• Название:

    Melvin Helitzer Comedy Writing Secrets 2005

  • Размер: 2.06 Мб
  • Формат: PDF
  • или
  • Название: Comedy Writing Secrets (2nd Edition)
  • Автор: Mel Helitzer

secrets

2nd edition

secrets
the best-selling book on
how to think funny, write funny,
act funny, and get paid for it

Mel Helitzer
with Mark Shatz

WRITER'S DIGEST BOOKS
Cincinnati, Ohio
www. writersdigest.com

COMEDY WRITING SECRETS, Copyright 2005 © by Melvin Helitzer.
Printed and bound in the United States of America. All rights reserved. No part of
this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical
means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in
writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote passages in a
review. Published by Writer's Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc.,
4700 East Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45236, (800) 289-0963. Second edition.
Other fine Writer's Digest Books are available at your local bookstore or direct
from the publisher.
09 08 07 06 05

5 4 3 2 1

Distributed in Canada by Fraser Direct, 100 Armstrong Avenue, Georgetown,
ON, Canada L7G 5S4, Tel: (905) 877-4411. Distributed in the U.K. and Europe by
David & Charles, Brunei House, Newton Abbot, Devon, TQ12 4PU, England, Tel:
(+44) 1626 323200, Fax: (+44) 1626 323319, E-mail: mail@davidandcharles.co.uk.
Distributed in Australia by Capricorn Link, P.O. Box 704, S. Windsor NSW, 2756
Australia, Tel: (02) 4577-3555.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Helitzer, Melvin.
Comedy writing secrets: the best-selling book on how to think funny, write
funny, act funny, and get paid for it / by Mel Helitzer with Mark Shatz.
p. cm.
Includes index.
ISBN 1-58297-357-1 (pbk.: alk. paper)
1. Wit and humor—Authorship. I. Shatz, Mark. II. Title.
PN6149.A88H445 2005
808.7-dc22

2005014368
CIP

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
MEL HELITZER, a former Clio award-winning Madison Avenue ad
agency president, is now a distinguished, award-winning journalism pro¬
fessor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He was one of the first to teach
humor writing at any university in the world. His course led to the publica¬
tion of Comedy Writing Secrets in 1987, and the book is now the largest
selling text on humor writing in the country.
Helitzer has written humor for print and broadcast productions as
well as comedy material for such stars as Sammy Davis, Jr., Shari Lewis,
Art Linkletter, Ernie Kovacs, and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
Many of his students are now professional comedians or humor writers
for national publications. He is the author of seven books, including a
bound-for-Broadway musical, Oh, Jackie! Her Father's Story.
MARK A. SHATZ is professor of psychology at Ohio University,
Zanesville. In addition to teaching humor writing, he has extensive inter¬
national experience as a teacher, speaker, and seminar leader on various
topics such as motivation, death education, and interpersonal communi¬
cation. Dr. Shatz has published numerous academic papers, including
how to use humor to enhance instruction and learning. He is the author
of KISSing Golf: The Keep It Simple (Stupid) Instructional Method, a
humorous instructional book for beginning golfers.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Foreword
Introduction

ix
1

PART I: THE BASICS OF HUMOR WRITING
Chapter 1:
The Importance of Humor Writing

7

Chapter 2:
Why We Laugh

19

Chapter 3:
The Recipe for Humor

36

PART II: HUMOR WRITING T E C H N I Q U E S
Chapter 4:
POW: Play on Words

61

Chapter 5:
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

89

Chapter 6:
POW Brainstorming Techniques

109

Chapter 7:
The Next Giant Step: Reverses

125

Chapter 8:
The Harmony of Paired Elements:
Phrases, Words, Statistics, and Aphorisms

138

Chapter 9:
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples

150

Chapter 10:
Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

163

Chapter 11:
Funny Words and Foul Language

181

PART III: WRITING HUMOR FOR
SPECIFIC MARKETS
Chapter 12:
Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three: Writing Humor for Speeches . . .199
Chapter 13:
Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

223

Chapter 14:
Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

252

Chapter 15:
Saw the Picture, Loved the Gag:
Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

268

Chapter 16:
The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

287

Chapter 17:
We Mean Business

303

Chapter 18:
Teach, Learn, and Laugh

315

Chapter 19:
That's a Wrap

327

Appendix:
Glossary

333

Index

337

FOREWORD
And Now a Word From the Prof
Comedy is a lot like professional sports. Past successes are history. You
get paid for today's hits. One difference is that in baseball, a .300 hitter
gets paid a million dollars and the fans are deliriously happy all season.
But a .300 batting average in comedy would get professional performers
to go from boos to booze in a week.
With that kind of failure rate, you'd think any person who had reached
the age of reason would take up plumbing. But the facts are that writing
and performing humor is rising in popularity. And if you're successful,
the money in comedy is so abundant that professional practitioners are
like well-endowed actors in a porn movie—"You mean I get paid for
doing that."
The biggest change in the humor industry in the last ten years has been
the need for professional writers. There are just not enough qualified writ¬
ers today to fill the increasing need. Besides the standard venues, more and
more markets are begging for humor material: speeches, business newslet¬
ters, advertising, columns, talk shows, sales presentations, and everything
from high-tech computer attachments to Hi, Mom greeting cards.
Comedy clubs had a ten-year fireworks display. While the worst ones
closed from bad management and bad acts, the remainder are solid busi¬
nesses, and the "I'll do anything to get on stage" neophytes are
now secure enough to be unionized.
TV sitcoms also had their vicissitudes of popularity.
The great ones lasted into syndication, and the worst
ones were pulled after one or two seasons. In the mean¬
time, the number of humor talk shows from Leno and
Letterman to Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien increased. And
now every presidential candidate needs to make a guest
appearance, not only to be toasted but also to increase
his popularity by being roasted.

