04 October 2010

Humor Writing

Jim Hagarty is an award winning humor writer.  He also writes songs and stories and lives with his wife and two teenage children near Toronto. To witness all the insufferable bragging he does about himself, visit jimhagarty.com.

Canadian Writer: Jim Hagerty
Humor writing disappeared from newspapers years ago and it seemed as though it was a lost art, until the realization set in that it has simply migrated to the Internet. Thankfully, there are a lot of funny writers out there, many of them toiling away on the jokes that light up the TV airwaves night after night.

But humor writing isn't necessarily an exercise in joke telling. In fact, for people such as me who still try to squeeze some laughs out of a few hundred carefully chosen words, jokes rarely enter the picture. I don't know that I've ever written a joke in my life, at least not intentionally. Maybe I'll give it a shot someday. I'm pretty sure if I do the result will involve a drunken priest and a balding barber. Maybe a boat with a hole in it.

To be a funny writer of short stories, there is one big requirement. You have to be a funny person. Not one who sends them all into mirth-filled fits at parties with your amazing one liners, but someone who can successfully do two things: recognize a situation that contains a germ of possible hilarity in it and relate that tale in a way that causes others to laugh, maybe even uproariously, at the telling of it.
It you are not funny in life, you will not be funny in print (or on screen).

A situation is amusing or it is not, even given the fact that various cultures have their own ideas of what constitutes humor. Basically, it has to do with the concept of incongruity. Things should be a certain way and they are not. A cat lands on your uncle's head and pulls off his wig trying to cling to its perch. You don't have to be Steve Martin to be able to wring a chuckle out of that. I know a man who likes to ride his bike when he's drunk, a dangerous practice and one I should prevent him from exercising, but I don't. He's also skinny and has trouble keeping his pants up. One day I saw his pants falling down around his ankles repeatedly while he hung unsoberly onto his bike, trying to climb aboard. Right out of Laurel and Hardy.

Pants falling down. That's funny because pants aren't supposed to fall down, just like people aren't supposed to fall off stages during performances and kids aren't supposed to hit line-drive baseballs into their father's groin. Hello America's Funniest Home Videos.

But funny doesn't always have to arise from a situation. It can also originate from the flaws in our character and stories involving these little quirks can sometimes generate the most lasting laughs because we all can relate to the particular foibles that have been put on display. We may not be able to identify with a man whose wig has been torn off by a cat, but we surely can feel for the nerdy teen on his or her first date or the parent whose toddler embarrasses his mom or dad by blurting out an honest observation in public that should have been kept quiet. Like the time my son said loudly to me about a tradesman who was just leaving our house and still within earshot:
"Daddy, that man has a big bum!"
So, the situation, or the quirk, simply needs the retelling of it to elicit a laugh. But, again, all the fancy storytelling in the world won't make an unfunny thing, funny. And this may be a personal preference only, but really tall tales rarely make the cut. For humor to be good, it needs to be true, or based on truth. It is rare that something simply conjured out of the imagination, no matter how superbly contrived it might be, will become a kneeslapper. Again, this involves the identify factor. The reader knows when the writer is making things up and loses interest right away. Even the best writer can't disguise a tall tale because no matter how well he covers his tracks, what he produces will still lack the air of authenticity and genuineness. This also goes for outlandish embellishment. The homely girl doesn't become a beauty by the application of copious amounts of lipstick and makeup.

So, tell your story, but here's the rub. You may have a great situation to write about or a perfect tale involving the frailty of the human character, but if you don't tell it well, it will flop. We all know people who couldn't make a story funny if they had the face of Robin Williams and the wit of Stephen Colbert – or vice versa.

I realized many years ago that there was a humor gene actively at work in my Irish family. My mother would entertain us through supper to the point of choking on our food with stories drawn from mundane things such as her trip to the grocery store. A befuddled man ahead of her in line with a hole in his pocket whose coins had all dribbled out on the floor. A woman with her hat on backwards. Mom never tried to get us all laughing, she just did it naturally.

It eventually dawned on me that I had a bit of that same gift for storytelling and seeing the absurd in little situations. I realized it by the reaction from people to whom I told my little tales.

Today, I test out stories on friends, relatives and neighbours. Some are immediate hits and some things that I think are funny, get no reaction. So I drop those ones, keep the good ones.
Two more things.

Draw your story out a bit. Set it up. Don't give away the big funny part right away. Remember, the outcome of this tale will not be predictable because this is something that shouldn't have happened in an orderly world – but did.

Secondly, use original metaphors and similes and make up your own clichés. On a stressed-out day of teaching, a student asked me how things were going. "I feel like a frog trying to hop across the 401," I said, citing the number of Canada's biggest highway near Toronto. That went over well, so later, I added, "a frog trying to hop across the 401 – at rush hour." Not an earth-shattering reference but original as far as I know.

Never use "busy as a beaver" or "mad as a hornet". Think up your own "as-a" thingies.
That's it. Stay funny. Humor is our only hope in a world that's desperately in need of some way to lighten up.

It isn't easy to write humor stories but it has its rewards.

After all, who doesn't love a good clown?


  1. Appreciate the article, Jim. Breaking into blogging -- especially in the humor niche -- is no easy task. I do find that a lot of people seem to gravitate towards a particular overused format -- see: Icanhascheezburger.com for instance.

    It must be the Irish in you. My family has some Irish ancestry and I like to think I'm funny. But then again, what do I know? :)


  2. A great post Jim, thanks for sharing. I saw your pic while reading and thought you looked familiar. I live in the Festival City too.