The Importance of Humor Writing

What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh
without making them puke.
—Steve Martin

Humor has tremendous value. It’s an art form. But it’s not a mystery—it has structure and formula. You can learn this creative art for your own personal enjoyment or for ?nancial gain.
Admittedly, some widely known authors feel that humor-writing skills (let alone the sense of humor) are mystically inherited rather than learned, and likely molded by such factors as ethnic characteristics, early childhood maternal in?uence, and insecurity.

Humor is one of the things in life which de?es analysis—either you have it or you don’t, either you enjoy it or you don’t.
—Ross Mackenzie

Nobody can teach you humor writing. The secret is passed on from one generation to another, and I will not tell mine, except to my son.
—Art Buchwald

But the truth is that anyone can learn to write humor. Although some individuals are naturally funnier than others, just as some individuals are more athletic or more musically gifted, humor writing can be taught and humor-writing skills can be acquired. Humor is not a mystery, because (like stage magic) it is possible to demystify it.

BUT I AIN’T FUNNY

Let’s use a simple humor exercise to illustrate that humor writing is accessible to everyone. Consider the possible uses of two round bar stool cushions. Other than stool cushions, what can they be? For ?ve minutes, use your imagination and plenty of exaggeration. Without being restrained by practicality, scribble down as many possibilities as you can.

Your list of possible uses for two stool cushions might include the following.

  • elephant slippers
  • oversized skullcaps
  • eye patches for a giant
  • hemorrhoid pads for a really large person
  • Frisbees for the athletically challenged

This humor Rorschach test illustrates the ?rst step in humor conception—imagination. Creativity is the key to comedy’s engine, which won’t turn over without unbridled imagination. Look at any other common object—an ashtray, a beer bottle, furniture in a room, or parts of the human body. Train your mind to constantly ask What if? and brainstorm all the possibilities of what else these objects could be. Don’t worry if your ideas seem absurd. The exercise is to get your imagination in gear. To write funny, you must ?rst think funny.

Imagination is intelligence having fun.
—George Scialabba

What if? imagination allows you to realign diverse elements into new and unexpected relationships that surprise the audience—and surprise makes people laugh.

What if mother’s milk was declared a health hazard? Where would they put the warning label?
What if you actually saw McNuggets on a chicken?
What if alphabet soup consistently spelled out obscene words?
What if the leaning tower of Pisa had a clock? (After all, what good is the inclination if you don’t have the time?)

Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited. It’s better to take a nihilistic attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around taboos. When writing, write freely. Make uninhibited assumptions. Editing and self-censorship are second and third steps—never the ?rst!

We’ll describe later how to ?t your ideas into the basic formulas of humor writing. If your internal critic limits your imagination by saying This stinks, then you will be left with nothing. Your goal is to tap the full potential of your comedic imagination by remembering this mantra: Nothing stinks. Nothing does stink!

The whole object of comedy is to be yourself, and the closer you get to that, the funnier you will be.
—Jerry Seinfeld

Imagination drives comedy, and just about everyone has an imagination—or no one would never get married. So just about everyone can learn the fundamentals of humor. How well you learn them depends on how much effort you’re willing to expend.

THE BENEFITS OF HUMOR WRITING

The bene?ts of humor writing are the three Rs: respect, remembrance, and rewards. The skillful use of humor can

  • earn you respect
  • cause your words to be remembered
  • earn great ?nancial and personal rewards

Respect: Get Up and Glow
We use humor primarily to call attention to ourselves. Notice how you react when you tell a joke to a small group of friends and, just as you get to the end, someone shouts out the punch line. That person gets the laugh. You don’t. You feel victimized. Your glare might be the physical limit of your anger at ?rst—but the second time this happens, you’ll try to kill the jerk, and no jury will convict you.

Laughter is to the psyche what jogging is to the body—laughter makes your psyche healthy and bright and vigorous. But unlike jogging, humor (at least in live performance) offers immediate grati?cation—more so than any other art form. You know within a half-second when your audience is appreciative, because this jury’s decision is impulsive and instantaneous.

Comedy is very controlling—you are making people laugh. It is there in the phrase “making people laugh.” You feel completely in control when you hear a wave of laughter coming back at you that you have caused.
—Gilda Radner

There are other ways that you can attract attention: You can achieve something outstanding, criticize somebody, or be unconventional, for instance. But you can increase the impact of these things with humor. Humor is more than entertainment or joke telling—it’s a powerful social lubricant that eases and enriches communication, interpersonal relations, and education. Humor is a universal speech opener because it immediately earns the speaker respectful attention. It’s psychologically impossible to hate someone with whom you’ve laughed.

When we laugh we temporarily give ourselves over to the person who makes us laugh.
—Robert Orben

Humor can also help you gain success and respect in nearly every profession (unless, perhaps, you are a mortician). For example, teachers facilitate instruction with humor, advertising executives use humor to sell products, and politicians rely on humor to promote their candidacies. Humor doesn’t just get you attention—it gets you favorable attention, and respect.