And Now a Word From the Prof

The formal study of humor in colleges has grown in geometric propor¬
tions despite the doubting colleagues who associate facetiousness with
frivolity. The president of my university once told me he disdained
humor, because he feared failure. "I've heard some of your speeches,"
I told him. "And I agree with you."
It's the fear of failure, however, that continues to be the biggest draw¬
back. While 90 percent of us claim we have a sense of humor, the number
of critics is 100 percent. "I didn't think it was funny."
Go argue.
Milton Berle ended his years appearing before senior citizens in
Miami Beach. Once, a little old lady in the front row kept shouting,
"That stinks. I've heard it before."
Exasperated, Berle said, "Lady, do you know who I am?"
"No," she said, "but if you'll go up to the desk, they'll tell you."
The net result of all this is that if you really want to take the time and
effort to learn how to write (and perform) humor, you've got to have a
thick skin to go along with a nimble brain. Learn how to live with people
throwing dirt at you.
One day a donkey fell into a well. The farmer couldn't get him out, so
he knew he had to cover him up. He called in his neighbors, and they all
started to throw dirt down the well, but instead of burying the animal,
the donkey would shake the dirt off and take a step up. Pretty soon, the
pile of dirt got so high that the donkey stepped over the edge of the well.
Moralists use this story to preach that all our troubles can be stepping
stones, that we shouldn't give up; instead shake it off and take a step up.
Comedians, however, note that as soon as the disdained donkey got to
the top he ran over and bit the farmer. Their moral is that if something
goes wrong, try to cover your ass. It can come back and bite you.
We hope you'll enjoy this book. It can make you rich in more ways
than one. And that's no joke.
Professor Mel Helitzer

Ohio University
2005

Comedy Writing Secrets

INTRODUCTION
You Can Do It!
HEY! IS THIS THING ON?
Out of fear that discovery of their superficial tricks will be
evaluated rather than laughed at, many famous humorists
have sponsored an insupportable fiction that comedians
must be born funny. According to Mel Brooks and Woody
Allen, for example, you can't teach anyone to be funny.
They either have the gift or they don't. Hogwash!
You can teach literate people anything, from
Einstein's theory of relativity to how to play shortstop. And compared to
humor writing secrets, playing the piano's eighty-eight keys or speaking
Greek is a lot harder to learn and a lot less fun. (Which is more beneficial
to humanity is debatable.) What is universally accepted, however, is that
comedy, a flash of intuition, is more art than science.
Since Eve first admonished her pooped-out partner to be "up and
Adam," entertainment has been our kingdom's social pastime, and come¬
dy is the coin of the realm. Theater traditionalists like to point out that
one side of their coin is the embossed mask of humor, and the other side,
the mask of tragedy. They're wrong again. Humor is tragedy and tragedy
is humor. As Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy
is if you drop into an open sewer and die." As this book will prove, if you
can't learn to write humor, kid, that's tragedy!
HOW THIS BOOK HELPS YOU
Humor style changes dramatically almost every twenty years. This
new edition of Comedy Writing Secrets has been updated with con¬
temporary methods and formulas. Here are some of the key points
the book covers:

You Can Do It! 1










The three Rs of humor
The secret of the MAP theory
The beauty of What if?
The THREES theory of humor structure
Why we laugh at some forms of humor and groan at others
The natural hostility of humor
Why humor must ridicule a target
Why hard-core humor is more shock than funny

The book is divided into three sections. The first part covers the founda¬
tions of humor writing, including the theories and principles of humor and
why we laugh. The second section describes various humor-writing tech¬
niques, such as plays on words, reverses, pairings, triples, and exaggeration.
The final section explains how to write humor for popular markets such as
greeting cards, speeches, articles, newsletters, and stand-up comedy. This
revised edition also includes chapters on humor writing in advertising and
the use of humor in education.
Integrated throughout the book are sections titled Showtimes that
provide quick exercises that can refine your writing skills. Humor writing
demands practice, and it is critical to take the time to complete these
writing assignments. If you're not funny by then, demand your money
back and don't ever get married.
While this book is an introduction to humor writing, we don't promise
it will instantly transform you into a professional. Learning the funda¬
mentals of humor is easy compared with the dedication required to be a
successful writer. A woman once rushed up to the famous violinist Fritz
Kreisler and cried, "I'd give my life to play as beautifully as you do."
Kreisler replied, "Well, I did."

NO DEGREE REQUIRED
Since there is no official humor certification organization, there is no
such thing as a certified professional humor writer. If you can sell your
material or get paid for performing it, you're a professional. But humor
writing is commanding more and more attention in higher education.

2

Comedy Writing Secrets

Approximately sixty universities, including the University of California,
Los Angeles, and The New School in New York, offer humor-writing cours¬
es and degree-granting programs in humor studies, and more such courses
are on the horizon. Many colleges use this book as their primary text.
The first college credit writing course was taught by Mel Helitzer at
the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in 1980. Within three
years, it had become such a smash hit that the twenty allotted seats were
assigned a year in advance. Students for the class are as diverse today as
they were more than twenty years ago and range from fellow faculty
members to adults from the community—including lawyers, doctors,
accountants, homemakers, and even one mortician. (We asked him if,
when trying out his material, he killed the audience, and he said, "No,
they're already dead when I get there.")
The largest group of current comedy writers for major TV shows
and films comes from Harvard, which ironically does not have a humorwriting course. For some reason, there has never been a famous come¬
dian who graduated from Yale or Princeton, that is if you don't count
two recent U.S. presidents.
In Chicago, Second City is the country's leading school for improvisational training. Numerous comedy clubs and individual professional writers, par¬
ticularly in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, offer small clinics.
THE BIG-PICTURE BENEFITS OF HUMOR
Humor's impact is far reaching. For example, when the editors of Fortune
Magazine queried human resource directors of Fortune 500 companies as
to what qualifications they looked for in middle management executives,
the top three answers were: (1) knowledge of the product; (2) respect for
the bottom line; and (3) a sense of humor.
Since everyone claims to have a sense of humor, except for an expec¬
tant mother in a delivery room, the editors double-checked, "Why a sense
of humor?" And the replies were consistent.
A sense of humor indicates leadership. When we smile, it's a sign of
confidence, because fear and paranoia are signaled by frowns, not smiles.

You Can Do It! 3

Subordinates, associates, customers, and clients like to work with someone
with a sense of humor.

JOINED AT THE LIP: HUMOR AND COMEDY
Academicians, especially English professors, often attempt to draw dis¬
tinctions between humor and comedy. Humor is considered the broader
term that encompasses all types of humor material, such as satire, sar¬
casm, irony, and parody. Comedy is the performance of humor. The per¬
ception is that clever writers write humor while glib comedians do jokes.
Men say the most important thing in another person is a sense
of humor. That means they're looking for someone to laugh at
their jokes.
—Sheila Wenz

It's true that jokes in isolation are just that—jokes. However, any form
of humor writing uses jokes to produce the humor. We take a less elitist
position and do not make arbitrary distinctions between humor and
comedy. If the result is laughter, then the label is insignificant. Our goal
is to help you write funny.
WHOSE JOKE IS IT, ANYWAY?
Contemporary humor-writing methods are an extension of past techniques.
We focus on contemporary humorists, but since today's comedians rip off the
greats, knowledge of humor history is not a sometime thing. This book, there¬
fore, includes examples and advice from scores of contemporary comedians
such as Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, David
Letterman, Robin Williams, and Rita Rudner, and from humor hall of famers
such as Erma Bombeck, Milton Berle, and George Burns, and even from such
early American humorists as Mark Twain, Elbert Hubbard, and John Morley.
Unfortunately, credit lines for humor are a researcher's nightmare,
like this pairing.
If you can't join them, beat them.
—Mort Sahl

