We're not all comedy writers, but many of us want to write a funny story or incorporate funny scenes into a novel. In this excerpt from The Byline Bible, Susan Shapiro offers 18 quick and easy ways to improve at eliciting laughs from your readers.
I asked my husband, a professional comedy writer who worked on SNL, Seinfeld and In Living Color, how one could become successful at publishing humor. “Be born funny,” he said.
While some feel you can’t teach anyone to be amusing if they’re not, I argue that all writing can be improved on every level with work, good feedback, editing, and revision. Here are ways to quickly make your work more comical.
1. Try to replicate the exact humor page you want to emulate, but in your own words. You can download or order film, TV pilots, and sketch comedy shows from the web. When you do, underline the lines that make you laugh. Sometimes I even count words and syllables to copy the exact length and sound.
2. Experiment with a variety of forms: a 600-word online "Shouts & Murmurs," timely late night comedy monologue jokes, a MAD magazine parody of a new TV show, a 400-word Onion news story satire. See which best suits your voice and your topic.
3. Watch repetitions. The third time you do something, it has the opposite meaning. If a character cries or screams once or twice you may fear or feel bad for them. Three times, it stops being sad or scary and becomes maudlin. My comedy writer pal Guy Nicolucci gives this example from the classic film comedy Airplane: Whenever Robert Hays’ character talks about his broken heart, the person in the seat next to him kills themselves. A woman hangs herself, a Japanese soldier commits seppuku. The third time, the Hindu man doses himself with gasoline, then lights a match … but Robert Hays is called away, interrupting the story. Relieved, the Hindu man blows out his match. Beat. Then he explodes.
4. Laughing is said to be a reaction to being surprised. So remember that lists are funnier when the last item you end on is surprising. In my piece on my nicotine withdrawal, I listed reasons why I should quit smoking: “Look younger, get healthier, have fewer wrinkles, spite enemies.”
5. Visit comedy clubs and see what works and what doesn’t work with comedians there. Try out material before an audience, class, or friends yourself and see if—and where—anyone laughs.
6. While I wouldn't send fart or oral sex jokes to an editor at TheNewYorkTimes, if you're going to be offensive, you’re better off joking around with good friends or testing out material at comedy clubs. Sometimes the best humor is edgy, outrageous or creepy. Think Sarah Silverman’s incest riffs or Amy Schumer’s masturbation routines. Though it’s said, “comedy equals tragedy plus time,” don’t be afraid to inappropriately poke jokes at current tragedies. TheOnion reacts ironically to mass shootings and after their darkly hilarious 9/11 issue two weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, they were inundated with positive comments from readers.
7. Don’t tell the reader something is funny, using the verb “he joked” or “chuckled” or saying “and they all laughed.” Show a scene and let your audience decide.
8. Self-deprecation is comedy gold. Start by writing a list of all the horrible things you hate about yourself. (Though if you trash your weight, race, or age, you have to be careful not to cross the line into also shaming others these days.)
9. Be unexpected by twisting clichés. A white grandma who talks like a gangsta rapper is funnier than a gangsta rapper speaking like you’d expect him to talk. Betty White’s off-color sexual jokes seem funnier because she’s a 96-year-old lady with beauty parlor hair.
10. Tell the truth about dark emotions nobody admits, like feelings of failure, jealousy, and loneliness and stories of bad breakups. “My college boyfriend didn’t sleep with one of my roommates. He slept with two of them,” often gets a laugh, since everyone can relate to lousy love stories. The topic led to my first book.
11. Try a funny unusual word you don’t hear often.The Dilbert Blog lists words that are funny within themselves: Mongolian, herdsman, vagina, trouser, shish kabob, storm drain, Johnson, slap, canoe, pulverize. These are especially good to weave into your work out of context. Use a thesaurus to find better verbs, nouns, and adjectives. “I hit him,” isn’t funny. “I pulverized him” might be. Dissecting his jokes, Jerry Seinfeld recently told TheNewYorkTimes, "You want things that are just fun to say. It's fun to say Cocoa Crisp and Fruity Pebbles. It's not fun to say Oat Bran."
12. Use odd juxtapositions. I saw @Cheeseboy22’s Tweet “Homemaking tip: In a pinch, the end slices of bread can be used as toilet paper.” Gross, but I admit I laughed.
13. Try observational humor. I know it feels old-fashioned, but trashing everyday things that seem odd offers a good humor structure. Think of the questions, “Did you ever notice?” and “What’s the deal with …” à la Seinfeld and Larry David. To be updated, poke fun at mistakes you've made with the latest technology.
14. Specifics make everything funnier. “I ate too much junk food,” isn’t as good as “I ate seven bags of Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies,” just as “I haven’t had sex in years” doesn’t sound as original as “I haven’t been laid since the Reagan administration.”
15. Exaggerate a lot. I often interject “Then $400,000 worth of therapy kicked in,” though I haven’t spent that much on shrinks over the years. And I always get a chuckle in my classes talking about my difficult childhood when I explain, “I was the weirdest, drunkest, angriest, most drunk and stoned person in Michigan who flunked the entire state.”
16. Nutty metaphors and similes add color, like Dennis Miller’s lines “America may be the best country in the world, but that’s kind of like being the valedictorian of summer school,” and “I’m one of the more pessimistic cats on the planet. I make van Gogh look like a rodeo clown.”
17. Cut extra words, unintentional repetitions, and clichés. The end of a sentence, paragraph or piece should land the weirdest or funniest. Often great humor pieces, like poems, are tight and succinct.
18. Half of what’s out there now is topical humor. Take a page from Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and Seth Meyers, who upped their comedy games the minute Trump became president, along with Saturday Night Live, now reinvigorated by political mimics. Minutes after the picture was posted of Melania Trump going to the Houston hurricane in five-inch stilettos, a comedian colleague posted “Melania Heels the Nation.” Remember to keep a pen and pad handy when you watch the news.
Learn more in The Byline Bible
Over the last two decades, writing professor Susan Shapiro has taught more than 25,000 students of all ages and backgrounds at NYU, Columbia, Temple, The New School, and Harvard University. Now in The Byline Bible she reveals the wildly popular "Instant Gratification Takes Too Long" technique she's perfected, sharing how to land impressive clips to start or re-launch your career.
In frank and funny prose, the bestselling author of 12 books walks you through every stage of crafting and selling short nonfiction pieces. She shows you how to spot trendy subjects, where to start, finish and edit, and divulges specific steps to submit work, have it accepted, get paid, and see your byline in your favorite publication in lightning speed.
With a foreword by Peter Catapano, long-time editor at The New York Times where many of Shapiro’s pupils have first seen print, this book offers everything you need to learn to write and sell your story in five weeks or less. Get a copy here.