Anyone can learn to be funny.
Entertainment is our kingdom of social pastime, and comedy is the coin of the realm.
Humor is tragedy and tragedy is humor.
While this book is an introduction to humor writing, we don’t promise it will instantly transform you into a professional.
Learning the fundamentals of humor is easy compared with the dedication required to be a successful writer.
But if you really take the time and effort to learn how to write (and perform) humor, you’ve got to have a thick skin to go along with a nimble brain.
Learn how to live with people throwing dirt at you.
Creativity is the key to comedy’s engine, which won’t turn over without unbridled imagination. Train your mind to constantly ask What if? and brainstorm all the possibilities of what an object could be.
Don’t worry if your ideas seem absurd.
The exercise is to get your imagination in gear.
To write funny, you must first think funny.
Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited.
When writing, write freely.
Editing and self-censorship are the second and third steps-never the first!
Two qualities shared by all successful humorists are consistency and targeted material.
Once you can consistently make people laugh, it’s essential to target your material so you don’t waste precious time preparing the wrong material for the wrong performer, to be delivered to the wrong audience.
The acronym MAP sums up this second point rather efficiently.
MAP stands for material, audience, and performer.
Successful humor requires all three MAP elements.
The audience must complement both the material and the presentation style of the performer.
Of the three points, the audience is the most important.
More astute are performers who fire round after round of observations of the audience’s interest.
Once the profile of the audience has been established, the second most important point is the performer.
The audience needs to know who you are in the first thirty seconds.
The performer must present the right material to the right audience in the right way.
Only after you know your audience and the characteristics about the performer’s persona that need to be consistent, are you ready to start writing material.
The material must be appropriate to the interest of the audience and it must be related well to the persona of the performer.
That’s the heart of this book.
Writing humor is an all-day and all-night assignment.
New ideas can pop into your head anytime, anyplace.
To keep track of ideas and potential material, the humorist’s toolbox typically includes the following items: a note pad, index cards, a tape recorder, and a computer with Internet access.
Why We Laugh
Noted psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel identified two primary reasons why we laugh.
• We laugh out of surprise.
• We laugh when we feel superior.
Keith-Spiegel identified six additional motivations for laughter, each of which supports the two main reasons, surprise and superiority.
• We laugh out of instinct.
• We laugh at incongruity.
• We laugh out of ambivalence.
• We laugh for release.
• We laugh when we solve a puzzle.
• We laugh to regress.
Clever wordplay engenders grudging appreciation in your peers, but surprise wordplay gives birth to laughter. We smile at wit. We laugh at jokes.
The techniques that most often trigger surprise are misdirection (when you trap the audience), and incongruity (which is most effective when the audience is fully aware of all the facts, but someone they are observing is not).
To achieve the unexpected twist, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice grammar and even logic.
A keyword sets up the surprise. It gets the audience to assume they know the ending.
There are many ways to achieve surprise. What’s important is to remember that you really can’t be funny without it.
“My wife and I have many arguments, but she only wins half of them. My mother-in-law wins the other half” – Terry Bechtol
Humor often ridicules the intelligence, social standing, and physical and mental infirmities of those we consider inferior to ourselves. But those we consider superior to ourselves are not spared.
We delight in publicizing and mocking every shortcoming—perceived or real—of people who are in positions of authority, who are richer, more famous, more intelligent, physically stronger, or more admired.
The greater the prestige of the victim, the greater our desire to equalize. Humor is social criticism. The object is to deflate.
Humor has been an emotional catharsis for every American ethnic minority: Irish, Germans, Arabs, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, etc. There are few joke books on WASPs—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t jokes about them.
Humor also reassures the insecure. Even if we believe ourselves to be the “haves” (having power, money, knowledge, or prestige), there is tremendous insecurity about how we got it and how long we’re going to keep it.
There are two ways to feel superior.
The first is to accomplish exemplary work that receives public acclaim. That’s difficult.
The second (and easiest) way to feel superior is to publicly criticize the accomplishments of others.
This diminishes their prestige and focuses attention on us.
Regardless of how much the second method might be deplored on ethical grounds, the amount of time and effort exerted to belittle the work of competitors is usually far greater than the amount of time and energy expended to improve our own abilities.
Our spark of laughter is always ignited by the misfortunes of those we fear.
