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


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

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