Samples of Brad's Writing
What Are You Laughing At?


The Nature of Humor

Well, how do you like this book so far?

While there are few rules about writing humor, generally Shock or Surprise are present, as in the line above.

Most professional writing insists you write in complete, grammatical sentences.

Humor, not all that mostly.

I think of comedy as "the skewed vision," seeing events, people and possibilities which are off-center.

Humor writing has few rules and in many ways, this is one of its greatest rewards. In joke writing, often the "Rule of Threes" is invoked. That is, setup, repetition and joke. In other words, here's a situation, here's more of the same and now, a twist.

This rule does not have a bearing on writing prose humor. And the forms are multiple and wonderfully variable.

Humorous fiction can include a short story, novel, song, poem, monologue.

Humorous non-fiction can include an article, essay, memoir, speech.

This book is for writers of humor. This book is for writers of obituaries. This book is for people who don't write and don't plan to write but pay for cable TV and are still not amused.

Non-traditional humorous prose has an elasticity you cannot find in other non-poetic forms. You can comedically redo a shopping list, a diary of someone famous/infamous or an instruction manual. One of the funniest things I ever read was from a collection of female humor published by the National Lampoon, entitled "Titters." It contained a phony instruction manual by Emily Prager for a certain well-known tampon, "Clampax Pontoons," with art done in similar, cutaway style, and directions that required the user to be fairly good at gymnastics.

Humor is as personal as how we dress. And sometimes, in as bad taste.

Healing Aspects of Humor

But the curative power of laughter cannot be overpraised. One need only examine the work of Norman Cousins or Deepak Chopra to appreciate its healthy aspects. Dr. Bernie Siegel, in a lecture on humor and healing, read from an article about two men who were in their eighties. Both had previously been critically ill, and yet, they did not let it affect their quality of life.

"One of the best things about Francis," claimed one of the senior men, "is his memory problems. I can tell him a joke and four days later, I tell him the same joke and he laughs at it again. 

In the class I currently teach for UCLA Extension's Writers' Program, entitled, strangely, Writing Humorous Fiction and Non-Fiction, I once had a student who worked as an EMT--Emergency Medical Technician. One of the first humor pieces he wrote was about an EMT fumbling about with burnt bodies, charred beyond recognition,  which he pulls out of a destroyed house.

The good news? When he read it, no one threw up.

Even better news? He really wanted to learn the principles of writing humor and by the final week, his Final Project was met by gales of laughter.

Now, if a man who spends most of his week dealing with fires, explosions and car wrecks can lighten up, why can't you?

If it’s painful, why am I laughing?

This leads to the proposition that comedy always seems to contain some form of pain. John Vorhaus, in his book "The Comic Toolbox," comes up with the equation comedy = truth plus pain.

The great comedian Carol Burnett has summarized it, "Comedy is pain plus time."

Perhaps Mel Brooks has put the whole pain/pleasure picture into focus best. He said, "Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die. Tragedy is when I cut my finger."

Think about it. Which is more amusing? A kid scuffing his shoe on a floor, waiting to use a public bathroom? Or the same kid hopping from foot to foot, making faces and eventually kicking the bathroom door?

That's not funny, you say. It's cruel. Maybe so. But the fact is this: We laugh at things we ourselves don't wish to experience.

Confusion creates humor

I was once hired to write a book proposal which concerned the insanely adventurous comedian/performance artist/hoaxer Andy Kaufman. Andy, I learned, became very involved with the Transcendental Meditation movement.

At one point, he was present at a retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and asked about the nature of humor. Andy asked what made people laugh and the Maharishi replied it was the confusion in one's mind hearing something that momentarily made no sense but, upon further reflection, did so, in an odd way.

Admittedly, some people will laugh at your non sequitur and others will shake their heads and look at you as if you have an arm growing out of your forehead. Your "sense of humor" (assuming you have one) is really more your "preference of humor."

Thus, if you write something and no one thinks it is amusing, you can say they have a different preference. You can say they are complete imbeciles. But you can't say they have no sense of humor whatsoever.

Unless, as I said, they are Russian. Or possibly German.

Comedy's Enemies (Humor's Tumors): Cliche and Meekness

The most common error of writers of humor is to make lazy choices.

Comedic Cliches are ideas or jokes which have already been done before and which you personally found so amusing, you thought you could rephrase it and make us all happy. Well, you're wrong. We want to be surprised.

So, what is a Comedic Cliche?

·        Foreigners who drive cabs and work in convenience stores

·        Cops hanging out in doughnut shops

·        Priests who drink too much

·        Hookers with hearts of gold

·        Anything in a tabloid newspaper, at this point

What we are saying is you have to go pretty far afield to mine humor from such topics. For example, there are such bizarre stories in the tabloids, it is a stretch to top them.

I'm a fan of the surrealist comedy group The Firesign Theatre, which once recorded a bit about a supermarket throwaway called "The Daily Toilet."

In part:

ANNOUNCER 1: John Kennedy's come back in a UFO with a great new diet!

ANNOUNCER 2: Where'd you read that?

