umorists don't look like other people. Oh, they each have one nose positioned between a pair of eyes, but those eyes don't look the way "normal" people do. They see the Technicolor oddities and ironies of a black-and-white world.
Can funny be taught? That's open to debate. What's clear is many editors say they'd welcome good humor if they could get it. To help you crack these markets, here are tips on how to shape and enhance the expression of your innate sense of humor and bring more chuckles—and checks—into your life.
Almost any subject can be bent to the laugh-maker's skewed vision. The problem is, few writers can be funny on command. Most of us need a spark. Don't bother looking for a laugh. If you're receptive, it'll find you. When it does, jot it down. That first exposure will sensitize you, heightening your later reactions. As you find more comical examples, group them by subject or theme until you have enough material to begin.
Then what do you do with them?
“It's a crazy world. Laughter may be our best defense.”
Humor offers as many structural options as there are smiles, but you can start with general categories.
A good guffaw may be the only antidote for politics and world affairs. Satirist Mark Russell maintains some jokes are strictly "rip and read"—the news is funny enough the way it comes from the wire service. Humorists aren't always this lucky, but often it's just a short stroll from news to nuttiness.
Take, for instance, the periodic proposals for a Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, a rare occurrence. Why not instead crack down on abuses that afflict millions of Americans every day? Important aggravations like computerized telemarketing or cigarette butts thrown from car windows. In my essay, "We The People Want More," I spotlighted such "critical" issues, as well as the frivolity of ill-conceived amendments.
High-speed society and high-tech gadgetry are also ripe for the social satirist's plucking. An innocent news story about the marketing of a tropical fish video made me think: what if...? That gave birth to my "Kideo," the video baby for busy people.
Possibilities are all around you: on TV, store shelves, and the streets of your hometown. It's a crazy world. Laughter may be our best defense.
Like a Petri dish, mass culture is a breeding ground for spoofs. Movies, advertising, songs, books—take your pick. Touched by the inspiration of a snowblower commercial, I wrote "Stuck in the Drive on a Snowy Morning," which begins:
Whose snow this is I think I know.
My neighbor's new Toro can blow
A blizzard from his yard to mine.
He's off to work. I need a tow.
Not great literature, perhaps, but you get the drift.
• Everyday life.
Some days the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are enough to make you bare your bodkin. Your family, job, pets, or leaky ceiling can all give rise to humor. My husband's workshop provided all the materials I needed to build "A Boy and His Toys," which even managed to make light of a bloody injury.
Even the straightforward essay can be leavened with humor. "Nine Reasons Why It's Still the Only Game in Town" is my warm-fuzzy ode to baseball that included the story of a Detroit Tiger relief pitcher who missed the sign for a pitch-out and drilled an umpire square in the breadbasket.
All (or none) of the above. Mock-quizzes, 10 Best/Worst Lists, light verse, one-liners. Cut loose.
“Just as short is funnier than long, big is funnier than small.”
As you check the marketplace, you'll find editors invariably want to see a complete manuscript for humor pieces rather than a query. That's because even the driest topic can still be told in a funny way. And vice versa. The following techniques may help you tickle a funnybone:
Snap, crackle, laugh. Keep it quick and tight. How often have you heard a novice stand-up comedian with good material who's simply toooo looong in the build-up? Exception: a gifted storyteller like Garrison Keillor can meander to a smile, because his style makes getting there half the fun. Kids, don't try this at home.
Even if it's not actually a joke, humor should be structured like one, with the punch line at the end. Don't undercut your laugh with an anti-climax—unless that's the joke. Dave Barry's writing makes frequent use of the series joke, which builds: normal, normal, weird. "Landlord generally ranks, in public opinions polls, down with attorney, journalist, and salmonella."
Just as short is funnier than long, big is funnier than small. For impact, blow up an image with similes and metaphors, as when Martin Mull explains, "Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain."
Okay, small can be funny, too. God asks Bill Cosby's Noah, "How long can you tread water?"
• Word choice.
Casual or colloquial vocabulary can create a light mood. Which sounds funnier: stomach or belly? Intoxicated or snockered?
How's your laugh life? Improve it with a twist on a familiar word or phrase. But punsters beware: because most people are conditioned to groan at puns, use them in small doses, such as titles or subheads. Or bounce a quotable phrase. The classic TV show M*A*S*H played volleyball with language, as when Hawkeye Pierce twisted a lament from Shakespeare’s Othello in complaining to poker players in the Swamp, "Who deals these cards deals trash."
• Overblown language.
Contrast lofty tone with ridiculous particulars. One of my proposed amendments: "No excessive packaging shall be tolerated, nor cruel and unusual boxing be inflicted."
