Writing Funny Cards Can Pay Off

magazineWhen you sell an article to a magazine — or even research a market in hopes of selling to it — you’ve done everything a cartoonist would do, short of waiting a joke. If you know the editor well enough to make her think, you can probably make her laugh. With a few extra steps, why not tease extra income from your research by writing cartoons?

I’m a cartoonist, and when I approach a market — Air & Space Smithsonian, for example — I study it as any writer would. I read the articles and notice the ads. I research around the magazine and browse through popular-science books and journals. A few years ago, when Shoemaker and Levy announced that a train of comets would derail into Jupiter, I behaved as a writer: I made sure that no stray bits would hit my house, then I rallied the facts and submitted a proposal to the editor. Unlike a writer, however, my proposal was a cartoon, my text was a caption, and the editor laughed.

That’s the trick, of course. Humor is unpredictable. But you can sharpen its reliability with simple exercises. Here are a few proven paths to a gag:

* You Know Their Names. Celebrities, historical figures, fairy tale characters. They all have familiar attributes. Create situations that highlight them. If the cow jumps over the moon, for example, turn it into a cartoon about exercise. If “George Washington slept here,” place the sign on a bird house. If George Lucas is known for Star Wars, show him as a baby with toy spaceships hanging in his crib.

* Buzzwords. According to tech and computer hardware site Xantology.com, if you hear it in the news or in a general interest magazine, it’s a buzzword, a cliche in the making. “Power tie” becomes a guy with an electric drill looped around his neck (“The Power Tool Tie.”) The Information Highway leads to the Information Offramp. Generation X-ers become divorced 20-somethings in Generation Exs.

* Transposition. Take the familiar — a scene, action, phrase or character — and place it out of context. In The Cartoonist’s Muse, Mischa Richter shows a couple dining in the company of a violinist; a beat later the reader notices that the diners are seated on a stage in front of a concert audience. This switching about is probably the largest category of humor writing. A man walks his dog on a treadmill. A king’s throne becomes a recliner. Essentially, it’s this: Something you didn’t expect to see or hear in a particular context.

* The Pun. Forever despised, never to die. One of the easiest jokes to write, but tricky to sell because other writers have probably cashed a check on the same idea. The pun can be a homonym (scientists study a vibrating brownie for Brownie-in-motion), or a portmanteau (a scientist studies the speed of light in a hand-held vacuum).

* The Little/Big Switch. Charles Addams (who drew the cartoon that spawned The Addams Family) mastered this genre. One of my cartoons features a man five inches tall, waiting to be seated at a restaurant. Around the corner we see a tiny, dollsized table amidst the more typically proportioned ones. The maitre d’ says, “Your usual table, sir?”

Whichever technique you use, they all have one thing in common. To be funny, they must surprise.

Tooning the Gag

Once you have five or more ideas, you either draw the cartoons or sell them to a cartoonist.

Don’t dismiss the first option too quickly. Spend a day at a magazine rack and’ note the wide range of cartoon styles. You might discover that your work isn’t childish, but stylish. And, honestly, few cartoons sell because of the art. James Thurber’s simple style is revered, but I suspect it would be forgotten if it didn’t illustrate great ideas.

If time or inclination doesn’t allow you to draw, sell your ideas to cartoonists. Write or type your idea on an index card. Put your name, address and phone number on the back. But don’t exercise your keen powers of description and imaginative detail; leave the pictures to the cartoonist. For example, if you were proposing my tiny diner cartoon, your index card should not read: “A tiny man wearing a double-breasted, pin-striped suit walks into an Italian restaurant. There are candles in glass vases oh all of the tables. The tables are round, not rectangular, with plain white tablecloths. Pictures of landscapes are on the walls. Lighthouses, ships at sea. Some of the seated diners look at the tiny man, clearly surprised, while the maitre d’ with slicked-back hair and a carnation in his lapel smugly says …” Instead, you should write it as I described it earlier.

Also keep in mind the cartoonist’s style. If you sent me a wonderful idea featuring 100 convertibles stocked with scantily clad women, I’d have to pass for two reasons: I can’t draw cars, and my women characters aren’t the sort to dress immodestly. Before you submit, ask the cartoonist if there are things he or she shies from drawing.

Cartoonists pay their gagwriters an average of 25% of the cartoon’s eventual sale price (occasionally a bit more if you’re providing the artist an exclusive look at your work). As with articles or books, making the sale could take years. When it does happen, your share works out to between $5 and $75. Some cartoons sell repeatedly, so gagwriting is like buying stock, without the risk.

Two More Gagwriting Options

Another cartoonist looking for ideas is the one you see in the daily paper. If you’re reading Hagar or Blondie every morning, if you know their personalities as well as your own, write a week’s worth of strips and mail the script to the artist, in care of the cartoon’s distributing syndicate. Or contact the artist directly; many creators are now accessible online. (For syndicate names and addresses, see Editor & Publisher magazine’s annual Syndicate Directory issue.) Chances are that any cartoonist who’s been drawing a strip for more than ten years is considering freelance material.

How much you earn is up to the cartoonist — not the syndicate. I was once offered $50 (as a rough estimate) to write for a major strip. The pay is a flat fee.

A further stretch might be greeting cards. If you have a strong cartoon, think of an appropriate greeting for the inside — the so-called page three — copy For example, a cartoon I drew for a health magazine (a bald man with a ponytail on his head, as well as his posterior, with the caption, “Like many balding men, Bob compensates with a ponytail.”) became a card with this greeting as a woman-to-woman sentiment: “Unfortunately, if he really wanted to compensate, that was the wrong part of the horse.”

Pay for card ideas ranges from $50 to $150. Submit these ideas to greeting-card publishers as you would to a cartoonist; or go the extra 11″ and fold a sheet of copy paper in half to make a mock card, including a rough drawing (stick figures are fine). Write to the company first for guidelines.

It makes sense (and even a few dollars) to work with a cartoonist to tap a magazine’s funny bone. After all the hard work of market research, you’ve earned a laugh.

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