Inhibitions Are For Sissies

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Novice humor writers often struggle with the most important foundational principle of humor writing: Anything goes!

People don’t like to see themselves as inhibited. Modest – perhaps. Rational – of course. Socially acceptable – that, too, if you haven’t posed for a mugshot lately. Most of all, we want to be normal.

Get over it!

Humor writers are not normal while writing.
I should have written that last sentence in all caps, screaming it from the rooftops, because it’s an absolute truth: humor writers are not normal. Not now. Not ever! Writing successful humor requires a temporary resignation from the politically correct and socially acceptable human race, and an enlistment in the Love My Insanity Army. The alternative 12-step program is Wackos Anonymous. Either one or the other is the minimum requirement.

Letting go of normal.
Did you ever wonder why comedy writers are never invited en masse to Hollywood parties? Well, gathering a large group of people accustomed to routinely ignoring their inhibitions is the equivalent of replacing the party favors at a five year-old’s birthday party with Bic lighters. It can’t end well. The police reports agree.

However, since people all over the world do write humor successfully, it is entirely possible for you to temporarily suspend your inhibitions when required and still get invited to parties. Think of your inhibitions as a nice, comfy, virgin wool sweater that you take off your brain when necessary, and then, you can put it back on in just a few seconds. Think of it as a light switch: inhibitions on – inhibitions off. Think of yourself as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if that helps. In fact, think of momentarily shedding your inhibitions in any way, shape or form that works for you, but force yourself to find an easily employable method.

This is easier for women since most of them have dated Jekyll and Hyde.

A Few Suggestions
There are many exercises (the more absurd, the better) that comedy writers use for training the brain to think outside of the box, the crate, the container ship, the ocean, and the planet. Here are a few you might try:

  • Take an inanimate object and find as many uses for it as you can. For example, a staple gun could be artillery for an ant colony.
  •  

  • Fill out a poll or other questionnaire as a famous person from history. For example: As Attila the Hun, fill out the latest Cosmo questionnaire.
  •  

  • Rewrite something mundane from an absurd angle. For example: Rewrite the Bill of Rights to include dogs. “You have the right to beg at the table. You have the right to water trees. You have the right to embarrass your owner by humping his\her friends’ legs.”
  •  

  • Find a collection of pictures on the web that show people and\or animals involved in some activity. Take each scene completely out of context. Re-caption the pictures. For example: A family barbecue: “The Acme Home Crematorium, fun for the whole family.”

Okay, that last one is a bit disturbing. That’s fine. We’re not editing yet.

The humor-writing lobe of your brain needs exercises that stretch your imagination beyond the limits of time, space, and way, way, way beyond propriety.

“The Silver Spoon Country Club’s Recreation Committee has decided not to install a steam room, stating that an SEC investigation was a more cost-effective way to make rich, white guys sweat.”
 

By becoming proficient with such exercises, when you desire or really need to inject a bit of humor into your writing, you’ll have 100 ideas instead of none.

When churning ideas for humor, inhibiting your imagination inhibits success.

Next Topic: To Write Funny, Read Funny

Parting Funny: Those are my principles, if you don’t like them I have others.Groucho Marx
 

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Humor Writing vs. Joke Writing


Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Let’s write a joke.
Traditionally, a joke is defined as a humorous story leading to a

punchline.
 

The clerk at a health insurance company watched as a nervous man with graying hair struggled to fill out the signup forms. Finally, the man stood up, saying to himself, “Yes!” He triumphantly brought the paperwork up to the clerk, who reviewed it.

“Oh my,” the clerk exclaimed. “A wife and five daughters! How did you manage to survive?”

“Just a minute,” said the man, reaching for his head. “The family’s in the car and I still have my earplugs in.”

Not a killer, but not bad for an off-the-cuff example.

Now, let’s write some humor.
Humor covers a wide variety of formats.
 
We hugged the crumbling rubble wall like it was a prom queen, certain that enemy eyes followed our every move, as they had since sunup. The lieutenant took a quick scan of the street. “Jackson, your squad will clear the building on the west corner. Cover fire, now.”

We broke cover in unison only to be met with cross firing PKM’s, the machine guns nested in second floor windows on both sides of the street. The 7.62 rounds stitched the ground around us, pinging off the dusty gray rocks, forcing all of us low. We’d barely gotten off a few random shots, and Jackson’s squad was still kissing dirt, while Jackson himself was slapping a field dressing onto his forearm where an enemy round had ricocheted, creasing it crimson.

