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How to Write Funny

how to write funny

So you want to know how to write funny?

“People think it’s very hard to be funny but it’s an interesting thing—if you can do it, it’s not hard at all.”  (Woody Allen)

Well, excuuuuse me, but most of us can’t do it.  Or, if we sometimes do it, we have no idea how we did it.  So, I interviewed some comics and here’s what I’ve discovered:

No one knows how to write funny!

Almost no one. Arthur Black is very funny guy who lives on an island in the Salish Sea, and who claims to know how he does it.  He hovers over his keyboard and then…

I imagine I’m in a tavern with a couple of guys I’ve just met, and I’d like a beer but I have no money.  That’s it.  I try to make whatever I type outrageous or thought-provoking or incongruous enough…to make them want to keep me lubricated.

Not very scientific, Arthur!

Problem is, if you dissect humour, the blood drains out of it.  Like a frog in the biology lab, “the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”  (E.B. White)

That’s not even meant to be funny.  But it highlights the problem with humour—if you study it too closely…

Humor isn’t funny

For example: “Capital punishment would be more effective as a preventive measure if it were administered prior to the crime.” (Woody Allen)

This is funny until we start poking around in those innards.

Here’s what we find:

a) The statement is implausible, and yet, somehow, yes, come on, don’t deny it…

b)  The statement is plausible. It’s implausible because we don’t string people up for thinking about murder (except maybe in Zimbabwe or Oklahoma).  On the other hand, it’s kinda plausible because exterminating the would-be killer would save the victim.  No doubt about it!

Please Note: your story must be more implausible than plausible.

Humor is a delicate balance of implausible and plausible.

Mathematically it looks like this:  [ T(x) = ½ Be!2x2 ] Where: T = the god’s Truth; B = the belief system by which the Truth is made invisible; e = the existential quotient discovered by Jack Kerouac in a Mexican cantina; x = is what we don’t know (although Arthur Black claims to know it). Oh, yeah, and the “!” is a graphic reminder how serious this is. In other words:

Humor is absurdly logical

Which, as I warned you, isn’t very funny.

No one lives by this logic of the absurd more than Miami columnist, Dave Barry:

“As a mature adult, I feel an obligation to help the younger generation, just as the mother fish guards her unhatched eggs, keeping her lonely vigil day after day, never leaving her post, not even to go to the bathroom, until her tiny babies emerge and she is able, at last, to eat them.”

Which is hilarious, right?  Why?  Because Dave connects with three of Arthur Black’s beer-swilling criteria: It’s thought-provoking—raising kids? are you kidding me?

  1. It’s incongruous—that a fish should have to go to the bathroom.
  2. It’s outrageous—thatwe should have babies so that we can…eat them.

Important Note:  You don’t want anyone bogging down on the “baby” business.  You don’t want your audience to know that “humor isn’t funny”.  Just keep drinking and above all…

Keep being real.

Humor is about the bare-assed truth

No one knows this better than the hero of my latest (unpublished) novel.

Conrad Morris, a would-be comedian, loves to disrupt dinner parties with such pithy and outrageous and incongruous truths as, “All disease is constipation.”  To explain why this is funny, here’s Conrad himself:

“Finding a cure for cancer has so far cost…what?…a trillion?  And all this time the answer lies…excuse me, where?  In the toilet?  The idea of all disease reduced to ‘constipation’ is comical because it is absurd yet earnest at the same time.  It rings true.  The implausible is not impossible.” 

The implausible is not impossible

(Are you taking notes?) Conrad is absolutely correct.

Feeling unwell?  Skip to the loo and drop a chalupa.  We’ve all been there.  The logic in the absurd—as long as you don’t think about it—is funny.

Assignment: In the following chunk from a Woody Allen short story, please locate the plausible that plops out of the implausible:

“The Walt Disney Company shareholder suit over the severance package paid to departing president Michael Ovitz was jolted today by the testimony of an unexpected witness, who was questioned by counsel for the entertainment giant. “COUNSEL: Will the witness please state his name. “WITNESS: Mickey Mouse.”

Please leave a “Comment” with your opinions on the foregoing apocryphal nonsense.

You may even have your own half-baked notions about “How to Write Funny”.

At the very least, leave a joke.

About the author: PJ Reece’s book ‘Story Structure to Die For‘ is a great resource for writers. It has been downloaded over 2,000 times. Please go here to download it for free.

