What Makes Writing Funny? (Humor Writing Mini-Course, Class 1)

Welcome to the first lesson of your 4-week, humor writing mini course. Today we’ll look at some examples of humor writing and discuss what makes them funny.

Examples of Humor Writing -What Makes These Funny?

As you read the examples of below, think about which of them makes you laugh and why. Under the examples you’ll find a few noteworthy responses from the in-class discussion.

One important thing to keep in mind: during this exercise, I specifically ask students NOT to discuss the things they didn’t like or that didn’t make them laugh. The reason for this is simple: If you focus on enjoying someone else’s writing before you sit down to write, you will be in the right frame of mind to enjoy writing. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find yourself channeling what works into your own writing. On the other hand, if you put yourself in the mindset of nitpicking someone else’s work, you’ll be waking up your snarky inner critic, who will continue to sit on your shoulder and make mean comments as you write. Even professional comics only use a small percent of the material they create. For that reason, you do not want to start this course in the mindset of picking apart writing. Train yourself to find the lines that do work and analyze what the author is doing right. There will be plenty of time for critiquing later in the course.

Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits
Dave Barry
Chapter 1: Why Humor Is Funny
As a professional humorist, I often get letters from readers who are interested in the basic nature of humor. “What kind of a sick, perverted, disgusting person are you,” these letters typically ask, “that you make jokes about setting fire to a goat?”
And that, of course, is the wonderful thing about humor. What may seem depressing or even tragic to one person may seem like an absolute scream to another person, especially if he has had between four and seven beers. But most people agree on what is funny, and most people like to be around a person with a great sense of humor, provided he also has reasonable hygiene habits. This is why people so often ask me: “Dave, I’d like to be popular, too. How can I get a sense of humor like yours, only with less of a dependence on jokes that are primarily excuses to use the word ‘booger’?”

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Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation
Aisha Tyler
Being a comedian requires and extremely high threshold of psychic pain. You must be able to tolerate humiliation, learn to resist is, defy it, crave it even. You must make love to embarrassment, tongue kiss abjection, clasp emotional injury close to your heaving breast. You cannot fear the mocking of others; you must face it as a brave, if utterly doomed, Roman soldier. Because the truth is that sometimes the audience may actually be laughing at you and not with you. And that needs to be okay.

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Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
Mindy Kaling
Section: I Love Diets
I wish I could be one of those French women you read about who stays thin by eating only the most gourmet food in tiny, ascetic portions, but I could never do that. First of all, I largely don’t like gourmet food. I like frozen yogurt.

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Bossypants
Tina Fey
Why is this book called Bossypants? One, because the name Two and a Half Men was already taken. And two, because ever since I became the executive producer of 30 Rock, people ask me, “Is it hard for you, being the boss?” and “Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?” You know, in that same way they say, “Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?” I can’t answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case, it is not.*

*Bossypants was published in 2013. I first included this example in my humor-writing class in 2014. Both choices were made well before Donald Trump ran for and then became president of the United States. If I were writing this curriculum for the first time, I’d pick a different excerpt from the book. However, I’ve left this in as an example of how a change in context can affect the way readers experience humor. For many of us, this excerpt is now less funny. For others, it may be more funny. In almost every case, it marks the material as being a bit dated, because humor depends heavily on the first association that springs to mind. It’s safe to say that the first association most people have with this name has changed.

Against Football
Steve Almond

*In this excerpt, the author is describing his favorite team, the Oakland Raiders
For those who are not familiar with the Raiders, they are the epitome of the term once proud, a franchise incapable of accepting that its best years are past. I think of them as the NFL’s version of a wildly popular child actor who starred in a couple of minor hits in the eighties and has now grown into an ugly, entitled, coke-addicted adult who struts around D-list parties in mirrored sunglasses and parachute pants reeking of Polo cologne and insulting women who decline his invitation to head back to his pad to check out his python. There is a chance I have given this analogy too much thought.

Want more examples of great humor writing? They’ll be added on an ongoing basis here.

Noteworthy responses from in-class discussions

Strong imagery adds to humor.

Strong imagery, like Dave Barry’s “setting fire to a goat,” lead to funny lines. If readers can form a mental picture, they’re more likely to laugh. 

Specific details are better than generalities.

Mindy Kaling doesn’t say she likes desert. She says she likes “frozen yogurt.”

Dave Barry doesn’t say things are funnier after drinking. He says they’re funnier after someone has had, “between four and seven beers.”

Unexpected opposites or contrasts add to humor.

These opposites can come in many forms. Some sentences that start out over the top and then get suddenly quiet. Some sentences that start out sweet and turn suddenly not-so-sweet.

Dave Barry quotes readers asking very reasonable questions that suddenly turn insulting.

Aisha Tyler juxtaposes ideas that seem not to go together, like “making love to embarrassment.”

Making fun of yourself is funny. Making fun of someone more powerful is funny. Making fun of someone less powerful is bullying, and most audiences don’t find it funny.

There are exceptions to this rule. Still, for the most part this holds true, and it’s a good character lesson we can learn from comedy.

Humor depends on voice. Voice depends on rhythm. And rhythm? Well, that depends on sentence structure.

The most common answers during this discussion often contain phrases such as, “I hear the voice,” “You can imagine the voice out loud,” and, “Conversational tone.” As someone with the soul of a high school English teacher, I can never resist pointing out that one thing that gives writers their unique voice is their sentence rhythm. Commas, periods, and sentence fragments for example. And question marks? Those too. A mix of short, long, and sometimes very long sentences can influence the rhythm of writing in a way that holds readers’ attention and makes them feel like they can hear the voice in their heads. The takeaway? Rhythm is an important of writing. And punctuation is an important part of rhythm.

This Week’s Ongoing Assignment: Tune Your Mental Radio to the Humor Nerd Station

Take some time this week to revisit things you have found funny in the past. Reread a book passage or article that made you laugh. Think about how these might relate to the three theories of humor that you learned about.

In the next lesson, we’ll discuss three popular theories of humor.

See you next week!

If you’re a teacher who would like to teach humor writing to your students, you can find my classroom-friendly humor writing unit on TeachersPayTeachers here.

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