Before I started writing my first midgrade humor novel, I sent an email to Scott Adams. Mr. Adams writes and draws "Dilbert," a comic strip that comes pre-mounted to office cubicle walls and which also appears on the Internet and in many newspapers. I figured that if anyone knew the secret to humor writing, it would be a man whose main character owns a talking dog that wants to rule the world. Sure enough, Mr. Adams wrote back with the most brilliant advice since Mom warned me not to stick my tongue in the blender. Even better, he has given me permission to share that advice with you!
If you want to write humor, all you need to do is… "Be funny."
The rest of this article is just commentary on what "being funny" means to me. I think that humor writing, like most activities, can best be described in an "X easy steps" format, where X is the required length of this article divided by the number of words before the readers start nodding off. As you can see from the title, "Writing Humor in Five Easy Steps," X is equal to 5.
WRITING HUMOR, STEP ONE: Requisition a sense of humor.
In your efforts to "be funny," a sense of humor is almost a necessity. If you don’t already own a sense of humor, I highly recommend you pick one up, or assemble one from common items you have lying around your home.
I trace my sense of humor back to afternoons watching classic Warner Brothers cartoons on TV. If you ever see me drop a grand piano onto an unsuspecting animated coyote, now you’ll know why. Bugs Bunny and his friends made me laugh, but they also gave me a lifetime ambition to work toward. The more I experienced the joy of watching those lovable cartoon comedians, the more I wanted to grow up to become…a guy who watches cartoons all day.
Then I discovered that I also could make people laugh, just like Bugs, simply by chewing on a carrot and asking, "Eh…what’s up, Doc?" What a thrill! With only a simple prop and a silly voice, I could create laughter! My world was transformed, and I would never again be satisfied to just watch cartoons all day. Instead, I dedicated my life to becoming…a sarcastic wisecracker who watches cartoons all day.
The problem was, I wasn’t sure why my Bugs impression was so amusing. Were people laughing because I was clever and endearing, like Bugs himself? Or was it because I was making a fool of myself, like Elmer Fudd? Why should it be so funny for a little kid to imitate a talking cartoon rabbit? I had to find out. So I studied the cartoons, and books of old "Peanuts" comic strips, and a joke book as thick as the phone directory. I experimented on my friends and family like a scientist in a humor lab.
Sometimes my friends all cracked up at a joke that made my parents wince. Other times I could make my parents chuckle at something that left my friends scratching their heads. Once, I came up with the most wonderful joke in the history of the world — except that nobody thought it was funny but me. Getting everyone to laugh at the same joke seemed impossible, but I learned to target certain kinds of humor to certain kinds of people. Slowly, I developed and refined my sense of humor in a process that’s made me more than just an ordinary humor writer.
Today I’m a sarcastic wisecracking humor writer who loves to watch cartoons all day, and don’t you ever forget it!
Bottom line: Your sense of humor, or lack thereof, is the product of every experience you’ve ever had and every joke you’ve ever heard.
WRITING HUMOR, STEP TWO: Understand the mechanics of writing.
Do you enjoy metaphors? Are they the champagne and caviar in the all-you-can-eat buffet of your life? Do they illuminate the dark shadows of your existence? Then have I got a metaphor for you.
If you wanted to build a funny-looking house, you could make it out of aluminum cans, Silly Putty, and cheesecloth. Passersby would laugh and gawk until their eye-sockets ached, but you would not be able to live there, and your friends would not want to visit. In order to make your funny-looking house safe and functional, and obtain the necessary building permits, you would need a strong foundation, solid structure, and competent construction skills.
Writing a humorous story is like building that funny-looking house. You are creating an environment functional enough for characters to live in, and safe enough to make readers want to drop by for tea and scones. The standard toolbox of writing still applies — grammar, syntax, character building, and dramatic structure — but instead of hammering nails into lumber, you’re pounding aluminum cans into Silly Putty.
Problems I had while writing The Penguins of Doom involved plot and characterization. I wrote some amusing situations that didn’t advance the plot, and funny dialogue that wasn’t consistent with the characters as I had written them. Against all mathematical logic, the book became stronger and funnier when certain jokes were removed, and the characters became funnier when they reacted like people instead of "joke machines."
Bottom line: Good humor writing is good writing first, and also just happens to be funny.
WRITING HUMOR, STEP THREE: Understand the mechanics of humor.
Back in my days of doing Bugs Bunny impressions, I got steady laughs, and probably could have put together a standup comedy monologue something like this:
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and what’s up Doc! What’s up, Doc? What’s…up…Doc! Yo, Doc, what’s up? Hickory, Dickory, What’s-Up-Doc! The mouse ran up the What’s-Up-Clock! Doc, Doc, Doc, Doc, Goose! Whassup! You’ve been a wonderful audience, and I’ll be here through next Thursday!"
It was funny, but I didn’t understand why it was funny. Like a babbling infant, I was just repeating a language I barely understood. That’s what humor is, a language with its own syntax and usage rules, just like English or Spanish. Let’s call it "Humorish." In English, every sentence is built around a noun (the subject) and a verb (the predicate). In Humorish, every joke is built around a setup (the straight road) and a punchline (the unexpected curve).
