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Writing Humor: The Trick of Being Funny

by The Editor Company   


It is not hard to write humorous matter. All you have to do is to procure a pen, some paper and ink, and then sit down and write the funny thoughts as they occur to you. It is not the writing, but the occurring, that is hard.

Like all forms of writing, however, the jest is susceptible to principles and analysis. He, who goes at joke-making blindly, will succeed once and fail a hundred times; he, who studies in advance the various types of humor, and the underlying rules, will find that, after all, being funny is not such a serious and "regretful" business.

First, let us study the joke pure and simple—the two- or three-line quip of repartee with a climax.

The easiest and most common form of joke-making depends upon the pun. Unfortunately, however, it is also the lowest type of humor and for that reason perhaps the most difficult to sell. Broadly speaking, the class subdivides into:

1.  The pure pun. In this the play of fun is simply upon the fact that two words pronounced alike have different meanings. To be salable, the pun joke must be perfect and original. All humorous publications dabble in it, apparently for lack of better material. Horrible example: check—payment for accepted manuscript; also a stop upon ambition. Salable example :

His death, which happened in his berth,

At forty-odd befell; They went and told the sexton,

And the sexton tolled the bell.

2.  The idiomatic or commonplace phrase translated literally. This ranges from slang to technical terms, through a great pasture of everyday expressions. The phrases usually lend themselves readily to illustrations; the humorist who can both

write and sketch has a double opportunity; the writer alone, however, can sell his idea, suggesting the drawing if it proves necessary to an explanation of the point. Well-known quotations are frequently illustrated in a manner that must make their sponsors writhe. Horrible, but sold, examples: "Maintaining his honor"—picture of a man supporting an intoxicated judge. "Dropped her eyes," "swept the room with her eyes," "played upon her feelings," etc.

3. The partially heard or partially misunderstood similarity. This is the pun in far-fetched, imperfect, debauched condition. It is employed gleefully and often successfully with:

(a) Children, who attempt to repeat sermons, conversations, stories they have heard or read, and who through lack of mature understanding make ludicrous errors.

(b)   Ignorant or illiterate characters, who do the same.

(c)   Characters who in using dialect make puns by adding or subtracting letters or by twisting or mutilating a word.

(d)   Deaf persons, who repeat, with slight variations, the word or words they do not quite hear.

(e)   Flippant characters, who parry and thrust with strained puns.

The recipes are so simple that examples—at best, generally distressing—are left to the reader's imagination and careless wandering among the comics. The thing to observe is that there must be some point, some element of fun, some ludicrous misapplication, other than simply the meaningless pun of itself.

A form of jest that is always salable when well done is the epigram—both the original and the paraphrase. The former is generally in the nature of satire or irony; the latter depends upon a substituted word, completely changing the meaning, or a pun. This pun may be a little far-fetched, possibly simply suggesting the original word; as, "The pun is mightier than the sword," or, "Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder." Occasionally the shifting of a mark of punctuation in a well-known epigram will mean the making and the selling of an original idea. Shakespeare's:  There is a destiny that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will,  
becomes entirely new with the comma at the end of the first line shifted to take the place of the hyphen in the compound word.

The idea of exaggeration or hyperbole is a close second in editorial demand. This necessitates the sober or "dry humor" style. A newspaper gravely asserts : "There are 8,000,000 telephone girls in the world. The duties of 6,788,943 consist in telling you the line is busy." This bit of exaggeration illustrates admirably two or three points. First, it was presumably evolved as the result of a study of figures, of statistics. For the maker of mirth there is no more productive field, paradox though it may seem, than the records, reports and estimates in the daily papers and elsewhere, replete with figures and facts generally considered too dry and too prosy to read. Second, there is a very large element of appeal in the apparent desire not to exaggerate, as illustrated by the figures, 6,788,943, rather than 7,999,999. Third, the subject is what is termed a "popular appeal" one; it interests by its subject matter every person who has used a telephone and heard "central" give her excuse.

Closely allied to this form of fun is the childish retort that is calculated to produce horror on the part of the second person, due to a combination of exaggeration of truth and the bare possibility that it is not all exaggeration. The well-known picture, "Nobody Loves Me," is a good example, with its added lines of the plaintive youngster, "I'm going out into the garden and eat worms. Yesterday I ate two smooth ones and a woolly one." The stealing of jam or fruit by the small boy is the nucleus of much humor of this particular brand. For example, a mother finds cherry stones on the floor of the pantry and accuses her son. "It wasn't me, mother," declares the boy, and then adds— note also the humor of the denial-confession, "'cause I swallowed all the stones of mine!"

