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Write Something Funny

Write Something Funny, a humorous writing Training Course, presented by winebird
Posted once each week, June 2014
all text copyright Harry and Michelle Hakala

Write Something Funny, Week 1

Welcome to "Write Something Funny," a five-week TRAINING course presented on The Desk Drawer. When I used my husband as a sounding board to mull over your suggestions, he not only encouraged me to run this training, but also offered to help! How could I resist? Those of you on my Drivel list (not on it? ask me about it!) know that I often poke fun at myself and sometimes capture humor from the world around me. I am not, however, an expert. There, that's my disclaimer. I hope you find this training entertaining. Whether you learn something or not, well, the next five weeks will show the answer...

First a warning. Some of my humor is sexual innuendo and some of my examples can be considered racy. Be prepared!

What is humor? The Free Dictionary (online) says "humor" is "The quality that makes something laughable or amusing" and "funny" is "Causing laughter or amusement" and "Intended or designed to amuse."

While I often write to be funny, I sometimes end up being funny when I didn't intend to be.

Here are the six main categories I think of when I try to categorize humor:

1. Word play:
     What it is - Using a word in a way that makes a sentence funny, sometimes by deliberately using a wrong word that sounds similar to what should be there. We writers tend to do this quite a bit. I usually have to think about it (and sometimes these are the ones that I come up with unintentionally) but Harry comes up with them all the time and seemingly without effort.
     Example - The neighbor's truck was burning one afternoon and Harry rushed over to help. When he came back I said I hadn't realized the neighbor had a truck; what kind was it? To which Harry replied, "It's a Blazer."
     Pitfall - This type of humor generally requires that your audience be a native speaker of the language. A recent effort to use someone "floundering" when asked about an ex-boyfriend brought a puzzled look to our friend whose first language is Arabic. The only English "flounder" he knew was a fish.

2. Slapstick:
     What it is - Physical humor requiring some kind of accident or mishap. We find these funny generally only when no one is actually hurt. It's even funnier when the person having the mishap appears to deserve it.
     Example: When I was about twelve years old, my family and our neighbor family went on a camping trip together to the California Redwoods. It was a wet, drizzly day and the other two girls and I wanted to go hiking. Their mom protested because it was raining. "Aww, mom," said the older of the two sisters, "we are not clods!" She stepped out of the trailer, slipped on the wet metal step and landed on her rear in the mud.
     Pitfall - This type of humor does not lend itself well to the written word.

3. Real life anecdotes that are funny at the time:
     What it is - True events that trigger a laugh when you are in them. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, things are happening to and around you that may end up being funny. When we tell our spouse about our day, the telling often includes anecdotes.
     Example - Harry left for work one morning at 2:00am. After he was gone, my two cats were upset, jumping on and off the bed and making upset-cat noises. A moth had come in when Harry went out and the cats would not let me go to sleep until they caught it. Sometimes I rescue the creatures they corner, but I'm not very generous at 2:30 in the morning. I swept it down for the cats to have. They pounced on it, took turns swatting it around, pressing it down with a paw and then carefully raising the paw to see if it was still there, and did other general cat things. When they'd beaten it to senselessness, the dog got interested. He went over to investigate. Sniff, sniff. Boring. The dog turned to come back to me and the moth was stuck to his wet doggie nose. Behind him, the cats tried to figure out where the moth had gone.
     Pitfall - This type of humor may require that your audience share your culture. You should also be wary of giving offense; you can make fun of yourself but sometimes not of others, especially others who do not share your ethnicity, religion, etc.

4. Using a television or movie quote at exactly the right time:
     What it is - Coming up with a quoted line from a television series episode or movie that perfectly fits the happenings around you. I believe this is an acquired skill and can only happen after you have quite a bit of television or movies in your repertoire.
    Example - Since you probably don't have my background in what you've watched, please watch this Granny Goose potato chip commercial before continuing:
Got it? Now go back with me to an intimate night with my husband, early in our marriage. The lights are low, the music is soft, the mood is just right. Harry reaches over and gets a condom from the drawer. Looking me tenderly in the eyes, he rips open the package with his teeth and says, "Hi, I'm Granny Goose." The mood was absolutely shattered but I remember that instance more clearly than any others.
      Pitfall - This requires that your audience not only has seen the TV episode/movie, but that they've seen it enough to know the line you're using. Best for spouses and family members, where TV/movie watching tends to run along the same lines.