4

Comedy Writing Secrets

If you can't beat them, arrange to have them beaten.
—George Carlin

There are many standard jokes, and they have thousands of variations.
No one can swear that any one was his creation. In Oh, the Things I
Know!, Al Franken stated, "I am not a member of any organized religion.
I am a Jew." Franken later noted that he "first heard that joke from a
Catholic, who had substituted the word 'Catholic.'" Will Rogers used that
same premise—but he substituted the words "political party" and
"Democrat"—nearly one hundred years ago.
It's also been proven that such famous lines as Horace Greeley's "Go
west, young man," Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake," Joseph Addison's
"He who hesitates is lost," W.C. Fields's "Any man who hates dogs and
babies can't be all bad," and his oft-quoted tombstone inscription, "I would
rather be here than in Philadelphia," Mark Twain's "Everybody talks about
the weather but nobody does anything about it," Will Rogers's "I never met
a man I didn't like," and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to
fear is fear itself," were all previously written by someone else.
If scholars have this problem with historic lines, then giving proper
credit for similar jokes, anecdotes, and witticisms can be a never-ending
dilemma. So the best we can offer for identification is to list the name
that was published in someone's joke collection, but don't bet on its
accuracy. Of course, some jokes came to us creditless, and some we
wrote ourselves. The ghost of Marlowe will always haunt the library
of Shakespeare—and that's not an original line either.
Now, let's get started.

You Can Do It!

5

The Basics of
Humor Writing

CHAPTER 1
The Importance of Humor Writing
What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh
without making them puke.
—Steve Martin

Humor has tremendous value. It's an art form. But
it's not a mystery—it has structure and formula.
You can learn this creative art for your own
personal enjoyment or for financial gain.
Admittedly, some widely known authors feel
that humor-writing skills (let alone the sense
of humor) are mystically inherited rather than
learned, and likely molded by such factors as
ethnic characteristics, early childhood mater¬
nal influence, and insecurity.
Humor is one of the things in life which defies analysis—
either you have it or you don't, either you enjoy it or
you don't.
—Ross Mackenzie

Nobody can teach you humor writing. The secret is passed on
from one generation to another, and I will not tell mine, except
to my son.
—Art Buchwald

But the truth is that anyone can learn to write humor. Although some
individuals are naturally funnier than others, just as some individuals
are more athletic or more musically gifted, humor writing can be
taught and humor-writing skills can be acquired. Humor is not a mys¬
tery, because (like stage magic) it is possible to demystify it.

The Importance of Humor Writing 7

BUT I AIN'T FUNNY
Let's use a simple humor exercise to illustrate that humor writing is
accessible to everyone. Consider the possible uses of two round bar stool
cushions. Other than stool cushions, what can they be? For five minutes,
use your imagination and plenty of exaggeration. Without being restrained
by practicality, scribble down as many possibilities as you can.
Your list of possible uses for two stool cushions might include
the following.






elephant slippers
oversized skullcaps
eye patches for a giant
hemorrhoid pads for a really large person
Frisbees for the athletically challenged

This humor Rorschach test illustrates the first step in humor concep¬
tion—imagination. Creativity is the key to comedy's engine, which won't
turn over without unbridled imagination. Look at any other common
object—an ashtray, a beer bottle, furniture in a room, or parts of the
human body. Train your mind to constantly ask What if? and brainstorm
all the possibilities of what else these objects could be. Don't worry if
your ideas seem absurd. The exercise is to get your imagination in gear.
To write funny, you must first think funny.
Imagination is intelligence having fun.
—George Scialabba

What if? imagination allows you to realign diverse elements into new
and unexpected relationships that surprise the audience—and surprise
makes people laugh.
What if mother's milk was declared a health hazard? Where would
they put the warning label?
What if you actually saw McNuggets on a chicken?
What if alphabet soup consistently spelled out obscene words?

8

Comedy Writing Secrets

What if the leaning tower of Pisa had a clock? (After all, what good
is the inclination if you don't have the time?)

Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don't be inhibited. It's better to
take a nihilistic attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot
around taboos. When writing, write freely. Make uninhibited assump¬
tions. Editing and self-censorship are second and third steps—never
the first!
We'll describe later how to fit your ideas into the basic formulas of
humor writing. If your internal critic limits your imagination by saying
This stinks, then you will be left with nothing. Your goal is to tap the full
potential of your comedic imagination by remembering this mantra:
Nothing stinks. Nothing does stink!
The whole object of comedy is to be yourself, and the closer you
get to that, the funnier you will be.
—Jerry Seinfeld

Imagination drives comedy, and just about everyone has an imagination—
or no one would never get married. So just about everyone can learn the
fundamentals of humor. How well you learn them depends on how much
effort you're willing to expend.
THE BENEFITS OF HUMOR WRITING

Respect

Remembrance

Rewards

The Importance of Humor Writing

9

The benefits of humor writing are the three Rs: respect, remembrance,
and rewards. The skillful use of humor can
• earn you respect
• cause your words to be remembered
• earn great financial and personal rewards
Respect: Get Up and Glow
We use humor primarily to call attention to ourselves. Notice how you
react when you tell a joke to a small group of friends and, just as you get
to the end, someone shouts out the punch line. That person gets the
laugh. You don't. You feel victimized. Your glare might be the physical
limit of your anger at first—but the second time this happens, you'll try
to kill the jerk, and no jury will convict you.
Laughter is to the psyche what jogging is to the body—laughter
makes your psyche healthy and bright and vigorous. But unlike jogging,
humor (at least in live performance) offers immediate gratification—
more so than any other art form. You know within a half-second when
your audience is appreciative, because this jury's decision is impulsive
and instantaneous.
Comedy is very controlling—you are making people laugh. It is
there in the phrase "making people laugh." You feel completely in
control when you hear a wave of laughter coming back at you that
you have caused.
—Gilda Radner

There are other ways that you can attract attention: You can achieve
something outstanding, criticize somebody, or be unconventional, for
instance. But you can increase the impact of these things with humor.
Humor is more than entertainment or joke telling—it's a powerful social
lubricant that eases and enriches communication, interpersonal relations, and education. Humor is a universal speech opener because it
immediately earns the speaker respectful attention. It's psychologically
impossible to hate someone with whom you've laughed.

10 Comedy Writing Secrets

When we laugh we temporarily give ourselves over to the person
who makes us laugh.
—Robert Orben

Humor can also help you gain success and respect in nearly every profes¬
sion (unless, perhaps, you are a mortician). For example, teachers facilitate
instruction with humor, advertising executives use humor to sell products,
and politicians rely on humor to promote their candidacies. Humor doesn't
just get you attention—it gets you favorable attention, and respect.

