Writing for laughs is seriously hard work, but the payoffs are priceless. If you can make someone laugh with your words (because you intended to, not because your writing is so God-awful they can’t help but spurt coffee out their noses), you’ve done a great thing. You’ve brightened someone’s day, and improved their health, unlike those miserable wretches who make their living by writing traffic citations or delivering subpoenas. Why not try your hand at the humor game? You’ll have fun, and if you don’t have fun, at least you’ll have more appreciation for those who do make you laugh. Here are my twelve tips to make your readers laugh out loud.
1. If you want to write funny, read funny! Channel your inner comic writer by savoring the greats. My favorites include British comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse (author of the Bertie Wooster series) and master essayist S.J. Perelman, who also wrote screenplays for the Marx Brothers. Their inventiveness with the English language is as astonishing as it is hilarious. Erma Bombeck could make even losing keys and a broken answering machine funny; Steve Martin is a favorite for his imaginative genius. I mean, could you have thought of writing a column called “Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods”? It’s in his collection, “Pure Drivel” and it’s enough to make me mad with jealousy. I also love Christopher Buckley, whose politically satiric novels include “No Way to Treat a First Lady” and “Boomsday.”
2. Keep it clean. Today, lots of comedians and humorists have confused explicitness with sophistication. Relying on bodily functions or an overemphasis on sex, is usually more crass and junior-high than smartly funny. And also, what’s with the profanities? Hammering an audience with four-letter words isn’t funny; it’s deadening. Clever humor aims higher than waist-level.
3. Grab ‘em at the beginning. People have very short attention spans. Reel them in at the first sentence so you don’t lose them to their Facebook page, and keep your story moving.
4. Make your humor relatable. People love it when they feel you are writing about their lives, and gently self-deprecating humor is one of the most effective ways to achieve this. For example, “I discovered that I had a textbook case of ‘Congenital Fraidy Cat Syndrome.’ I knew it: my expanding medical knowledge was slowly killing me.” Or, “I had my fat tested today. It came back positive.” (Both lines by yours truly.)
5. Show your strength. Self-deprecating humor isn’t loser humor. Write with the kind of punch that reveals your fortitude to survive life’s worst agonies, including being on hold with your health insurance provider.
6. Be sharp, but not mean. Good humor has a point of view, but shouldn’t be downright nasty.
7. Don’t shy from “evergreen” topics. Misunderstood spouses, unreasonable bosses, know-it-all teens and why bad contractors happen to good people have been funny since lions roamed the Colosium, but a fresh angle is essential.
8. Find your distinctive voice. Use great writers for inspiration, but don’t be an imitator.
9. Know your audience. Don’t poke fun at lifestyles of the rich and famous in a piece you’re writing for Town & Country magazine, or gun rights for a piece in NRA Monthly. Study your target markets, then see if your world view and humor make you a good match for them.
10. Write what you know. Your writing will be more natural, convincing, and funnier this way.
11. Be colorful and specific. Writing that you have 87 pair of shoes is funnier than saying you have a closetful. Talking about your need for “Jumpy Java” in the morning is funnier than talking about your need for caffeine. The more specific you can be, while throwing in a bit of exaggeration, ups the humor ante.
12.. Get me rewrite! Outstanding writing may look effortless, but it’s not. Four or five rewrites are not unusual before your work really shines. Let a piece rest for at least 24 hours before looking at it again. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find to improve after you’ve both marinated in it for a day.