“Lieutenant,” said Jackson, “I think Plan A has been disapproved, sir.”
 

Another Humor Format
Consider traditional humor writing, which has graced newspapers, magazines, and novels
 

for centuries, and the Internet for decades. A few examples:

  • Five Reasons Not To Sell Your Kids – Just Yet
  • You Married It!
  • Phobias – Three For A Dollar
  • My Dog’s Breath Melted My Car
  • The Search For Terrestrial Intelligence Fails

Such writing is defined as humor, but it’s often peppered with jokes. So, what is the difference between writing humor and writing a joke? After all, the writer who submits a joke to Reader’s Digest may be just as talented as the Sunday columnist, the standup comedian, or the humorous novelist. They may have just as outrageous a sense of humor when constructing gags, knee-slappers, witticisms and one-liners. A short story can be just as funny as any standup act, and a silly situation can make an appearance in any media from a bubblegum wrapper to novels and film scripts. Is there really any difference?

Yes. The difference is intent. Defining your intent will make writing 1000% easier.

“I want to write a joke.” – Then, you don’t need character development, backstory, secondary plots, etc. You need a familiar situation (filling out insurance forms, raising children) and a punchline that is anomalous, twisted, absurd, or just plain insane (I wear earplugs.).

“I want to write a humorous article.” – Then, you also need familiarity, but you can add one or two story elements as long as they don’t become a reprinting of War and Peace.

“I want to write standup comedy.” – Then, you need familiarity highly condensed into a setup-punch format:

“Of course, they still have school prayer. Those teachers are unarmed.”

That is, unless you intend to become a storyteller like Garrison Keillor or the Southern writer, Lewis Grizzard, whose stage performances were as popular as his books. Storytelling gives you much more leeway, and is often not dissimilar to writing a short story.

“I want to write a humorous novel.” – Then, you don’t have limitations other than you must not disturb the flow of the story…and that, in itself, can be an absolute killer limitation.

Define your intent, and you will define the scope and limitations of your humor. And now that you have rules to work with, I’ll show you how to break them.

Next Topic: Inhibitions Are For Sissies

Parting Funny: Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes.Billy Connolly

New Feature: Check out TidBITS! First ten posted this week!
 
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Recognizing Successful Humor

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

You know what’s funny to you, but do you recognize successful humor concerning others? It’s more than simple laughter.

Objectively, what is funny?
Forget the theories that dissect our sense of humor. This is not a PhD thesis, and neither is your book, short story, or email to your overly uptight sister who still hasn’t realized that you replaced her Tic-Tacs with Xanax.
 
No theory will help you write a single humorous line. Instead, focus on the commonalities that, simply as human beings, we all share. When you laugh at something, do other people laugh as well? Assuming that you’re not on the ragged edge of anyone’s bell curve, your answer is likely and honestly, ‘yes’, which means that your sense of humor is shared by others. That’s enough to work with while writing.
 
If you are on the ragged edge, please don’t jump if beneath you is a blue 2014 Prius with Maryland plates—and I thank you.
 
What is funny? The correct answer paraphrases the response used by the Supreme Court in Jacobellis v. Ohio to characterize pornography. That is, you’ll know it when you see it.
 
Recognizing Funny
She said I was her only reason for living. I told her not to worry; I’d send flowers.
Is this funny? According to the audiences that heard this line, yes.
 
Now, think about your audience (i.e. readers) for a minute. How do they react to a joke? Laughter? Maybe, but that’s not our only response to humor. We actually respond in a variety of ways:
 
  • Identification (or recognition) – Aha! I know that.
  • Identification with pride – Aha! I figured out the joke.
  • Identification with a groan – Aha! I figured out the joke and wish I hadn’t.
  • A smile – A mild facial display of amusement.
  • A smile with vocalization – A mild facial display with a ‘huh’ (or similar noise).
  • A smile with others – A mild facial display while looking at others to see if they also got or figured out the joke.
  • A chuckle – A person’s mildest laugh.
  • A short laugh – Consider this a mid-range response.
  • A hearty laugh – Longer than short, but with modest body engagement.
  • A belly laugh – Long laughter with full body engagement.
  • A rolling laugh – So forceful that it easily carries over to the next joke, or two, three, four. . .
  • A knockdown laugh – So forceful that a person loses control of motor skills, eyes tear, and here, I will intentionally avoid any comments concerning required changes of undergarments.
Progressions such as this have been described with many variations over the years. The important point is that spotting any one of these reactions indicates that you have been successful with your humorous line or joke.
 
