For writers: 5 ways to be funny

Stripped Hyena

If you play your cards right, you’ll have them laughing like hyenas!

It’s been a week and a half since Purim, so I’ve gotten lots of feedback about this year’s Klempner family Purim Spiel. My husband and sister (fellow contributors) agreed with me that this year’s was less funny than last year’s, but we seem to be in a minority. As I mentioned last year, since I began writing professionally, my little hobby now feels like work, and I avoided cranking out a complete rough draft until the week before Purim.

And then, I deleted several stories at almost the last minute. They just weren’t funny enough. So, I prayed–yes, that’s what this professional writer with a Master’s Degree and a generally pragmatic outlook on life did–I prayed for new ideas. And G-d sent some!

Besides relying on Heavenly Intervention, there are other ways to be funny. Without further ado:

5 Ways To Be Funny

  1. Read funny things. Hang out with funny people. As I mentioned in a previous post, I highly recommend reading Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. You can also read Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Mac Barnett, Beverly Cleary, Erma Bombeck, Bill Cosby, and picture books by Jon Klassen and comics by Gary Larsen. All very funny, in different ways. Or just peruse these quotes by Steven Wright. Part of the trick is not just listening/reading these people, but actually thinking about why they are funny. Which leads me to the next thing…
  2. Which kind of funny is your kind of funny? If you are writing, it’s important to establish your Voice, the distinctive mark you leave as an author. The humor in your work is a component of that Voice. For example, when people read something I write, they know that the humor will not be mean-spirited or contain profanity. But there might be puns. And the humor might be dark. While I still had kids in diapers, I had a pretty high tolerance for potty humor, too, but it’s now on the decline.
  3. Sometimes things are funny because they are so unexpected. Like when the little fish straight-up confesses that he stole the hat in This Is Not My Hat. In real life, the culprit usually hides his guilt. Many Monty Python skits are funny for the same reason–the comedians take the last thing you expect to happen in any particular situation and incorporate it into the song/skit. In our Purim Spiel, one of the things that the readers thought was funniest was a column by a “Home Organizer” who, instead of handing out advice to create calm and clarity during Passover cleaning, handed out advice about freaking out and arguing at this time of year. Sometimes, the decent into the unexpected is more gradual, in Extra Yarn, the young heroine starts off by knitting a sweater for herself, then her dog. She progresses until she is knitting covers for houses and trees. Practice: Take a story you have written. Now rewrite it, incorporating an entirely unexpected element.
  4. Sometimes things are funny because we know something the narrator/characters do not know, such as when we see that the big fish knows exactly who has stolen the hat in the aforementioned book, even though the little fish tells us he’ll never get caught. This is called dramatic irony. This is particularly effective in theater and in picture books, or in cartoons.
  5. Sometimes, things are funny because they are elicited by the literal meaning of an idiomatic expression, or a double entendre. Like this Steven Wright joke:  If one synchronised swimmer drowns, do all the rest have to drown too?

Any other strategies you’d like to share? Add them in the comments?

8 thoughts on “For writers: 5 ways to be funny

  1. To #1: I suggest Calvin & Hobbes. Tried and true. And there’s insight along the way. (full disclosure: I credit Calvin with getting me into college–he was my answer to “If you could be a cartoon character…?”)

    #3: Have to mention one of our funniest memories: walking along the National Mall, we came upon a certain utensil in our path. We were stymied by laughter and at a veritable fork in the road. (I feel like “Notice” falls somewhere between this and #4).

    It’s interesting, just this exercise of classifying funny memories has been really helpful in understanding funny. This might be of use to others as well!


    • Calvin & Hobbes! Yes!

      I’m thinking about the fork in the road.

      Maybe that’s another class of humor–something unexpected because it’s situationally-inappropriate. It’s like subgroup of #3. With the fork in the road, something that’s supposed to be in the linguistic realm appeared in the concrete world. Or, like when someone says that thing everyone is thinking, but no one else wants to say, breaking some taboo of politeness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s