5. Linking previous conversation in a funny way:
     What it is - Paying attention to the conversation or what you know about someone in order to bring things "full circle" in such a way that it's amusing.
     Example - In a recent conversation, my brother-in-law was complaining about his bed. It was sagging in the middle and hurt his back. He said he needed to shore it up with some boards or replace it. The conversation continued in other directions and in about ten minutes came around to a magazine subscription. He's getting a magazine regularly but doesn't always have time to read it. "There you go!" said one of the people in the room. "Save up the magazines and stuff them in the bed!"
     Pitfall - This requires that your audience has a decent memory!

6. Unexpected endings:
     What it is - Wrapping up your story in a way the audience did not expect.
     Example - An old joke from the Internet... A vacationing penguin is driving through Arizona when he notices that the oil pressure light is on. He gets out to look and sees oil dripping so he drives to the nearest town and stops at the first service station. While he waits, he sees an ice cream shop. He goes and gets a big dish of ice cream and sits down to eat. Having only flippers, he makes a real mess. After finishing his ice cream, he goes back to the gas station and asks the mechanic if he's found the problem. The mechanic looks up and says "It looks like you blew a seal."
     "No no," the penguin replies, "it's just ice cream."
     Pitfall - This type of humor has to be very clear to work with the written word. If you didn't get the above joke, point made!

There is, of course, some overlap. An anecdote can be funny because it has an unexpected ending, or a movie quote can be combined with word play.

For homework, think about this:
Find something funny. What made you laugh today?


Write Something Funny, Week 2

Welcome to Week 2 of "Write Something Funny," a five-week TRAINING course presented on The Desk Drawer. You are invited to participate in any or all of these sessions.

The warning from Week 1 still holds true: Some of my humor is sexual innuendo and some of my examples can be considered racy. Be prepared!

I agonized over this training class because I really don't know how to teach you to write humor. (I know, I'm a fraud.) The humor in my own work is often there by accident, or shows up with some careful tweaking upon rewrite.

I can't teach you to come up with these things the way Harry does, as a natural part of who he is, but I hope I can give you some tips that might help incorporate them on purpose in your writing.

All comedy can be used in one of two ways: to make your audience laugh, or to further your plot/characterization by making characters in your work laugh.

Making the reader laugh is the harder of the two because something the characters find funny does not have to be funny to your reader. It's also extremely hard to write comedy that makes everyone laugh, so anything aimed at the reader will miss some of your audience. Even the great stand-up comics can't please everyone.

Including word play (also known as "play on words") in your writing can work to break a dark mood, or can be used to show how a character uses humor to cope. You can also use it not only to make your reader laugh, but also to have one character make other characters laugh, revealing a bit about his or her personality.

To set up word play, find the place where you want to incorporate it in your piece. Look for words which are easily rhymed with other words (-tion is a good one, because many words end in the "shun" sound) and see if you can replace that word with something that makes the sentence nonsensical, or enhances the meaning. Keep your mind open about possibilities - it may require you to make some changes in what you've written, even up to changing your protagonist's name.

Example: Harry and his guys (work crew) went to a restaurant after a long day. The restaurant name is "The Alehouse" and a gimmick of this particular place is that after dinner they serve lollipops, not mints. So as our group of four guys were entering, they saw groups of girls exiting, sucking on lollipops. Get the picture? The restaurant was quickly dubbed "The Tailhouse" by our crew.

In a story you wouldn't want to use the real name of a restaurant, but you can see how the rhyme to "Ale" makes the joke work. For story development, the name could similarly be "Talehouse" to show that story-telling in the common room of an inn occurs, or "AleLouse" to imply infestation by vermin.

