Six Ways to Add Humor to Your Writing

June 2, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick

Interested in strengthening your funny bone?

Whether you want to write a short conceptual humor piece, infuse a serious essay with moments of humor, or just send an impressively funny text, these reliable techniques can get you started.

The Rule of Three

This popular comedic device is based on the idea that words and ideas are funnier in threes. The first two ideas set up a pattern; the third idea deviates from the pattern in a way that surprises and delights the reader. One way to do this is making the first two items in the list relatively serious or straightforward, then breaking the tone with a sillier third item.

From Phoebe Robinson’s Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes: 

Being from the Midwest and attending a private Catholic prep school, even though I’m not religious, meant a lot of things—having a sense of humility, caring about the greater good, eating at Wahlburgers more often than I care to admit to…

The silliness and unexpectedness of the third idea are supported by the setup of the first two ideas. 

Hyperbole

Heightening is critical to humor writing, and especially funny when describing internal thoughts and emotions. Especially when they are embarrassing.

In comedian Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You, she describes the difficulties of making friends as an adult:

“I’m gonna friend you on Facebook!” I blurted at the back of her red shirt and mom jeans, feeling my bones weaken and my arteries calcifying as I aged forty years in one second.

Did Irby actually age 40 years all at once? Of course not. But the description matches the writer’s feelings in the moment, not her literal physical experience. The hyperbolic description lets the reader experience the cringe factor with Irby—and recall an embarrassing moment of their own. 

Funny/Weird/Specific Details 

A lot of writing can be punched up by using specific words and details. Hard consonant sounds are often funnier (eating with a spork is funnier than eating with a spoon) and specific quirky details can often lead to laughs. 

In Wow, No Thank You, Irby also writes:

And I hear you — how could a person who still has a blog on Al Gore’s Internet in the year of our Lord 2020 possibly delude herself into thinking that she is notorious enough to be recognized in a mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan?

Just writing “restaurant” wouldn’t have had the same funny specificity as “mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Describing something with a specific detail works well, especially if it paints a funny image in your reader’s mind.

Funny Comparisons

Simile and metaphor are often used in serious writing and those same devices can be used for comedic effect. Funny comparisons can be unexpected or relatable (or both). They can pull a reader into a scene, provide imagery, or reference anything from pop culture to obscure moments in history.  

In comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat:

I explained what it was like having a fourth kid very simply: imagine you are drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.

In The New Yorker, humorist David Sedaris describes his sister’s perfume as,

A combination of five different scents, none of which is flowery or particularly sweet, it leaves her smelling like a strange cookie, maybe one with pencil shavings in it.

Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is a gold mine of funny comparisons. She describes her singing voice:

I could hold a tune, but only the way you hold a stranger’s cat: not closely and not long (not to mention the strange yowling noises).

End on a Joke

How many times have you heard “save the best for last”? This is especially true for humor writing. Formatting choices can make a reader skim over a joke or pause to belly laugh. As much as possible, put the best part of the joke at the end of the sentence/paragraph/essay. Building to the funniest part is a great way to engage (and surprise) the reader. And what is humor without surprise?

Author Courtney Maum builds up to a joke in this essay about publishing a first book:

You know that people are entitled to read books you haven’t written because you’ve been reading those other books your entire life…. You’re aware of this. You’re just not sure why your friend’s mommy blog post about perfect gift ideas for 2-year-olds didn’t include a link to your first novel is all.

Analyze Comedic Pieces

Find a piece that you find funny and take a highlighter to it. Examine the spots that make you laugh. What techniques did the writer use? Was there a specific funny word choice or a humorous aside or commentary? 

Looking at the underlying techniques in a piece can help you create your own humorous writing. You can also notice these devices in other types of comedy, like stand-up or sitcoms. And we promise—absorbing any kind of humor absolutely counts as writing time.

Julie Vick has written humor for New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Real Simple; and most importantly, one of her tweets once appeared in In Touch Weekly. She is the author of the humorous advice book for introverted parents, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?) and is an English instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Read more of her work at julievick.com

Sarah Garfinkel’s writing has been featured in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus, where she is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column. She has taught writing at Harvard University and Columbia University. She also leads humor writing workshops for teens and adults. Read more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.

Pickle Jackpot: Write Better with Comedy

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

indexBefore I was a writer, I was a street performer. Not the dude-on-the-corner-with-a-guitar kind (though that’s street performance, too), the perform-at-festivals-for-huge-audiences kind. And when I worked in English, I had to be funny. The scripted lines had to be funny. The improvised lines had to be funny. And when an improvised line got a good laugh, we revised it, polished it, and put it in the show in a way that still sounds spontaneous after a thousand shows.

When I lived on tips, I had to be funny or I didn’t eat. Dinner’s a great motivation to get better at one’s art. I’m a verbal comedian more than a physical comedian, so I spent a long time working on words. We often did four shows a day, 15-20 shows a week, which is a lot of chances to try a different word order or phrasing. A punchline is funnier if the dialogue tag comes first (“And then he said, bada-boom!”). Individual words are funnier if they end in hard sounds (splat, smack) than soft ones (orange, cushion). Anything with a k in it is funnier (pickle, jackpot). And the best part is getting the audience to put the words together and write their own mental joke for an apparently innocent line (“Don’t worry! I’m a professional!”).

Now that I write the words down, now that I have to trust the reader’s brain for the delivery, comedy serves me well. Even when the essay isn’t funny, the right word order sells a punch or a sob the same way it sells a laugh. Humor helps the reader hope for the storyteller, even when the situation’s dire, and sadness phrased well becomes a kick in the teeth.

As George Saunders said, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” With memoir and nonfiction, we get to slow it down a little and meander. Writing comedy helps us learn to tighten up, so that meandering is a choice.

At The Huffington Post, Siobhan Adcock writes in Why Every Writer Should Take a Humor Class:

Because structure. You’re making a meticulously crafted monkey suit — you gotta remember to put a tail-hole in the pants. Humor writing is about technique and precision, but it’s also about becoming an expert in story and sentence structure. Again, there are technical writerly concepts that come into play here: Snowballing, conflict, reversal, and the good old rule of three writ large (“Get your hero up in a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down” — see how that rule of three works on the plot level as well as the punchline level?) are just a few of them. A humor writing class will force you to learn how to put together a really sharp-looking monkey suit.

Ms. Adcock’s got a terrific list of things writers learn in a comedy-writing class, and if you’ve ever thought gosh, I wish my wordcraft was better on a technical level, comedy is for you. Check out the whole article.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

Throwback Thursday: Structuring Comedy

August 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Frasier and Niles CraneComedy writer Ken Levine has written scripts for Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, The Simpsons and many other shows as well as a fair number of movies. He’s also written a memoir: The Me Generation…By Me about growing up in Southern California in the 1960’s, and a book of travel essays, Where The Hell Am I? Trips I Have Survived.

In Mr. Levine’s blog, he dissects jokes, comedic characters, and sitcom scenes. Pretty much a master class in writing funny. His breakdowns of scenes to show why a certain punchline resolves the action, or how a character shows change, are terrific technical advice for anyone writing an episodic memoir, funny or not. Even when a writer approaches facts, figuring out goals and motivations and how they are thwarted or fulfilled in a classic set-up-pay-off structure can make a much more satisfying essay. Actively using a dramatic structure can help the writer organize material and figure out what elements of a true story are most important.

On farce, Mr. Levine writes:

First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve.

…Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again.

Sounds like a gripping memoir.

Read his blog post here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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