Remember: Everlasting Memories

When we’re successfully humorous—live or in print—people remember. Our best lines are retained and repeated. An impressive number of sayings in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations are witticisms.

There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.
—Erma Bombeck

On one issue at least, men and women agree: They both distrust women.
—H.L. Mencken

Humor promotes learning and makes it memorable. Studies have found that students who attend lectures that include witticisms and anecdotes achieve higher test scores than students who attend the same lectures minus the humor. When learning is fun, everybody bene?ts.

When the mouth is open for laughter, you may be able to shove in a little food for thought.
—Virginia Tooper

In and out of the classroom, jokes are probably our best opportunity for immortality—for being remembered.

I don’t want to gain immortality by my humor. I want to gain immortality by not dying.
—Woody Allen

Reward: Show Me the Money

Humor is important in every facet of commercial life. More and more frequently, big-business executives are hiring speechwriters able to make them gag on every line (and you can read that line any way you want to). Many political candidates—in fact, every president since Franklin Roosevelt—have had in-house humorists on their speech-writing teams.

It really gets me when the critics say I haven’t done enough for the economy. I mean, look what I’ve done for the book-publishing industry. You’ve heard some of the titles. Big Lies, The Lies of George W. Bush, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I’d like to tell you I’ve read each of these books, but that’d be a lie.
—George W. Bush

Comedy can also be a springboard to lucrative TV and ?lm roles. Robin Williams, Alan King, Chevy Chase, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Rosie O’Donnell, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Roseanne Barr are just a few major ?lm and TV stars who started out as comedians. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner began their careers as gag writers for Sid Caesar’s TV shows, and David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Garry Shandling were TV staff writers before hosting their own TV shows.

A former girlfriend remembers Bill Gates as having bad breath. He remembers her as not having $100 billion.
—Conan O’Brien

The demand for humor writers far exceeds the supply. One reason for this is that more people want to tell jokes than write them. Opportunities abound for humor writers, who can seek careers as syndicated columnists, speechwriters, greeting card writers, stand-up comedians, Internet and advertising copywriters, and screenwriters for TV sitcoms and ?lm.

Another reason for the high demand for humor writers is that television is a joke-eating shark. It chews up more humor material in a month than all other markets use in a year. Johnny Carson once remarked that television is the only medium that eats its young, because young writers are the ones most frequently hired to feed the shark day after day. Many young humorists are attracted to the eye-popping ?nancial rewards of a career in TV humor writing, but writers are only as good as their last joke, and fatigue causes many of them to burn out after a year. Whatever humor-writing endeavors you choose, you can be ?nancially and personally successful if you develop good humor-writing skills—and staying power.

The road to success is always under construction.
—Lily Tomlin

THE MAP TO BEING A SUCCESSFUL HUMORIST
The two qualities shared by all successful humorists are (a) consistency and (b) targeted material. If you are consistent, you can make people laugh repeatedly—the ability to write funny isn’t a one-time thing.

Once you can consistently make people laugh, it’s essential to target your material so you don’t waste precious time preparing the wrong material for the wrong performer, to be delivered to the wrong audience. This is as true in print and broadcast humor as it is for stand-up.

What if you tell a joke in the forest, and nobody laughs? Was it a joke?
—Steven Wright

The acronym MAP sums up this second point rather ef?ciently. MAP stands for material, audience, and performer. MAP is a triangular comedic constellation. Each star in the constellation must relate to both the other stars.

Successful humor requires all three MAP elements.

  1. Material. The material must be appropriate to the interests of the audience, and it must relate well to the persona of the performer.
  2. Audience. The audience must complement both the material and the presentation style of the performer.
  3. Performer. The performer must present the right material to the right audience in the right way.

Audience: Resisting a Rest
The reason the MAP theory is illustrated by a triangle is that—of the three points—the audience is the most important. Every time writers forget this simple piece of advice, they lose the game—and soon the job.

You and the audience have the same goal line. You score when you reach it together. Others can keep score, but ten laughs a minute can be a failed effort if the audience doesn’t participate. The ?rst responsibility of every humorist is to evaluate the majority of the audience, whether it’s one person or a thousand. (In the next chapter, we’ll discuss why people laugh.)

Unless you’re prepared with material that obviously and vocally works for a speci?c audience, you’re facing impossible odds of success. There’s a distinct audience for every specialized group. They are categorized by hundreds of special interests: color, religion, education, ?nancial and social standing, acumen, geography, politics, fame, and sex. The same material that works for a college audience will not work for a group of lawyers, doctors, or bankers. Dumb-blonde jokes may work for a blue-collar men’s audience, but humor that ridicules men’s habits and body parts are more popular than ever with women’s groups. Youth audiences feel uninhibited language is expected, and senior citizen groups feel young comedians’ material should ?rst be exorcized with mouthwash.