The exaggeration type of joke depending upon the characteristics of the nationality of the speakers is a dangerous but often salable product. The Hebrew must be mercenary; the Irish must be pugnacious ; the German must be placidly dull; the French must be excitable—and in the feminine risque, the Italian must sell peanuts and grind the handorgan. Any quip emphasizing these characteristics in a humorous way is a possibility. A step further are the professions and occupations— the policeman who grafts, the lawyer who lies, the poet who lives in a garret, the office boy who smokes cigarettes and reads dime novels and offers his grandmother's death as an excuse to go to the ball game—and so through every trade and business! These are stock figures with ruts for the jests to follow.

There is still another broad field for the writer and illustrator in the humorous supplement of the Sunday papers. The man who can create funny characters and situations, and illustrate his ideas in a way that compels a laugh is always in demand. A single study of the Sunday papers of any city will show the style.

Nor do these few examples, chosen at haphazard, in any way complete the study. There is the paradox, the condensed-sentence joke, the humorous verse, the humorous short story, the monologue, the re-dressing of humor of ancient birth in clothes of modern tailoring, the typical "he and she" dialogue, the schoolboy essay, the trade-paper technical quip, the nonsense verse, the humorous almanac or calendar, the pure burlesque, the reason-and-result jingle or prose paragraph—lighting the fire with kerosene and getting a new stove and helper, the fastening of new and old anecdotes upon a well-known public man, sly thrusts in editorial form at public men, editorial briefs with a tinge of humor, the playing up of straight news accounts into humorous stories for the papers, the topical poem, the humorous song—why, the list of possibilities would reach from here to the fag-end of Editorland.

The foregoing examples are for the most part modern. Jocular literature may be traced far into the past, however, by one who delves into the subject. The riddle and apologue or tale are perhaps the most ancient; in the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed, the former is to be found, although its comic development is of later origin. The latter is a product of Oriental countries, come down and west to us in old tales like the fables of Aesop, Reynard the Fox, etc. The epigram was originally purely satirical; later modifications have tended to give it a burlesque quality. The quibble and repartee antedate Shakespeare, although we are told that the age immediately succeeding saw the uprise of the quip and crank, the retort courteous, "conceits, clinches, flashes, and whimzies," and all the rest of the merry, motley company. The anecdote depends too much upon the complications of social life of modern times to be traceable.

Once studied, traced, constructed and worked into good shape, the jest must be sold. The market for any good humor, of ancient or modern vintage, must be carefully studied. Beside the best known humorous weeklies, many magazines have humorous departments. They must be studied carefully, however, before manuscripts are submitted. One literary monthly has a leaning for childish sayings. Others are particularly anxious for the smart and chic. Another uses only anecdotes.

Go a step further and catalogue the magazines that use humorous verse. Add to these the journals that use miscellaneous humor. Note the daily papers that use jokes. Study the many household magazines that have humorous pages. Read the trade journals for possible hints. The market is vastly greater than it seems at first glance. But it is specialized narrowly, and the writer who submits before he looks will be a nuisance by the time he comes to realize the specific needs.

In conclusion must be given a few indispensable "don'ts."

1.  Don't try to be funny if the Lord didn't make you that way.

2.  Don't try to write humor if your brain refuses you ideas. Don't think you can borrow or rethresh and get along without originality; that is the creed of the fool, not the fooler.

3.  Don't think a joke, a verse, or a paragraph is complete until you have extracted every ounce of its jocular appeal. A mere flat pun may fail where a pun plus exaggeration or character burlesque may be eagerly accepted.

4.  Don't be afraid to study humor for suggestions. Humor begets humor. The man who does not read the humor in the magazines never learns to write it.

5.  Don't be vulgar, and don't deal in slap-stick fun. Delicacy of subject matter and appeal count much.

6.  Don't send out your work promiscuously and without reason. First, assure yourself that it reaches the particular market for which it is best adapted.

1. Don't be over-discouraged if your friend fails to see the point, and don't be unduly encouraged if your friend tells you that you are a second Mark Twain. Get honest opinions upon your work, and bear in mind that humor is funny or sad largely in the ratio of the ability of a reader to appreciate.

8.  Don't waste time nor offend with too broad jests upon religion, upon questionable morals, upon defamation of character or nationality.

9.  Don't waste a good situation in a two-line joke if you can make it the basis or nucleus of a short story.

10.  Don't argue with an editor, a friend, or a critic, if he says your work is not original. There is one new idea for every hundred or so authors. Be first or not at all; be willing to drop out if told you are second.

The whole purpose of this article may be summed up in a "don't." Don't try to write humor until you know what and

how others have written, the kind you can do best, and the individual way in which you should follow the general principles and laws of origin, selection and presentation.

It may not be unwise to add that the foregoing comment is intended to be taken seriously.