Writing Humor

Ever want to try your hand at writing something funny? Comic relief helps talks & tales, though humor is no joke and comedy is no laughing matter. (!) Mark Twain considered humor the most difficult form of writing, but there are tools to make it accessible. Here are thoughts to help:

Great resource: “The Comic Toolbox” by John Vorhaus (exercises & advice)

Common types of humor:

a) normal people in an abnormal situation—an ATM machine that spits out warnings about wasteful spending, and grills you about why you want the money

b) abnormal people in normal situations—Michael turning into Dorothy in “Tootsie”

c) occasionally, abnormal people in abnormal situations (hard to do)—“Who’s on First” by Abbott & Costello

d) twisted situations, setting up expectation & then slamming them—girl scout at the door; we expect cookies—instead she chirps, effervesces, and says, “Do you usually keep corpses in your crocuses?”

e) An arc of stability, typical of sitcoms—a girl is home, loved, but wants to spread her wings—plans something risky, foolish, or brave; parents discover/forbid; she does anyway; failure or success, preferable spectacular (go, exaggeration!)—all learn from experience; new balance in relationship

f) Characters who mis-hear things and situations get out of hand—“she’s a pirate ballerina?” (following “she doesn’t get out, she’s a private ballerina”)

Timing & practice (e.g., on critique partners)

—is it better with punch lines (end of “Who’s on First”), or blow them off like Monty Python?

—Marx Bros. did live testing on the road before selecting what went in movies; i.e., experts at comedy, and even they weren’t sure what worked

“People laugh because they care.”—so raise the stakes

—Don’t ask “how do I make this funny? Ask “how do I raise the stakes?”

—i.e., raise the price of failure for what the character is trying; raise the prize for success

—don’t necessarily worry about whether it’s logical

Use secondary characters for comic relief

—Stanley Tucci in “Undercover Blues”

—Do characters take themselves seriously (Monty Python) or not (Red Skelton)?

Give someone an unlikely ability

—e.g., accuracy with a notoriously inaccurate weapon? a sympathetic, liberal gun collector who saves the day with a long-range shot from a blunderbuss?

What kind of humor do you not like. Study that, as well as examples you do like.

Consider your audience

—A great joke about instability in an electrical engineering design would have limited appeal.

—Feel free to offend a group your audience is likely to feel annoyed by (telemarketers?). Don’t offend audience unless using insults like Don Rickles, easily shrugged off.

Keep a file of funny thoughts, even if can’t use them now. What did others consider funny?

Rule of 3

—Two similar things, to establish the “line” so audience thinks they know where you’re going. Then third thing way different. “I couldn’t stop staring. She had poise. She had style. She had a rocket launcher.” (Note: exaggeration. Not just a pistol or machete.)

——Two total items? No trend, audience doesn’t get set up for the veering 3rd item.

——Four total items? Too much set-up, can feel redundant & therefore boring.


—Crude or gross-out humor would be out-of-place if thrown in only at the end of a story. The locale of your world, and what people would know in that locale, can’t suddenly shift.

4 KEY DETAILS to a comic character (courtesy of Vorhaus; buy it if you can find it!):

Comic Perspective (what lens do they see the world through, that affects how they act & how they think others are acting? think I Love Lucy—she can do anything . . . except she can’t)

Flaws (what separates audience from character, so can laugh at him?)

Humanity (what makes character sympathetic, so we feel her pain & root for her?)

Exaggeration (in everything, esp. related to comic perspective) (even excessive synonyms as humor—not just Monty Python; goes clear back to Elizabethan England)

Finally, don’t be afraid to write junk.

—Don’t try to get it all the first time around. Write 10 things and maybe one has potential. Switch word order so the strongest or funniest word is last. Drag out the humor to increase tension, but not to the point of redundancy (e.g., Rule of 3).

—free association; lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, pick random from each category

—far easier to turn bad material to good, or good to great, than create best first draft

—write long and cut mercilessly

Good luck, and enjoy the process!