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50 thoughts on “How to Write Funny

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  • Damien

    …”the existential quotient discovered by Jack Kerouac in a Mexican cantina;” … Haha, love that formula. There are times though, when one should make an effort to be as unfunny as possible – like trying to sell to somebody in dire need of a solution to something that’s causing them trauma! No laughing matter then.

  • Coach Comeback

    Wow! And I thought I was funny. Turns out… after all this time….

    I was just constipated.

    I read or tried to read, a book that is wildly popular called “Comedy Writing Secrets” awhile back that was trying to sell that anyone can learn to be funny. I just do not agree with that at all.

    Cops at 3am on friday night…. Not funny

    California DMV clerks .. . . Not funny

    Conan O’brian . . . Dear God help us NOT FUNNY

    Skateboarding Nuns…. HILARIOUS!

    You cant teach this stuff!

  • Beth@Boomer Highway

    I’m so damn serious. I could read reams and reams of info on being funny and I don’t think
    I could be. But I appreciate humor. And I LOVE THE REAL. And sometimes what we are
    facing in life is too real, scary real, and the only way to get through it is with humor. So congrats on
    your piece, you and other writers of humor help people like me get through the serious times. KEEP WRITING!

    • PJ Reece

      Thanks, Beth. I will keep writing as funny as possible. As a matter of fact, I’m competing in a humorous speech contest next week… and I write about it in a post on my own blog later today. Cheers.

  • Anabelle

    I think being funny has a lot of talent behind it–a talent to see the absurd and ridiculous things in life. Even though humour can be cultivated and practiced (like any other writing technique), I think there’s a special spark there, a love of the absurd and a… shamelessness?

    It’s a great gift to be able to make others laugh.

    • PJ Reece

      Anabelle… I`m glad you mentioned “absurd”. I own a book called “The Logic of the Absurd”. It’s the most unfunny book I’ve ever read. It analyses skits by comics such as Laurel and Hardy. I promise you, after learning how humour really works, you’ll never laugh again.

  • Maryellen Jones

    I’m like Beth – so very serious. I do get laughs in conversations because I play on words, giving them a twist. Writing something funny is another story. I read Alan Alda’s “Things I overhears while talking to myself” . Since then, I’ve looked at my own life to see what I could tell about in genuine humor. I’m still working on it

    • PJ Reece

      Maryellen… our own lives, yes, tales of our own folly… can be either sad… or sad-funny. It’s all in the delivery. I haven’t figured that out yet. I once told of a series of visits to my 95 year old grandfather in the nursing home. His mind was flickering like an old flourescent tube. My listeners were killing themselves laughing. I`ve told it many times now and people keep laughing. Why? Why? Won’t somebody tell me!

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  • Carmelo

    Hahahaha … hmmm, i’m picturing a comedian selling life insurance. That just might work! She’s either going to be very successful or she’s going to kill herself … and live off the death benefit.

      • PJ Reece

        No, my agent has a great sense of humour. He’s even published funny stuff himself. I think he steals his clients manuscripts and sells them under his own name. How funny is that? If you read a story about a comic trying to kill himself and failing miserably… that’s mine!

  • Marcie

    In one of the books I read on how to write funny, the author suggested thinking funny. As scribes, if we can put our pens down when we’re in this mode, we may actually do. Writing funny is one of my goals but all of the subjects that interest me are serious, and quick frankly, ticks me off. So, instead of getting ticked, I try to find the simple funny things and go from there.

    • PJ Reece

      Marcie… you’ve hit on something — the situation, the subject — if it’s ludicrous from the get-go, then it’s easier to be funny. See my comment to Jops, below, re “my mother”. Poor old soul.

      • Coach Comeback

        I have to agree with PJ.

        The subjects that are NOT funny are the easiest ones to be funny in.

        The fact that PJ’s mother died peacefully in her sleep is not funny at all. Especially to her passenger that was in the car with her at the time.

  • Jops Guerrero

    Imagine having the whole world in front of you and your task is to crack the joke that makes everyone laugh.

    An impossible feat.

    It’s hard to nail funny because the response rests greatly on your reader demographics. It’s easier to make a local crowd laugh, especially if they are under the same industry and age group, since you share so many things in common. Twist those shared things and you have your gold mine of funny.

