What Do You Think Is Funny?

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Do you ever think about what tickles you the most?

The true advantage of having a sense of humor is the enjoyable experience of laughter itself. We love to laugh. It makes us feel good. It’s a great experience to share with friends and family, and despite lousy weather, workdays, etc. it often sneaks in and brightens our mood. The world will not come to an end while we’re laughing.

Mr. President, a massive asteroid is going to destroy the Earth next Tuesday, but on the positive side, I’m no longer worried about missing my car payment.

Evaluating what tickles us can help us make decisions while we’re writing, and we’re more likely to be successful at writing the types of humor that we personally enjoy.

Examining what makes us laugh doesn’t have to be terribly serious or formal; just think for a few minutes about the different types of humor and which types most appeal to you. Getting a feel for what makes you laugh is enough. Quite simply, if your method of understanding humor works for you, that’s what you should use.

There are Standard Types that can be used, but this is a somewhat narrow view of the universe of humor available to us. Consider:

Standard Types

  • The lowly, but often lovely pun and other plays on words
  • The double-entendre that’s just a tad risqué (or not)
  • A simple triple – no diving board required
  • Observational humor – clever interpretations of similarities and differences in every day life
  • Physical comedy – ye olde slapstick
  • One-liners – a staple for standup comedians
  • Shaggy Dog Stories – long, rambling stories with a deliberately disappointing (groaner) punchline
  • Etc.

There are also more obscure forms such as the paraprosdokian (Yes, that’s actually a word, and they’re often hilarious). The paraprosdokian ends a phrase, sentence or story with a surprise that causes you to reevaluate and reinterpret the beginning of that phrase, sentence or story.

[In the middle of the night] The light comes on. There’s this man standing over me with a gun. He says, “Take advantage of my little sister, will you?”
I said, “Sure, where is she.”

This little story by Emo Phillips, a true master joke writer, very nicely demonstrates the surprise ending of a paraprosdokian, although we can say it’s a bit twisted. (Don’t you just love a good twist!)

You should also consider other ways to view what makes you laugh.

Other Possibilities
You can also interpret humor by form or feel. Perhaps you like clever dialogue or the combination of a visual with clever dialogue such as cartoons. Perhaps funny characters or character traits appeal to you. Situational humor can take many, many forms; consider the wide variety of situation comedies on television. Incongruity also takes many forms.

We have to shift the paradigm. Are the movers here yet?

Perhaps, you like sarcasm, irony, exaggeration, non-sequiturs or an aggressive quality to your punchlines. Absurdity, pure silliness, put downs, send-ups… The possibilities truly are nearly endless.

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There have been so many attempts to define and classify humor that there really is no “correct” way to evaluate what tickles us. Nor is there a correct way to write a good joke. It doesn’t really matter how you define what makes you laugh, as long as you understand it, or at least, make a valiant attempt.

When you choose to inject a bit of humor into your writing, it’s prudent to rely heavily on your own sense of humor to guide you. The greater your understanding of what makes you laugh, the easier it will be to translate what makes you laugh into the written word.

Parting Funny: I love being married. I was single for a long time, and I just got so tired of finishing my own sentences.Brian Kiley

Next Up: Everyday Objects Are Funny

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Beat That Joke

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

One unfortunate fact of life is that we all have an ego that lies to us.

Don’t throw those jeans out! I’ll be able to wear them again after I stop eating for a year or two.

The classic example of ego: our personal appearance is a daily challenge, and our ego rarely allows the person that we see in the mirror to be judged honestly. Men all want to see great biceps and six-pack abs that they toned by lifting the TV Guide, and women all want to see natural beauty or dimmer lighting.

Writers sometimes forget that ego also impacts our writing, and this is never more certain than when writing humor. A humorous line that springs forth from our keyboard and makes us laugh to ourselves must, in our less than humble opinion, be a great line.

It may be.

However, there are a few steps that you can take that will give you a more objective evaluation.

Never Stop At One
Your first funny line may fit well for the scene or character of your story. Then again, there may be a much better line lurking somewhere in the hidden recesses of you mind.

Consider, how does a really funny standup comic come up with so many killer lines?

