Three tips for writing humor
An often told proverb claims, “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Writers struggling to write comedy find it equally apropos.
Novice writers who want to add a comic flair to their prose, especially fiction, often read the prose of accomplished comic writers and wonder, “How do they do that?”
We didn’t. Not at first. We wisecracked our way through a thousand lame jokes until we hit on a formula that worked.
When done well, humor punches up even the tightest mystery or thriller plot. The author can add it as comic relief to break a scene’s tension, or weave it throughout the story and change the tone entirely. Elmore Leonard mastered both techniques, keeping him on the bestseller list most of his life. Carl Hiassen pounds out one bestseller after another by making comedy the focus of his plots.
Learning to write humor makes acting look easy. Anyone who claims they can teach humor writing in a few easy lessons is like the psychiatric patient with a duck on his head1 The duck is funnier.
I’m offering three tips to start you on your way. The rest will take reading, training and patience.
The anatomy of humor
Since most readers never make it below the fold, congratulations. You’re serious about humor. Unfortunately, writing humor, for many, occurs at a level beyond the prose wrestling most serious writers attempt.
The line “dying is easy, comedy is hard” is most often attributed to actor Edmund Keen. Since he died years before anyone paired him with the statement, his last words were most likely more like, “goodbye,” or “death sucks.
Truth doesn’t matter. The anecdote does. It teaches an important lesson about humor. Keen’s comment was unexpected, a surprise twist on the context in which it’s delivered. Dying isn’t funny. Comedy is. It’s also harder to master.
Comics deliver humor in a variety of forms: anecdotes, wry observations, one-liners, toss off comments and jokes. Jokes provide our best window into humor.
Classic jokes follow a two-part structure—set-up and punchline. Consider the joke about the duck and the shrink:
“A guy walks into a shrink’s office with a duck on his head. The shrink says, ‘How can I help you?’ The duck says ‘How do I get this guy off my ass?’2
We always deliver the punchline last (“How do I get this guy off my ass?” Why? It’s the point of the joke. The rest is set-up. Without it, the punchline makes no sense.
Try the joke without any of the set-up elements—the patient (the reader presumes), the shrink (or doctor) and the duck. The shrink’s office provides a setting to ground the readers. Each of these elements prepares the reader for the punchline. Eliminate any of them and the punchline falls flat.
The duck joke also illustrates two other key principles of humor, surprise and misdirection. Readers laugh at the punchline because it’s totally unexpected. It’s unexpected because the joke misdirects them. Consider how it works:
“A guy walks into a shrink’s office with a duck on his head. The shrink says, ‘How can I help you?’”
This set-up leads readers to the assumption that the joke (and the punchline) will involve the interaction between the guy and the shrink. Using a shrink instead of a doctor furthers this expectation. The (presumed) patient has a duck on his head. He’s seeing a shrink so he must be loose in the noggin. The duck on his head only confirms it.
The duck’s position sets up the real punchline. If the duck is sitting on the man’s head, then we realize as soon as the punchline comes that the duck’s behind is also on his head (and vice versa).
The twist “guy on my ass,” creates a logic to the punchline. Yes, we’re surprised when the duck speaks (ducks can’t speak), but his complaint is logical. A head on your ass is far more likely to irritate than a duck on your head.
The line “guy off my ass” also cements the joke. It’s stupid, and off-color, delighting our inner child. Consider an alternative punchline:
“The duck said, how do I get rid of this guy?”
Our analysis of the joke reveals two essential lessons:
- If the punchline doesn’t follow logically from the set-up (no matter how preposterous), the joke isn’t funny. Consider the following joke (I’m condensing it this): “The shopper asked the grocer why the display of juicy, delicious red apples at the front of the store sold apples for $1, and the identical display at the back sold them for a quarter. The grocer said, ‘You idiot. Don’t you see the lightbulb?’” The joke isn’t funny because the light bulb is totally disconnected from the set-up (although it is funny to tell the joke to people without a sense of humor and watch them try to make sense of the punchline).
- You must punch the punchline. Pack the most surprising and absurd elements possible.
Great humor pushes the envelope further, expanding this classic format. They add a second act, the reel. Think of the set-up as the hook. You cast your line into the water to fish for your readers’ attention. The reel draws them in by building their anticipation. You don’t want to add too much, just enough to bring them closer to shore. Now they have to see where the joke is going.
“A guy walks into a shrink’s office with a duck on his head. Not just any duck, a ring-necked harlequin. A red one at that. A red, ring-necked harlequin with a leash running from the his ankle to the guy’s wrist.
The shrink says, ‘How can I be of assistance?’”
Notice how the addition of few key details that seem important but aren’t—the duck’s breed, his color, and the leash—combined with the use of repetition (“a red, ring-necked harlequin…”) create a small tone poem that enhances the experience for the reader. The fact that they have nothing to do with the punchline misdirects the reader even more.
But how does this translate into fiction?
Once you understand how humor works, you’ll find it easier to work it into your story. The elements of your story, if you craft them well, provide your hook and real. Don’t repeat jokes others have told, no matter how funny. Use your story to set up wry comments by characters, or unexpected comic outcomes.