SETUP: A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says…
PUNCHLINE: "Why the long face?"
SETUP: Did you ever wonder…
PUNCHLINE: …why we drive on parkways and park on driveways?
SETUP: Take my wife…
The humor in humor writing doesn’t need to come from one-liners and puns. Often it comes from your characters and the situations you put them into. The setup might be a character’s personality, and the punchline something that character does or says. Or the setup might be a situation you describe, and the punchline something unexpected that happens as a result. Or the setup might be a description in the first chapter of the book, and the punchline might happen twelve chapters later.
The best way to learn the vocabulary of Written Humorish is to read funny stuff like this.
Keep in mind that although Humorish is a nearly universal language among humans, we each have our own individual Humorish dialects. Don’t be discouraged when one of your jokes falls flat — it may be that you’re trying to speak Knock-Knock Humorish when your audience prefers Satire Humorish or Toilet Humorish.
You also need to realize that Written Humorish differs greatly from Visual Humorish. The "speakers" of Visual Humorish can use gestures, actions, facial expressions, costumes, makeup, props, and images to help create their setups and punchlines. They can tell jokes without using any words at all! You, as a practitioner of Written Humorish, do not have any of these things unless you construct them from the 26 letters of the alphabet and an assortment of punctuation marks. Some successful jokes in Visual Humorish can not be told in Written Humorish. On the other hand, the Visual Humorist will run out of props and special effects long before you run out of alphabet, and then who will have the last laugh, hmm?
It’s all about being the last one standing at the end of the day.
The bottom line: Behind the laughter, humor is all about rules and structure and junk like that.
WRITING HUMOR, STEP FOUR: Develop your voice.
Remember when I said that all you had in Written Humorish were 26 letters and some punctuation marks? I lied! You also have the numerals 0-9. And, oh yeah, there’s this little thing called "style." Think of your two favorite humor writers. I might pick Mark Twain and Dave Barry. If you were presented with 500 words from a story you had never seen before, would you be able to identify which of the two had written it?
Sure you would.
Each writer has his or her own catch phrases, rhythms, preferred subject matter, and language usage — in shorthand, "style." Some people will tell you not to mimic the style of a writer you admire, but to develop your own style from scratch instead–as if that were such an easy thing to do.
Fortunately for me, I didn’t receive any advice of this kind back when I was in high school and writing short stories in a badly-mimicked imitation of Douglas Adams. At the time, the highest praise I aspired to was, "Wow, this is like something Douglas Adams would write if he were a pimple-faced American teenager like you!"
So here’s what I want you to do. Choose an author you admire and study his or her style of writing and humor. Understand how the setups and punchlines are put together. Are they short and punchy, elaborate and involved, or an unpredictable mix? Are they based on character, situation, or language? How do the humor style and writing style complement each other? Get into that author’s head until you can produce a 500-word story in the same style, and then…never write in that style again!
Repeat until you’ve eliminated all styles but your own.
Not only will you get the urge to mimic out of your system, but you might learn a thing or two in the process. My style, when I finally found it, was a synthesis of everything I had seen, heard, and read. Douglas Adams continues to influence my writing, as all my favorite authors and best-loved books continue to influence my writing — because I have taken them into my heart, not because I am actively trying to imitate them.
The bottom line: You don’t want to be "the next Douglas Adams" or "the next Dr. Seuss" — you want to be yourself.
HUMOR WRITING, STEP FIVE: Get a life!
When I took martial arts classes at the Chung Moo dojo, Instructor Dave always warned us not to "telegraph our punches." When an opponent figures out, from your positioning and body language, that you are about to throw a punch, the next thing you’re likely to see is a close-up of the dojo floor. The first humor writing lesson I took from this is that telegraphing punchlines is like telegraphing punches, except that a reader isn’t likely to rub your face into the mat. When the reader recognizes your setup and anticipates the punchline before it happens, a good part of the impact is lost. On the other hand, can you telegraph one punchline and deliver a completely different punchline? Yes, you can!
The second humor writing lesson I took from Instructor Dave was even more useful than the first. It was the fact that I could take any humor writing lessons at all from getting punched, kicked, and tossed to the floor. It made me wonder, what other writing lessons are out there? Could I learn about rhythm and timing by playing an instrument? Could a basic knowledge of mathematics help me with structure? Could the study of Stanislavski method acting lead to more interesting and expressive characters, as suggested by Paula Danziger?
Yes, yes, yes!
I can do something I enjoy, other than writing, and not feel guilty about the unfinished manuscript on my computer. I can look that manuscript in the title page and tell it that I haven’t been procrastinating, at least not entirely, because I’ve also been picking up hidden lessons that apply directly to writing, or to humor, or to both! And as an added bonus, the martial arts might come in handy against book critics.
The bottom line: Mine your life experiences for writing lessons as well as story material.
I’d like to ask that you think of these "five easy steps" as the start of an infinite staircase, where "being funny" is the process of climbing ever upward without ever reaching a destination. Either that, or "being funny" is an infinite staircase where you slip on a banana peel, tumble downward your entire life, and land in a big vat of cream pie filling at the end. The choice is up to you.