How is this helpful?
While writing, you can test your humorous lines on those around you. Choose the joke that gives you the best reaction. If your best reaction is simple identification and you recognize this, you will know that you have written a successful line. If you get a belly laugh, you’re very successful. If someone needs new underwear, be a sport, chip in.
 
Note: I don’t recommend trying more than one line on any one person. You’re looking for a spontaneous reaction, not an opinion.
 
Lastly, ‘You’ll know it when you see it’ did indeed come from the above mentioned court case, but so did quite a large volume of published and performed humor. Eighty year-old Supreme Court justices reading pornographic magazines and watching stag films at the taxpayers’ expense—that’s just funny!
 
Next Topic: Humor Writing vs. Joke Writing
 

Parting Funny: I asked my mother if I was adopted. She said, “Not yet, but we placed an ad.”Dana Snow
 

Repeat After Me, ‘I’m Funny’

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

You have a sense of humor. No surprise there, I hope. However, translating what you personally find amusing onto the page of a book, or deliberately introducing a laugh at a specific spot in a scene is sometimes easy, and sometimes difficult and frustrating. However, it is never impossible.

First Things First
If you’re too young to remember the raucous, politically-incorrect comedian Sam Kinison, you might want to look him up on YouTube. Sam taught me something wonderful. Referring to himself of course, he said, “I can make anything funny.” Sam proved this was true on numerous occasions, and I think he actually stumbled onto a universal truth. I have yet to run into any subject, no matter how serious or tedious or Republican, that has no humorous angles.

A corollary to this truth is that you also can make anything funny. Anyone can add a touch of wit to their dialogue, change the description of a genuflection into a pratfall, or make a character’s quirks droll, amusing, or outright hilarious. Writing humor is a learned craft.

That’s not to say that a humorous notion, a good line of dialogue, or a blatant joke will never occur spontaneously while you’re writing, but if you select a particular spot in your story where you’d like to inject some humor or a hard joke, and nothing immediately presents itself, all is not lost. Your laugh is right there on the page—always—and you can find it with just your sense of humor, a bit of imagination, and of course, a little work.

To illustrate this, a little exercise that you can try, let’s choose a devastatingly boring topic: How about the response policy for this blog.

How mundane! Bureaucratic drivel! Who cares?

Ouch! Do you ever want a reader to approach anything you’ve written with a ‘Who cares?’ attitude? Can a touch of humor make the reader more receptive, more positive? Possibly. Here’s my off-the-cuff attempt on a response policy:

As a very determined writer, I will ask that you be understanding about the time constraints that we all face when we’re working. Ergo, I give you my word that I will take immensely valuable time away from my writing and reply to ALL posted comments as soon as it can be reliably determined that hell has frozen over… Until then, I’ll do the best I can.

Screaming funny? No.

Acceptable to everyone? Not a chance!

However, it’s certainly more memorable than simply stating, “I’ll do the best I can.”

Can I find a better joke? With a little work, sure. A determined writer can find a better joke in almost every situation.

But, I don’t write humor books.
No one is asking you to!

Humor, a box wrench, and my great-uncle Harold are all tools. Whether you have any use for them at the moment is irrelevant. However, if you do decide to hurl a bit of humor at a target audience, wouldn’t you like to hit the bullseye more times than not?

Next Up: My Character Laughed Realistically

Parting Funny: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” –Winston Churchill

My Character Laughed Realistically

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

While you may never have thought about it, there are a lot of people who study humor. Psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have all taken a serious look at our sense of humor. Standup comedians and humorists study humor intently if they want to succeed. And now we’ll skip all others with the exception of the lowly statistician. I know that you’ve been waiting impatiently for me to add some math to this discussion.

Daily Laughter
Depending on which studies you believe, the average young child laughs 300 to 500 times a day. This number drops to approximately 15 for the average adult.

Tip: If a grown man is still laughing 500 times a day, don’t marry him.

Such studies highlight some important points:
1. We all laugh, regardless of age.
2. We enjoy laughter so much that it’s an integral part of our daily lives.
3. Adults have a more discriminating funny bone.
As a writer, you should be thinking about that much sought-after mythical creature, the avid reader with disposable income. So, what do you know about your readers’ sense of humor?
1. Readers laugh, regardless of age.
2. Readers enjoy laughter daily.
3. Readers know what’s funny. (They discriminate.)
Okay, that covers the real people. Now, how should you imagine a realistic fictional character’s sense of humor? Hint: One…two…

Humans have an innate desire for daily laughter. Therefore, ergo, ipso facto, whatever. . . realistic characters should never be humorless, unless by intent.

