Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Humor Writing 101

Before I started writing my own humor column over 10 years ago, I studied, with rapt interest, the styles of other humor writers. I wanted to see if there might be some common thread or a specific writing technique that made them funny…and then I wanted to steal it and use it myself.

Well, it has taken years of research and the agony of laughter-induced stomach pains, but I think I’ve finally figured out five basic writing techniques that most humor writers share.

First of all, there is what I call the “Double As” technique, where the word “as” is used twice in a sentence: “He was as hungry as a toothless man in an apple orchard.” “She was as dumb as Lois Lane never figuring out that Clark Kent was Superman.”

Then there is the “so” technique that Johnny Carson was famous for: “It was SO hot out, chickens were lining up in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken and begging to be plucked!” “His hair was SO greasy, head lice were seen bobsledding down the part in it.”

Another popular technique is to write a serious-sounding sentence, but to make it humorous by adding a comment in parenthesis: “The secret to my quick weight-loss is that I drank 10 glasses of water every day (and then my bladder fell out).” “Our son, who always was in trouble in his younger days, is now in the medical profession (as a cadaver).”

The most popular technique, I have discovered, is exaggeration. I haven’t found a humor writer yet who doesn’t exaggerate, though some really go hog wild with it, while others incorporate it more subtly.

Using the exaggeration technique, humor writers have written about squadrons of hawk-sized mosquitoes wearing army helmets and flying in V-formation, preparing to attack, and about houses so large, the occupants had to hire a taxi just to go to the bathroom. And humorist Dave Barry wrote that his baby daughter had so much gas one night, if he hadn’t been holding her firmly at the time of one especially loud, bloomer-inflating blast, she would have propelled herself, missile style, right through the ceiling.

Then there is the opposite of exaggeration, which is the “understatement” or “shrinking” technique. This technique describes things as much smaller and less significant than they actually are: “A puddle of spit was bigger than the lake where we rented our summer cabin.” “The guy who painted our house charged by the hour and used a brush that had only two hairs on it.”

There are other techniques, but these five definitely seem to be the most popular.

I’ve noticed that titles are pretty important, too. Granted, the titles of most newspaper columns are written by the editors, but humor writers who are submitting articles to magazines or even books to publishers, should be able to let the editors know, just by the title alone, that what they are about to read is humorous (or is supposed to be).

For example, “My Handyman is Clumsy” might be funnier as, “Meet Thumbless Joe, my Handyman.” Or, “I Hate Housework” could become, “My Roommate is a Giant Dust Ball.”

So now I will attempt to use all five of the aforementioned techniques in one paragraph:

“It was raining so hard the night we went to the restaurant, Carnival Cruise Lines pulled up next to us in the parking lot. We were greeted by our waitress, Lyla, who was so voluptuous, she looked as if she were smuggling two bowling balls underneath her uniform. We were seated at a table that was no bigger than a deck of cards and it was so close to the table behind us, when I reached up to scratch my head, I scratched the guy’s head behind me and panicked, thinking I’d suddenly gone bald. Everything on the menu looked delicious (especially the blob of gravy stuck on the front and the smear of mashed potatoes on the back). We finally ordered the chicken dinner. When our food arrived, not only was it as cold as a snowman’s butt, the portion was so small, it looked as if a hummingbird had died on the plate. After our meal, which we downed in 1.5 seconds, we ordered dessert. My chocolate cake was so sweet, my teeth continued to ache even after I took them out for the night.”

Okay, so maybe all five techniques don’t work very well when you clump them together instead of spreading them out here and there, but I think you get the idea.

And now I am going to head off to my dental appointment…or should I say, “My Afternoon with Attila the Driller.”