ANNOUNCER 1: I read it in the Toilet. The Daily Toilet.

By combining three kinds of stories in one headline, Firesign managed to send up tabloids, no easy task, because those papers by now have become a Comedic Cliche.

Meekness is the other great kidney stone to be passed out of the body comedic. Writers often get mildly amusing ideas and simply go with them, refusing to try to better them.

For example, consider the difference between these:

"He's pretty fun to be with--for a guy just out of a twelve-step program."

"He's pretty fun to be with--for a guy just out of a twelve step program for recovering mimes."

By making bold choices and not succumbing to the first thing that comes into your head, you increase the charm of your writing.

And I seem to have broken my own rule. Isn't making fun of mimes a Comedic Cliche?

Beating up or insulting mimes is a cliche. Seeing one trying to stop pretending he's stuck in a cube while wearing normal clothes and no white face makeup is something else again.

Don't go for the common target and don't let your writing get lazy.

If you are going to make fun of Californians, don't bring up granola and crystals. It's old.

Everyone here knows it's currently past lives regression and pineapple juice enemas.

Some Principles of Comedic Structure

There are certain basic principles to creating humor. Some are combined together for comedic effect. And since we were talking about pineapple juice enemas, let us start with...

•                     Shock or Surprise

I began the beginning of this first chaper by asking you how you liked the book, since I knew you would not be prepared for it. This what aids the effectiveness of humor--the lack of preparation for what is to come.

Shock suggests cold, clammy skin or having one's eyes roll back in one's head. If you can make someone laugh that hard, you're damn good.

No, in this context, Shock is a strongly visceral reaction which, we hope, leads to amusement.

Surprise is a less jarring form of Shock.

After Surprise, as everyone knows, comes Pleasant Bewilderment and then Whimsical Passing Interest, but that's heading in the wrong direction, so never mind.

Shock or Surprise is the undergarment which holds in the unsightly flab of humor writing. Remove it at your own risk. Either Shock or Surprise deals with not just the jolt but the inappropriateness of the dialogue, action, narrative, and so on.

You see a stranger on the street, smile and warmly said, "Nice day."  The stranger responds by shouting at you, "Don't tell me what kind of day to have!"

Whether this is a shock or just a surprise, I will leave to you. But this ultra-cranky stranger's inappropriate response is made funnier by the fact that you didn't tell him/her what kind of day to have at all.

An excellent example of shocking imagery and verbiage in humor writing comes from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas." The father of so-called Gonzo Journalism, Thompson began by realizing that his journalistic coverage of the Kentucky Derby was not going to be as interesting as his stream-of-consciousness observations about covering the event.

In "Fear and Loathing," subtitled "A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," Thompson and his 300-pound Samoan attorney partake of far too much alcohol and a full assortment of drugs, and before they ever get to the assigned event, Vegas's Mint 400 off-road bike and dunebuggy race, they walk into the Circus-Circus Hotel.

"The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the War," he claims and goes on to describe an insane, high wire act over the gambling tables. you're on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen-year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine's neck...both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight toward the craps table--but they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they're about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.

We have certain expectations of what goes on in a circus (even in Las Vegas). By describing this circus in a humorously jarring way (admittedly affected by the ether the two characters have just breathed), Thompson sets an appropriately delirious tone for the rest of book

•                     Juxtaposition

By definition, in juxtaposing two elements in humor writing, you contrast or compare them. Again, we are straining until veins encirle our Adam's apples to fight expectation, to create unique perspectives in our combinations of ideas.

I mentioned the cliche of the hooker with the heart of gold, toughened by life's demands, who suddenly opens her heart and either falls in love or does an uncharacteristically good deed.

In the movies, she usually winds up dead for her efforts.

What about the idea of a hooker with a brain of gold? That is basically what Woody Allen proposed in his classic short story "The Whore of Mensa." In it, a private investigator named Kaiser Lupowitz breaks up a ring of call girls...who only talk about intellectual subjects with their clients.

                        I let her go on. She was barely nineteen years old, but already she had developed the hardened facility of the pseudo-intellectual. She rattled off her ideas glibly, but it was all mechanical. Whenever I offered an insight, she faked a response: "Oh, yes, Kaiser. Yes, baby, that's deep. A platonic comprehension of Christianity--why didn't I see it before?'"

As for the title, it is a multi-layered juxtaposition, for those of us who like to tear things apart until you can barely recognize them.

·        MENSA is an organization for geniuses, not prostitutes

·        "The Whore of..." is usually associated with Babylon

·        Babylon sounds like "babbling," which is the opposite of intellectual discussion

Another splendid story that is a classic juxtaposition is Garrison's Keillor's "What Did We Do Wrong?" In it, he has hypothesized that major league baseball has allowed its first woman to play alongside the men.

It wouldn't be much of a laugh if Annie Szymanski was humble and quiet. So, Keillor made her overcompensate for her gender by insulting opposing players, making an obscene gesture after being booed and even trying to chew too much tobacco at a time, having it dribble over her jersey.