In a group setting, our humor is directed downward toward groups that don’t conform to our social, religious national, or sexual mores.
The goal is to maintain the status quo by ridiculing deviant social behavior and reassuring the majority that their way of life is proper.
The professional humorist must always be aware that audience members are happiest when his subject matter and technique encourage them to feel superior.
The target of a roast smiles only because he knows everyone is watching for his approval.
Laughter is born and bred instinct, a phenomenon of evolution. For human beings, laughter has evolved as a substitute for assault. It’s an attempt to vent our hostility when physical aggression is not practical.
According to the dictionary, something is incongruous when it is inconsistent within itself.
It’s the clash of incompatible ideas or perceptions.
For example. whenever someone behaves in a rigid manner that is suddenly ill-suited to the logic of the occasion, these incongruous antics result in a ridiculous scenario. This comic effect can arise from the incongruity of speech, action, or character.
Ambivalence is the simultaneous presence of conflicting emotions, such as love/hate relationships in families.
Ambivalent humor covers up our guilt feelings or our foolish errors; it’s an attempt to maintain dignity. Self-deprecating humor is just a device to set the audience at ease, so you can be in control.
Laughter relieves tension. We want humor to help us laugh away our anxieties.
We are delighted by the solution to the puzzle (surprise) and we want the world to know we’re very smart(superiority)
Humor is therapeutic. Urges and feelings that can’t otherwise be let loose, such as the desire to act on regressive infantile sexual or aggressive behavior.
The Recipe for Humor
There are six essential ingredients in any recipe for humor.
With few exceptions, the absence of any one ingredient so disturbs the formula that the humor might not just taste off but might deflate like a ruined souffle.
These six elements are required.
Target, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, and surprise.
The first letter of each element forms a memorable acronym: THREES.
The THREES formula focuses on the what and why of humor.
The what is the target, and the why is the hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, and surprise contained in the humor.
Humor is criticism cloaked as entertainment and directed at a specific target.
The proper selection of humor targets is not just important—it’s arguably the most critical factor in writing commercially successful humor.
A humor target can be almost anything or anybody, but you need to be sure you’ve focused on the right target for your particular audience.
Humor is an attempt to challenge the status quo, but targeting must reaffirm the audience’s hostilities and prejudices.
This means that humor is always unfair. Jokes take a biased point of view.
Successful humorists select targets with universal appeal (invoke common experiences).
Don’t select a general topic rather select a specific premise. (drivers vs women). By narrowing a general target to a specific premise, you increase the likelihood of surprising the audience with the punchline.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common targets: yourself, sex, celebrities, places, products, and ideas.
By far the least offensive (but most effective) target is yourself.
Once the audience is laughing, it’s time to move on to hotter issues.
Sex is the topic of close to 25 percent of all humor, making it one of the most popular targets.
Studies have shown that men’s greatest sexual concerns generally center around size, the ability to get an erection, performance, the amount of sex they’re having, premature ejaculation, and impotency.
Men feel trapped by sexual stereotypes. They find themselves unable to speak openly about their sexual angers, anxieties, and desires. Many complain about the escalating pressures to initiate sex, to achieve and maintain frequent erections, to control the timing of ejaculations, and to understand (let alone satisfy) their partner’s orgasmic needs.
During sex, men confuse me. They suddenly start shouting, -I’m coming. I’m coming. I don’t know whether they want me there as a partner or a witness. – Emily Levine
Celebrities are also popular targets.
This Halloween the most popular mask is the Arnold Schwarzenegger mask. And the best part? With a mouth full of candy you can sound just like him.
Our need for superiority is the motivating factor whenever we ridicule places.
The basic rule, again, is that your target is an object of annoyance shared by the entire audience.
It’s easier to start backward. Begin with the punchline, but don’t finalize your position until you’ve decided it’s their position as well.
The list of controversial ideas that can be humor targets is lengthy. Audacious ideas can include subjects such as religion, the meaning of life and death, and politics.
We’ve enjoyed pricking the bloated arrogance of authority and watching it bleed.
I look up the word politics in the dictionary, and it’s actually a combination of two words: poli, which means many, and tics, which means bloodsuckers. – Jay Leno
One characteristic of this hostility is that invariably we ridicule upward, attacking those we perceive to be superior (or in a superior position).
