How can I become a funny writer?
July 31, 2007 11:36 AM   Subscribe

How can I become a funny writer?

I'm an average (professional) writer. I'm no Jim Gaffigan, but I have a relatively good (alright, fine -- above average) sense of humor in social situations. Problem is, I have a hard time injecting that humor into my writing.

What are some good books/resources/tips/tutorials/whatever that can help me transfer my sense of humor to my writing? I'm not interested in learning how to write jokes, or become a stand-up comedian. I want to spice up my normal, everyday writing with humor.

Here are some previous questions that are helpful, but didn't quite address my problem: 1, 2
posted by nitsuj to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Oral comedy is different than written comedy. Read someone you find funny. Learn from it.
posted by cmiller at 11:58 AM on July 31, 2007

A lot of comedy is, at its core, about surprise. So yes, written comedy is different than oral comedy in that each has different ways of creating anticipation and then surprise. But at their core, they're also similar.

Now, here's one "trick":

Look at each written sentence or thought as an opportunity to build up the audience's expectation as to how it will end, then subvert that expectation.

And, ideally, the way you subvert it should reveal some truth. It is the combination of surprise, and the audience's mind racing to make sense of it...and then uncovering a truth, that will evoke a guffaw, or at least an appreciative nod.

A terrible, but pleasingly brief example:
"Take my wife. Please."

"Take my wife" = building expectation...."Please" = a surprise, and one that rings of a certain truth. (or did back in those golden misogynistic days of yore...)

So yeah, that's just one little technique, but what that has surprising utility.
posted by Ziggurat at 12:19 PM on July 31, 2007

Read Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer. Then practice a lot.
posted by hamhed at 12:19 PM on July 31, 2007

I find that making a story funny (whether telling it or writing it) lies in having a keen awareness of its separate elements and being able to give them out in just the right measurements. Just like a dramatic buildup (and sometimes, right alongside one), you turn your cards face up one at a time until your whole hand is visible-- and then you surprise them with the card(s) you were hiding the whole time.

Also, I think another key to writing humor is being able to replace the normal or natural arc of stories that the reader is used to receiving a certain way. If you're not used to writing comedy, good or otherwise, you will have a tendency to soften your blows by overexplaining yourself, trying to weave comedy seamlessly into a scene (which is its own separate skill). Often when a comedic moment hasn't worked right, I've found that simply chopping off whatever paragraphs followed it intensified the humor quite a bit. In order for something to be funny, you have to demonstrate confidence in it by letting it stand on its own. Inserting comedy that you feel you have to defend or apologize for as a writer doesn't leave anyone feeling very amused.
posted by hermitosis at 12:22 PM on July 31, 2007

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) makes a pretty good post explaining the basics of "how to be funny" over here.

You could also just read through a few of his entries and get a basic idea, but he's a damned funny writer. I'm not a big fan of the comic itself, but his blog writing makes me giggle.
posted by revmitcz at 12:26 PM on July 31, 2007

You can't just inject humor into otherwise stoic writing. Either you are writing humor or you are not. Its just not possible to write about something and toss in a joke or pun that works in an after the matter kind of way. I imagine its possible to toss in a random amusing anecdote or observation, but you'll need real refined comedic ability to do this.

If you are writing humor and you have the talent for it, the best thing you can do is consider what makes you laugh. What you think is funny. Not what the audience might think is funny. In the end, you only know what you like. If your brand of humor works, that's great. If not, well, at least you tried. Faking it by appropriating whatever is popular and following a set of "comedy rules" will always come off as fake every time(think dancing Judge Itos or Paris Hilton), Your audience will sense this and they will resent you for it.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:32 PM on July 31, 2007

I greatly enjoyed "Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style." It's not about humor writing specifically; it's about how to break the rules of expository writing, as you learned them in school (or from Strunk and White), in an artful way.
posted by grumblebee at 12:32 PM on July 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You're Not.

Great book, filled with great tools to help you bring the funny.
posted by ScarletPumpernickel at 12:37 PM on July 31, 2007

Not about writing per se, but the improv bible Truth In Comedy is an invaluable resource.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:02 PM on July 31, 2007

Personally, I found Twain to be one of the best figures to follow when it comes to humorous prose. Some of his short works had me laughing until I stopped. You might want to look into it.
posted by Phyltre at 1:40 PM on July 31, 2007

If you're trying to take non-humor writing and add some comedy, maybe you should read some Jeremy Paxman. He's better-known as the abrasive Newsnight host, but his books are very much "Here is my dry, yet oddly fascinating, treatise on the English people. Also, occasionally, I will be sprinkling in bits of sardonic wit that will make you laugh loudly. But only occasionally. I don't want you to get soft."
posted by thehmsbeagle at 1:53 PM on July 31, 2007

Have an unhappy childhood.

What kind of funny do you want to be? Absurdist, dry, witty, slapstick, sardonic? If there are authors whose style you like, try and read other writings in their genre and see if you can see the commonalities that make their particular way of writing funny to you.

I expect that you'll find, when reading these authors, that they don't take dry writing and try and inject it with humor after the fact. Mark Twain didn't write somber essays and then insert irony; Dorothy Parker didn't compose sober poetry and slosh booze on it later. A strong world view makes for interesting writing.

This is especially true for humor, which is all about skewed perceptions and unexpected ideas. How do you perceive the universe? What's it like to be here?
posted by lemuria at 2:20 PM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

All of the advice above is great. But your question is really specific: "How do I spice up my normal everyday writing with humor?"

Forgive my asking, but what exactly are you trying to spice up? For example, being humorous for a trade journal would be much different than it would for a music review for local rag.

(I hope this is at least food for thought.)
posted by snsranch at 5:11 PM on July 31, 2007

The essential book on writing essays, The Lively Art of Writing, surprisingly has a chapter on using exaggeration and irony for comedic purposes. I remember finding it revelatory in high school.
posted by kindall at 5:14 PM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

The National Lampoon Treasury of Humor Not a how-to, but a compendium of very funny writing in many different styles. I've always subscribed to the theory that you should find someone who's already good, and copy them until you figure out how to do it on your own. By "copy", I don't mean steal or plaigarize. It's more a matter of figuring out why some things work, and some don't. Nothing kills a joke faster than explaining it, but if you can look at something funny, and know why it's funny, it's not hard to reproduce on your own. This won't make you the next Richard Pryor, but chances are, you'll be able to make your friends or coworkers laugh consistently.
posted by billyfleetwood at 7:50 PM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

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