Remember: Everlasting Memories
When we're successfully humorous—live or in print—people remember.
Our best lines are retained and repeated. An impressive number of say¬
ings in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations are witticisms.
There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy
and tragedy, humor and hurt.
—Erma Bombeck

On one issue at least, men and women agree: They both
distrust women.
—H.L. Mencken

Humor promotes learning and makes it memorable. Studies have found
that students who attend lectures that include witticisms and anecdotes
achieve higher test scores than students who attend the same lectures
minus the humor. When learning is fun, everybody benefits.
When the mouth is open for laughter, you may be able to shove in
a little food for thought.
—Virginia Tooper

In and out of the classroom, jokes are probably our best opportunity for
immortality—for being remembered.
I don't want to gain immortality by my humor. I want to gain
immortality by not dying.
—Woody Allen

The Importance of Humor Writing 11

Reward: Show Me the Money
Humor is important in every facet of commercial life. More and more fre¬
quently, big-business executives are hiring speechwriters able to make
them gag on every line (and you can read that line any way you want to).
Many political candidates—in fact, every president since Franklin
Roosevelt—have had in-house humorists on their speech-writing teams.
It really gets me when the critics say I haven't done enough for
the economy. I mean, look what I've done for the book-publishing
industry. You've heard some of the titles. Big Lies, The Lies of
George W. Bush, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I'd like
to tell you I've read each of these books, but that'd be a lie.
—George W. Bush

Comedy can also be a springboard to lucrative TV and film roles. Robin
Williams, Alan King, Chevy Chase, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Ellen
DeGeneres, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Rosie
O'Donnell, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandier, and Roseanne Barr are just a
few major film and TV stars who started out as comedians. Woody Allen,
Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner began their careers as gag writers for Sid
Caesar's TV shows, and David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Garry
Shandling were TV staff writers before hosting their own TV shows.
A former girlfriend remembers Bill Gates as having bad breath.
He remembers her as not having $100 billion.
—Conan O'Brien

The demand for humor writers far exceeds the supply. One reason for
this is that more people want to tell jokes than write them. Opportunities
abound for humor writers, who can seek careers as syndicated colum¬
nists, speechwriters, greeting card writers, stand-up comedians, Internet
and advertising copywriters, and screenwriters for TV sitcoms and film.
Another reason for the high demand for humor writers is that television
is a joke-eating shark. It chews up more humor material in a month than
all other markets use in a year. Johnny Carson once remarked that televi¬
sion is the only medium that eats its young, because young writers are the

12 Comedy Writing Secrets

ones most frequently hired to feed the shark day after day. Many young
humorists are attracted to the eye-popping financial rewards of a career
in TV humor writing, but writers are only as good as their last joke, and
fatigue causes many of them to burn out after a year. Whatever humorwriting endeavors you choose, you can be financially and personally suc¬
cessful if you develop good humor-writing skills—and staying power.
The road to success is always under construction.
—Lily Tomlin

THE MAP TO BEING A SUCCESSFUL HUMORIST
The two qualities shared by all successful humorists are (a) consistency
and (b) targeted material. If you are consistent, you can make people
laugh repeatedly—the ability to write funny isn't a one-time thing.
Once you can consistently make people laugh, it's essential to target
your material so you don't waste precious time preparing the wrong
material for the wrong performer, to be delivered to the wrong audience.
This is as true in print and broadcast humor as it is for stand-up.
What if you tell a joke in the forest, and nobody laughs? Was it a joke?
—Steven Wright

The acronym MAP sums up this second point rather efficiently. MAP stands
for material, audience, and performer. MAP is a triangular comedic con¬
stellation. Each star in the constellation must relate to both the other stars.

Material

Audience

Performer

The Importance of Humor Writing 13

Successful humor requires all three MAP elements.
1. Material. The material must be appropriate to the interests of the
audience, and it must relate well to the persona of the performer.
2. Audience. The audience must complement both the material and
the presentation style of the performer.
3. Performer. The performer must present the right material to the
right audience in the right way.
Audience: Resisting a Rest
The reason the MAP theory is illustrated by a triangle is that—of the
three points—the audience is the most important. Every time writers
forget this simple piece of advice, they lose the game—and soon the job.
You and the audience have the same goal line. You score when you
reach it together. Others can keep score, but ten laughs a minute can
be a failed effort if the audience doesn't participate. The first responsi¬
bility of every humorist is to evaluate the majority of the audience,
whether it's one person or a thousand. (In the next chapter, we'll dis¬
cuss why people laugh.)
Unless you're prepared with material that obviously and vocally
works for a specific audience, you're facing impossible odds of suc¬
cess. There's a distinct audience for every specialized group. They are
categorized by hundreds of special interests: color, religion, education,
financial and social standing, acumen, geography, politics, fame, and
sex. The same material that works for a college audience will not work
for a group of lawyers, doctors, or bankers. Dumb-blonde jokes may
work for a blue-collar men's audience, but humor that ridicules men's
habits and body parts are more popular than ever with women's
groups. Youth audiences feel uninhibited language is expected, and
senior citizen groups feel young comedians' material should first be
exorcized with mouthwash.
Most audiences are more interested in subjects that involve their
activities than they are in humor that is all about you, your friends,
your pets, and your bar buddies. From the very first day, humor writers
are urged, figuratively of course, to throw away the capital letter I on

14 Comedy Writing Secrets

their computer. It's true that greats like Ray Romano, Rita Rudner, and
Woody Allen talk about themselves, but until you become the equiva¬
lent of Ray, Rita, or Woody, it's best to wait. More astute are performers
like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, and Billy Crystal, who fire
round after round of observations of the audience's interests. The best
example of all is Jeff Foxworthy's "You know you're a redneck if ..."
material, and although he demeans them, his redneck southern audi¬
ence howls all night.
Hey, Look Me Over
Once the profile of the audience has been established, the second most
important point of the triangle is performer. Whether you're writing
for someone else or you're the presenter, the audience needs to know
who you are in the first thirty seconds. It's in this short window of time
that they're going to decide just how comfortable they feel with your
comedic persona.
Certain characteristics are mandated by your physical appearance:
size, color, accent, sex, and beauty. Performers can enhance their personas with costumes, props, and theatrical projection, but it's best to
take advantage of these physical confinements rather than fight them.
Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame, looks goofy, and every time he tries
to change his character, he fails. Comedian Yakov Smirnoff has main¬
tained a Russian accent even though he lived all his formative years in
Cleveland. Red neck comedians wear blue jeans, Las Vegas comics
wear suits, and young girls wear black leather pants.
It's All Material
Only after you know your audience and the characteristics about the
performer's persona that need to be consistent, are you ready to start
writing the material.
And that's the heart of this book. But learning the fundamentals of
humor is easy compared with the dedication required, and you're going
to need it.
Throughout the book, we'll show you how to follow the MAP to suc¬
cessful humor writing.

