Writing Humor in Uncertain Times

How can you find the funny in the world today? Cartoonist and humorist Bob Eckstein has advice for writing humor in uncertain times.
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For those who tell me they have decided to retire due to the pandemic and write a book, that they can learn to write a book in a weekend, I like to turn the tables. If it’s a lawyer, I tell them I, too, decided to re

One of the most common questions asked this year on remote panels has been how to write during this time, and more specifically, how to write funny. With my writing partner, Michael Shaw, we decided to write a book on the subject of how stressful this year has been and how to laugh at it. It started with the premise: Things could not get worse, but they could get funnier.

Not that there’s a shortage of people out there who think they’re very funny. Over the summer I heard from non-writers every couple of days deciding this was finally the opportunity to write “that book,” to check off “Write a Funny Book” on their bucket list. Accountants and lawyers with suddenly free time on their hands learned that what we do isn’t all that easy and reached out to find someone to ghostwrite it. (Ultimately they would try to pick my brain about publishing and how to get an agent.)

For those who tell me they have decided to retire due to the pandemic and write a book, that they can learn to write a book in a weekend, I like to turn the tables. If it’s a lawyer, I tell them I too decided to retire and try my hand in a divorce or criminal case.

But I love discussing and advising about humor to those who respect the craft of writing, especially writing humor. It took me a long time to fully understand how the sausage is made and students are surprised that I still spend more time learning than teaching. I am constantly reading on the subject, listening to lectures or attending classes actually as a student. And my interest in learning has never been greater as I realize there is so much more to learn about humor. What I teach is a mash-up of what I learned collectively from all my teachers with a dollop of personal experience.

My personal experience this year is the same as any year: Anxiety does not promote creativity. And no doubt, most writers this year, like everyone else, have felt anxious. Of course, there are always exceptions and there are no rules to writing comedy. But in general, writing jokes under the gun is not easy.

On the plus side, many of us may have had more isolation and perhaps more free time. But were you able to get comfortable enough to make the most of that environment? I have heard from some humorists that they have gotten very little done this year.

So what makes writing so difficult when one is anxious? And more importantly, what can be done to address it? One is most creative, when in a state of playfulness, a principle I first heard from Monty Python actor John Cleese. I’ve heard him lecture on the subject of allowing yourself to play in your mind to explore different ideas and possibilities. To reach this state in which you are not self-conscious nor burdened with the fear of making a mistake, you don’t want to be anxious. This is why an impending deadline looming over you is probably not the best way to be creative.

So that establishes why it is a hard time to work. What about how to deal with it? Most humor has a formula of sorts. There’s a set-up, often one that creates tension and then there is sometimes an action but there is always a result or kicker that diffuses the tension. This is often most effectively in contrast with what is logical, and is best when unpredictable. Now that I successfully sucked the fun out of humor let’s summarize in layman’s terms.

The pandemic (or pick a tension: the administration, climate change, etc.) is the tension, the table setter so there is, theoretically, a necessary element to being funny presented to us now. It’s up to the humorist to find a unique and funny juxtaposition to create the humor. One way is to see the ridiculousness of it all. Take yourself out of it. Examine the situation as an outsider. Train yourself, or trick yourself, into seeing things differently. Find the common ground between two very different things or concepts. That intersection is sometimes where you can find comedy. But maybe not. Again, there are no rules to writing comedy but a key component for humorists is to express how they see things in their own way. Are you looking close enough to the world around you? That’s Seinfeld or Carlin 101.

Each person has to find out their own way to do their best work and strive to recreate that by adapting. That new place may be a new quiet spot to work or it may be a place in your head to mine ideas.

One last tip I’ll endorse is to try to go someplace where you can hear yourself think. Noise causes anxiety. I’ve always said you have to be able to hear yourself think. Many writers get their best ideas right before and after they fall asleep.

We’re all adapting during these times, pivoting the way we usually work and live to the new normal. Try to keep a positive attitude and remember, things can’t get much worse but they can get a lot funnier.

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The Elements of Stress: Invaluable handbook to handling stress in our time—things could not get worse but they could get funnier. Written with Michael Shaw.

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All’s Fair in Love & War: The best cartoons in the world on the topic of love, marriage, and divorce.

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