by Jim Foreman
WRITING TOPICAL AND POLITICAL HUMOR
The is a wide open and fertile field which the humor writer can plow year after year. With news breaking every day, there is always a fresh supply of situations to excite the imagination. In addition, every two years or so, there are people all the way from politicians running for national office down to local candidates running for offices as mundane as dog catchers who need humorous barbs to fling at their opponents.
Writing humor for politicians to use in speeches involves a strange combination of fact and fiction. It must be true enough to keep the politician from getting sued, shot or defeated at the polls while funny enough to keep the interest of his listeners. There is nothing like a good joke to get the audience on the side of some politician who is about to tell them how great he is and how crooked or inept his opponent might be.
In just about every newspaper, there is usually a weekly sheet devoted to nothing but editorals and columns about items in the news. If your local newspapers uses stringers, this page offers a golden opportunity to the freelance writer who is willing and able to come up with eight to ten column inches of readable print on a regular schedule about the various topics of the day. They pay by the column inch for these articles. I wrote one of these weekly columns for several years and called it, "According to what I read in the papers".
Since the news is seldom about the same thing each week, the writer has little reason to go cold on his subject. The worst problem is the fact that it is awfully hard to come up with something funny about the usual headlines such as drug raids, murders and auto accidents. While the front page has little to offer, there are usually items to be found on inside pages which offer great possibilities.
I was digging through the local paper for ideas for my column when I noticed three totally unconnected stories. One was about the fight which was going on in the state legislature between politicians over who would be getting the biggest share of the budget pork barrel money in the upcoming vote. Another story was about the terrible condition of most of the state highways and the lack of money with which to fix them. The final story concerned a survey which indicated that 34% of the people in the state could not read and write above a fifth grade level.
I began my weekly column with this sentence, "According to what I read in the papers, it makes me think we are living in Mexico. We both have greedy politicians, terrible roads and a third of the people can't read and write English." I concluded the column with a stock story about a man who was running against the incumbent for the office of County Commissioner. He was making a speech to a group of farmers and stressing the fact that one of the first things that his opponent had done after taking office was to have the road to his place paved at county expense. One of the people in the audience spoke up, "Then I'd suggest that we keep that guy in office because he already has his road."
There are times when there is absolutely nothing in the papers which would be funny to write about. When those times come along, or else I need to fill some space, I resort to writing one of my "Uncle George" stories. I actually had an Uncle George who, during his lifetime, provided me with many worthwhile and basically true anecdotes. He has also served as the vehicle for writing many stock stories. A stock story is one which could be about almost anyone but is always a lot funnier if it can be told as if it had happened to a specific person. Any humor writer who doesn't have a library of such stories is cheating himself out of a lot of great material.
I don't know why, but people who would run for an office as silly as County Commissioner have always tickled my funny bone. I don't know if it effects everyone else in this way, but there is just something naturally funny about people running for that particular office. Perhaps it is because that while the office pays little or nothing, there will usually be a dozen or more people running for it. The very fact that there will be no salary paid to holders of this office is probably the reason why few professional politicians ever file to run. Most of the candidates for the county commission are just plain people who see the office as a way to serve their community or else a place from which they can correct a perceived wrong. Then there are the malcontents who are looking for a soapbox to mount and occasionally, someone who is just plain nuts. Being non- politicians, they often provide unsuspected gems of both wisdom and humor. This is one of my favorite stories about a candidate for county commissioner.
A man came up to a farmer, introduced himself and said that he was campaigning for a man by the name of Joe Jones, who was running for county commissioner.
"Is that the same Joe Jones who used to run the drawbridge down on the river?" asked the farmer.
"Why yes," replied the man. "Mr. Jones did such a great job running the drawbridge all those years that we just know that he will make a fine county commissioner."
"Since he's that Joe Jones, then there is no way that I'd vote for him. He killed my prize bull," replied the farmer.
The man was so shocked to hear such a statement that he asked, "How on earth did Mr. Jones kill your prize bull?"
"Well, it happened like this. One day my prize bull became constipated, so I called up the Vet to see what to do. The Vet told me to give the bull a hot, soapy water enema. Well, I got this bucket of hot, soapy water all mixed up and started looking for a funnel but all that I could find was an old Boy Scout bugle. When I got the bugle in place and started pouring in the water, it must have been too hot because the bull busted out of the corral and started running down the road toward the river, going Toot, Toot, Toot. Old Joe Jones heard him a'comin' and thought he was a steam boat, so he raised the drawbridge. My prize bull went right into the river and drowned. Now, anyone who ain't got sense enough to know the difference between a steamboat whistle and a bull with a Boy Scout bugle in his butt doesn't deserve to be a county commissioner."
There is no set amount of money which newspapers will pay for weekly columns such as these, but it usually ranges somewhere between three and five dollars an inch, depending on circulation and the number of people who respond to it. While twenty-five to fifty dollars sounds a bit on the low side for original humor, you have to consider that once you have a track record established, there is always the possibility that your column will be picked up by one of the syndicates and sold nationwide. If this happens, the income from each column can become rather significant.
Along with the columns on the editorial page, there is usually a topical cartoon or two. These cartoons are usually drawn by some local artists and they will often use other people's gags. These cartoonists can usually be contacted through the newspaper which uses their work. Writing gags for topical cartoons is much the same as writing them for any other cartoonist except that you will have the situation already in hand and need only to come up with a humorous twist to it. Most cartoons on the editorial page are either satirical or political in nature.