The Importance of Humor Writing 15

HUMOR WRITING IS A 24/7 GIG
Writing humor is an all-day—and all-night—assignment. New ideas can
(and should!) pop into your head anytime, anyplace. In an issue of
Advertising Age, journalist Bob Garfield described the idea-collection
practices of Marty Rackham, then a beginning comic.
[Marty Rackham's wallet] is stuffed with miscellaneous business cards, on
the back of which he jots random ideas. One says, "Pulling words from a per¬
son who stutters." Another, "Jumper cables." Right now, he's working on a bit
about continental hygiene: "Did you ever smell a European?" The ideas mate¬
rialize constantly, in varying degrees of hilarity and sophistication.

The humorist's mind is a wonderful thing to watch. Sometimes you
can even see humorists' lips move as they silently try out different
ideas. Meet them during off-hours at a social gathering; every fact
reported, every name mentioned, every prediction made is grist for
humorous association. At the end of a party, if you ask how they
enjoyed themselves, they might answer positively only if they've been
successful at collecting new material, which they'll write and rewrite
all the way home.
A humorist tells himself every morning, "I hope it's going to
be a rough day." When things are going well, it's much harder
to make jokes.
—Alan Coren

To keep track of ideas and potential material, the humorist's toolbox typi¬
cally includes the following items: a note pad, index cards, a tape recorder,
and a computer with Internet access. If you hope to sell your writing, you'll
need a copy of Writer's Market, the bible of the publishing industry.
Regardless of the tools you use, you'll need to devise a system for
organizing your writing. The traditional method is to organize jokes by
topics using some type of filing system. Milton Berle and Bob Hope
each had a vault containing more than six million jokes on index cards
sorted by topic. The digital alternatives to index cards are database or
spreadsheet programs.

16

Comedy Writing Secrets

If you plan to write more elaborate humor (such as columns, arti¬
cles, or scripts), there are a variety of software programs that can aid
your writing. One of the most useful writing development programs is
Inspiration. The program allows you to visualize your material and
easily manipulate ideas, and its integrated diagramming and outlining
environments facilitate brainstorming, concept mapping, organizing,
and outlining.

SHOWTIME
The following activities will help you develop your comedy-writing foun¬
dation through listening, observing, reading, and exploring. It's critical
that you complete these exercises now, because they will be used
throughout the next few chapters.
•List your ten favorite comedians and humorists, and use the Internet to
search for jokes or quotes by each of these individuals.
• After you amass twenty jokes, write each joke on an index card. On the
back of each card, identify the subject or target of the joke, and explain
why you think the joke is funny. This exercise will help you become
aware of the format of successful jokes and provide you with insight into
your own comedic preferences.
• Collect ten to fifteen cartoons or comic strips and tape each one on
a separate piece of paper. As you did with the jokes, identify the target
of the humor and describe why the cartoon is funny to you. You may
find it helpful to continue building a file of jokes and cartoons that
appeal to you.
• In addition to building a joke and cartoon file, you'll need to find new
material to use as the building blocks for your humor writing. Most pro¬
fessional humor writers begin each day by reading a newspaper, watch¬
ing news on TV, and/or surfing the Internet for incidents and situations
that might provide joke material. As you read this book and complete the

The Importance of Humor Writing 17

exercises at the end of each chapter, form a daily habit of recording the
odd news events that tickle your fancy.
• Everyday life is the main source for humor, so you need to keep some
type of personal humor journal. To facilitate psychoanalysis, Sigmund
Freud had patients complete a dream diary, and he encouraged them to
associate freely during therapy. To be a successful writer and tap into the
full potential of your comic persona, you should follow an analogous
approach. Record everyday events, ideas, or observations that you find
funny, and do your journaling without any form of censorship. The items
you list are intended not to be funny but to serve as starting points for
writing humor.

18

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 2
Why We Laugh
The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and
sharpen my tongue.
—Dorothy Parker

Aristotle studied it, and Socrates debated it. Such famous histor¬
ical figures as Charles Darwin, Thomas Hobbes, and Henri
Bergson wrote papers on their humor theories. In the twentieth
century, Sigmund Freud, Max Eastman, and even Woody Allen
tried to formulate clear explanations of the purpose of humor.
In fact, there's been more research on humor in the last decade
than in all previous centuries combined. Humor has played an important
part in our lives for thousands of years, but scientists and philosophers
are still working to understand what laughter means, why we tell jokes,
and why we do or don't appreciate other people's humor.
Despite the prowess of the minds that have considered the subject,
answers are far from definitive. Like rabbis in the eternal debate over the
meaning of the Talmud, every scholar of comedy interprets its subjective
phenomena in terms of his own discipline. Today, there is more diversity
of opinion than ever.
So much remains to be done that the student of humor has a real
opportunity to make a significant contribution to the field.
—Jeffrey Goldstein and
Paul McGhee

The only common denominator among the theories is an agreement that
humor is so subjective that no one theory can possibly fit in all instances.
For those interested in creating humor, there is good news and bad
news. The good news is that if humor has so many tangents, it may have
an unlimited variety of benefits. Most of them have yet to be discovered.
The bad news is that those who create comedy are not sure they know

Why We Laugh

19

exactly what they're doing. "I work strictly on instinct," Woody Allen
admitted. Humor writers therefore have to live with the fear that they
won't be able to continue producing humor consistently.
After being an established writer for fifteen years, I remember
staring at the typewriter every morning with a desperate, ran¬
dom groping for something funny, that familiar fear that I could¬
n't do it, that I had been getting away with it all this time and I
would at last be found out. [It was] a painful blundering most of
us went through.
—Sol Saks

There are few artists more insecure than humorists. They are tradi¬
tionally suspicious of any attempt to analyze their creative techniques.
That's because they develop their formulas through trial and error.
They discover comedy batting averages; some techniques work more
often than others.
I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a
bunch of blank paper.
—Steve Martin

SHOWTIME
Before we discuss how humor works, let's examine your theory of humor.
Take out your joke and cartoon collections, and rank each item in terms
of funniness.
Next, review the explanations you wrote for the top-rated items to
determine common patterns or themes.
Finally, with these patterns or themes in mind, write down at least five
answers to the question Why do people laugh?

20

Comedy Writing Secrets

REASONS FOR LAUGHTER
Few contemporary humor craftsmen agree on any comedic philosophy,
except: If it gets a laugh, it's funny. If you want to write funny, however,
you must first understand how audiences respond to humor. In short,
you must understand why we laugh.
Noted psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel identified two primary
reasons why we laugh.
• We laugh out of surprise.
• We laugh when we feel superior.
Keith-Spiegel identified six additional motivations for laughter, each of
which supports the two main reasons, surprise and superiority.