    Talent also comes into the picture. There are just people who are naturally humorous. So if you feel you don’t have that gift, google a joke that suits your subject matter. That should suffice.

    Great article by the way. It’s not often that someone writes about such a topic.

    • PJ Reece

      Now you’ve got me scared, Jops. I have to give a “humorous speech” next week. Up on my feet purposefully funny in front of a demographic who actually may not want to know or care how I go about killing my 100 year old mother. Do you have any jokes for me?

  • Rick Lewis

    Hey PJ-

    Thanks for your thoughts and insight on humor. This line from an unnamed amateur comedian I once sat next to on a plane.

    “If God didn’t want us to eat animals he wouldn’t have made them out of meat.”

    It’s stuck in my mind the last 5 years as a perfect joke, but I don’t know why. I just think it’s brilliantly funny. By what equation does this reach the core of the funny bone?

    • PJ Reece

      Rick… seems your seat mate tapped into the logic in the absurd. It’s logical because, yes, we eat meat (well, I do), and it’s illogical because God didn’t “make” animals out of meat — that’s ridiculous. Meat is the meat-eaters interpretation of an animal, which, again, is logical. So the question is, how much meat does it take to sate an absurdly logical seat mate?

  • Annabel Candy, Successful Blogging

    Hi PJ,

    Love the tips as I think you can never have enough humour in your writing, even when you’re writing about “serious” topics like online marketing.

    It helps to just write, share and see what people enjoy. Although often people don’t leave comments on funny posts because there’s not much to add. I try to encourage them by asking them to share their funny stories too:)

  • debra

    Mark Twain once said, “We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we have gained by prying into that matter.”

    Yeah, like you said, “… if you dissect humour, the blood drains out of it. Like a frog in the biology lab. Anything overanalyzed is ruined. And that goes for humor too.

    • PJ Reece

      Debra… I’ve written a novel (unpublished) in which the protagonist is a failed comic, for the very reason that he is highly self-analytical. The central question of his life is “Am I funny?” Consequently, he is not. Which, of course, is the basis for a pretty drole story. At least I think it’s funny.

  • Barb Sawyers

    The best way to be funny is to be yourself. If you’re funny in person, you can be funny on the page. But sticks to the kinds of wisecracks or jokes that work for you. Try but not too hard.

    • PJ Reece

      Barb… “Be yourself.” That’s probably the best advice of all. Nothing worse than a comic who is derivative. And so many stand up comics are just that. I’m prepping myself for a humorous speech and I’ll absolutely make sure that I’m me. That sounds like I’m starting to attempt to be funny, but I’m dead serious.

  • Don Meuse

    I think that writing funny is often easier than we imagine because it plays off of things we dread the most, such as not writing funny, which can be painful. I’ve explained it all in my book “How To Write Funny For Gummy Bears.”

    • Don Meuse

      ‘Chutzpah’ is a funny word to say if you are neither Jewish nor have ever hear an elderly Eastern European Yiddish speaker say it many times. You still can’t say it, except in a secular fashion, no matter how hard you try or clever you consider yourself to be. Consider throat surgery. That may help. If you are serious about spicing up your conversational repetoire with Yiddish, Ladino, Chinyanja, or Salish words be prepared for a lot of blank stares, which you won’t find at all funny, though when your orthodox effort at ‘chutzpah’ finally sinks in you’ll be thought a wit and all your friends will laugh at you, which you won’t find funny at all. So just a single word, unintentionally, can be funny to a sympathetic audience, which is probably very hard to find.

      PJ Reece (who knew?) is about to extend his farming season into autumn. He has had a lot of success, which makes me very envious as I can’t even grow fingernails, so it has become my fondest wish that a flange of baboons tramples his green thumb into the soil, and that a dissimulation of various accipitrine raptors scourage to nothingness his squashed square yard of summer’s spoils. Let him eat cake, preferably oat!

      I can say with relative confidence that I have no idea if I’ll ever be funny, except in my own mind.

      • PJ Reece

        Your chutzpatic response complete with its phalanx of arcane words and accipitrinic references has made me realize that, yes, a juicy assemblage of letters that nobody understands… is kind of funny. On the other hand, I do understand the concept of flying baboons, and I’d give you some of my toenails just to see one.

