How to Write Funny

A couple years ago Scott Adams laid out the keys to writing funny. It's excellent advice. A few up-front points about humor:

  • A company's or an executive's ability to deploy humor is an undervalued asset in the business world.
  • It is rare to find someone who is very funny and not smart.
  • My two main filters on whether I want to spend time with someone: interestingness and sense of humor.
  • Writing funny is harder than in-person humor. I discussed this a bit in my post The Best Jokes Are Hardest to Recall.

So, read Scott's advice on writing funny quoted below:

Picking a Topic
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The topic does half of your work. I look for topics that have at least one of the essential elements of humor:

Clever
Cute
Bizarre
Cruel
Naughty
Recognizable

In order for something to be funny, it has to have at least two of the six elements of humor….

Simple Sentences
———————

Keep your writing simple, as if you were sending a witty e-mail to a friend. Be smart, but not academic. Prune words that don’t make a difference.

Write About People
————————

It’s impossible to find humor in inanimate things. If you must write about an object or a concept, focus on how someone (usually you) thinks or feels or experiences those things. Humor is about people, period.

Write Visually
—————–

Paint a funny picture with your words, but leave out any details that don’t serve the humor…

Leave Room for Imagination
———————————–

…Leaving out details allows readers to fill them in with whatever image strikes them as funniest. In effect, you let readers direct their own funny movie.

Funny Words
—————–

Use “funny” words when you can. Here are some I used:

Mongolian
Herdsman
Vagina
Trouser
Shish Kabob
Storm drain
Johnson
Slap
Canoe

You can read that list of funny words totally out of context and it almost makes you laugh. Funny words are the ones that are familiar yet rarely used in conversation. It’s a bonus when those words have funny sounds to them, as do most of the ones in my list.

Pop Culture References
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References to popular culture often add humor. It’s funny that the world’s tallest man is retrieving a lost iPod, and not something generic such as a wallet. And it’s funny that his manhood is compared to Ryan Seacrest as opposed to something generic, such as an oak tree. Someone could write a thesis on why pop culture references are funny, but just accept it.

Animal analogies
———————

Animal references are funny. If you can’t think of anything funny, make some sort of animal/creature analogy. It’s easy, and it almost always works. I made these creature analogies in my post…

King salmon
Python

Exaggerate, then Exaggerate Some More
————————————————-

Figure out what’s the worst that could happen with your topic, then multiple it by ten or more. Don’t say a mole is as big as a grapefruit. Say that mole is opening its own Starbucks. (Notice the pop culture reference of Starbucks.) The bigger the exaggeration, the funnier it is.

Near Logic
————-

Humor is about creating logic that a-a-a-lmost makes sense but doesn’t. No one in the real world could put gum on his penis and retrieve an iPod from a storm drain. But your brain allows you to imagine that working, while simultaneously knowing it can’t. That incongruity launches the laugh reflex.

16 Responses to How to Write Funny

  1. Shefaly says:

    The link between humour and intelligence is spot-on, if only empirically proven. Those who see humour even in dire situations are using their lateral intelligence. They are also likely to dispel stressors rather than add to them in high pressure work situations. And they are also more fun to hang out with after work, as people are wont to do in Britain. However I think it is fun to have at least one person with total humour bypass in one’s team. Instant humour possibilities in spades ;-)

  2. DaveJ says:

    Do you think it can be learned like this? I’d be interested to hear whether there are people who started out not very funny but learned to be “effective” at it. My impression has been that it is mostly about whether one or both of one’s parents had a good sense of humor (and yes, intelligence).

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    The parents thing is interesting, inasmuch as you think parents have more
    influence over kids' humor abilities than other skills or habits or traits.

    I believe that employing some of these skills can make you a bit more
    effective and funny — but only on the margins. Practicing basketball can
    make you better, but if you're 5' 2", no amount of practice will overcome
    genetic deficits.

  4. DaveJ says:

    My suspicion is that sense of humor is more nurture than nature; probably there is a study of identical twins raised apart that measures sense of humor and that of parents, but who has time to look? Also, I think other strong childhood influences (grandparents, friends) can affect it too.

    Humor is something that parents “teach” completely implicitly – by example. No parent ever says the stuff you say in this blog post. So it’s different than “other skills or habits.”

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    I tend to see peer influences as usually stronger than parental, and in the
    case of humor, that seems absolutely the case. You absorb humor styles from
    classmates and siblings, who in turn absorb it from assorted media and role
    models. A lot of humor is generational.

  6. DaveJ says:

    I think humor *styles* is a different thing from having a sense of humor. Of course the styles are generational, but the model for humorous interchange in general comes more strongly from parents.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes sorry I conflated styles with the general point, though I would still
    maintain that the model for humorous interchange is first through siblings,
    then through friends, and finally through parents / misc.

  8. DaveJ says:

    This is now a scholastic disputation… someone should find out if there is data… ;-)

  9. Cal says:

    Drawing from my humor writing experience (I was editor of Dartmouth’s humor magazine), I want to also point out that becoming good at humor writing requires a lots and lots of practice.

    Like with stand up comedy, 80% of it is timing — in your choice of words, sentence rhythm, etc. To get there, you have to practice quite a bit.

    Perhaps the other 20% is a sense of humor to drive that timing.

    Not sure if this is useful to the conversation…

  10. izontheprize says:

    I suppose if one were properly aroused the penis-ipod thing might actually work…

  11. Rajiv says:

    There’s irony in writing a humorless post on humor. Just an observation.

    Maybe that is required when writing about humor. Not the best analogy to follow, but a magician shouldn’t use magic to show how it’s done.

  12. E says:

    Ben,
    >It is rare to find someone who is very funny and not smart.< Really, I never really thought of this point. Now that you mentioned it…. (shameless self compliment: I’ve been told I have a nice sense of humor :-))

  13. Ben Casnocha says:

    Then you're probably very smart! :)

  14. Suppose being funny is un-stressing, like a detonation of a ‘tonation’ (Bergson’s terms). Then what we must do as living beings, to irreversibly deal with the perfectly organized (biological) reality, as an order given to the mind, now can for a moment relax, just becáuse that reality itself asks for it or allows it. And we need it too, again as I understand Bergson: our intuitions constantly seek the best match of what we sense and what we know. This constant calibration can at times be tiring so that we like to be loosened up.

  15. Jehnavi says:

    This caused me to (try to)analyse exactly what it was about ferret mauling that struck me as instantly funny. Comedic Paradox, partially. I think that occasionally, the words themselves just sound funny.
    Mauled by ferrets. Unexpected, slightly violent, (and non-lethal) bringing visions of face-grabbing, floor rolling yells and frantic ferret face-peeling/flinging, yeah, works for me.

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