How to Write Funny

How to Write Funny

One of my goals for 2016 was to put humor into my writing. (Still working on that.) I asked my critique group if anyone knew a book on writing humor, and my friend Betty offered to lend me her copy of How to Write Funny, edited by John B. Kachuba.

Sticky notes and tabs stuck out of Betty’s book, passages on many pages were either underlined or highlighted, and the margins held scribbled notes. I began reading with a notebook and pen close by. After I’d read two pages, I already had a page of notes. I knew then I needed my own copy.

funnyToday, my book is heavily annotated, adorned with different colored stickies, and whole sections are starred for further review and reference.

How to Write Funny is a collection of twelve essays by different authors, some of whom I’m familiar with, and others I’d never heard of. Also included are fifteen interviews and a roundtable panel. Jennifer Crusie also contributed a comedy “workshop,” complete with exercises I’m planning to try.

To give you an idea of the scope of the book, here are some random quotes I underlined in my copy:

  • “The comic point of view is essentially that of the stranger or alien.” (David Bouchier)
  • “…people laugh at two things: surprise and misfortune.” (J. Kevin Wolfe)
  • “Exaggerating the literal truth, if it’s done well, shows us the emotional truth of a situation.” (Connie Willis)
  • “Humor observes, analyzes and comments on the human condition.” (Esther M. Friesner)
  • “…the day I walked the entire length of the English Department at Ohio State University with my skirt caught in my panty hose, wearing no underwear. And nobody I passed said a word.” (Jennifer Crusie)
  • “…column humor comes in only five forms: 1. The anecdote 2. The one-line joke 3. Overstatement 4. Understatement 5. Ironic truth” (Mel Helitzer)
  • “At its best, humor evokes humane laughter at the universality of worldly frailities.” (Patricia Case)
  • “You can probably skewer a politician or personal injury lawyer with abandon, but you should be gentle when mocking the common man.” (Dinty Moore)
  • “…imagine what’s in the cupboard of a serial killer.” (Lee K. Abbott)
  • “Jokes are poetry…a joke is always succinct.” (Sherman Alexie)
  • “…real humor has to come from the same place your passion, your fear and your obsessions come from: your parents.” (Tom Bodett)
  • “…people laugh when they have the shock of recognizing the familiar under an unexpected light.” (Andrei Codrescu)
  • “For me, humor can fail if it’s ‘mean,’ if [it] is vengeful or sexist or defensive.” (Denise Duhamel)

The authors of the segments mentioned some of the same humorists over and over: S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Calvin Trillin, and Erma Bombeck. I bought some books by each of these authors, and I found them dated and unfunny—even Bombeck, who delighted me in the 1970s and 80s. How to Write Funny came out in 2001. I guess 16 years is old in comedy years.

Nevertheless, I recommend this book for writers who wish they were funny.

What about you–do you use humor in your writing? Do you have any hints you’d like to share? Have you read this book?  Respond in the comments below.

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