I will explain soon, is hard to do). After going through the details of her simple morning routine, she perfectly sums up the experience by saying, “If you retain anything else, always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: who cares?”
A classic and effective style is deadpan delivery, like this line from Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
10 Humor Writing Techniques You Must Know
1. Be Realistic
“The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.”
― P.G. Wodehouse, The Adventures of Sally
The best jokes have roots in truth.
Even if you’re writing about a unicorn who is learning to ride a bike, you have to set some rules for your imaginary universe. Does the unicorn use its front hoofs as hands, or are all four of them feet? How does this bike differ from a typical, human bike? Paint a picture in the reader’s imagination so that they can see every detail — they won’t laugh if they’re trying to sort out your convoluted logistics!
Take this quote from Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: “Me, I never do anything romantically that doesn’t involve blood, fever and the potential for incarceration.” This outlandish statement is only funny because it is followed by anecdotes told by Paul, the main character, that prove its validity.
2. Surprise Somebody
Humor writing is all about playing on the reader’s emotions. If a joke is too predictable, it’s not funny. Juxtaposition, contrast, and unexpected turns of events are key if you want to add comedy to your novel. Check out the famous Cowbell skit from SNL.
It’s funny not only because of Will Ferrell’s contagiously hilarious enthusiasm, but also because of the unexpected responses from Christopher Walken, who, much to the viewers’ surprise, wants “more cowbell.” This ends up being the whole premise of the skit. It’s funny because the viewers expect that Walken will ask Ferrell to dial back the cowbell. Subvert the reader’s expectations.
Another great surprise tactic is taking a common expression or famous quote and rewriting it, like Joseph Heller in Catch-22: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”
3. Practice the Rule of Three
This rule applies to standup, poetry, and anything else that relies heavily on timing and patterns. See? I just used it!
It also works well when you’re using patterns. Make the third item of the list something unexpected — as soon as readers think they know what’s coming, that’s when you get to take back the power. Contrast is a great tool to use in humor writing.
Why three? I don’t know, but you can ask:
- The Holy Trinity
- The Three Musketeers
- The Three Stooges
- The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
- Harry, Hermione, and Ron
- Authors of trilogies
It just works. If you’re still not convinced, try adding a fourth musketeer or marketing a movie called “The Good and The Ugly.” Two is too little and four is too much.
4. Use Situational Humor
This is a great technique to incorporate into a short story or narrative of any kind. A common example of this would be dramatic irony — when the reader knows something that the characters do not, it gives the former a sense of superiority and comfort that allows them to laugh.
Sometimes this kind of humor can be sneaky. For instance, in James Patterson and David Ellis’ Invisible, the owner of the bookstore, Harrison Bookman, is nicknamed “Books.” In the midst of an otherwise dark mystery novel, this wordplay totally changes the mood by adding a moment of levity every time the name is said.
When describing a situation, whether it is inherently humorous or not, it is important to know where the humor is and exploit it. For instance, know what is funny about your character in regards to personality and situation, of course, but don’t stop there! Instead of describing their shirt as red, checkered, and unwashed, call it “picnic table plaid, complete with the food stains and crawling ants.” In John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederation of Dunces, the main character, Ignatius Reilly, is described in these hilarious terms:
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black mustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.”
5. Take On New Perspectives
Write as an animal, inanimate object, or an agency. I’m sure you can think of a few you’d like to tease. The first R-Rated animated movie, Sausage Party, is a tale told from the perspective of foods afraid to be eaten. It’s set to release in August 2016.
6. Don’t Fear Dark Humor/Sensitive Subjects
“As stupid and vicious as men are, this is a lovely day.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
It’s your job as a humorist to find humor in the midst of dark subjects, but it’s no small task. Often dark humor involves navigating potentially dangerous waters.
There’s nothing funny about restating stereotypes used to target minorities, but that doesn’t mean making jokes about sensitive subjects, such as race, religion, sexuality, or gender, are off limits. A good approach is to make fun of ignorance instead of being ignorant. Not only is it more socially conscious — you’re operating at a higher level of humor! You get to choose which tribe you will be a part of:
“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,’ I said. ‘By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”
― Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
If you want to get technical, these are called Hyperbole and Litote.
Exaggerating will change your life and make you grow wings. Plus, you can literally do it for days. As far as understating, it can sort of help you, I guess.