We laugh out of instinct.
We laugh at incongruity.
We laugh out of ambivalence.
We laugh for release.
We laugh when we solve a puzzle.
We laugh to regress.

The theories of humor discussed in this chapter will provide you with a
starting point for analyzing why humor does or does not work. Over time,
your personal theory of humor will evolve and influence your writing.
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. They both die in the process.
—E.B. White

Be forewarned—the application of humor theories does have a downside.
As you shift into an analytical mindset, you'll spend more time thinking
about why something is funny and less time laughing. As we take jokes
apart, we must be as unemotional as a coroner during an autopsy.

Surprise
We laugh most often to cover our feelings of embarrassment. This can be
a result of either having unintentionally done or said something foolish,
or having been tricked. If we have been tricked, we have been surprised.

Why We Laugh 21

Surprise is one of the most universally accepted formulas for humor. A
joke is a story, and a surprise ending is usually its finale.
The guys in strip clubs think because they got a pocket full of dol¬
lars they got the power—but the chicks got the power. They spin
around the pole and you guys are hypnotized. That's how I look at
a dessert case, but at least I get to eat mine.
—Monique Marvez

Appreciation of any piece of humor decreases rapidly through repeated
exposure, or when the ending is predictable. Clever wordplay engenders
grudging appreciation in your peers, but surprise wordplay gives birth to
laughter. We smile at wit. We laugh at jokes.
The techniques that most often trigger surprise are misdirection
(when you trap the audience), and incongruity (which is most effective
when the audience is fully aware of all the facts, but someone they are
observing is not).
The universe has come to an end in Houston, where there's
a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks. Is this for
Alzheimer's suffers? You finish your coffee and walk out the
door and go, "Oh, look, a Starbucks."
—Lewis Black

If laughter is the electricity that makes a comedy writer's blood start
pumping, then surprise is the power generator. The need for surprise is
the one cardinal rule in comedy.
In West Virginia yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing several
blow-up dolls. Reportedly, police didn't have any trouble catching
the man because he was completely out of breath.
—Conan O'Brien

According to playwright Abe Burrows, the best way to define the construc¬
tion of surprise is to use baseball terms: A joke is a curve ball—a pitch that
bends at the last instant and fools the batter. "You throw a perfectly
straight line at the audience and then, right at the end, you curve it. Good

22

Comedy Writing Secrets

jokes do that," said Burrows. To achieve the unexpected twist, it's some¬
times necessary to sacrifice grammar and even logic.
He may not be able to sing, but he sure can't dance.

A key word sets up the surprise. It gets the audience to assume they know
the ending. Notice how the word half works in the following example.
My wife and I have many arguments, but she only wins half of
them. My mother-in-law wins the other half.
—Terry Bechtol

There are many ways to achieve surprise. What's important is to remem¬
ber that you really can't be funny without it.
Superiority
There appears to be a strong and constant need for us to feel superior.
In many ways, humor satisfies this most basic of needs.
If you can't laugh at yourself, make fun of others.
—Bobby Slaton

"Humor is a reaction to tragedy. The joke is at someone else's expense,"
wrote anthropologist Alan Dundes. We even laugh when the baby falls
down and goes boom. We defend this sadistic release by saying, "That's
cute." It's not cute—especially from the baby's perspective. Humor often
ridicules the intelligence, social standing, and physical and mental
infirmities of those we consider inferior to ourselves.
You know, you're never more indignant in life than when you're
shopping in a store that you feel is beneath you and one of the
other customers mistakes you for an employee of that store.
—Dennis Miller

But those we consider superior to ourselves are not spared. We delight
in publicizing and mocking every shortcoming—perceived or real—of
people who are in positions of authority, who are richer, more famous,
more intelligent, physically stronger, or more admired. The greater the
prestige of the victim, the greater our desire to equalize.

Why We Laugh

23

TYPOS: AN ART FULL OF SUPERIORITY
Nothing allows someone to feel superior more than
mocking another person's mindless mistake, which is
perhaps why typos are such a rich source for contem¬
porary humor and witticisms. Both the original expression
or word and the expression or word created by the typo
must be so familiar (in other words, part of universal
knowledge) that there is no doubt that everyone in the
audience can be in on the gag.
My public relations course had a typo in last semester's course
catalog. It was listed as "Advanced Pubic Relations." The regis¬
tration was 1,500 ... and those were only the faculty wives.
—Mel Helitzer
In the 9/11 commission report, they say it was Iran—not Iraq—
that was helping Al-Qaeda. So apparently we invaded the
wrong country because of a typo.
—David Letterman

Humor is social criticism. The object is to deflate. Humor has been an emo¬
tional catharsis for every American ethnic minority: Irish, Germans, Arabs,
Jews, Blacks, Latinos, etc. There are few joke books on WASPs—but that
doesn't mean there aren't jokes about them.
In a study, scientists report that drinking beer can be good for the
liver. I'm sorry, did I say "scientists"? I meant "Irish people."
—Tina Fey
I'm a WASP, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and actually, a lot of
my people are doing really well.
—Penelope Lombard
Humor also reassures the insecure. Even if we believe ourselves to be
the "haves" (having power, money, knowledge, or prestige), there is

24

Comedy Writing Secrets

tremendous insecurity about how we got it and how long we're going to
keep it. Americans have a tremendous sense of inferiority. We mask it
with jokes about our superiority.
I've been to Canada, and I've always gotten the impression
that I could take the country over in about two days.
—Jon Stewart

There are two ways to feel superior. The first is to accomplish exemplary
work that receives public acclaim. That's difficult. The second (and easiest)
way to feel superior is to publicly criticize the accomplishments of others.
This diminishes their prestige and focuses attention on us. Regardless of
how much the second method might be deplored on ethical grounds, the
amount of time and effort exerted to belittle the work of competitors is usu¬
ally far greater than the amount of time and energy expended to improve
our own abilities.
The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail.
If it weren't for the penalty, the jury would never be able to
hear the evidence.
—H.L. Mencken

Our spark of laughter is always ignited by the misfortunes of those we
fear. "Humor is the weapon of the underdog," wrote psychologist Harvey
Mindess. "We must look for avenues through which we can disgorge our
feelings of inferiority by discovering the blemishes of our superiors."
In short, we feel superior because their image has been tarnished and
because we aren't in the same predicament.
As individuals (regardless of our status), our humor is generally
directed upward against more authoritative figures.
In a group setting, our humor is directed downward toward groups
that don't conform to our social, religious, national, or sexual mores.
I worked some gigs in the Deep South ... Alabama. You talk
about Darwin's waiting room. There are guys in Alabama who
are their own father.
—Dennis Miller

Why We Laugh 25

Sigmund Freud's explanation of this phenomenon was that "a good bit of
humor is oriented to maintaining the status quo by ridiculing deviant
social behavior and reassuring the majority that their way of life is proper.
It is used as a weapon of the 'ins' against the 'outs.'"
If you're Black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You
gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college
but molested you.
—Chris Rock

The comic is no El Cid on horseback. If anything, comics are guerrilla
fighters—hitting and running, bobbing and weaving. With this kind of an
act, they've got to keep moving.
The professional humorist must always be aware that audience mem¬
bers are happiest when his subject matter and technique encourage them
to feel superior. The target of a roast smiles only because he knows
everyone is watching for his approval. Despite being the guest of honor,
he would rather have stayed home with his wife—where he would also
have been insulted, but at least he could have saved a clean, white shirt.
Now that we've discussed the two main reasons why people laugh—
surprise and superiority—let's examine the six other reasons. These six
minor theories overlap one another and either function within or support
the two main theories.