Slapstick can be used to introduce the reader to a character's clumsiness, lack of luck or give the bad guy a good whuppin'.

To incorporate slapstick in your work, find the place where you want some physical mishap to occur. Imagine it in your mind, then write it out, using short, sharp sentences and strong verbs. Too hard? Try practicing by watching a bloopers or funniest videos show, and describe what you see in one segment. There's a bunch of funny videos here, without ads:
(warning: offensive language, slurs and some that look downright dangerous).

Example: Your character and her ex are involved in a long custody battle for the seven-year-old child. During the course of the story, the reader has come to know the ex as an overbearing jerk who manipulates your character to get his way. We don't think he cares about the child at all. In this scene, it's transfer time at the local market parking lot, and we wait with your character for the trade. The ex shows up and as he crosses the parking lot toward your character, he is struck by a runaway shopping cart.

The cart isn't enough to damage the ex, so the event should be funny rather than horrifying. We would not want the child to watch his/her father run down by a car in the parking lot, or trip and break an arm (unless you're writing Poe). The startling but harmless attack by a cart appears more like karma, and by the time this occurs the reader should be satisfyingly gratified to "watch" it happen.

I should note that comedy and tragedy are opposite sides of the same coin. What we find funny can easily be turned to horror, if that is your preferred genre, especially if the main character finds humor in things we find gruesome. Please don't write any of these for the homework pieces!

For homework, think about this:
Try your hand at one of the two types of humor detailed in today's lesson.


Write Something Funny, Week 3

Welcome to Week 3 of "Write Something Funny," a five-week TRAINING course presented on The Desk Drawer. You are invited to participate in any or all of these sessions.

The warning from Week 1 still holds true: Some of my humor is sexual innuendo and some of my examples can be considered racy. Be prepared!

I've been using anecdotes as examples in some of the other kinds of humor because those are what easily comes to mind when defining these. Changing some key facts to make non-fiction into fiction is always a good way to incorporate humor. If an anecdote will work, use it!

Anecdotes are true-life examples of humor; the telling of some event that caused you to laugh. You may be able to easily tweak one to fit into your current story, so as an author you might want to keep a notebook of anecdotes. You never know.

Example 1: Harry and I went to a 3D movie. Before the movie started the audience was waiting in restless anticipation. There we all sat, funny glasses in hand or tucked up on top of our heads. Down the row, a mother with children tried to keep them quiet. Popcorn and soda, and answers to the zillion questions kids have . . . and most of it in a low mutter where I couldn't hear the words. But then, clearly over the general theater noise, I heard the mom. She said, "No, the popcorn is 3D."

I might incorporate this into a date-night movie scene to inject some humor. If the character's date doesn't laugh or proceeds to explain how 3D is filmed, perhaps it's time to find a new date.

Example 2: Harry and I are at a Chinese restaurant and the couple at the table next to us are already enjoying their dinner with a glass of wine. An older couple, they've clearly been together for awhile. He keeps up a running commentary while she just eats. "This is really good wine," he said. Then he takes another sip. "I like this wine a lot." He takes a bite of food, tastes the wine again. "I think we should buy some of this to take home." For the first time the woman speaks, "We already have a case at home."

I might incorporate this into a restaurant scene where I am showing my character's husband is becoming forgetful. In this case, it might be written as tragic rather than comedic - perhaps that is the moment the wife decides to consult a doctor and they find the husband has an inoperable brain tumor. To keep it out of the dark range, I might add a line from the husband, "Oh, yeah! We bought it at that boutique in France." This keeps him healthy, just a bit absentminded.

Timely quotes . . . I don't recommend this one for your writing at all. Too much of it requires that the reader share your taste (and frequency) in video entertainment. Even using it for your two characters to share a laugh requires some experience with it on the part of your reader.