I was dating a fashion model. When I dropped her back at her apartment, she’d forgotten her key, so I slid her under the door.

The truth is that professional comedians will often write 100 or more jokes and skim off the top two or three to use in their act. They then inject forty-five seconds or so of new material into their act, testing with a live audience. However, even without an audience available, a writer can use a somewhat similar method.

Once you determine the topic for your funny line, write as many jokes as you can in a reasonable period of time—say ten to twenty minutes. With practice (We were all beginners at some point!), you should be able to come up with three to five jokes in a ten minute timeframe. That’s one joke every two to three minutes. If you can do more, great. If you write less than five, don’t worry. It’s not an exact science.

Now that you have several appropriate jokes, be critical. Pick the funniest one.

That seems so simple, but it requires that you really try to divorce yourself from the material and be objective. Was your initial laugh just your mood? Are you in love with your own words(ego again)? Or, is your line really objectively funny?

My ex was a frog prince. I wanted him to croak.

Granted, individual judgements can be wrong, but simply trying to evaluate your work objectively tends to give you, over time, a better and better sense of what will work with your audience (readers) to achieve that LOL moment.

Are you now done? No.

Beat That Joke
Now that you have chosen a funny line, take just a few minutes to beat it. Sometimes, this is simply a matter of editing and tightening up the line. Sometimes, it’s as simple as replacing a single word or a phrase. Sometimes, you’ll be working on one line and think of a completely different, but much stronger replacement.

Cover image: "Sexual Evolution"
Isn’t this a lot of work for just one joke?
In the beginning, perhaps it is. However, as you become more proficient at writing humor, you will be able to beat nearly any joke much more quickly, often in less than a minute, and you’ll be giving your readers yet another reason to enjoy your work.

We all want to look our best. Let’s laugh our best as well.

Parting Funny: When you’re in love, it’s the most glorious two and a half days
    of your life.
Richard Lewis

Next Up: What Do You Think Is Funny?

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The Comic View

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Writers want to appeal to readers.

Shocking, I know!

Humor certainly helps in this regard, although humor is not designed simply to appeal. It has a much broader range that runs from amusing to disarming to irony to aggressive to offensive to charming and much, much more. This causes an obvious problem when one tries to define humor. Mind you, not a dictionary definition, but any in-depth analysis that attempts to pin down the essence of human laughter. It’s analogous to showing up at Area 51 and asking to see the alien spaceship. Success is problematic.

As a writer, you can easily manipulate characters. They can be heroes or villains. They can be sympathetic, sad, triumphant, arrogant, wise, stupid, attractive, ugly…basically anything that you desire. Any competent writer can create a character to fill any shoes — even clown shoes.

The new Chevrolet Prankster seats fifty circus clowns or your average teenage MacDonald’s run.

A writer’s range of characters and character traits (physical and psychological) is unlimited. Your range of humor should have an equally rich palette. One way to accomplish this is to read a ton of dreadfully dry neurological and psychological studies on our sense of humor. Or, more effectively, you can turn to the people who make their living as humorists.

I choose Option B.

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Professional comics and humorists make their living by littering the landscape with laughter, but they also have strong opinions on what makes the average human giggle like a three-year-old. Despite being experts at making us laugh, the more theoretical insights of humorists rarely become widely known, yet there’s much to be learned from the Comic View of these jokesters. So, let’s examine some insights from old masters and up-and-comers who are walking the walk. We’ll start with a nearly unequalled Grand Master:

George Carlin
George Carlin (b. 1937 – d. 2008) was a wordsmith extraordinaire. He could twist the English language into more shapes than carnival balloon animals. Here’s one of his insights:

Comedy is a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression. That is what comics do, stand the world upside down.

While I don’t agree that this is true in all cases, that’s an interesting insight.

It’s also a useful one.

Socially acceptable hostility and aggression? Hmm…

Humor is very effective in any scene where you want to put characters at odds. From a terribly light romantic comedy to real-life political campaign commentary, you can use humor literally anywhere to slam the opposition.

George W. Bush was the first US president to be handed an appropriations bill and start looking for Waldo.

