November 19, 2010No Comments

Funny Writing Has Attitude that Binds


Like a stand-up comedian, a writer who wants to make a reader laugh out loud uses attitude combined with observation. 

Usually, this means departing from the norms of polite conversation or objective writing, and incorporating feelings, opinions and (mis)perceptions to grab the reader's attention. Observation provides the topic; attitude makes compelling writing.

Judy Carter, author of "The Comedy Bible," put it this way: "...people tune in to hear someone say all the stuff that most people are too polite (or scared) to talk about--the things that scare them, that are stupid, and so on." No one wants to hear about what writers or comics love. 

Don't take that to mean that this writer is condoning outrageous statements made for shock value. Funny writing must have attitude, but cheap shots or rants are not the only means to that end. A good way to bring attitude into your writing is to mine your life experiences for material. Blunders, misunderstandings and being at the wrong place at the wrong time are a rich vein -- and all of us have experienced doubt, confusion and embarrassment, so we can relate. The television show Seinfeld made us laugh about how we react to office birthday cakes, puffy shirts and ugly babies. Memoirist David Sedaris wrote humorously about his job as one of Santa's elves at a department store and a visit to a nudist colony, finding the funny through his acknowledged self-consciousness and powerful observation of the strange details of each.

It is disconcerting to talk to someone on the phone and know that he is naked. Every now and then I might call a friend who says, "You caught me on my way to the shower," but that's different. The man at the nudist colony sounded as though he had been naked for years. Even his voice was tanned.

David Sedaris, Naked (New York: A Back Bay Book, 1997)

Often, finding the funny means taking a magnifying glass to our own flaws and goofs and then sharing our opinions about those with the reader. This takes both confidence and humility. And fortitude. In a 2009 interview on National Public Radio, writer/director Harold Ramis said that a certain amount of alienation is helpful for a comic posture. "You need to feel like an outsider and a bit of a loser to get up there and so assertively express your own shortcomings and talk about your body parts or your most painful and difficult relationships," he said. Focusing on commonalities when creating fresh and authentic observations for characters can help writers avoid crossing over into mean-spirited humor. The key to getting the big laughs is to make your observations the kind that bind us humans together, not the ones that pull us apart. More work, but worth it.


October 27, 2010No Comments

Writing Humorously

Humor is a funny thing. It is easy to make some people laugh -- employees, mothers, bartenders, the guy at the coffee shop -- but being funny to strangers is an art form. I recently attended a workshop by author and comedy instructor Judy Carter on how to write funny. 


Let me stop here and warn the reader that this blog posting is not actually funny.


Judy boldly stated at the beginning of the workshop that she could make anyone funny. And by the end of the workshop, I believed her. The key is in finding your authentic voice, and then finding ways to embrace your defects and be more human.  Think about what other people (spouses, lovers, siblings) would say your defects are, and make it into a joke. My mother would say I spend too much money on clothes and shoes. To be funny, I would need to embrace that defect and make jokes about it. To do this, I need to put myself down in front of people.


For example:


You know you spend too much money on shoes when...

  • Your credit card is always maxed out.
  • You’ve never even come close to wearing out the soles on a pair of shoes.
  • You’ve taken photos of all your shoes and taped them to the shoebox lid so you can remember what you have.



Yes, the last bullet is something I have actually done, as you probably guessed from the picture of gold sandals -- Taryn by Taryn Rose -- on sale!


But the example above also illustrates another point that Judy made, and that is that comedy is about lists. And the key thing to know about lists is that anytime you make a list, be sure that the first two items in the list are relatable to most people, and that the third item is spun to be funny.  According to Judy, specificity is funny. The formula for funny lists is general, general and then funny. Your list can be more than three, but should never be less than three. And your challenge in writing these lists is to think about the distinctions of whatever topic you are covering. What is weird about spending too much money on shoes? Not being able to afford going out in them. So I’m sitting in my studio apartment eating ramen noodles in a $400 pair of stilettos.  What is hard? What is weird? What is scary? Those are the other questions to consider as you try to write humorously.


I like to think of humor as something that comes naturally, but after Judy’s workshop, I realized that there is an art to writing jokes and being humorous to more than just a handful of loved ones. You can learn more about Judy at her website http://www.judycarter.com/. Thanks to the Independent Writers of Southern California for bringing her to its members like me.