YOU WON’T BECOME a humor writer just by following a set of rules. People become humor writers because they can’t help themselves. But if that’s your bent, you might find that these suggestions–gleaned from my years of experience as a humorist–provide some encouragement and direction.
1 Never write about real-life humor. Every so often, I will receive a letter that goes something like this: “We were all going fishing down at the river, and my Uncle Ed, he says he’s going to walk a log to get to the other side. Well, about halfway across, Uncle Ed hits a slick patch, his legs shoot out from under him, and he goes right in the river. We laughed ourselves sick. You can put this in one of your stories if you want to.”
I have no doubt that Uncle Ed’s falling in the river was hilarious to those observers on hand. But you will never capture that same hilarity in writing.
2 Write about your bad experiences, not your good ones. Write about serious events, not funny ones. Write about your failure, not your success. Write about your fear, not your courage. Write about the negative, not the positive. Write about the bad, not the good. A sting), character is funnier than a generous character. A blowhard is funnier than a modest character. A mean character is funnier than a kind one.
3 Write out of your own experience. Most of the humor pieces I write are for Outdoor Life magazine. Because I’ve spent almost my entire life hunting, fishing, camping and roaming about in the Great Outdoors, I have made all the mistakes that it is possible to make. I have committed all the stupidities. When I write about my mistakes and stupidities, my readers recognize them as authentic, because they have done the same dumb stuff.
No matter how absurd one of my stories may be, it will contain authentic details the reader will recognize that help him or her to visualize a particular scene. This in turn makes the scene ‘all the more humorous and “real” to the reader.
4 Use the reader’s imagination. The idea here is to provide a few clues about a scene or situation and then let the reader fill in the rest of the details. Here is a writing exercise I picked up somewhere many years ago. I “create” a complete house with these six words: “tarnished walnut paneling on the stairs.” I then ask my students to describe the upstairs of the house, one of its bathrooms, the front yard and the color of the house.
They do so in great detail. Each clearly has a complete house in his or her head. In almost every description, the house will be old but elegant. Often the bathtub will have lion-claw feet. The front yard will frequently be enclosed by a picket fence in disrepair, and the lawn grass will be dried up and full of weeds. Strangely, a huge tree shows up repeatedly, often with a tire swing hanging from a limb. My point is that each of these students has imagined a complete house. He can “see” the house in his head. But it is not the same house I hold in my imagination. There are only three features that I want in their varied houses–old, elegant and in disrepair.
“Here’s the point,” I tell my students after the exercise: Use the “Reader’s House.” Even though you may not have any idea what the house looks like, other than the few characteristics you have assigned to it, the reader will have imagined it in complete detail, right down to the flowers on the wallpaper.
5) Beware the logic of humor. Even if the story is totally absurd, certain rules of logic must apply. In “My First Deer and Welcome To It,” the deer escapes by riding my bicycle off down a road and finally disappearing over the horizon. In the stage version of the story, I later find out that the deer was involved in a shootout–with the police in Tacoma, Wash.–using my rifle! You have to admit that is a pretty absurd situation, but all audiences so far have been more than willing to suspend their disbelief, to the extent that they become almost crazed with laughter.
So where is the logic in this bit of absurdity? It lies in the fact that the deer fides the bike down a road, not off through the woods where fallen trees, rocks and brush would make it impossible to ride a bicycle. How would the deer steer the bike? Its front hooves are tied to each side of the handlebars. Even though the scene is absurd, we must take care that the reader’s or listener’s mental imagery is not destroyed by the writer’s failure to take care of certain logical details. No matter how absurd, humor still requires its own particular kind of logic.
6 Be careful with exaggeration. As you are aware, exaggeration is one of the main tools of humor writing. It seems simple enough at first. For example, my wife, mistaking a coiled rope on the ground for a snake, shoots straight up 8 feet in the air. Why 8 feet? Because I think that is about right. I could startle her by three times as much and shoot her up 24 feet. Twenty-four feet, however, is too exact. It suggests she actually did shoot up that high, that measurements were taken.
It’s impossible for anyone to leap straight up 24 feet, but it is equally impossible to leap straight up 8 feet. In the actual “jump,” if there was an actual jump, my wife probably never left the ground. So to say she leaped up 6 inches would be an exaggeration of the actual fact but would still be within the realm of possibility. Exaggeration, generally speaking, should lie outside the realm of possibility but somehow within the realm of visual imagination.
7 Don’t use a “funny” voice. If your tone is forced and keeps saying, “what I’m telling you is really funny,” it probably isn’t. It’s obvious when someone is trying too hard. It’s as if the writer is going “hee-hee” every few words. In my experience, this is the voice many beginning humor writers employ.
I understand there may be some confusion about what I mean by a writing “voice.” Many writers have their own unique writing voices that are totally different from their normal conversational voices. Hemingway’s “voice” is perhaps the most obvious one, and for that reason the one most often parodied. Mark Twain has a very distinctive voice, as do humor writers Woody Allen, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perlman and Jean Shepherd, to name a few.
If you are just starting to write humor, you may not have discovered your unique comic voice yet. No matter. You can invent any number of voices. You can, for example, use a pompous voice, a grouchy voice, an exasperated voice, any voice, in fact, that suggests a particular kind of character or personality behind it. You might invent a whole new persona for yourself and imagine a voice to go with it. Work at your writing long enough and eventually your own unique voice will emerge.
8 Use scenes and characters. Most newspaper columnists don’t have the luxury of enough space to develop characters and scenes. So they really are confined to writing what amounts to a series of jokes with punch lines. Magazine writers, on the other hand, typically have more space to work with and can therefore develop a more complex kind of humor through the use of characters.
I’ve used some of the same characters for many years. Readers have followed the exploits of Rancid Crabtree for the past couple of decades. He has a history, just like a real person. Many members of my longtime audience tend to think of him as a real person, as I do. I based him on an old bachelor who lived near us when I was a kid. I think it’s important to base your characters on real people, because that gives them authenticity that may be lacking in a character based solely on imagination. As a matter of fact, many readers have informed me Rancid is a member of their family! And some aren’t kidding.
9 Write within a comic idea. But what is a comic idea for a story or essay? In my essay “Sequences,” the comic idea is that before you can do anything, you must do something else first, and before you can do that, you must do something else, and so on. In my essay “Temporary Measures,” the comic idea is that temperatures become permanent.
Stories are a bit different. Here the comic idea may have more to do with form than content. For example, you have a story in which the two main characters are constantly bickering and insulting each other. Their actions, however, reveal a great fondness for each other. So irony arises out of the disparity between how they talk to each other and how they act toward each other.
Irony is an important ingredient in stories; less so in essays. One way of thinking about irony is in finding the opposite of the expected effect–the kindness that destroys, the cruelty that saves, the greed that gives, the change that remains the same, and so on. When I have the comic idea for an essay or story, I have no trouble writing it, except for the little drops of blood that bead up on my forehead. Getting the comic idea in the first place, though, can be hard, very hard.
10 Never write a list of anything that consists of 10 items. Invariably, you will run out of steam at item No. 9.