Surprisingly, the air conditioner company rep shared one with me last week. From Mr. Mom, this section: In the movie, the character played by Michael Keaton is feeling threatened by his wife's boss. Trying to sound macho, he stumbles over the answer to a question. Harry and I share this quote a lot. "How much tip? $3?" I might ask. "3, 4, whatever it takes," Harry might reply. I was pleasingly shocked when the air conditioner rep answered my "Is it 110 or 220?" question with "220, 221, whatever it takes." And then she immediately apologized, because if I didn't know the movie, of course, that was a serious breach of customer service etiquette. But I did, and we both laughed over it. The unit is, of course, 220 volts.

These are fun to share with folks you know well, though. It can be enhanced by pronouncing it the same way the original line was said. Some of our favorite lines are: "I thought you'd be bigger," from Road House; "Bright light, bright light," from Gremlins; "There are FOUR lights," from Star Trek, Next Gen; "Do I feel lucky?" from Dirty Harry (often misquoted as "you" but see here for the real lines:; "Hasta la vista, baby," from The Terminator; "You can't handle the truth," from A Few Good Men; "Phone home," from E.T.; and "Precious," from The Lord of the Rings.

For homework, think about this:
Try your hand at showing an anecdote. You may choose to try the movie/TV quote one instead, but that's a tough assignment!)


Write Something Funny, Week 4

Welcome to Week 4 of "Write Something Funny," a five-week TRAINING course presented on The Desk Drawer. You are invited to participate in any or all of these sessions.

The warning from Week 1 still holds true: Some of my humor is sexual innuendo and some of my examples can be considered racy. Be prepared!

So, on to my final two categories. While linking previous conversation can be hilariously funny in real life, it's hard to use it in writing because part of why it works is the length of time between first conversation (set up) and last conversation (zinger). Your characters can't have meaningless chatter throughout a long lunch like real folks do, and the compressed timeline can sometimes ruin the punchline.

You can, however, use it on "big ticket" items which your reader should know. If the reader does not know about the gun in the dresser, the murder at the end of the story won't make sense to him or her. Since the gun is something you introduced to your reader with the expectation of remembering it, you can use it in a "linking previous conversation" way.

An example from Drivel (a bit long so I'll show you the end with ***): A long, long time ago crickets were medium-sized black bugs we used as fishing bait. The common field cricket was seldom seen but we heard the males singing their courtship song quietly from the yard every spring/summer evening. Most often, the serenade was presented by one soloist, but occasionally a duet would be heard. They were calm, unprepossessing creatures, and I rather liked them.

Then in 1982, I got married and Harry and I moved to El Centro, in southern California. I found a field cricket in our first apartment, not too long after we moved in. The little male was singing in the corner of the bedroom, and while I enjoyed the cricket's song, I would rather it wasn't quite so close. I hunted for the noisy little bug, intending to deposit it outside. When I found it, I picked it up.

It bit me.

I was so surprised, I dropped it. Crickets don't bite, I thought. I'd put many on fishhooks as bait, and not one had bitten me. So I picked up the cricket in the bedroom again.

And it not only bit me a second time, I watched it happen.

The crickets in El Centro bite. They also flood the city every July. What starts as a gentle one-cricket song becomes a symphony of thousands and then a cacophony of millions. As the season fades, black corpses litter the streets and the smell of death permeates places like garages. I remember one night I slept with six singing in the bedroom because I couldn't find them.

That experience was years ago. We moved out of El Centro in 1984 and crickets have returned to the status of soothing, likeable critters.

Late last month, Harry and I traded in our old cell phones and got new ones. We match again, twin iPhones. Well, not exactly. His now rings like the opening to a Rockford Files show, and mine . . . mine has the gentle one-cricket song of a summer evening.

The phone isn't the only place I'm hearing crickets.

I received the letter of authorization for my stress test from my insurance company. It's been two weeks, maybe, since that letter arrived. I thought, Great! The heart doctor's office will call and schedule now.

Only they haven't. Not a peep. Maybe for them it's as stressful working with me as vice versa.

It's just as well. I won't be going back to them anyway. I have successfully arranged to transfer my stress test to a different heart doctor. One of my friends reminded me that we have an excellent heart doctor as a parishioner in my church, and I will be going to his office. They contacted me immediately upon receiving my medical records. It sounds like they have to do a consult, too, first. Ah, well. At least I know I like the doctor.

