Writing Funny

Let me share with you my experience learning how to write humor. First off–it’s a schlep! That’s means “hard work” for you non-Yiddish speakers out there. To some degree you’ve got to have an innate sense of funny in you before you even start. Or at least you have to think you’re funny. No one may agree, but don’t worry about that. You have the balls to believe you’re funny in the absence of any peer support whatsoever. Now me? I’ve got kosher cojones for sure, so I’ll say it! Yeah, I’m funny. So in ya faces, nonbelievers!

On a more serious note, be aware that there is some science required beyond the art. Writing funny requires a deep understanding of language, and all the perverted ways it can be twisted into mental pretzels. And if you fear extra mustard on your Bavarian Biscuit, you ain’t gonna make it, pal. Comedy demands a blatant disregard for everyone’s self respect, well being, and sanity — beginning, most notably, with your own.

First off, writing funny is not a job done in a vacuum. The best comedy is often written in teams. Why? Well…er…why not? But think about it. Bouncing ideas back and forth between two persons hell bent on making one another laugh is a natural starting point for humor. Add booze, pot, mounds of deep fried carbs, maybe a pinch of LSD, and things get even funnier, at least until the cops show up. Then you have make the judge laugh and that’s another story entirely. (Not, of course, that I’m speaking from personal experience.)

What was I saying? Oh, yeah — my choice of partner was a great line editor, Chris Lampton, who I’d worked with on a recent short story called “Eat Fish and Die.” (Have you read it? No? Well, click here and go buy a copy. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) Anyway, Chris and I teamed up to work on a number of humorous blog posts that I scribbled up over the last few weeks. Have you read them? No? Well, go do that now, fer Pete’s sake! Oh…you’re not falling for that one again? Sigh…

Like I was saying, Chris and I teamed up because even though I could write the blogs, I needed someone to bounce ideas off and help me sharpen the humor they employed. It was a real learning experience.

While going through the editing process, many comedic rules became apparent and this blog is the result of all that effort. In total, I discovered five rules, which I can document under these headings.:

  • If you gotta explain it, it ain’t funny.
  • running gags
  • timing
  • punchline placement
  • cliché subversion
  • funny woyds

I’ll go through each in turn, but these rules–though hardly a comprehensive list–seemed to bubble up to the surface of our comedic soup. Along with a few flies. Waiter!

Let’s go over the rules one at a time, in case you, the reader, should find them useful. If you don’t, that just means you either don’t have a sense of humor or you’re a Republican. Either way, an easy remedy is to crawl off and shoot yourself. Nothing personal, you understand.

Rule Number One: If You Gotta Explain It– It Ain’t Funny

I think this rule manifests itself in overzealous attempts at originality. It’s tempting to venture out on the gangplank of esoteric satire, only to find that you’ve stepped over the edge and plunged into the sea of cold reality. And the reality you’ll find in that sea is that no one gets the joke!

Having insider knowledge may appear funny at first, but use too much of it and you run the danger of losing your audience by making the punchline too convoluted. Jokes have to be understood without explanation, and trigger instantaneous laughs.

This type of issue occurred to me while writing the following gag in a blog entitled: A Real Big Swinging Dick. The following text was a gag about the possibility that Dick Cheney might not be the world’s biggest…er…dick:

All right, all right…there’s a chance I could be wrong. Maybe Ronald Reagan will pop out of his grave singing MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN while taking full responsibility for the Iran-Contra scandal.

Fans of the punk rock group, The Ramones, will hopefully find humorous my reference to the song “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down”. It was written in reaction to a highly criticized visit paid by President Ronald Reagan to a Nazi military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, on May 5, 1985. In my mind, this is quite poignant. What’s that you say? You didn’t know all that? You don’t give a rat’s arse, mate? (Please note: I’m now making an “L” mark using my left hand.)

The obvious problem with this line is multifold. First, not everyone is a Ramones fan (which is sad, but nobody’s perfect), and second, fans may not be so well steeped in Ramones trivia. One might be tempted to solve the problem by simply giving this gag the ol’ heave-ho! But wait, wait…there are extenuating circumstances. See, I’m working on a book that uses this song as part of a musical joke, and because I feel it’s important to tie my blog and book together for marketing reasons – Damn those gods of marketing! — I want to keep this gag alive if at all possible.