        • Don Meuse

          Thank you for your kind words farmer O’Dell.
          I have no idea what writing funny is. I think it changes from moment to moment.
          If someone were to ask me at this moment what is funny in writing I’d say something like… Writing funny is discovering that words are essentially absurd within their own being, and using their inherent absurdity creatively is the essence of writing funny.
          However, if I were asked in a couple minutes what is funny in writing, or what is writing funny, (this sentence is rapidly becoming absurd!), I’m sure I’d have ten different answers.
          Of course humour, funniness, drive me crazy with laughter, is just like beauty… about 5 neurons deep in the insane brain of the beholder. How else could it be possible to grieve at a few friends sudden death with a few hours of infectious, nervous laughter?
          I’m beginning to think that this writing funny story has all shades in its many chapters.

  • Mike Paulson

    I can say with relative confidence that I am a funny guy. I almost always find a way to make light of a situation, if I’m in the mood to do so. The funny (heh) part is, though, that I can’t say how I do it. I just do. Sometimes I pose a plausible/implausible question to a topic, which shows the ridiculousness of the topic at is basest level, sometimes I just poke fun at some aspect of a situation.

    There might be a magic formula, but I have no idea what it is… only that I can summon it when it’s really needed.

  • Vicki Orians

    I agree – writing humor is SO hard. It’s what I struggle with the most. But I try to keep a character in my head that I loved and come up with quips that I think they would say. That often helps.

  • Joseph Medina

    “A sick joke”

    I was once standing by a bench waiting for the bus,
    suddenly, out of nowhere an old man came up to me
    asking for a cigarette.While he was asking for the
    cigarette, I noticed he was coughing real loud and
    trying to cover his mouth while coughing.

    Then I realized he was dirty and smelly and figure he
    probably was homeless. By this time I paid close
    attention to his plea, and I mean it, because his
    words were uttered like this: I’m dying for a
    cigarette, could you spare one?

    By now I was feeling sorry for this poor man, mostly because his
    words sound more like a child who was scare of
    something and ready to burst crying. Anyhow, after
    I listened to him I finally give him a cigarette
    and told him not to die in front of me, after that
    he disappeared into the night.

    A couple of minutes later the bus arrived and a small boy, a woman and
    myself hopped in it. After we sat, the woman asked
    if I knew the old man, I said no, then she told me
    who he was. Apparently she met him a few months
    before at the hospital where her father was
    receiving medical treatment for lung cancer and so
    was this old man.

    What Ijust found was kind of shocking to me because this old man was in fact
    dying of lung cancer and I thought to myself, what
    a joke it was that this old man was asking me with
    his cracking, barely audible voice for a cigarette
    that could probably be his last.

    Yes, I think it was a bad joke from life!

  • PJ Reece

    Joseph… Sad indeed. And, yes, it is inherently comical. But in this case the sad truth overwhelms the absurdity. The balance has to tilt in favor of the absurd. There might be a way to tell that story more humorously. If you told it from the point of view of the sick person. He could then mock his own dire situation. We easily laugh with people who denigrate their own situation. Thanks for the story.

  • Danyelle Franciosa

    I didn’t realize that humor also has it’s own mathematical formula!
    But you know what I am not good in making jokes. I actually suck on it!

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  • Archan Mehta

    Thanks for contributing this post: I really enjoyed reading it.

    I love humour and comedy and anybody who can make me laugh is my hero.

    At an early age, I started to read MAD magazine and P.G. Wodehouse: these worthies have provided me with an endless fountain of joy.

    Laughter is the best medicine, with apologies to Reader’s Digest.

    There is nothing like a good belly laugh and a few tears of joy rolling down your eyes.

    The old Charlie Chaplin movies are still classics and I recommend “There’s Something About Mary” which really helped to elevate my mood.

    I have always been told that I have a good sense of humour: I find it easy to make people laugh and often laugh about myself and poke fun of my self.

    I like to believe that when the Lord laughed, the world was created. The Lord probably thinks we are all senile, old fools and get into trouble because we don’t know what the heck we are supposed to do.

    Cheerio.

  • Vinita Zutshi

    PJ,

    A tremendous attempt at one of the most difficult topics on writing! Hats off to you for doing this and pulling it off!

    However, humor is still so dependent on context, that it’s not funny.

    LIke the child who came back from the dentist and told his friends:
    “This dentist is NOT painless. He asked me to open my mouth. I did. He put his finger in. When I bit him, he yelled just like anybody else!” :-) :-)

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