Ten (Plus) Tips on Humor Writing

file0001122505692I’ve had the pleasure of incorporating humor into several of my books, most notably Grace for the Race: Meditations for Busy Moms and Let the Crow’s Feet and Laugh Lines Come. Funny enough, humor is not easy to write. It was a learning process–one I’m still undergoing.

Humor writers James Watkins and Rhonda Rhea are two of the most genuinely hilarious authors I know. When I asked them for tips, they didn’t disappoint. (They’re also incredibly generous and insightful…and they didn’t even pay me to say that!) So, without further ado, I present their helpful comedic insights.

James’ Watkins’ top ten tips for ending up on welfare having a successful comedy career:

10. Eat cold pizza for breakfast. Wash it down with large quantities of Diet Coke. After three cans, I can type 470 words of side-splitting humor per minute but unfortuwythdly nonr ofit maks anv senze aftcher tke thirddddddd . . .

9. Travel. Some of my best columns have come from three weeks in India (“The Land Without Toilet Paper”) and being stuck in traffic in downtown Chicago, in August with a stick shift with no air-conditioning and two kids in the backseat waging a fight to the death.

8. Get married, have kids. Dave Barry provides positive proof that marriage and raising children is a source for hundreds of columns, thousands of dollars, and even a Pulitzer Prize. However, use discretion! He’s also on his third or fourth marriage and is buying baby diapers with his AARP discount card.

7. Read, read, read. Essential reads include Dave Barry, Erma Bombeck and, of course, my very funny friend, Rhonda Rhea! And every morning NewsMax.com provides transcripts of late night comics.

6. Pass a kidney stone. I keep reminding students at writers conferences, “Nothing terrible happens to authors. [It’s all] just terrific anecdotes.” The old adage is so true: Comedy is tragedy plus time.

5. Tackle a home-improvement project. This is always good for at least two or three columns and one visit to the ER.

4. Look at life from just a few degrees off normal. Successful humorists look at life through their twisted point of view. It doesn’t have to 360 degrees from normal, because that would put you right back at normal. Just a few degrees keeps it plausible yet humorous.

3. Don’t be afraid of people thinking you’re crazy. St. Francis, who is viewed as, well, saintly, said, “I am God’s clown. People look at me and laugh.” Humor is a brutal business, so if you’re thin-skinned, take up a less stressful occupation such as bomb technician, rodeo clown or drug runner.

2. Hang out with people who are even crazier than you. I enjoyed having lunch with a fellow columnist while working as a humor columnist at a local paper. Most of our brainstorms were not “fit for print,” such as low-tech terrorist “Amish bin Laden” who drives around Lancaster county with a buggy armed with kerosene-filled milk cans! However, my friend never ceased to get my brain cells firing on all neurons.

1. Read my book, Writing with Banana Peels. It’s required reading for a humor class I teach at Taylor University and contains principles, practices and pratfalls of writing humor. (And always, whenever you have the chance, shamelessly self-promote your work.)

file000111849428Rhonda says:

I’m going to have to agree with Jim—especially the part where he says to read my stuff. Brilliant. Instead of cold pizza and Diet Coke, however, I don’t know how any writing is ever fueled without coffee. I walk into Starbucks and almost always find my muse sitting in a hip leather chair in the corner. I can get at least three chapters from a couple of shots of espresso. They’re all one sentence with no punctuation, but still.

Exploiting every experience for its comedic value—family, friends, travel, projects—is also great counsel. They say nothing bad ever happens to writers; it’s all just material. Read Jim’s book. More great things to exploit there. Or plagiarize. Whichever.

I suggest keeping a running “funny file,” as well. Anytime something makes you laugh or you come up with something hilariously brilliant, take a little note. Then when you’re ready to start an article or chapter you can peruse your file for a kick-start.

It doesn’t hurt to test-drive a few lines as Facebook statuses, either. See what people like and then…milk those things for all they’re worth. Getting a handle on comedic timing in print is no easy task. Your friends can help you polish. They can also make fun of you, mercilessly. And that’s usually helpful too.

I’m proud to say I taught Jim Watkins everything he knows about being funny. And about the funny sound of the letter “C.” If my children let me name any of my grandchildren, I’m naming one Carl–after Jim.