But I’m writing a serious story.
Serious stories don’t deserve realistic characters? Says who?

Consider a very serious real life example, that of a homicide detective. On a murder scene, he’s all business, but if you honestly believe that, once back at the station, cops don’t relieve their tension with a bit of wit and humor, then you don’t know any real cops.

Cops prank each other, sometimes enjoy gallows humor, have funny screw ups, and have been told some of the world’s most outrageous lies. “Honest, officer, I own this stolen car.”

Your character’s sense of humor
Granted, your characters are probably not standup comedians. Their style of humor can vary widely: a bit of irony, some witty banter, or a killer setup and punch. There are no rules; there are no limits when you’re writing humor. Your character’s DNA (height, width, shoe size, personality and IQ) is entirely up to you. His\her sense of humor is also. Normally, we’re accustomed to blaming our parents for flat feet, chunky thighs or no sense of humor, but fictional characters must blame the writer.

If in your entire manuscript there is not a single place for wit, a touch humor, or a great joke then you absolutely should begin to question the realism of your characters.

An enjoyable experience
Readers love wit. They love to smile. They love to laugh. If you ignore humor while writing, you’re missing opportunities to give your readers a more enjoyable experience. That leads us to another blatantly obvious, irrefutable truth: Readers repeat-buy from authors they enjoy.

Once again in this life, not rocket science!

Next Topic: Recognizing Successful Humor

Parting Funny: “If you shoot a mime, should you use a silencer?”Steven Wright

Humor, Humor, Everywhere

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

NOTE: This introduction will be pinned to the top for a month or so to allow people to get a feel for the what, where, why, when and how of this blog. Scroll down or select from the menu to the right for the latest posts. Many thanks!
 

There are great, new, talented, often prolific authors keeping the humorous novel alive. Further, there are authors in many other genres with no fear of allowing their droll, dry, dark, or just plain wicked wit to sneak onto the page, whereupon it will jump up and slap the reader’s funny bone. Humor is absolutely alive and well.

Yes, this is a new blog.

I vigorously studied many varied, usually self-proclaimed blog guru’s opinions before making this attempt. They all recommended that I find a niche topic with certain characteristics:

  1. I should know my subject well.
  2. I should be comfortable talking about it.
  3. I should have something worthwhile to offer my readers.
  4. I should sober up before posting.

Well, I took their advice to heart and contemplated my limited list of talents. What could I offer my readers that would be so valuable that they would listen to me sober? Realistically, and somewhat immodestly, the only thing I do well is write humor and comedy.

Wait a minute!

Humor belongs in every writer’s toolbox.

Ancient archers did not pull one of their best arrows out of their quiver and throw it away before going into battle. Every writer should have the ability to add a bit of humor to the odd character, the offbeat story, the terribly tedious How To, or anything else that he\she might care to write. Humor is as vital to the craft of creative writing as nouns, verbs and adjectives.

So, let’s talk about it.

What to Expect

I’m open to just about any suggestion, but for starters, I’ll discuss the craft of humor writing, reviews of humorous novels and stories, seamlessly blending humor into other genres, and just about anything else I can think of that will be useful when writing humor and comedy. I also won’t be above passing on a great joke if it’s deserving, and I’ll do my best to properly attribute them to the original author or performer. (I do so hate when someone, besides me, steals a great line.)

I also hope to lead you to new humorists who are deserving of a look and a laugh.

We’ll discuss any future additions\plans\changes along the way. I have no fear of change; it’s usually all I have left at the end of the week.

That’s generally called a ‘groaner’. We’ll discuss that, too.

Not so much a How To as a How Everybody

Humor and comedy is truly universally applicable. It has jumped onto the pages of fiction and non-fiction alike. It graces the Sunday sermon and lightens up the serious political speech. It tickles children and pushes a walker at the rest home. There really is room for everybody, whether you write professionally or just send off the occasional email. It’s come one, come all—laughter awaits.

Above all, I’d like this to be a discussion, so sharpen your pen, dust off your keyboard, and drag your wicked wit out of the closet. Humor is always best when shared.

This is where I should inject a nice platitude about success being a journey and not a destination, but I lost that little slip of paper from my fortune cookie, so I’ll just ask you to turn to the next blog and we’ll get started.

Parting Funny: “I’ve been on so many blind dates, I should get a free dog.” – Wendy Liebman

Next Up: Repeat After Me, I’m Funny