Most audiences are more interested in subjects that involve their activities than they are in humor that is all about you, your friends, your pets, and your bar buddies. From the very ?rst day, humor writers are urged, ?guratively of course, to throw away the capital letter I on their computer. It’s true that greats like Ray Romano, Rita Rudner, and Woody Allen talk about themselves, but until you become the equivalent of Ray, Rita, or Woody, it’s best to wait. More astute are performers like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, and Billy Crystal, who ?re round after round of observations of the audience’s interests. The best example of all is Jeff Foxworthy’s “You know you’re a redneck if …” material, and although he demeans them, his redneck southern audience howls all night.

Hey, Look Me Over
Once the pro?le of the audience has been established, the second most important point of the triangle is performer. Whether you’re writing for someone else or you’re the presenter, the audience needs to know who you are in the ?rst thirty seconds. It’s in this short window of time that they’re going to decide just how comfortable they feel with your comedic persona.
Certain characteristics are mandated by your physical appearance: size, color, accent, sex, and beauty. Performers can enhance their personas with costumes, props, and theatrical projection, but it’s best to take advantage of these physical con?nements rather than ?ght them. Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame, looks goofy, and every time he tries to change his character, he fails. Comedian Yakov Smirnoff has maintained a Russian accent even though he lived all his formative years in Cleveland. Red neck comedians wear blue jeans, Las Vegas comics wear suits, and young girls wear black leather pants.

It’s All Material
Only after you know your audience and the characteristics about the performer’s persona that need to be consistent, are you ready to start writing the material.

And that’s the heart of this book. But learning the fundamentals of humor is easy compared with the dedication required, and you’re going to need it.

Throughout the book, we’ll show you how to follow the MAP to successful humor writing.

HUMOR WRITING IS A 24/7 GIG

Writing humor is an all-day—and all-night—assignment. New ideas can (and should!) pop into your head anytime, anyplace. In an issue of Advertising Age, journalist Bob Gar?eld described the idea-collection practices of Marty Rackham, then a beginning comic.

[Marty Rackham’s wallet] is stuffed with miscellaneous business cards, on the back of which he jots random ideas. One says, “Pulling words from a person who stutters.” Another, “Jumper cables.” Right now, he’s working on a bit about continental hygiene: “Did you ever smell a European?” The ideas materialize constantly, in varying degrees of hilarity and sophistication.

The humorist’s mind is a wonderful thing to watch. Sometimes you can even see humorists’ lips move as they silently try out different ideas. Meet them during off-hours at a social gathering; every fact reported, every name mentioned, every prediction made is grist for humorous association. At the end of a party, if you ask how they enjoyed themselves, they might answer positively only if they’ve been successful at collecting new material, which they’ll write and rewrite all the way home.

A humorist tells himself every morning, “I hope it’s going to be a rough day.” When things are going well, it’s much harder to make jokes.
—Alan Coren

To keep track of ideas and potential material, the humorist’s toolbox typically includes the following items: a note pad, index cards, a tape recorder, and a computer with Internet access. If you hope to sell your writing, you’ll need a copy of Writer’s Market, the bible of the publishing industry.

Regardless of the tools you use, you’ll need to devise a system for organizing your writing. The traditional method is to organize jokes by topics using some type of ?ling system. Milton Berle and Bob Hope each had a vault containing more than six million jokes on index cards sorted by topic. The digital alternatives to index cards are database or spreadsheet programs.
If you plan to write more elaborate humor (such as columns, articles, or scripts), there are a variety of software programs that can aid your writing. One of the most useful writing development programs is Inspiration. The program allows you to visualize your material and easily manipulate ideas, and its integrated diagramming and outlining environments facilitate brainstorming, concept mapping, organizing, and outlining.

SHOWTIME

The following activities will help you develop your comedy-writing foundation through listening, observing, reading, and exploring. It’s critical that you complete these exercises now, because they will be used throughout the next few chapters.

  • List your ten favorite comedians and humorists, and use the Internet to search for jokes or quotes by each of these individuals.
  • After you amass twenty jokes, write each joke on an index card. On the back of each card, identify the subject or target of the joke, and explain why you think the joke is funny. This exercise will help you become aware of the format of successful jokes and provide you with insight into your own comedic preferences.
  • Collect ten to ?fteen cartoons or comic strips and tape each one on
  • a separate piece of paper. As you did with the jokes, identify the target of the humor and describe why the cartoon is funny to you. You may ?nd it helpful to continue building a ?le of jokes and cartoons that appeal to you.
  • In addition to building a joke and cartoon ?le, you’ll need to ?nd new material to use as the building blocks for your humor writing. Most professional humor writers begin each day by reading a newspaper, watching news on TV, and/or sur?ng the Internet for incidents and situations that might provide joke material. As you read this book and complete the exercises at the end of each chapter, form a daily habit of recording the odd news events that tickle your fancy.
  • Everyday life is the main source for humor, so you need to keep some type of personal humor journal. To facilitate psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud had patients complete a dream diary, and he encouraged them to associate freely during therapy. To be a successful writer and tap into the full potential of your comic persona, you should follow an analogous approach. Record everyday events, ideas, or observations that you ?nd funny, and do your journaling without any form of censorship. The items you list are intended not to be funny but to serve as starting points for writing humor.

Find out more about Comedy Writing Secrets.

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