Make the words themselves pop. I described the job of carrying my husband's new table saw downstairs as being "only slightly less rigorous than giving birth to a Buick." Would a Chevrolet be as funny?
When comedienne Judy Tenuta repeatedly punctuates her stories about outrageous events by using the phrase, "It could happen!", we have the pleasure of chiming in. This leads to…
Just like ancient tragedy, comedy sometimes can happen "off-stage." Set up an obviously awkward or embarrassing situation, and then allow your readers to run ahead and finish the picture. They'll imagine something much funnier than you could describe.
• Pull the rug out.
Set up an expectation, then turn it on its head, as in a football coach's response to a reporter after a dismal game: "What do you think of your team's execution?"
• Be specific.
"The Eggplant that Ate Chicago" out-laughs any old vegetable munching on some city.
• Be familiar.
Draw laughs from that feeling of having been there. My parody how-to "The Joy of Squash," with its suggestions of bizarre household uses for humungous zucchini, may sprout more chuckles of identification than a piece on mountain climbing in Tibet.
• Earball it.
During revision, proofread humor out loud. The neighbors may think you don't have both your pencils in the water, but your ear will catch the sags and soft spots the eye may miss.
“…will they get it? If not, are you covered? This is critical with any parody or spoof.”
Not everything works.
Know your audience. First, is this subject too sensitive or have you exceeded the limits of taste for this group of readers? If you want to ruffle feathers, that's your choice, but be sure it's an informed strategy. A humorist, like a gentleman, is never unintentionally rude.
Second, will they get it? If not, are you covered? This is critical with any parody or spoof. Hawkeye's comment above works, because it also serves as a straight line for the viewer who doesn't recognize it as a play on "Who steals my purse steals trash"; the laugh is a bonus. Similarly, my parody of Robert Frost's snowy woods must be funny enough to stand on its own, even if the reader doesn't know the original poem.
Never explain. You can't persuade anyone to laugh. If you're concerned some readers won't catch a joke, either improve it, cut it, or resolve to take your chances.
Stick to popular targets. I doubt anyone minded my story of the umpire and the misplaced pitch, but would they laugh if the victim had been a child in the stands? The rich and powerful are fair game but not always the little guy.
Topical humor stays fresh only slightly longer than fish. You don't hear many jokes about Y2K anymore, do you? If you like to write on the cutting edge, submit to newspapers, websites, or other publications where your work can appear in days or weeks. Otherwise, stick to "evergreen" topics that are perennially funny.
A popular comedy record of the early 1960s called The First Family spoofed the Baahston accents of the current White House occupants. You couldn't give away a copy on November 23, 1963. While few subjects fall from favor with such tragic swiftness, a humorist needs to keep a finger in the current social winds.
• Timing, later.
Similarly, the old saw, "someday we'll look back on this and laugh" is true. Sometimes comedy needs a protective distance. Even my husband's wood chisel accident turned into joke fodder—after the bandage came off.
• Unintended consequences.
There's always the danger everyone will think your piece is hysterical, except the subject. If you draw inspiration from family or friends, this can be deadly to your personal life. If you're concerned, either disguise your characters behind altered details or yourself behind a pseudonym. But you never know. When I wrote about my husband's hobby, I used a pen name to preserve his plausible deniability among co-workers; turns out, he loved "his" article.
“…you'll find editors invariably want to see a complete manuscript for humor pieces
rather than a query.”
Forget the rules. Ignore the above and write that side-splitter about scaling the Himalayas. Just make it funny. There's nothing quite like a sale to bring a smile to any writer's face.
The following marketing considerations can help make your work not only laughable, but also salable:
Check your targeted markets for their requirements. Publications often use humor as part of a particular column or feature, which means definite space restrictions; 800-1,000 words is a popular range for essays, much shorter for fillers. Don't lose a sale because you don't quite fit.
Many niche magazines use humor about their subject. These may be specific to venue (household, military), activity (fishing, juggling), situation (wedding, travel), age, or geographical region. RVers and numismatists like to laugh, too.
• Branching out.
Don't overlook trade publications if you can be funny about, say, nursing or bartending. Many professional publications will consider humor keyed to their readers.
Local publications can be excellent markets for humor—over and over. Once you've sold your piece, look for other newspapers or magazines with non-overlapping readership that only want one-time rights. Just be sure to update any timely or trendy references.
Barbara J. Petoskey is a freelance writer whose humor, short fiction, articles, poetry, and book reviews have appeared in an eclectic mix of publications including Detroit Free Press Magazine, Bostonia, Cat Fancy, Writer's Digest, and The Bloomsbury Review. Her work has been collected in books such as The Best Contemporary Women's Humor,
The Bride of Funnyside, and This Sporting Life.
She is a contributing editor for ByLine magazine [www.bylinemag.com].