How to Write Humor
by Jim Foreman



So you'd like to write humor. You were the class clown and could break up everyone in the room except the teacher with a well-placed remark. You like to tell jokes and be the life of a party. You think that it would be great fun to share your particular sense of humor with other people and the best way to do that is by putting it into written form. Once that you have done that, the only thing better would be to see it published, unless it would be to get paid for it. Well, I have some good news and some bad news for you.

The good news is that the editors of just about every magazine, from the Baptist Standard to Cattlemen's Gazette, state that they are always looking for good humor pieces for their publications. More than half of the listings in the Writers Market indicate that humor is one of the areas in which the editor would like to receive material. Even though Readers Digest receives around 15,000 separate submissions each month for their various humor columns, they are still looking for just the right story or quip. Needless to say, they are a very tough market to crack and one would probably find other fields much more fertile.

Some magazines editors want humor so badly that they are willing to pay more for it than for most any other type of article because they know that their readers always respond favorably to it. Humor in a magazine breaks up the tiresome monotony of article after article about the same subject. There are even a few magazines like Mad, Punch and Humor which have built their entire circulation on humor. Unfortunately for the freelancer, most of these publications have their own stable of writers and won't even consider outside submissions. It's claimed, probably with some foundation, that if someone sends something which is really good to the editor of one of these magazines, they are likely to hand the idea off to one of their staff writers to be re-written under his name.

When most people pick up a magazine, the first thing that they do is thumb through and read the cartoons, then turn immediately to the index to see if there are any humorous articles. Even though the basic content of most of these magazines may be rather specialized, they will often use general interest humor. If it wasn't for the cartoons and an occasional funny story, I'm sure that many of today's magazines wouldn't be around very long.

While attending a writing seminar recently, I asked a senior editor for one of the largest paperback publishing houses, "When you get back to your office Monday morning, what kind of manuscript would you like to find on your desk. What would really make your day?"

He answered, "I see so much pure crap come across my desk every day that a good, funny book that I could publish would not only make my day, it would make my month."

Many humorous books seem to be ageless and go through printing after printing. While they never seem to hit the best seller lists, they still enjoy a constant readership and keep popping up on bookstore shelves year after year.

So, if humor is so much in demand and the market for it wide open, then why isn't there more of it being written? This is where we come to the bad news part.

First of all, while most people who remember the old Dick Van Dyke show think that humor is usually written by a bunch of people sitting around, having lots of yucks and tossing off one funny line after another, they are in for a surprise. Writing humor is as serious and demanding as writing technical material, and in many cases, even more difficult. In technical writing, one must research the facts, get them in proper order and put them down on paper in a readable manner. On the other hand, while writing humor tends to be more of an art form, it still must be set to a pattern which is just as precise as writing an article about calculating and evaluating the structural efficiency of a Warren Truss.

A cartoonist, to whom I occasionally sell a few gags, once said that there is no such thing as new or fresh humor. Anything which is worth telling has been told hundreds of times before and all that one has to do in order to sell anything in today's market, is to come up with a new twist to an old gag. This is basically true because I've seen the same gag applied to cartoons which span a hundred or more years. It's like the old joke, "Why did they have to close the zoo in Warsaw?" The punchline is, "Their clam died." That joke dates back at least 1500 years to when it was the hottest thing going around the Roman Empire, only then it was, "Why did the Visgoths have to close their zoo." The punchline was still the same, "Their clam died." This joke probably goes back a lot further than that, but who knows.

Most humor doesn't travel well. By that statement, I mean that something which is terribly funny in one place might fall flat in another. Something which is funny in a bar, more than likely, wouldn't be funny in a church. By the same token, church jokes are seldom ever funny anywhere except when delivered from a pulpit to a captive audience. Perhaps the reaction to a joke lies in what the audience is full of. A joke's difficulty in traveling is especially true when it comes to crossing national boundaries, even if they happen to speak the same language. What is funny in England, Australia or even Canada often isn't funny here and vice-versa. If it has to be translated to a different language, forget it!