The Senate decided they will smoke-free. They ordained that all public areas in the Senate are now smoke-free. However, the senators themselves will still be allowed to blow smoke up each other’s ass.
Hostile humor is usually directed upward.
Money and Business:
There’s little doubt, however, that money is a constant source of irritation and hostility among both sexes.
The more money you have, the more problems.
Since everyone has personal money problems, focusing hostility on financial matters is one of the best (and least controversial) ways to show the audience you share their problems.
Business practices actually direct hostility against two subjects at the same time: economics and authority.
Financial humor targets are countless: Executives shenanigans, wages, taxes, investments, gambling, lottery awards, and credit cards are just a few.
Hostility against family responsibilities, restrictions, and competing interests needs little explanation as a target of humor. Family members and household affairs like cleaning, paying bills, and cooking have all become popular targets.
A long list of such topics includes fear of death; coping with deformity; deprivations; and neurotic symptoms such as paranoia, insecurity, narcissism, and kinky sexual urges.
Frustration and fears about rapidly growing automation.
Computers operate on simple principles that can easily be understood by anybody with some common sense, a little imagination, and an IQ of 750. – Dave Barry
We fear control and intimidation by people of different colors or religions; and so, by derision, we attempt to stereotype their physical appearances, ethnic mannerism, a colloquial speech-any unique characteristic we find odd.
We feel the same way about people with different social attitudes about drugs, sex, education, professions-even music, literature, and humor.
As long as we’re in the majority, humor can criticize.
Most good jokes state a bitter truth. Without some fundamental basis of truth, there’s little with which the audience can associate.
But jokes also bend the truth, and the challenge is to learn how to tell the truth (be realistic) while lying (exaggerating).
The unexpected juxtaposition of the reasonable next to the unreasonable-and that creates surprise.
The basic two-step in humor is to (a) state some common problem, frequently with a cliché, and (b) create an unexpected ending or surprise.
Incongruous humor is based on the premise of two or more realistic (but contrasting) circumstances united in one thought. “Humor results from the contrast between a thing as it is and ought to be, and a thing smashed out of shape, as it ought not to be.”
To be most effective, the “facts” of humor should be logical—the relationship between people should be clear and predictable, the time and the locale of the story should be familiar, the hostility should be common to all the audience members and commensurate to the irritation.
Major deviations from reality don’t prevent humor, but they may reduce the payoff of uninhibited laughter. In essence, then, humor should be as realistic as possible.
Humor grants permission to expand on realistic themes with soaring imagination and unabashed metaphors.
It’s the likely next to the unlikely.
There must be a buildup of anticipation in the audience.
A great comedic performer must be an actor with boundless energy.
The ability to generate emotion is the ability of the speaker to translate the writer’s material into entertainment through voice, enthusiasm, and action.
The ability to create emotion is also experience: knowing when to pause and for how long, creating a rhythm with inflection, and sometimes nothing more grandiose than making a gesture—called a take, because it takes the right gesture.
How do you build emotion?
1. The first and most common technique for building emotion is also the simplest—pausing just before the payoff word. This pause is called a pregnant pause because it promises to deliver.
Even in Henny Youngman’s classic, “Take my wife—please!” the slight pause indicated by the dash is essential to the reading of that line. (Try to read it any other way!) The pregnant pause creates tension, which is relieved by the surprise ending.
2. The second technique for generating emotion is asking the audience members a question, thereby encouraging them to become involved. This was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite devices.
3. The third technique is called a build, which is a joke that leads to a joke that leads to another joke. Ultimately, the jokes work together to prepare the audience for one big blast.
4. The fourth way to build emotional tension is by working the audience—a favorite device of today’s stand-up comedians. The performer walks out into the audience and throws questions at (what appears to be) randomly selected members. Tension builds in each audience member not from amazement that the comic is able to come up with toppers to every answer, but from the fear that he or she may be the next victim of the performer’s ridicule.
Play on Words
As a new comedian you must: Create jokes from scratch.
You can start by watching people’s antics in public, on TV, and in movies, and you read about them in the news stories. You use the “ what if ” technique to stimulate your brain.
The success of a comedy written and performed based on POW depends on the manners and inflections of the performer and on the audience’s knowledge of the nuances of the language.