Instinct
Laughter is a born and bred instinct, a phenomenon of evolution. It
appears to be a function of the nervous system that stimulates, relaxes,
and restores a feeling of well-being. Primates, with little verbal commu¬
nicative ability, show friendship with a closemouthed smile. They show
anger and hostility with an open mouth, exposing all their teeth—despite
the fact they could all use orthodontics.
Scientists believe that monkeys can be taught to think, lie, and even
play politics within their community. If we can just teach them to
cheat on their wives, we can save millions on congressional salaries.
—Jay Leno

26

Comedy Writing Secrets

For human beings, laughter has evolved as a substitute for assault. Triumph
is often coupled with an openmouthed smile followed immediately by a
roar of laughter. Watch a pro football player after he scores a touchdown.
If laughter is biologically instinctive, the old adage of never trusting
someone who laughs too loudly should be amended to include those who
laugh with their mouths open. We laugh and joke not when we need to reach
out and touch someone, but when we need to reach out and crush someone.
It's an attempt to vent our hostility when physical aggression is not practical.
Incongruity
According to the dictionary, something is incongruous when it is incon¬
sistent within itself. For example, whenever someone behaves in a rigid
manner that is suddenly ill-suited to the logic of the occasion, these
incongruous antics result in a ridiculous scenario. This comic effect can
arise from incongruity of speech, action, or character.
According to philosopher Henri Bergson, one type of comedic incon¬
gruity is an unconventional pairing of actions or thoughts.
There are only two kinds of money in the world: your money and
my money.
—Milton Friedman

There seems to be more than a Latin semantic root shared by the words
ridiculous and ridicule. And in humor, we ridicruel. Many incongruous
situations provoke laughter because they allow the observer to feel supe¬
rior. Some of the best illustrations of this type of comedic incongruity are
the practical jokes on such television shows as Candid Camera and
Punk'd. These television programs, by design, encourage us to laugh at
people trying to maintain dignity in bizarre circumstances. The audience
laughs the hardest when it knows all the facts of the situation—and
therefore feels superior to the perplexed victim of the joke.
Allen Flint, the creator of Candid Camera, claimed that the talking
mailbox gag—a man is mailing a letter when suddenly the mailbox starts
to talk to him—was the show's top laugh-getter. The incongruity of a
mailbox talking to someone is funny on its own, but the apex of laughter
comes when the man calls over his friend and asks him to listen to the

Why We Laugh 27

amazing conversation. He starts talking to the mailbox. At this point, the
mailbox doesn't say a word. As the victim gets more and more exasperat¬
ed and starts shouting at the mailbox, the camera cuts to a close-up of
the friend—who is plainly questioning his buddy's sanity.
Incongruity may take the form of an entire comic plot, rather than a
single joke. A common example of an incongruity-based plot in TV sit¬
coms is when one character hides in the closet moments before someone
in authority (a spouse, boss, police officer) unexpectedly enters the room.
This plot has a hundred variations, and it's always popular because the
audience knows all the facts, and therefore feels superior.
Ambivalence
This theory is similar to incongruity in its dependence on incompatible
experiences. Nervous laughter covers our recognition of rigid conven¬
tions that make us appear foolish when held up to a humorist's strobe
light. In a dishonest world, honesty is amusing.
They say you should videotape your baby-sitter, but I don't think
you should involve your kid in a sting operation.
—Dave Chappelle

Whereas incongruity is the clash of incompatible ideas or perceptions,
ambivalence is the simultaneous presence of conflicting emotions, such as
the love/hate relationships in families. Holding our ambivalent feelings up
for comedic inspection is the powerful shtick of humorists like Bill Cosby,
who often played upon the antagonism a parent may often feel for a child.
Listen to what I'm telling you, damn it, 'cause I brought you into
this world, and I can take you out of it.
—Bill Cosby

Another common topic under the theme of ambivalence is the motherson relationship (which makes analysts wealthy).
My mother never saw the irony in calling me a son of a bitch.
—Richard Jeni

Ambivalent humor covers up our guilt feelings or our foolish errors; it's

28

Comedy Writing Secrets

an attempt to maintain dignity. Self-deprecating humor is just a device to
set the audience at ease, so you can be in control.

Release
We laugh in embarrassment when we drop a glass in public or an innocent
error of ours has been discovered. In these situations, laughter relieves
tension. But laughter as release can also be a planned event, a conscious
effort to unlock life's tensions and inhibitions. We attend a Neil Simon play
or a Robin Williams concert because we want humor to help us laugh
away our anxieties.
A drunk driver's very dangerous. Everybody knows that. But so is
a drunken backseat driver—if he's persuasive.
—Demetri Martin

This release is fortified by group approval. Comedy works best when an
audience is not only prepared to laugh, but anxious to participate in a
shared social experience.
For release humor to work, the audience must be clued to every plot
from the beginning. If the audience and the actor don't know what's
behind the door, that's mystery. If the audience knows, but someone else
doesn't, that's release comedy.
Did you ever wonder why we sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"
when we're already there?

One theory of laughter as relief is that, if we feel the need to laugh, it's
because we've been whipped by the day's battles and we'd like to hear or
see a few others get smacked around. Misery loves company, but only if we
can laugh at them and they can't laugh back at us. We'll even laugh wildly
when a catcher chasing a foul ball wipes out seven guys in wheelchairs.
I hear blind people are complaining that seeing-eye dogs are
expensive, difficult to train, and hard to get. I say, let 'em use
midgets. They can use the work.
—Chris Rock

That's sadism—and superiority.

Why We Laugh

29

Puzzle Solving
We frequently laugh when disjointed bits of information fall into place:
Oh, so that's the way it works!
I learned about sex the hard way—from books!
—Emo Philips

We smile, frequently even laugh aloud, when we experience that sudden
insight of having solved a mystery, finished a crossword puzzle, or con¬
quered a difficult assignment. Theorists refer to this type of scenario as
configuration humor. In configuration humor, we laugh when a riddle
encourages us to instantaneously discover some missing—and unexpect¬
ed—piece of information. If we're successful, we congratulate ourselves
by laughing out loud. We are delighted by the solution to the puzzle (sur¬
prise), and we want the world to know we're very smart (superiority).