That’s pretty hostile, unless you’re a Democrat. Then, it’s just history.

Let’s try something more personal — characters considering a divorce in the midst of an emotionally charged argument.

    Exhaling forcefully in exasperation, Thomas headed for the exit. “This was a bad idea.”
    Margo immediately jumped to her feet. “You’re not leaving. You promised.”
    “You’re just wasting time with a damn magazine.”
    “My damn magazine still interests me.”
    “Right.” Thomas rudely pulled the magazine from her hand, showcasing the cover for her. “No point in talking. I can’t possibly compete with… Hey, what do you know? PMS is a lifestyle.”

While this argument was hostile, was anyone seriously hurt? No. You can see that these characters could be easily reconciled in the proverbial happy ending. Humor doesn’t negate the hostility, but it does, almost inexplicably, soften the barbs’ long-term effects for your reader.

Carlin is correct in noting that humor’s hostility and aggression are socially acceptable. When you get a useful tip from a master, give it some thought!

NOTE: Please comment on this post if you’d like to see more insights from master humorists (with a little commentary) in future posts. I’m inclined to think that The Comic View is entirely worthwhile for all of us as an ongoing (perhaps monthly) feature, but I really would like some feedback. Please, let me know what you think.

Parting Funny: Misers aren’t fun to live with, but they make wonderful ancestors.David Brenner

Next Up: Beat That Joke

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Listing Funny

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

I have finally dragged myself out of bed, and I can state unequivocally that one can recover from a severe cold in seven to ten days if you drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of rest, and, at all cost, avoid plenty of daytime television.

Since our topic is lists, let’s start with a short list of the reasons that I hate getting sick:

  1. No chicken soup flavored penicillin
  2. It’s entirely unfair that I should have this many aches and pains and no fond memories of a previous night of drinking and debauchery.
  3. My plague-phobic friends will visit only if I wear a rubber glove over my entire body.
  4. My doctor bill is larger than the GDP of Zambia.
  5. My new talking thermometer keeps saying, “Holy Crap!”

Regardless, I’ve now recovered, so let’s talk about lists.

People generally like lists. You’ll find them in almost all magazines, which entice you to buy with teaser headlines on the cover, such as:

  • Ten Ways to Steal Your Skinny Friend’s Thighs
  • Five Tasty Mouthwashes That Are Mostly Alcohol
  • Seven Totally Snarky Eye Shadow Reviews
  • Eight Diets That May Cause Shooting Rampages
  • Ten Mugshots That Were Worse Than The Crime

And of course, most of you will remember David Letterman‘s Top Ten List on the Late Show. Originally, the Top Ten List was simply a way to add ten more jokes to the show. However, it was an almost immediate hit with viewers and became a regular feature. Many people tuned in just for the lists!

Cover image: "Sexual Evolution"
It’s obvious that lists have comedy potential. However, lists are also helpful when you need to write a joke. Lists can help you form relationships, many of which are not immediately obvious. Granted, this can be a bit tedious, but if it produces great results, it’s worth a few minutes of effort. Let’s look at an example:

First, pick a topic. Let’s use: Housework

Next, list headings related to your topic, such as:

  • Kitchen
  • Bathroom
  • Bedroom
  • Tools

Now, list everything that you can think of under each heading. For this example, we’ll only use the Kitchen and Tools lists:


  • cooking
  • wash dishes
  • clean oven
  • put away groceries
  • mop floor


  • sink
  • mop and bucket
  • cleanser
  • spray cleaner
  • oven cleaner
  • sponges, rags

Looking over the lists, there’s nothing immediately funny about any of the entries.


The relationships are there. You just need to twist them a bit.

Under the heading Kitchen, “cooking” can be related to all of the entries under Tools. Are any of these funny?

  • Cooking + sink = When you need a really large mixing bowl that’s easy to clean.

  • Cooking + mop and bucket = I love butter. When I’m cooking, I baste with a rag mop. I get my cholesterol checked by the EPA.

  • Cooking + cleanser = If you want a really good tasting tomato sauce, don’t store the sea salt next to the cleanser.