If I do need something surgical, I wouldn't have been comfortable having that other guy do it. This way, I can follow up on whatever I need to, without added stress.

Or crickets.


If there is somewhere in your story to circle back in a humorous way, use it!

Unexpected endings, I think, make the best short stories, and they can often be funny.

For instance, I wrote a short story a long time ago about a reluctant ghost. All he wants is to be human again. In his struggle to attain this goal, he finds a spellbook and attempts a spell from the section titled, "GHOSTS: Exorcism, Enslavement, and Embodiment." He is not a sorcerer, so does the spell incorrectly and uses a named tune (Eensy Weensy Spider) instead of a nameless tune. In the final scene we see a spider frantically flipping through the spellbook to the section titled, "SPIDERS: Crushing, Calling, and Converting."

A real life example:
When I bought the car I currently have, it was the third in a succession of vehicles to try to get one I really liked that would last me a long time (my "forever" car). The Honda dealership kept sending me "we want to buy your old car" offers and so we did that twice. With the third offer, we went next door to Toyota first. My Camry hybrid is an excellent car and will be the one I stick with for years.

But, while the process of getting there was happening, I was changing cars every two or three years. This was at the same time that we replaced the big rig for the business. Twice. To friends and family, it looked much like we had a new vehicle often.

When I  was able to show off my car to a few people at work, one friend said, "Man, I wish I could buy a new car like I buy groceries."

My reply was, "Well, actually, I get my groceries delivered."

Unexpected endings aren't something you can add in afterward, but you can try using it on a story you've finished where the ending isn't working very well for you.

For home work, think about this:
Try your hand at one of the two types of humor detailed in today's lesson: Linking Previous Conversation or Unexpected Endings.


Write Something Funny, Week 5

Welcome to Week 5 of "Write Something Funny," a five-week TRAINING course presented on The Desk Drawer. You are invited to participate in any or all of these sessions.

The warning from Week 1 still holds true: Some of my humor is sexual innuendo and some of my examples can be considered racy. Be prepared!

Sometimes humor needs its own grammatical format. Starting a new paragraph after a punchline is the written equivalent of the sting/rimshot - the familiar drum beat of a joke ending. (No clue what I mean? Try here: Adding more words - dialog, explanation, anything at all - right after the punchline can decrease the effect. Give your audience just a bit of time to digest it.

Remember the setup, too. If you're using any of the humor types that require something ahead of time, you'll need to place that early in your story. As authors, we know what the background is, but our audience has to know, too.

Whenever possible, run your humor by a willing reader. Try not to give them any indication there is supposed to be anything funny in it first! Some folks will laugh just because you expect them to.

There are other types of humor we didn't cover. Inside jokes can work in a novel, if the reader has enough information and a good memory. Using the wrong word (not in a Word Play way) can also work. An example: I was talking with a friend who recently got a dog. The friend, male, has an exotic way of speaking, using terminology from a different language. I find it quirky and fun and sometimes it takes me a minute to decipher it into my version of English. The dog, a male, doesn't have an accent and is not yet an adult. My friend and I were discussing the responsibilities that come with dog ownership.

"Yes," my friend said, "I haven't yet gotten him circumcised."

I blinked. My processor rapidly sorted through what I knew of the definitions I'd learned during our friendship and couldn't find this one. So I quickly sorted through common things you do with a dog and came up with, "I think you mean ‘neutered.'"

Remember, if you find it funny, likely your readers will, too, if you can write it clearly and with enough background.

I hope you found this Training worthwhile. I had fun writing it and reading all the Homework! (Harry had fun working with me on it and feeding me line after line after line of comedy.)

For homework, think about this:
Try your hand at one of the six types of humor detailed in this Training course: Word Play, Slapstick, Anecdotes, Timely Quotes, Linking Previous Conversation or Unexpected Endings. My recommendation is that you use a different one than any you've already written as previous homework.

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