The most important techniques of POW:
1. Double entendre
6. Simple truth
A double entendre is the use of an ambiguous word or phrase that allows for a second usually racy interpretation.
Double entenders make up 40% of all cliché humor because they’re so easy to construct.
Two definitions in one. The public assumes a meaning; the comedian sneaks in another.
Creating Double Entendres:
The most popular double entendre is the word it, which can be used to mean a hundred different things, but is used most often in humor as a synonym for intercourse. For example, Librarians do it with books, Lawyers do it in their briefs or Bankers do it with interest.
The second most common double entendre is the word in, which also has an obvious sexual connotation.
The second meaning of the keyword or phrase of a double entendre does not have to be racy or sexual.
More sophisticated forms of double entendre make use of irony and sarcasm. Irony is a statement that is the opposite of what is intended. Sarcasm is defined similarly, but sarcasm usually has more of a bite, the sting of open ridicule.
Irony can be expressed in many ways, but it’s often the result of evoking an absurd meaning from a standard phrase.
Hillary Clinton said she once got a dog for Bill. She said it was the best deal she ever made.
Given the abundance of double entendres with sexual connotations, beginning humor writers often abuse them through overuse.
The professional humorist recognizes that the problem is not to find them but avoid them.
They’re just too easy a joke. Many audiences think they are adolescent and cheap—a sign of an amateur.
Malaprop (sometimes referred to as malapropism) is an unintentionally inaccurate statement or unintentional misuse of a word or phrase, or an accidental substitution of an incorrect word for a correct (similar) word – with humorous effect. These examples of crooked language only qualify as malaprops if the person speaking them is unaware (or appears to be unaware) of the error.
An age-old rule in comedy is never to make more than three jokes on the same subject, and some comedy writers will say that two is a lot. The same rule applies to using the same technique multiple times in a joke.
Note that malaprops give the audience a chance to mock the speaker’s confusion with English, and thereby feel superior.
That restaurant is so popular, nobody goes there anymore – Yogi Berra
They misunderestimated me.
An oxymoron is a joining of two incompatible ideas in a single phrase. It can also be called a contradiction in terms.
A pun is created from the intentional confusion of similar-sounding words or phrases. Puns, which overlap with double entendres and homonyms, can be used as the basis for a joke or to reform an expression or cliché. They work better when spoken or heard than they do in print because the ear transmits to the mind the most familiar interpretation of each word.
Puns are very versatile and can be used in a number of formats. They can take the form of riddles.
What does a grape say when you step on it?
Nothing. It just gives a little whine.
Asphalt, another word for rectal problems.
An invaluable POW technique, reforming is the process of altering a word, expression, phrase, or cliché to arrive at a twist that cleverly changes the point of view.
- TRANSPOSE WORDS. The first way to reform a phrase or cliché is to transpose the words to create a new related thought.
- REPLACE A PEW LETTER IN A KEYWORD. The second and most frequent type of reforming is replacing one or two letters in a key word of an expression in order to achieve a surprise turn of phrase.
- USE A HOMONYM. The third way to reform a cliché is to use a homonym, a similar sounding word with a second possible interpretation. Reforming with homonyms often creates double entendres or puns.
A common reforming process using homonyms is called a split-reforming. The split reforming involves separating or fracturing one word into two to get a surprise double meaning.
Split reforming can include changing suffixes or interpreting suffixes as homonyms.
The split reform also includes the separation of a compound word in two.
Some newspaper bloopers-known as typos-form serendipitous puns.
One of the most common split-reforms begins with a word that starts with the letter a (alone, around, abreast, apparent, apiece, ahead). The initial a is detached, and the second half of the word is allowed to stand alone.
Other common types of split-reform are the addition, deletion, or separation of prefix (such as-, an-, pre-, un-, and in-) from a word.
Split-reform can include changing suffixes or interpreting suffixes as homonyms (such as ize for eyes)
Another category of split-reform reinterprets an -er ending as the word her (catcher, licker, freezer, player), or capitalizes on words that begin with sound (harass). Words that contain a him, sound (vitamin, Himalayan, hemisphere) work as well.
The Simple Truth and the Take-Off
The simple truth is a technique for creating humor by considering the implications of the literal meaning of such expressions-without their context of logical assumptions.
The simple truth makes logic illogical.