- Comic relief to lighten a scene. Setup: Your hero searches a bachelor’s bureau drawer, convinced he’ll find the smoking gun. Instead he discovers the suspects lace panties and silk hose. Punchline: The hero’s partner says, “That’ll secure a murder conviction.”
- Comic relief to lighten a chapterYou don’t even need to cast the punchline in dialogue. You can use situational humor. Suppose you’re writing a grisly scene and you don’t want to creep out your readers entirely. A subtle touch of humor can lighten their response. Setup: Your hero, a grizzled cop stops a rookie detective at the crime scene door. The rookie’s holding a cup of coffee and a half eaten BLT. He warns the rookie to wait until they process the scene, but the rookie assures him he can handle anything. Reel: As soon as he sees the condition of the body he drops his coffee and sandwich to bolt to the bathroom. (No, that wasn’t the punchline.) Distraction: That’s right, we’re going to suspend the joke and let the reader believe the rush to the bathroom was the punchline. Now you describe the room, the grisly details of collecting evidence. Finally the lead detective dispatches the crime scene unit and steps outside for a breath of air. Punchline: As he stepped through the door he could still hear Mankiewicz puking in the bathroom.
- Establish character. – Setup: Your hero is a cop confronting a difficult subject who likes to deflect the interrogation back onto the police. At one point the suspect says, “By the way. You have egg on your shirt.” Punchline: Your hero replies, “It’s departmental issue.” This establishes that your hero has his own wit and can roll with the punches.
- Plot device.Setup:Your heroine brings a mysterious box to her office. Her sidekick comments on its unusual design. She warns him not to touch it until an expert examines it. When she turns her back, he touches the lock. Punchline:The box springs open and a jack-in-the-box pops out. Once you set up the gag, you can leverage the scene. Your heroine could find a message in the jack-in-the box’s mouth, or later that day the sidekick could develop a cough after exposing himself to a virus.
Once you understand the structural elements, you have a starting point for writing humor. But it won’t happen overnight. With that in mind, I’d like to share the three tips I promised.##Tips for moving forward
Real humor is personal
Let me repeat what I said two paragraphs before. The ability to tell jokes isn’t humor, it’s memorization. I’ve told thousands of really funny jokes in my life that I heard from others. I used those as models for my own humor, never in professional work.
Keep an eye open for funny, even bittersweet experiences, in your life or the life of friends. Stories in the newspaper that report the absurd. Notice how people display contradictory behavior. These provide ripe fodder for humor. Now ask yourself how you can frame those experiences into an ironic comment, a witticism, even a comic episode in your fiction.
Practice, practice, practice
The only way to deal with bombing is by bombing a lot. You just learn to handle it. I guess you never really want to bomb, but if it’s not going your way, then you might as well enjoy the ride down.
— stand-up comedian Dave Attell
Don’t expect to get it right the first time, or the four hundredth. I learned to be funny by tossing out lines in high school and seeing how my friends (and teachers) reacted.
Most of the time I bombed. I knew a dozen classmates who drew bigger laughs and far more often. Unlike a few fellow students who were equally unfunny (and stayed unfunny), I asked myself each time why this joke bombed and others drew laughs. I asked myself why my friends’ wisecracks broke up the room and mine met with silent faces.
I learned what kinds of events merited wisecracks (a teacher who called down one student for doing exactly the same thing her “pet” did the day before) and what didn’t (a student who crashed her bike into a tree because some idiot called her name when she was turning a corner).
Finally, I discovered what kinds of comments I could pull off, and what I couldn’t. I learned how to practice my timing. And, most important, I learned that when writing I could go back and polish a line again and again until it sparkled.
Don’t stop with spontaneity. The best humor takes polish
I’ve done my share of improv, and we create some funny lines on those stages. But for every belly laugh line, we drop three mediocre lines and three more bad ones. The truly memorable lines pop up one in a dozen performances.
The best comics take those spontaneous lines that work, and polish them into skits and stand-up routines. But they also work with a formula.
When you develop a funny line or a funny scene, turn it over in your head. Try it out on others.
With fiction (and any prose) find a live writers’ group, not one online, and read your pieces to them. Their critiques of your humor are irrelevant. Reassurances that your work is “great” are irrelevant. When they laugh outlaid the first time you read a piece, and even harder when you punch it up, you know you’re on the right track.
About the author
Phillip T. Stephens wrote for Esther’s Follies comedy troupe and the Austin Rodeo Show. His one man show, “I Was Abducted by Aliens in a Former Life,” filled dozens of seats. His novels Raising Hell, The Worst Noel and Cigerets, Guns and Beer (available in eBook and paperback) exhibit his form, which he describes as “wry noir.”
For more advice about writing humor:
- 10 Ways to Improve Your Writing While Thinking Like a Comedy Writer
- Comedy Writing: How To Be Funny
- The 4 Rules of Comedy Writing For Screenwriters
- And, finally, How to Write Funny Novels…And Why You Shouldn’t
- Don’t worry, we’ll cover the joke later. ↩︎
- Memorably delivered by Mark Linn-Baker during the movie, “My Favorite Year,” as he unsuccessfully explains comedy to Jessica Harper. ↩︎