So what’s the solution? Somehow, I had to make this joke easier to understand (though it did seem unlikely at first that such a thing might be possible). Upon further investigation, and a quick visit to Wikipedia, I soon realized that this particular song had another title: “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.” Eureka! The name “Bonzo” (a well known chimp actor of a bygone era) is not only funny sounding (another rule, as we’ll see below), but an easy to understand reference to Ronald Reagan, who played a supporting role opposite this maniacal monkey in the movie “Bedtime for Bonzo.” With the addition of some reference text about the Ramones, this joke, though not a screamer, is now easier to get, and funnier. Below I’ve highlighted the changes:

All right, all right..there’s a chance I could be wrong. Maybe Ronald Reagan might just pop out of his grave singing the Ramones’ punk rock classic, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,“and then take full responsibility for the entire Iran-Contra scandal.

Get it now? Good! Please note, I’ve lowered the “L” from the front of my forehead.

Rule Number Two: Running Gags

A running gag is a literary device that makes a lame joke funny through repeated reference.

Some of you may be familiar with Dave Barry, a well known columnist and writer who has used the line “That would be a good name for a rock band” in many of his newspaper columns. That particular joke wasn’t terribly funny at first (the hallmark of any running gag), but over time has programmed loyal followers to laugh at any use of this phrase. (Similarly, erstwhile Tonight Show host Johnny Carson used the line “How hot was it?” so many times that he programmed his audience to say it for him.)

Keep in mind one important thing. The precise type of humor employed within running gags is hard to pin down, but what they have in common is that they aren’t really that funny on their own. Try turning a genuinely funny joke into a running gag and you’ll kill it.

An example of this in microcosm is my use of the phrase: “Tag! You’re it!” I used this in an earlier blog to sum up American relations with Iran as the vilest, most belligerent game of tag any group of overgrown children has ever played. To start the running gag, I simply made a list of facts which describe the history US foreign relations with Iran. Each fact ends with my programmable gag line:

September 1980: Start of Iran-Iraq War with support of US for BOTH sides – Tag! You’re it!
1980 – 1984: Iran begins to sponsor terrorism – Tag! You’re it!
March 1984: US fights UN condemnation of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons – Tag!You’re it!
1984: More Iran-sponsored terrorism and kidnapping to wrangle arms from the US – Tag! You’re it!

In the blog, the above list is longer, but you get the general idea. Finally, when I come to the end, I have a concluding paragraph that simply trails with my (hopefully programmed in the mind of the readers) running-gag.

It goes on and on even today. Who’s the bad guy? Who’s the good guy? Who is Taylor Swift dating…oh, never mind. You can argue until you’re blue in your burqa, but the real question may be: Is the US really innocent in all this? Now that’s a question.

Tag! You’re it!

Incomprehensible as a standalone phrase, but I think you can see that running jokes are a way to squeeze humor seemingly from thin air.

Amazing, isn’t it?

Rule Number Three: Timing

This rule ensures that jokes are easy to read and produce laughter as spontaneously as possible. It’s been said that humor manifests itself when our brain realizes that two things are simultaneously valid yet absurd when juxtaposed against one another.

Look carefully at that definition. Notice the word “realizes.”

The time it takes to “realize” a joke is one of the most important elements in humor. How long should it take, you ask? Well, there may be some room for argument – hell, there may even be some scientific study about it – but in general you’ve got up to a second. No more.

The hell you say?

Let’s look at an example. The following text came from my blog about a US-made stealth drone that dive-bombed itself into Iranian hands:

So what are the Iranians claiming? Well, to begin they say they dismantled our drone to its raw wing-nuts and are in the process of building their own improved version (camel leather trim, gold wheel rims, and air– standard).

The issue here is subtle, and centers on the ending. Namely, whether or not readers immediately understand the reference to the word “air” to mean car air-conditioning. When I originally wrote this, I used this particular construction based on what I’ve seen used in car ads. Don’t you just love them? I felt it had a homey, couch potato sort of ring to it. However, it’s a bit lacking, as some readers pause before the “a-ha” moment strikes them. It’s not much of a pause, but just long enough to require a fix.

So with that in mind, this particular joke got reworded:

Well, for starters they say they dismantled our drone to its raw wing nuts and are in the process of building their own improved version (camel leather trim, gold wheel rims, and factory-installed air, all standard).

Again, it’s not a big difference, but I’ll emphasize again that timing is critical. It’s not about proper wording or using the fewest syllables, it’s about what strikes the reader as funny. All word choices must be carefully thought out and run through this rule like beef through a meat grinder.

In this same vein, you can further improve your humor by leaning towards euphemisms and/or commonplace colloquialisms. They’re better than formal speech because the reaction time is faster. As example, here are some handy-dandy phrases that will garner faster laugh response:

Not Funny                                               Funny                                         
It’s indeed a terrible thing.                 Wow! That sucks.
It is easy to understand.                      It’s a no-brainer.
Not a big problem.                                No biggie.
Yes, I’m certain it will happen.         My Magic 8-Ball says: Yes!