About the only jokes which seem to survive crossing borders are the ethnic or cultural variety. The only thing which changes in the joke is the group about which it is being told. A joke about Texas Aggies becomes a Polish joke in Chicago, a Noofie joke in French-speaking parts of Canada and a Gringo joke in Mexico. The only problem is that while everyone seems to tell ethnic jokes, they are almost impossible to sell. I think that many of them smack too closely to the truth and no one likes to hear the truth about themselves. It has finally come to the point that it is nearly impossible to tell a joke about any particular segment of the population without drawing fire. Several people are sitting around in a bar and one of them says, "Did you hear the story about the two Jews?"

A man down the bar stood up and replied, "Look, I'm Jewish and I don't like jokes about my people."

The first guy said, "I'm sorry, I'll change it. Did you hear the story about the two Irishmen named Cohen and Goldberg?"

About the only people who are still safe to tell jokes about these days are white men between the ages of 40 and 50, who are neither fat, rich nor uneducated.

With all of the people around the country who must be writing and submitting humor to all of those anxious and waiting editors, then why isn't more of it being published. Editors in general are so jaundiced that they would have made great contestants on that old TV show called "Make Me Laugh". For those of you who don't remember that gem of a game show, it involved various guest comedians who would attempt to make contestants laugh by telling them jokes. If the contestant could hold a straight face for a couple minutes, they would win a refrigerator or something. Fortunately for all TV viewers, that show died after only a few weeks.

Editors seem to fall into two categories: either so old and set in their ways that it is difficult to get a rise out of them or else they are so new on the job that they are wondering if they will be able to hang on long enough to get business cards printed. No matter whether they are old or new to the job, they are all well aware of the fact that nasty letters come to the editor while the really vile ones and those from lawyers go straight to the publisher. The last thing that an editor wants to happen is to be called to the office on the top floor about something which they accepted or allowed to be published.

I once asked an editor how he went about deciding whether to accept a humor piece or not. He replied that if he liked it, he'd pass it around to all the other editors to read and if every one of them laughed, he might buy it. If any one of them didn't think that it was funny, it went back with a rejection slip. Then he added, "However, if they all laugh too hard, it scares me and I'll also send it back."

Since most humor is usually slightly offbeat, even after an editor decides that he likes a piece, it is usually sent to the legal department to see if the lawyers can find anything in it that might get them sued. Even though it has passed muster with the editor, there is still a good chance that one of their legal eagles will lay a rejection slip on it. After all, how many funny lawyers have you ever seen.

Another problem in dealing with editors is one which can drive a humor writer right out of his gourd. Editors seem to feel that they are not doing their jobs unless they take a blue pencil to every piece that comes across their desk. It appears that from the way that they attack an article, they think that their readers are all idiots and everything has to be explained to them. No matter how careful a writer may have been to get the cadence and timing just right, some editor will either add or take out a few words here and there, effectively killing the situation which you so carefully created. There is an old saying that if joke has to be explained, then it wasn't funny to begin with. By the same token, something which is really funny and can stand on its own, can be killed by adding a few useless words in the wrong place.

I sold a national magazine an article about television addiction. It was written very tight and needed to be read at a fast pace in order for the humor to flow. In one place, I said, "During the next six minutes, while good old J. R. Ewing swindled a dozen of his best friends, went to bed with five different women and had Sue Ellen committed to a Betty Ford center...." I figured that everyone who had ever seen a TV set was bound to know who J.R. and Sue Ellen were. When the article came out, the editor had stuck in "(Starring characters in the CBS Series, Dallas, which airs on Friday Nights at 8:00 PM in most time zones.)" right in front of the punch line. That broke the reader's train of thought and shot the whole joke down in flames. Remember this when you find the story later in the book to see how it destroyed the line of thought.

I have reprinted excerpts from a number of my published stories in this book, not so much to stroke my ego, but to use them as illustrations for some of the things which I will tell you about writing humor. Read them with a critical eye to see if you can catch some of the little writing tricks which I will pass along in the various chapters. I have no idea whether you will find them funny or not, but at least I was able to convince some editor that they were.

In this book, I will attempt to pass along some basic tricks used in creating humor which I have learned over the years. I will also try to help you decide whether what you have written is marketable or not. You notice that I didn't say whether it was funny or not, just if you could sell it. There's a lot of very funny stuff which will not sell and, unfortunately, there is also a lot of junk published today under the guise of humor, but most of which is totally unfunny.

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