Writing Funny

Apparently, I write funny. When accused of this, I take “funny” to mean “ha-ha,” though it is possible that the speaker is referring to the fact that my handwritten “I”s are crowned with little hearts or that I WRITE IN COLD EMOTIONLESS CAPITAL LETTERS but that’s another blog post entirely.

Anyway, my most successful stories have been humor, and many high-level short story markets specifically note that they don’t receive enough humor. (This does not mean they don’t get enough submissions that try to be humorous, just that they don’t get enough that actually succeed.) So in this blog post I thought I’d share my years of wisdom with y’all about how to write funny.

  • First, practice drawing little hearts above your “i”s … aha! Got you! That was funny because you were expecting me to start off with some point about writing funny “ha-ha” and instead I gave you a point about writing “funny!” The utter unfunny-ness of the prior notwithstanding, the point I’m trying to illustrate is that humor (like horror) comes from carefully building up a specific expectation in the reader and then swiftly and utterly subverting it. This subversion of expectation triggers a feeling of delight and wonder in the reader, much like one experiences after playing 3-card monte on a seedy street corner in New Jersey and NOT getting mugged in an alley behind the Little Caesar’s afterward. Research indicates that the human laugh response was developed as a way of communicating to one’s primate homies that a situation that could have resulted in serious harm or danger (e.g., slipping on a banana peel) has been resolved without injury (except to the bum of the slippee) and so said homies are safe to lower their guard and relax. Isn’t that interesting? I am not even making that up.
  • Inappropriate emotional responses are totally funny. (This is kind of a corollary to the first point, but you’re living in a fool’s paradise if you think I’m going to start getting all taxonomical and shit. P.S. Profanity is comedy GOLD!) Whether it’s an overly-exaggerated response (think of Ignatius J. Reilly’s hilariously inappropriate attitude toward Myrna Minkoff in “A Confederacy of Dunces“) or a wryly understated response (think of Jeeves’ dry retorts to Wooster’s exuberant outbursts), interactions that are “off” emotionally will generally be taken as humorous or indicative of some kind of serious mental defect in the character. So tread with care.
  • Much of humor is in the choice of words. Words are hilarious. George Carlin did whole *acts* on nothing more than words and word choices. Slang and colloquialisms are a great place to look for humor. There’s nothing funnier than a 41-year old housewife saying “fo’ shizzle.” Ask my 11-year old daughter if you don’t believe me. Also, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no honor in humor. If other peoples’ words have gotten big laffs, then you should consider it your right and privilege to steal the funny right out of them whenever the opportunity arises. WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS? you ask, outraged. If your audience knows what you’re referring to, you have successfully picked the pocket of cool and you can now go buy yourself a hot dog. You’ve shared an inside joke and made your audience feel “with-it” (see “Ironic quotes around conscious anachronism,” e.g., T. Herman Zwiebel … MY GOD, IT’S TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN!) Warning: if they don’t get your reference, they will look at you like you’ve been raping muskrats.
  • Also, the arrangement. Sentence fragments are gut busters. As is overdescription for effect (e.g., instead of referring to “3-card monte” you refer to “3-card monte in New Jersey behind a Little Caesar’s.” Why is it funnier that way? Because New Jersey is ALWAYS funny, and so is Little Caesar’s. However, their pepperoni pizza is great when you’ve got a mighty hunger and just $5 in your wallet.) (See “Non-sequiturs”).
  • Puns are the humor equivalent of muskrat-raping. Shaggy dog stories are the devil’s hemorrhoids.  Feghoots are like farting loudly, and on purpose, at your mother’s funeral while bending over her open coffin. My favorite author from age ten to thirteen was a famous author we shall call Iers Panthony in the interests of anonymity (and because I don’t want to show up in his inbox in the form of a Google Alert, which might cause him to send a cadre of muskrat-raping thugs after me.)  Re-reading certain works by this famous author today, I have a hard time telling what bothers me the most: his casual pedophilia, hyper-creepy sex scenes, or his incessant use of puns. Of course, he’s made himself a nice little career mixing those unholy ingredients in varying proportions, but I encourage the reader to think of him as an anomaly. Do not think you can build a career like Iers Panthony’s in today’s post-Seinfeld world!
  • Pie. And Muskrat Raping. This is only my second “Magic District” post, but I swear to you now … I will mention “pie” in every one of my blog posts. One, because it’s fun to click that clicky box. Two, because it’s a complete non-sequitur and non-sequiturs are quite funny IN MODERATION. Overdone, they’re worse than puns. Finally, repetition is funny, and gets funnier the more times you do it, until you’ve done it too much and then it’s just horribly, horribly lame. Why do you think South Park stopped killing Kenny after Season 3? One, because it was harshing their buzz to come up with new ways to kill Kenny every week and Two, BECAUSE IT WASN’T FUNNY ANYMORE. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine if it was ever really all that funny in Seasons 1-3.

That’s about all I have time for today. What do you think, readers? What are some rules for funny you’ve noticed? The first person to say “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog—few people are interested and the frog dies of it” gets a cadre of muskrat-raping thugs sent after them because that shit is just. not. funny. Fo’ shizzle.

33 Responses to “Writing Funny”

  1. January 28, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    This is fabulous. Thank you so much!

  2. January 28, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    One of my best friends uses puns constantly and it drives me crazy. He keeps quoting that “pun usage is a sign of high intelligence.” But I don’t care. It’s a sign of something other than high intelligence, too. Thanks!

  3. 3 mkhobson
    January 28, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks Corinne! And VV, I feel your pain. (I was so going to try to make a pun there, but one reason I hate them is that I can’t make them.)

  4. January 29, 2010 at 6:59 am


    I take strong exception to your contention that “New Jersey is always funny.”

    Anyone from New Jersey knows that the laugh quotient of New Jersey is entirely dependent upon the exit.

    Thank you for your time and consideration in this manner.

  5. 5 Chris Furst
    January 29, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Hurrah for these two bits of wonderful: “picked the pocket of cool” and “muskrat-raping thugs.”

  6. 6 mkhobson
    January 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Steve: Sir, I have in hand your letter from the 29th instant. While I will grant that some Turnpike exits are funnier than others, they are *all* funnier than, say, Ohio (the roundness on both ends and highness in the middle not withstanding.) You will please recall your protesters from my lawn, and if you are a gentleman, you will replace my trampled daffodils at your EARLIEST CONVENIENCE.

  7. 7 mkhobson
    January 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Chris: I don’t know what reality you’re living in, but I can tell you from experience there’s nothing wonderful about muskrat-raping thugs.

  8. 8 Chris Furst
    January 29, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    MK: I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that this morning I was in a store where they were playing “Muskrat Love” — the Captain and Tenille version — not even muzak.

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