25 Replies to “Ten (Plus) Tips on Humor Writing”

  1. Wow Dena! This post was full of good stuff, and thankfully, it was funny. (Kinda dead in water without that, huh?) I tend to be funny on the page mostly by accident, or a lot, I say a LOT of work, but agree. Add to a frantic life kids, travel, building projects, all their additives–and the smart person will find ways to make us laugh. thank goodness for that! If you spark a wave of humor writing, Dena, I’ll bless you!!

    1. Brrrrrr!!! I’m glad you left for the day with a smile on your face, Melinda. And I hope you stayed as warm as possible. Those kind of temps are not very funny (at least to me)!

  2. Okay, I laughed out loud. My novels all end up with humor in them. I don’t start out trying to do that, but it happens. So now it’s time to read a few of these books. Thanks for the article. I loved it!

    1. Ane, I’m glad you were encouraged. James and Rhonda are truly two of the funniest people I know. I was thrilled that they spilled (some of) their secrets. 🙂

  3. Love these! They are so true. Especially travel and having kids. One of my favorite anecdotes is when my family thought I’d been abducted from a writers conference in Dallas Texas. I haven’t tried the kidney-stone thing yet, but it’s on my list :o).

    1. Connie, thanks for commenting. And the anecdote you shared–it’s wild! I really hope you don’t have a kidney stone. From what I hear, they’re very painful… 🙂

  4. Great advice and funny stuff, Dena! Making others laugh is why I write, too – it’s my gift to my readers. Life is more fun when you can laugh with/at/in it.

    1. Amen, Jan. As the scriptures say–a merry heart is like medicine. That’s one of the reasons I adore humor, both writing and reading it.

  5. Ohhhh thank you so much for this post! My blog is mainly humorous (hopefully??) but I wonder sometimes – does a good belly laugh really “shine a light” for Jesus? Yes. Yes it does. This post helped me remember that. I was told recently by a darling professor that I was an “Erma Bombeck” for momsies today. That was a HUGE compliment, and a huge scare tactic, b/c then I had to re read all her books. She is the master. 🙂

    1. Yes–Erma IS the master. What a huge compliment! And I’m glad the post encouraged you. Keep shining the light! Belly laughs are so healing.

  6. A timely read today. Have just been reflecting that my funny bone seems to be broken. As I have gotten more serious about writing, I am around people less. Too much hanging out with my computer. Realizing that fun time with people sparks a lot of my rather ridiculous sense of humor. Is it okay to miss myself, when one of the things I like about myself seems to go in hiding? Your article inspires me to fuel the fire. Enjoyed looking up the fun ladies you mentioned and am smiling to see that we have several friends in common. Who knew?:)

    1. Ginger, it’s a small world, isn’t it? 🙂 I’m really grateful that the post inspired you. I do think that we need a laugh-filled time with friends regularly to stoke our creative fires.

  7. I love these tips.

    So glad to see the shout-out to Erma Bombeck … she deserves massive credit for being seriously funny without being snarky.

    If you are an Anglophile, read “Lucky Jim” by Kinglsey Amis. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read (maybe THE funniest, actually). The author’s turn of phrase is brilliant. I read it on a plane years ago and laughed aloud so often that the woman next to me kept looking over, like, “I want some of that!”

  8. Enjoyed the post! As a humor writer I can attest that it’s hard work but turns out to be more memorable than most other forms of writing. Rhonda Rhea is the pun queen of the universe if you haven’t heard – I think Papa God must have had a sly gleam in His eye when He spun her younique set of gifts!

    Besides writing books with offbeat names like Too Blessed to be Stressed, More Beauty, Less Beast: Transforming your Inner Ogre, and Fear, Faith, and a Fistful of Chocolate, I lead a writing conference workshop on perking up your prose with humor. After all, if we humorists can provide one smile, we’ve done our job. I want to hear Jesus say one day, “Deb, you’ve done your job well.”

    1. Debora, thanks for your input. I would love to sit in your workshop one day. I love being able to bring a smile to people’s faces and lighten their load. I do think Jesus had a great sense of humor (and when you read closely, the scriptures even have humor). 🙂

  9. Great article, Dena! Humor IS hard to write, isn’t it! I’ve never met James Watkins, but Rhonda is just as humorous in person! I’m always surprise when I get a laugh, but I love it when it happens! Thanks for gathering the great humor tips to share! I loved this one: “And always, whenever you have the chance, shamelessly self-promote your work.”

    1. Karen, I’m thankful you enjoyed the post. And I liked that tip as well. James is so funny! And you’re right, Rhonda is that way in person, too.

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