Monday, October 3, 2016

Writing Funny on Purpose by Jim Hill

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” – E.B. White 

Writing funny takes a knack, but like any craft, there are techniques you can learn to let your silly out. The trick is, well there are a lot of tricks, but maybe the most important one is listening. Listening to what makes you laugh, and how that might be a bit different than the gut-buster your friends and family love.

What I'm saying is, humor is subjective with a side order of formulaic and a twist of the absurd. Like the infamous line about obscenity, "I know it when I see it."

[No. - Jim]

Maybe funny is a mindset. A way of looking at and responding to the world that is intentionally off-kilter. If writing reflects the real world–art imitates life–then writing funny on purpose breaks the rules of physics. The angle of incidence does not equal the angle of reflection. The degree to which you alter that formula defines the humor, taking it from the subtlest satire to the broadest slapstick. The world recorded by way of a funhouse mirror.

Back to listening. And by listening, I mean reading (but also I mean listening). Learning to be funny means exposing yourself to the funny. Fortunately, we live in a golden age of exposing yourself. [JIM! - Ed.] With content-on-demand finding comedy has never been easier. Better still, the spectrum of comedic voices is much broader than it was back in your grandparent's day when Uncle Milty was "the man" on that one TV channel. Which means you can find the things that make you laugh and learn from them, the same way you discover how to be a Newbery Award winner by reading your Kate DiCamillo collection into dog-eared, high-lighted, broken-spine relics of devotion. Or is that just me?

I'll get you started with a few of my favorites.

Finally, The Funny Links

The Comic Toolbox – Although it fulfills its promise to provide the rules and structure of comedy, this book also sneaks in quite a bit about writing in general. Vorhaus' light tone and banter walk the reader through a progression of comic tools to instruct on the techniques and provide the vocabulary of critique and analysis.

What Are You Laughing At? – If you've ever wondered if comedy can be scientifically analyzed, this is the book for you. Dan O'Shannon breaks down the ha-has of humor the same way Nate Silver attacks polling data. It's a deep study, but well worth the time. Perfect for the Ravenclaw that wants a little more Hufflepuff in their writing.

(Not So) Rando Resources That I Found

Now that you're a comedy expert, in the same way that you're an architect because you built that LEGO Fallingwater with your nephew, it's time to hear from the professionals.

Poking a Dead Frog – In this book, Mike Sacks interviews a wide array of comedy writers. There's a lot of background on breaking into TV or film, but there's also kernels of humor truisms and nuggets of hilarity. Most of the interviews are short, perfect for my attention span, so this book makes an excellent bathroom reader. [Jim, I'm scheduling a meeting for you with HR. - Ed.]

Funny Business – Subtitled "conversations with writers of comedy," Leonard Marcus pitches this collection at younger readers and includes many favorites of the middle-grade set. Beverly Cleary, Norton Juster, Daniel Pinkwater, and Jon Scieszka, to list a few.

By Ken Levine – Ken Levine wrote episodes of MASH and Cheers. That ought to be enough of a comedy pedigree to get your attention. His blog features a lot of behind-the-scenes craft-based stories about what goes into writing sitcoms, and that stuff translates into middle-grade humor very easily. Worth checking for his Friday Questions, if nothing else.

The Writers Panel – This podcast isn't always focused on comedy, but there are almost always great insights into serving an audience well-crafted stories. And even when something isn't a straight-up comedy there's often humor in the mix. Ben Blacker and the panelists dig deep. Have a notebook handy.

WTF with Marc Maron – NSFW, but if you can get beyond that issue, Maron's interviews with comedians both contemporary and legendary are fantastic. Almost never craft focused, but if you're wondering about how to be funny, getting a look into the mind of funny people might help.

Congratulations, You Are Now Hilarious

So that's it. Go forth and be funny.

[Really? That's it? - Ed.]
[Fine. - Jim]

What's Made You Laugh Lately?

Wait! Before you go, tell me the last book you read that made you laugh out loud. For me, it was Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. Okay, your turn.

It's Cat Video Time!

Play me off, Keyboard Cat!

[Thank you! - Ed.]
[You're welcome. - Jim]


  1. Great post, Jim. I appreciate the number of resources you've provided for those of us who may not "feel the funny" as naturally as others. :)

  2. You are one funny dude. (But who the heck's Ed? My name is Mike.)

  3. Thanks, Jim--I'll pick up a copy of Dan O'Shannon's book. Other resources: Mel Helitzer's book, Comedy Writing Secrets, is pretty good, and Mitch Earleywine's Comedy 101 is a readable introduction to some humor theory (with a more academic bent.) John Kachuba's How to Write Funny has a lot of good chapters, and seems much more useful to comedy writers than Mike Sacks' book.

  4. I've never been accused of being funny -- just silly or corny -- so to hear my editor call my February 2017 book funny has been a thrill! Don't think I could do it again. It was the character, not me. :)

  5. Thanks for the great humor resources Jim! I miss reading Captain Underpants with my son now that he's grown out of it (but I havent!). That is total laugh-out-loud fun to me. Actually, the funniest things I hear are from my 13 year old son and I try to write down as many conversations as I can to use in future stories. :)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!