I was trying to get back to my original weight—seven pounds, three ounces. —Cheryl Vendetti
The Take-off is the most traditional of all humor techniques. Like the simple truth, take-off begins with a standard expression or a cliché. But it continues with an outrageous commentary, often containing a double entendre.
I say live and let live. Anyone who can’t accept that should be executed. – George Carlin
My mind wanders a lot, but fortunately, it’s too weak to go very far. —Bob Thaves
One of the ways to understand this technique is to think like a child.
I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman where the self-help section was. She said if she told me it would defeat the purpose. —Dennis Miller
To create a simple truth, reexamine every major word in a phrase, reject its most common meaning within its context, and reinterpret it literally.
When I got divorced, I missed my husband, but I’m getting to be a better shot. —Sheila Kay
I like a girl with a head on her shoulders. No neck!
In the simple truth, we are linguistic specialists concerned with knowing exactly what the literal logic of a word conveys.
You can try visualizing a phrase or a cliché to help you move past the standard interpretation.
I like a girl with a head on her shoulders, because I hate necks. — Steve Martin
Let’s illustrate the construction of a simple truth by examining the double entendre possibilities of the word join.
Join has three possible definitions: (a) to cooperate, to become a member, to enlist; (b) to unite, to bring together, to touch; and (c) to argue, to quarrel, to engage in battle.
In humor writing, the choice is always up to you. When a friend asks, “Will you join me?” the obvious understanding is that he’s using the first definition (“to get together”). But if you base your answer on the second definition (“uniting”), your reply can create humor by surprise: “Why, are you coming apart?”
If, on the other hand, you’re asked, “Please join me in a cup of coffee,”
The incongruity of the first definition allows you to respond, “Only if there’s enough room in the cup.”
In a basic simple truth construction, the first part of the sentence or paragraph is a cliché. The second part (the punchline) is an unexpected interpretation because it is literally realistic.
Doctor: I don’t like the looks of your husband.
Wife: Neither do I, doctor, but he’s good to the children. — Larry Wilde
Your goal is to avoid the extra words and to joke as soon as possible. Brent Forrester defined this as the humor and duration principle, which in layman’s terms states that the less time you take to come up with the joke, the more fun the joke will be. Embellishing a setup or punchline lessens the funny side of a joke.
The proper setup for a simple truth joke is essential.
Research reports and statistics are excellent sources from simple-truth humor material.
You can combine simple truths as well, with toppers. A series of three or four punchlines, each related to the previous.
The length of the pause between every punchline is a matter of judgment. Knowing how long to pause separates the amateur from the pro.
Simple truths and mispronunciation :
You can collect your own mispronunciation double entendres by reading the words in the dictionary aloud. Once you find one, your cleverness must add the punchline.
Simple Truths and Non-Sequiturs:
Another category of simple truth humor is the non sequitur, an illogical statement that is humorous because of the juxtaposition of two unrelated elements.
I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know. —Groucho Marx
Store sign: “Big Sale—Last Week!” Why are they telling me this? I already missed it. —Yakov Smirnoff
The idea behind the take-off, one of the most popular formulas in humor writing, is to draw a humorous conclusion from the intended meaning of a standard cliché.
The take-off is a statement of the standard version of a cliché or phrase, followed by a realistic but very exaggerated, often double entendre, commentary.
In the take-off, the phrase or cliché can either start the joke or be the punchline, but the clihcé is typically used as an introduction, and the surprise take-off is the big payoff at the conclusion of the joke.
Let a smile be your umbrella—and your hair will be a big mess.
Where there’s a will, there’s a family fighting over it. —Buzz Nutley
Animals may be our friends. But they won’t pick you up at the airport. —Bobcat Goldthwait
Comedy is in my blood. Frankly, I wish it were in my act! —Rodney Dangerfield
Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense. —Steve Landesberg
Whether you put the cliché first or second in a take-off depends on which ending holds surprise to the last possible moment.
You may perform the joke with the clihcé first, but remember the humor is written backward.
That means you must first find the cliché you want to work on, then build a story around it.
The trick is not to telegraph the punchline.
Dad always said that laughter is the best medicine, which is why several of us died from tuberculosis.
Make sure the joke is the last possible thought, and don’t add other words to the sentence after the joke.
If you do, the audience will think that your take-off was only a setup for a topper-and they’ll be disappointed when that topper doesn’t pop up.