  • Cooking + spray cleaner = Salad just doesn’t taste the same ever since they put olive oil in a spray can that looks so much like Windex.

  • Cooking + oven cleaner = You need to preheat the oven to bake a chicken, and you need to preheat to use oven cleaner. However, in my experience, this is not a good time to multitask.

  • Cooking + sponges, rags = The recipe said to tie the turkey’s legs together, so I finally found a use for that dish rag.

There are two certainties using the list method. One, you will not be able to write a line for every relationship. Two, not all of your jokes will be killers. However, using lists to jumpstart your relationship engine, you WILL generate more great jokes.

NEW FEATURE! Check out History’s Missing Quotes!

Parting Funny: I’m not good in bed. Hell, I’m not even good on the couch.Drew Carey

Next Up: The Comic View

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Funny, Funny Relationships – Part 3

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

In Parts 1 and 2, we looked at many examples of funny relationships between people. As social animals, we can easily relate to these relationships and their obvious humor.

Now, let’s expand a little.

Relating one thing to another, or one person to another, seems like a very simple formula for humor, and it is. While not the only possibility for humor, the funny relationship is the most prevalent.

Funny relationships actually take numerous forms. The most common are:

  1. Relating a thing to a thing – Examples: a cat to a dog; a car seat to a lounge chair
  2. Relating a person to a thing – Examples: the previously mentioned old classic — a walking man and a banana peel; guys and cars; women and lingerie
  3. Relating a person to a situation – Examples: a person fired from their job; an argument; an accident
  4. Relating a person to an attribute – Examples: habits; gender-related traits such as wearing makeup (primarily female), or living on pizza and beer (primarily single males); negative qualities (greed, stinginess, jealousy, etc.); and of course, bodily functions
  5. Relating a person to a person – Examples: any male-female difference; young and old; Democrat and Republican; parent and child

The humor in funny relationships arises from the familiarity of the relationship itself. Recognition of this familiarity is always followed by a twist in the tale.

Normal and Abnormal
Funny relationships can be called dysfunctional. They take our perception of normal and twist it toward the abnormal. Yet another very simple formula:

Normal + Abnormal = Funny

Note the funny relationship can be blatantly obvious:

My blind date could have been better. Cute girl, but I couldn’t stand her dog.

Or more obscure, requiring a bit of thought. It can even be unspecified as in another old Henny Youngman line:

How’s your wife?
Compared to what?

You can also mix up relationships, such as giving an animal human attributes:

What did the talking frog say?
I toad you it was easy.

If you’re five years-old, that’s hilarious.

Granted, dissecting funny is a bit like deposing the king — the power goes away. Funny dies ignobly in any explanation. Still, such dissection is good practice, and using old jokes is a good place to start dissecting bits of humor.

OLD JOKE: In a Wild West town, an Indian brave stands near the entrance to the general store. As an attractive young lady enters the store, the Indian raises his hand in salute and says, “Chance.”
The pretty young lady ignores him and enters the store.
As the young lady exits, the Indian again raises his salute and says, “Chance.”
The young lady now stops. “I thought the traditional Indian greeting was ‘How’,” she said.
“Me know how,” said the Indian. “Me want chance.”

Here, the traditional (normal) Indian greeting (“How”) becomes abnormal (“Chance”) when our very male Indian friend become enamored of an attractive member of the opposite sex (a very normal and familiar relationship).

Why look at old jokes?
Old jokes actually have a few advantages in becoming hackneyed and no longer funny to us.

  • Since you likely already know quite a few, there’s no research involved.
  • You’re no longer laughing, so it’s easy to examine them dispassionately.

Pick a few old jokes that made you laugh way back when. Look for the familiar relationship(s).

Cover image: "Sexual Evolution"Next, how would you characterize the funny aspect of each joke — the twist in the tale? Is it based on truth? Pain? Superiority? Exaggeration? Surprise? Something absurd? Etc. Your answer here can literally be anything.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what abnormal perception or characteristic caused you to laugh. Without a familiar (normal) relationship, overtly stated or implied, the humor would not have worked.

Parting Funny: My husband said he needed more space. So I locked him outside.Roseanne Barr

Next Up: Listing Funny

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