Wisely, too, the author doesn't limit the juxtaposition by just examining Annie versus her male teammates. Keillor expands the scope of the tale with the impact on other teams, baseball management and, of course, the fans. After she hits the first home run ever by a woman, the fans applaud for fifteen minutes, but Annie refuses to acknowledge it.

They whistled, they stamped, they pleaded. The Sparrows pleaded. Umpires pleaded. But she refused to come out and tip her hat.  Until the public address announcer said, "Number eighteen, please come out of the dugout and take a bow...Number eighteen, the applause is for you and it is not intended as patronizing in any way."

•                     Exaggeration

Certainly, the examples above are exaggerations. They expand comedic possibilities. Exaggeration at its most basic goes back to the idea of avoiding meek choices

In fiction and non-fiction, you have every right to stretch things out of proportion, especially by using metaphors. Look at the difference between these two:

"Murray had been cursed with a stomach that rumbled like a thunderstorm."

"Murray had been cursed with a stomach that rumbled louder than a trash can filled with broken glass thrown down the living room staircase."

Or perhaps you wish to exaggerate, using something, oh, like a simile. Compare:

"Helga had a rare smile, like your worst nightmare.."

"Helga had a rare smile, like an uneven lineup of stumpy asparagus stalks, a little more yellow than green, with no white in sight.."

(My apologies to vegetarians and those currently eating.)

Exaggeration is most effective when it is placed within a context we can recognize. Thus, we write of normalcy, even the mundane, if we wish, and then stretch it until it snaps.

In the collection of humor known as "Mirth of a Nation," edited by Michael J. Rosen of the James Thurber House, we begin with a piece which appears quite familiar, particularly for writers.

Under the heading "Submissions Guidelines," we are asked to send work to the Thurber Biennial of American Humor typed, double-spaced on paper. So far, so normal. But not for long.

                        This paper should be recycled paper, manufactured from at least 80 percent recycled post-consumer recycled fiber. If your submission is printed on unrecycled paper, it will be thrown out.

Dave Eggers, author of these guidelines, goes on to deliver a demand about the whiteness of the paper, a diatribe about the unsanitary use of saliva when moistening the flap of the envelope and a warning about changing your tab settings after you pass page eight.

•                     Embarassment

I have saved the worst for last. For Embarassment is a principle which most readily connects to your own painful, shameful, humiliating, excruciating, moronic, pathetic remembrances. Remember Vorhaus's theorem about truth and pain equalling humor?

Well, truth is a subjective thing and as for pain, some people enjoy being hung upside down and spanked with a cheese grater. However, if most people can find an emotional truth and a level of tension in an embarassing moment, it has a good chance of amusing.

Think of this: "One Of My Most Embarrassing Moments in My Life."

What? What do you mean, "Why?" Because I'm the mommy, that's why.

I should go first? God, you people are relentless.

All right. I'm in high school in Burlingame, a beautiful, wooded town in San Mateo County, 30 minutes south of San Francisco. I'm in Team English, co-taught by two of the school's best teachers, for the 90 smartest sophomore English students. (I didn't originally get chosen for it and had to petition to get in. Can you imagine the nerve?)

So, my group of five or six students has just completed a short play I've written (my first), parodying George Bernard Shaw's "Antony and Cleopatra." My cast has left the stage and I'm about to do so and some pinhead has wheeled away the stairs to the auditorium floor.

So, I hop down the seven feet from the stage. And land on my knees. And the 90 smartest kids in my class burst into laughter and point fingers at me.

But then, Mr. Christensen, who was my advisor on the school newspaper and my friend (I thought), walks over, waits for the laughter to subside and offers his hand. And as I get up, he gets all of them laughing even harder as he announces, "Welcome to Retard P.E." 

See how easy it is? Now, think of one of your most embarassing moments. Don't tell me nothing bad has ever happened to you. And don't tell me it's too awful to repeat. I had a former Humor Writing student at UCLA tell twenty people she just met that she once slept with a guy for the first time, fell asleep, and woke to find the chewing gum in her mouth had somehow attached itself to one of her buttocks. She and her date spent the rest of their first (and, big surprise, last) date prying bubblegum off her butt with a kitchen knife.

Do This Now 1.1

Your first exercise is an easy one. You get to do it with another person and you don't have to do any writing...yet.

Take two minutes to tell another person your most embarassing moment. Then, let that person do the same for two minutes.

You should both time each other, so that you don't turn it into an epic tale that rivals Crime and Punishment for length. Also, pay close attention, because when both stories are told, you will then repeat as closely as possible the other person's most embarassing moment.

If the other person, repeating your story, misses an important detail or gets it wrong, stop the person, mention the correction and let the person continue.

Why are we doing this?

One, this exercise teaches you to listen carefully, something that is essential to being a good writer of any kind.

Two, it helps you to recognize what is essential in creating a humorous written situation and what is extraneous, what is padding. 

Three, it is great for breaking the ice at parties or trying to pick up somebody.

Four, while fiction may have no bearing whatsoever on your personal experience, non-fiction, like changing the details of a most embarassing story, is not necessarily the process of stating exactly what happened to you.