It’s rare to find an example that does both, but leave it to J.K. Rowling to pull it off. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she relieves readers of the increasing tension of the book with a comedic character: reporter Rita Skeeter, who drastically exaggerates and twists the words of her interview subjects. However, the following quote, from when Rita is leading Harry into a private interview space, is a classic moment of understatement about a typical overstater: “‘Let’s see . . . ah, yes, this is nice and cozy.’ It was a broom cupboard.”
Christopher Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking is a satirical novel that sets a humorous tone immediately through understatement in the first line: “Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming
chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.”
8. Please Escalate
Though it’s healthier for you to take the stairs, your humor writing will get stronger by taking the escalator! Taking small situations and blowing them out of proportion is, more often than not, hilarious. Think of the way young kids talk, or that Basic White Girl in your life who uses “literally” literally all the time. Similar to exaggeration (and nicely paired with it), escalation is starting small and growing outrageously big. Not only does it make your humor effective; it’s a fantastic exercise in pacing.
9. Try A Callback
This simple technique of bringing back a recurring joke is a great way to make your readers feel like a part of things.
This is also a callback to the idea of surprise! No one will expect you to repeat a joke, so each time you say it, it will have a fresh quality. For instance, standup comedian Jim Gaffigan uses callback very effectively in this bit about hotel pools.
10. Play With Words
The English language is full of nuance and color, which makes wordplay fun and effectie. There are so many specific techniques that they all deserve special attention:
- This is a play on words with a similar spelling or pronunciation, but different meanings. A pun exploits both meanings. Here’s an anonymous example: Seven days without food makes one weak.
- This stringing together of words that start with the same letter is orally pleasing and quirkily humorous. Write with whatever words will work!
- This is alliteration with vowels. Who drew the blue canoe?
- Double Entendre
- Have some fun with these typically salacious pun of sorts. SNL does it again!
- Make one up, or redefine one. LOL might mean Little Old Leprechauns.
- A Note On Sarcasm:
- Though sarcasm is one of the most basic forms of humor in day-to-day interactions, this technique of stating the opposite of what you mean is very difficult to emulate on paper, though this piece does it very well.
Where to Find Hilarious Inspiration
Humor writing is all around you on and off the page, unless you live in a state of laughless lethargy and stoicism. As with any art form, it’s crucial to learn from successful artists.
Check out the following websites for some humor writing inspiration. I’ve linked to a specific piece from each as an example, but I encourage you to read more. You won’t regret it!
Something valuable to learn from this eclectic mix of websites is that formatting can transform a mediocre piece into a masterpiece.
So much of the world is online — even novels are sometimes read on iPhones. Embrace this reality and ride the wave of technology. Keep your eyes open for humor all around you. It’s just about everywhere. And when it’s not, things are probably pretty awkward, and exaggerating or escalating awkwardness in your piece is a great springboard for humor.
Now it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice. Whether you use them as exercises or the inspiration for fully fleshed-out pieces, they are sure to get you laughing!
- Take on the voice of a famous historical figure’s opinions of Instagram. What does Abraham Lincoln think of Throwback Thursday, and what would Rosa Parks’ views be on the latest bus(t) issue, Free The Nipple?
- Write a ballad about the pain of living as the garbage can of a middle-class family.
- Write a fake news article about Donald Trump entering a beauty pageant.
- Song parodies are a great starting point for the budding humor writer. The hardest part is picking a topic! For this exercise, I’ve done that for you. Rewrite Adele’s “Hello” from the perspective of a fast food employee. Here are some examples of some fun first lines:
- “Hello, it’s me. I was wondering if you would like a thickburger with cheese.”
- “Hello, it’s me. I was deep frying some curly fries for you and I to eat.”
- “Here’s your coffee. I put in some cream and sugar just like fancy British tea.
- Please post these in the comments…I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
- Write a salacious love story about the electric connection between Siri and a GPS device.
- Imagine yourself as a member of the Kardashian krew. What would a day in your life be like? Write a diary entry in the style of your favorite (or least favorite) sister.
- Write a free verse poem that is an extended metaphor comparing two sneakily, slightly related things, like…
- Your favorite beverage and a long-lost lover with whom you are reunited
- Winning a game of online chess and receiving your first Oscar
- An crotchety old man and a llama
- A conservative grandmother joins a nudist colony for a weekend. How does she transform? Try this one from various perspectives: the grandma, the colony leader, and her grandkids upon her return.
- A dog and an owner switch bodies for a day. Think Freaky Friday meets Air Bud.
- Pick your three favorite characters from three different novels and have them compete in a high-stakes dance-off
Bonus — This image:
I hope you’ve learned and laughed a lot! Keep writing and never stop growing.
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