There has never been more humor websites, snarky blogs, or comedy books on the planet than there is now. Humor has not only permeated onto every imaginable topic but its expanded, as the world has been become one big open mic. Everyone has become a comedian no matter their day job.
While I have written many fictional humor pieces and books, I know that nonfiction humor can strike even a bigger nerve. Nonfiction humor includes not just memoirs and magazine pieces but historical and educational books. I’ve included humor to temper subjects ranging from hatred to theorizing God and found that humor is never off limits but almost always welcome.
With that, let’s dive into some tips I’ve learned trying to find our reader’s funny bones.
1. Understand ANY Subject Is a Possible Humor Piece
I just finished a large project explaining bigotry through humor. Any subject can be framed in that manner or a way which makes it fresh. And the subject doesn’t have to be grand, like the subject of marriage or religion but true details of everyday life.
There was a bestseller called Salt. It wasn’t a humor book but the point being is it could have been. I recently published a humor piece called, “How to Install a New Air Conditioner Without Going to Prison for Involuntary Manslaughter.” It’s all true and instructional.
I found a different angle on the topic, turning it on its head, looking for a dark underbelly to make it funny. We are surrounded by dozens of potential candidates for humor books or features in any room we are sitting in.
2. Don’t Try To Be Funny
Instead go for compelling and surprising. Humor is a byproduct of taking something familiar, sometimes challenging, and having something unpredictable (often tragically) happen, creating a release of tension.
But this is not a formula, it’s one example why people laugh. If something makes you laugh, that’s all that matters. But if you start by writing a string of jokes, the overall result is often not a compelling story.
First place a foundation of a solid story. With When Harry Met Sally there was a romance we were rooting for.
3. Look for Ways To Make Your Story Different
The key for any writer, whether they are trying to be funny or not, is to make their reader turn the page (and humor can play a role in that). I focus on writing about something familiar yet never told that way before or seen in that light.
I wrote The Illustrated History of the Snowman based on facts, and humor seeped through on the last rewrites. The jokes will land in front of you if you set-up a unique, fascinating story.
4. Do Your Research
The way to make a story fascinating is to keep digging deeper until you learn something about the mundane that no one has ever heard before or somethings, as comedians do all the time, noticed before. That’s Jerry Seinfeld’s business model.
Humorists have to be filled with knowledge they can mold and spin into a piece of art. You are taking a lump of clay and turning it into something new.
5. Say What Everyone Is Thinking
One thing to keep in mind is the more likely it is something others can relate with, something most people are thinking, the funnier it could be.
Example: Exercise machine manuals. Wait, do they include how to hang your clothes on them? Everyone does that, so it resonates. Of course, you want to do that without being guilty of low-hanging fruit (term for an easy target and overused cliché).
So now your job is, how can I update that hack joke and make it more relevant today? How do I put my own voice to that to further the joke, to give the premise a eureka moment? Readers want eureka moments. They want to solve your joke and be in on the joke.
6. Give the People What They Want
You always hear, write what you know. You know what? Write what you want to learn about and what you think others want to read. These tips are meant to help you get published and sell books. Not write in a bubble.
Write about something people care about and then make it your own. I wrote a new cat book. Because people love cats. I don’t own a cat. I’m allergic to cats. But I enjoyed learning about them and wrote a compelling book.
I wrote a funny book on the history of snowmen. People love snowmen. I didn’t know anything about snowmen when I started. I learned and now I’m a snowman expert and the book is a holiday classic.
Writers create new worlds. We’re not reporters. We’re not born experts, we become experts.
7. Exaggerate for Impact
It’s okay to use this device when you are clear this is what you are doing and not lying. Mark Twain or Norman Rockwell, or probably both used to like to say, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Example: “Naming your cat is the most important decision you will make in your life.” Nobody is presuming that to be true and that’s okay. From The Elements of Stress, “Things can’t get worse, but they can get funnier.” Again, an exaggeration but no one is questioning your integrity—instead your reader is in on the joke, which is what you want.
You don’t jeopardize the credibility of your story if it’s clearly an exaggeration as opposed to me saying, “Your cat’s name is important.” And clearly less funny.
8. Win Over Your Reader
Earning their trust, like a stand-up will tell you, can go a long way to convincing a reader you’re funny. You do this by not wasting their time, not tricking them, not being cocky or rude in your prose and winning them over with good writing—put your best jokes, your best material as far up front in your book as possible. The first line should be your book’s best.
9. Be Topical
When pitching your book or magazine piece, make it clear in the proposal that your timing for such a piece could not be better. Demonstrate that you did the legwork and you can read the room.
10. Be Professional
Even though you want to write a humorous piece, acting like a clown in the pitch or book proposal can often backfire. I see a lot of attempts at humor at the proposal stage and while a solid joke here or there could work, let the humor happen organically in your audition.
I’d say that is the best tip for any nonfiction humor writing … let the humor surface naturally. Don’t force the jokes but always be looking for them and ways to turn the familiar into the unexpected.