Rule Number Four: Punch Line Placement

This topic has a lot to do with the particular word order used during a joke’s delivery. Obviously, jokes with strong punchlines will be affected more by this, but one should also consider various deliveries for even more subtle humor.

My example of this rule is once again from my blog about a US-made stealth drone that we donated to Iran in the name of international friendship. Here we see some humor I’ve cooked up about Iran’s ability to reverse engineer US technology:

There seems greater concern if they reverse-engineer the chemical composition of the drone’s radar-deflecting paint, though. It seems this special military formula (similar to Home Depot’s non-military grade version named Bavarian Cream 340E-3 ) has anti-radar properties that America would prefer to keep a secret.

The concern here is the wording about Home Depot’s Bavarian Cream version of radar-deflecting pain. The joke is there, but not really jumping out at you. So, with a bit of wrangling, I settled on the following text (major change in bold):

The greater concern, though, is that they might reverse engineer the chemical composition of the drone’s radar-deflecting paint. Apparently this special military formula (similar to Bavarian Cream 340E-3, available in the paint department at your local Home Depot) has anti-radar properties that America would prefer to keep a secret.

What I’m playing with in this example is the delivery of either Bavarian Cream or Home Depot as the punchline. Actually, it’s hard to tell which is better. If readers will not get the meaning of Bavarian Cream, then putting it first allows Home Depot to become the punchline, which is better understood and brings it all together. It’s also important that the reader not think that Bavarian Cream is a new flavor from Baskin Robbins.

In any event, this rule requires lots of experimentation. Try different word order, adjectives and phrases to help zero a reader into what you hope is the punchline of your statement.

Rule Number Five: Subvert Clichés

Having a cliché in your text is a hallmark of lazy writing. But have no fear. As soon as you realize that you’ve got one, it’s an opportunity for humor. You can transform it into something funny.

Take for instance: “Caught with your pants down.”

Even though this is a fairly humorous statement on its own, it’s way overused and needs to be improved. My advice is to find a key word and dig for funny alternatives. Thus “pants” can be swapped around with: britches. underwear, panties, and even Underoos. All are all good candidates, but you can always go deeper (with the joke that is–not the pants). Underoos is an immediate target for further development. Not only is the name intrinsically funny, but with a quick inspection of Wiki, one finds that many licensed varieties of Underoos are available :

  • Barbie Underoos
  • Captain America Underoos
  • GI Joe Underoos
  • Wonder Woman Underoos
  • Darth Vader Underoos
  • Scooby-Doo Underoos (Scooby-Roos?)

The list is extensive, and after only the most perfunctory reading one can hit paydirt! Pick whichever brand of Underoos suits your theme best. I, of course, went with Darth Vader, because it seemed to have the greatest appeal for my blog about stealth drones. (Also, there is something fundamentally humorous about having Darth Vader in the vicinity of one’s private parts.) So with only a little bit of finagling, our boring cliché now reads:

Caught with your Darth Vader Underoos down.

Perfect!

Rule Number Six: Funny Woyds

What simpler rule could there be? Use funny words! I’m not sure if there’s a precise method of distinguishing funny words, but like adult movies, you know them when you see them. Though you can always depend on Yiddish. Don’t say idiot–say “schlub”. See? Funny! Don’t say screwed up–say “fakakta”. I suppose I can’t claim that Yiddish guarantees a laugh in all cases, but it sure isn’t a big mistake trying.

A weaker comedic rule–though more in the realm of mythological bull-crap–is to use words that begin with or contain the letter “K.” Strange, but after some consideration there does seem to be some truth to this. Here are some examples

Not So Funny                     Funny
Rooster                      Chicken
Wallaby                      Kangaroo
Argument                   Kerfuffle
Chat                          Kibitz
Chimpanzee               Bonzo
Ronald Reagan           Bonzo 

Okay, “Bonzo” is funny even without a “K” in it.

Conclusion:

There is, to be sure, a great deal more than this to humor writing. However, the above is what I’ve learned in just a short time. As I keep going, I hope to increase my arsenal of comedy weapons. But for those who are interested in trying to write humorous material, let me reiterate: It isn’t easy. The above six rules may seem simple enough, but in reality they only touch the surface. Like anything else, it takes a lot of practice, not to mention a genuine funny bone.

So to all you fakakta shleps out there: Tag! You’re it!

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