What do Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde all have in common?
They were hilarious writers, of course!
They were also (very) successful.
And they’re not alone: From Oscar Wilde to David Sedaris, Carl Hiaasen to Tina Fey, it seems like writers with a great sense of humor tend to do quite well in this increasingly competitive arena.
Humor is an icebreaker. It brings people closer, it makes people feel good. It relieves pain and transforms the way people look at the world. No wonder it’s such a powerful tool among writers, speakers, and other creatives.
Even if you’re not a dedicated humor writer, it helps to know how to incorporate some humor to make your writing less dry and boring.
But what if you (think you) don’t have a funnybone?
Are you doomed to creative obscurity, living in a refrigerator box on the side of the road while muttering jealously at those comedic composers whose sprightly prose provokes peals of laughter from adoring fans?
Oh please. Of course not!
If that were true, how would I been able to create such a rich, rewarding writing career from right here in my refrigerator box…?
Uh, never mind.
Look. EVERYONE has a funny bone of some sort or another. If you find anything — anything at all — funny, then you have a sense of humor. Period.
The key is to hone your sense of humor as a writer, and you can do that with the following tips…
1. Do the Unexpected
Humor relies heavily on the element of surprise.
That’s why “peekaboo” works so well with babies. Their baby memories aren’t fully developed yet and so every time Mommy and Daddy hide their eyes and then unhide them, Baby is absolutely delighted. Because Baby kinda forgot that the exact same event just happened two seconds ago.
It’s either that, or Baby just likes watching Mommy and Daddy humiliate themselves for her benefit.
This infant amusement at surprising things doesn’t leave us when we get older. We’re a little more sophisticated, but we still laugh when unexpected things happen — like in the famous Monty Python Silly Job Interview sketch, where an unfortunate applicant becomes completely flabbergasted when his interviewer breaks typical interview protocol by failing to ask a single question.
Instead, he shouts: “FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE, ZERO! Too late,” rings a bell and sings “Good niiiiight, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding,” and then mimics a moose.
The entire thing makes absolutely no logical sense. You have no idea what the interviewer is going to do next to jerk the poor applicant’s chain. But the unpredictable surprises are what make this ludicrous situation so much fun.
2. Say Something Impossible
In a story about a quirky high school chemistry teacher, there is a line where said teacher warns students about a set of plastic molecular models:
“Do not eat [these]. If you do, you’ll die. Then I will have to revive you and kill you again for being an idiot.”
Obviously, no teacher can resurrect a student just to “kill them for being an idiot.”
It’s utterly impossible — and that’s why it’s funny 😉
3. Use Excessively Detailed Details
In the intro to “The #1 Essential Skill Every Writer Needs to Learn,” the following list of types of writing goes from the common to the more unusual (but still accurate!) combinations of a descriptor + the word “writing”:
There are many types of writing in the world:
Article writing, novel writing, copywriting, ghostwriting, songwriting, poetry writing, playwriting, handwriting, typewriting, skywriting, love-letter-writing, rewriting…and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
Now, this isn’t going to make anyone laugh out loud, but it can make them smile. And that’s all you need to get your foot in the door and your reader on to the next sentence.
3. Make Fun of Yourself
The best comedians poke fun at themselves to make others laugh. Humorous writers are the same:
We don’t want to sit high and mighty on our pedestals, miles above our readers. We know that it gives readers a crick to keep gazing skyward for so long, and we don’t want that, no sirree.
Because readers with cricked necks become disgruntled former readers who stop enjoying our work and start plotting our downfall.
So we axe the pedestal and show readers that we are just like them — relatable, fallible, silly — by making fun of ourselves.
This is the idea behind slapstick humor and America’s Funniest Home Videos, an old TV show where ordinary folks submit video clips of people slipping, crashing, and falling for practical jokes in embarassing — but hilarious — ways.
You can do this in writing, as well as on the screen. For instance, in “Why I’m Writing 30 Stories in 30 Days,” I poke fun at my masochistic decision to write 30 stories in 30 days:
Have I lost my marbles (not to mention the entire aquarium)? Am I a few poached eggs short of a Full English Breakfast? Has writer’s desperation zapped away the last shred of my sanity?
Erm…don’t answer that.
People like to read writers they can relate to. And no one can relate to Mr. or Ms. Perfect. So don’t be afraid to show your awkward/laughable/ridiculous side.
Exagerrate your faults, make them funny, prove that you’re totally weirder than the people who read your writing, and I guarantee — readers will LOVE you (and your writing)!
4. Combine Silly, Seemingly Unrelated Things
The famous musical comedy duo, Igudesman & Joo do this brilliantly in their sketch, “I Will Survive.”
The professionaly trained musicians begin with a famous classical motif, and then, less than ten seconds in, violinist Igudesman starts playing pop tune “I Will Survive,” on top of pianist Joo’s rendition of a popular section in a Mozart piano concerto.
They also throw in some bars from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and then reallywow the crowd when these two instrumentalists actually start singing. Opera. And beatboxing. And rapping. (Say Wha — ?)
