Writing Humor

December 21, 2008
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Writing Humor

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

January 2009

"Not everyone will think the same thing is funny. "
—Shapiro

“Humor is the secret weapon of the non-fiction writer” according to William Zissner in On Writing Well.

But it must be done well, or it becomes a mosquito buzzing around the reader’s ear.

I picked up the phone the other day and my friend, who usually is quite a rip, said, “This is so funny that I just had to tell you about it.” She launched into a story that might have been funny if only she hadn’t told me that it would be. Telegraphing that you’re making a joke is always a spoiler. Ban the practice in your speech and in your writing.

Humor is all around you: in the newspapers, in political campaigns, in the supermarket, the family, the mirror. If you’re writing about someone else, you have to be careful that you are laughing along with people and not at them. Some comics fire off one sarcastic line after another. Maybe it will make the reader laugh, but not for long. Of course, the roast, lambasting someone, a Don Rickles specialty, is a whole separate category. It works if the roast-ee has a sense of humor. If you make someone cry, no matter how funny you’ve been, your audience will resent the material.

Not everyone will think the same thing is funny. I once went to a foreign film where a poor fool was being pelted with rotten fruit. The audience, made up of the same ethnic background as the film was absolutely hysterical while I was outraged. Obviously, to that culture, this fool had some symbolic meaning that it didn’t have to me. So the first thing that good humor writing needs is common ground.

"It’s also possible to switch an adage or a phrase or a truism."
—Shapiro

There also has to be someone a switcheroo, a surprise. For example, when I was a kid, I used to bring my lunch to school in a brown bag. Once I picked up the wrong bag from the refrigerator and when I got to the school lunchroom and opened it, I found I had brought to school a raw chicken, a pullet as my mother called it, a very small hen. Chaos erupted.

“Cluck, cluck, cluck,” a nasty boy at my table jeered, flapping his arms, hopping from one leg to the other.

I grabbed the chicken by its claws and clobbered him on the head with it and was sent to the principal’s office. Mr. Cohen called my mother.

“At least Rochelle hit him with a kosher chicken,” my mother said.

But Mr. Cohen didn’t laugh.

And none of us would have laughed had I only brought my sister’s tuna sandwich in instead of my usual peanut butter and jelly. It has to be something really off, something I never could have eaten for lunch.

It’s also possible to switch an adage or a phrase or a truism. “A squeaky wheel gets the oil” could be switched to “a quacking duck gets the bullet.” You have to use a saying that everyone is familiar with in order to work.

"He stuck the chicken down his pants to hide it. "
—Shapiro

 

 

 

Timing is everything in comedy. One too many jokes, one line too long, and the reader gets soured. The only way to make sure your timing is right is to read it out loud to yourself, then record yourself reading it, and most important, read it to someone who is free to give an honest answer. Avoid reading it to your favorite aunt or even to your spouse.

Exaggeration is a big help in comedy. For example, “When I had a colonoscopy, it wasn’t the camera that hurt as it passed through my intestines, it was the tripod.”

Comedy often has a conversational tone. Here’s a piece I wrote in that vein that plays on the fable.

I was in the diner with two other women, having a salad and telling them the one about the guy who bought a live chicken for dinner to take home and pluck, roast, and eat. On the way home, the guy decided to stop into a movie. He stuck the chicken down his pants to hide it. While watching the movie, the chicken sounded like it was croaking. The guy opened his zipper to give it air. Next to him were two women.

"Mabel, look, the guy next to me just opened his zipper," one said.

The other waved her away. "All men got the same thing. I don't need to look."

"But Mabel, his thing is eating my popcorn."

The two women I told this joke to were hysterical laughing and I ended up joining

them in it. In a blink, a slice of cucumber lodged sideways in my throat. I couldn't get it up and I couldn't get it down. There were tears in my eyes from the pain. My friends clapped me on the back. The waiter brought me tea.

"The tea will dissolve it," the waiter promised.

Four cups later, still in terrible pain, I felt as if I was going to throw up. I raced

into the bathroom, so desperate that I didn't notice it was the Men’s room. There was a guy at the urinal. Caught by surprise, he turned towards me, still spraying.

"Oh!" I said, and the slice of cucumber flew up out of my mouth in an arc.

Moral: Don't chew with your mouth full and never laugh at your own jokes!

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

 

 

 

 

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. In January, her essay, Ess, Ess, will be out in Feed Me, (an anthology by Random House.) She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.

 

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