What Are You Laughing At?
CHAPTER 1: COMEDIC STRUCTURE
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
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
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
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 its 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
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
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
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
Unless, as I said, they are Russian. Or
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
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."
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
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
"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
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
...so 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
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
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
"The Whore of..." is usually associated with
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
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."
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
"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
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.
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
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
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.