Also, the way that they get the audience to start singing with them at the end is another clever way of mixing seemingly unrelated things to (in this case, the words “sir, wife” and “survive”…it’s hard to explain — see for yourself)
- 10 Tips to Create the Perfect Beluga Whale Painting
- The Secret of Starting a Successful Shoemaking Enterprise
- Little Known Ways to Peel Potatoes Without Using Your Hands
I mean, who actually writes articles on these topics? Probably no one. (Although I suppose in this day and age, it’s hard to say…)
5. Make the Third Item in a List the Most Ludicrous
3 is a great number.
It’s the number points and sides in a triangle, the number of books in a trilogy, and the number of items in the shortest list (any fewer and that is not a “list”).
So when you are giving examples of something, and you want to be funny, a good way to do it is to to make the last thing in the list different. As in this picture:
Aww, look! We have a lovely white penguin on the right, and another lovely white penguin in the middle, and — OMG why is there a massive chunk of overgrown wood mold photobombing this picture???
Oh, it’s a baby penguin. Right.
I knew that.
Another example of how to do this, in writing, can be found in the same article as the one from point 4:
Ideas come at the most inconvenient moments, sometimes:
– when you’re on the toilet, or in the middle of a nice, relaxing shower
– when you’ve been tossing and turning all night, and are finally JUST about to drift off into much-longed-for sleep
– when you’re hanging ten feet above ground after having slipped off the roof you were attempting to repair (because who needs professional handymen when you have the combined expertise of Google and YouTube at your fingertips?)
Notice items #1 and 2 are relatively short and straightforward— everyday events, you know. Nothing to note there. One penguin, two penguins. Done.
But #3 is like wood mold — erm, I mean, a baby penguin: It sticks out because one, it’s much longer than the other points in the list (thanks to that parenthetical), and two, it’s far more ludicrous than the other items.
I mean, we all use the toilet, shower, and sleep, but what moron would have the audacity to try to do their own high-elevation carpentry rather than hire a trained professional?
Right? Am I right?…
Um. Never mind.
6. Play With Words
Use alliteration, percussive consonants, puns, and metaphors. Bring in fun-to-say words and rare vocab words and phrases like “trigger the old noggin.”
I won’t give any other particular examples here, because I have demonstrated these things liberally throughout this very article itself (as well as some of the other linked ones). If you’re curious, feel free to look ’em up yourself 🙂
Happy Humor Hunting!
7. Remember: (Comedic) Timing is Everything
Just like the realtor motto is “location, location, location!” every comedian worth his/her salt knows the unbreakable rule of humor: “timing is everything.”
Like this famous knock-knock joke:
- Who’s there?
- Interrupting cow.
- Interrupting cow wh —
Needless to say, this joke would not work if Person 1 did not jump in and, like, interrupt. Which requires an excellent sense of comedic timing, of course. You know, the kind that only years of experience and perhaps a PhD or two can instill in a person…(I’m kidding, I’m kidding).
And when you go to watch a live comedy show, experienced comedians often work the crowd by using long pauses to their advantage.
But writing is a tad different than live performances, of course. People read at their own paces, you’re not there to tell them how long to pause between lines. But there is something you CAN use to manipulate timing for your reader: space.
I’m just trimming the 52 [stories] down to 30 and stuffing it all in one month instead of stretching it out over a year.
Is that insane?
Will all the stories turn out to be cra — uh, crazy bad?
And will you get to watch me fumble and fail the whole entire way?
Yes, absolutely yes.
(If you want to)
Compare that to this hideous chunky paragraph:
I’m just trimming the 52 [stories] down to 30 and stuffing it all in one month instead of stretching it out over a year. Is that insane? Maybe. Will all the stories turn out to be cra — uh, crazy bad? Probably. And will you get to watch me fumble and fail the whole entire way? Yes, absolutely yes. (If you want to)
Terrible. I sound like a motor mouth in this one. There’s no space to breathe, to giggle, to smile. It’s just words-words-words, rapid-fire, one after another.
Final Tip: Have a Funny Life
As the wise Dr. Seuss said in the quote I quoted for the subtitle of this article, “funny things are everywhere!”
You just have to know where and how to look. You need to train your funny bone. Don’t let it sit on the sofa crunching potato chips and scooping Haagen-Dazs out of a tub. Exercise it! Put it to work!
How? Here are some ideas:
- Have a playdate with young kids (they find just about everything funny. Try to see why)
- Make yourself laugh once a day (it’s good for your health! And I’m not the only one saying that. Read Norm Cousins)
- Hang out with funny people, and DON’T hang out with sourpusses.
- Write down funny things that happen to you so you don’t forget (For instance,this and this really did happen to me back when I was in high school. I remembered them because I wrote them down)
- Read funny books by humorous writers, like Carl Hiaasen, Gerald Morris, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, (Pro tip: check out children’s writers. A lot of them are pretty hilarious because, after all, they are writing for children)
- Watch funny videos by comedians like Igudesman & Joo, Victor Borge, Mark Lowry, the Monty Python crew, and more.
- What else can you think of?
Humor writing is a gift, but it’s also a skill. People are born with different senses of humor.
The core behind humor is a way of looking at the world. You must change yourself from the inside out to become better at humor. Alternatively, humor can help you change your perspective.
The most important thing to remember, though, is simply this:
Enjoy yourself when you’re writing, especially when you’re writing humor. Make yourself laugh. Make yourself smile.
Because when you have fun, we will too. 😄
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