Regression
Sigmund Freud's theory of humor contended that humor, like sleep, is
therapeutic. But even more importantly, he argued, wit can express—in a
relatively appropriate way—urges and feelings that can't otherwise be let
loose, such as the desire to act on regressive infantile sexual or aggres¬
sive behavior. More to the point, Freud believed that a lack of humor can
be a sign of mental illness.
My theory is that women don't suffer from penis envy. Every
man just thinks his penis is enviable. Maybe Freud suffered from
penis doubt.
—Bob Smith

Psychologist J.C. Flugel wrote, "We laugh in order to socially accomplish
childish regression without feeling foolish. We adopt a playful mood,
excusable as relaxation." This may explain why comic strips are the most
universally accepted format of humor among adults, regardless of nation¬
ality or culture.
We're young only once, but with humor, we can be immature forever.
—Art Gliner

30

Comedy Writing Secrets

Psychoanalysts learn a great deal about patients by listening to their
humor. And you can learn a great deal about your own psychological
makeup by constantly asking yourself (and answering truthfully), Why
did I laugh at this joke and not at others?
Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day;
wisdom consists of not exceeding the limits.
—Elbert Hubbard

Our regression into an infantile state of mind through humor, as sug¬
gested by psychoanalysts, is most often experienced in large settings.
For group approval, we subjugate our humor preferences to those of
authority figures. If the group leaders approve of the humor, we laugh.
If the group leaders disapprove, we groan. We rarely enjoy humor if we
feel we're laughing counter to the crowd. If we are the first to laugh,
we will stifle a hearty ha-ha in mid-ha if no one joins us. Even when
acting childish, our desire is to maintain social approval.

One of the most difficult humor audiences is a room of
corporate executives when the big boss is present.
Every time the speaker tells a joke, everyone in the
room first checks the CEO. If the CEO doesn't laugh, no one
else laughs. If the CEO has a good sense of humor and laughs
easily, business associates then consider themselves to
have permission to laugh. Even though this check for
approval only takes a second, it can throw a comedian's timing way off.

Let's not camouflage our true intentions. We don't use humor just to
entertain the world. The value of humor in attack is incomparable,
because humor is a socially acceptable form of criticism, a catharsis that
combines memorability with respectability.
But the only way you'll survive as a humorist is if the audience
equally disfavors your target. Understanding what motivates a particular

Why We Laugh

31

audience is one of the secrets of writing humor. You must maintain
surprise and superiority.

THE SCIENCE OP HUMOR:
A MATTER OF WIFE OR DEATH
In 2001, Richard Wiseman, a British scientist and the creator of LaughLab
(www.laughlab.co.uk), conducted a global online study to discover the
world's funniest joke. He constructed a Web site that allowed visitors to
submit jokes and rate the offerings of others. More than forty thousand
jokes were received from seventy countries (though two-thirds were
deemed inappropriate for posting). Based on several million critiques,
the world's funniest joke is:
A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of
them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing; his eyes
are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone
and calls the emergency services.
He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?"
The operator, in a calm, soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy.
I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."
There is a silence, then a shot is heard.
The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now
what?"

The LaughLab joke survey revealed other interesting data. Germans
rated jokes the funniest overall, while Canadians gave the lowest ratings.
If you like talking-animal jokes, use a duck—it was considered the funni¬
est talking animal. And the most submitted joke was: "What's brown and
sticky? A stick." No one found the joke funny.
With the advancement of brain-imaging tools, scientists can now
study how the brain processes humor. The typical experiment requires
subjects to view, read, or listen to a humorous stimulus, such as an
episode of The Simpsons or Seinfeld, while researchers record brain
functioning. Although this type of research is still in its infancy, there is
an emerging consensus concerning the brain's reaction to humor. The

32

Comedy Writing Secrets

language-based portion of the brain (the left frontal cortex) "gets" the
joke by recognizing the ambiguity, incongruity, and surprise of the
humor. The emotional areas of the brain (such as the amygdala) appre¬
ciate the humor and trigger laughter.
Eventually, science will be able to explain humor's neural underpin¬
nings. However, the mystery of what, exactly, is "funny" will never be
solved. One person considers the Three Stooges to be comic savants,
while another finds no humor in Moe's abuse of Curly—this illustrates
the individual differences in the perception of what's funny. A sense of
humor is as unique as a fingerprint.
DOES SICK HUMOR MAKE US FEEL BETTER?
Morbid humor arises out of every tragic situation. Within hours after
the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the airwaves were filled with such
humor as:
QUESTION: What has feathers and glows in the dark?
ANSWER: Chicken Kiev

Do sick jokes, frequently tasteless and insensitive, serve an important
purpose? The consensus is that humor is one way of coping with tragedy.
The more we're scared, the more we have to create jokes to laugh away
the fear.
Many of the most offensive jokes derived from current tragedies are
entre-nous humor, told by one person to friends or co-workers, but rarely
performed in public.
Jesus walked up to the registration desk of the Hilton hotel,
threw three nails on the counter and asked, "Can you put me up
for the night?"

Psychologists have always been interested in explaining human behavior
through humor. Humor is an important manifestation of what society
really believes, but dares not speak or teach. "We can't confront tragedy
directly," suggests Joseph Boskin of Boston University, "so we try to ease
ourselves in a humorous way."

Why We Laugh

33

Laughing at misfortune frequently replaces negative feelings with pos¬
itive feelings. This is true whether we're laughing at someone else's mis¬
fortune or our own. Sigmund Freud, who studied humor (but not for the
fun of it), theorized that jokes allow us to express unconscious aggres¬
sive and sexual impulses, to substitute words for what we may not be
able to accomplish in deeds.
But when it comes to sick humor, the real reason people tell such
jokes is much simpler—to make themselves feel better by getting
respect, or at least attention. When we were young, we discovered that
we could always get a laugh by dropping our pants or saying some taboo
word. We may have grown older physically, but the desire to attract
attention and gain approval through audacious humor remains.
Many comedians believe that they don't need sick humor once they've
become established. Said motivational speaker and humorist Larry
Wilde, "It's mainly done by the young comics anxious to be noticed. As
you get older, you find that material on death and disease makes the
audience feel uncomfortable."
In other words, a comic has to be brave enough to be clean. It may be
coincidental, but a rather significant acronym results from the first letter
of the three elements used by those who depend upon sick humor to
attract attention: audaciousness, shock, and surprise. Put them all
together, they spell ASS. Wonder what Freud would have had to say
about that?

SHOWTIME
The following activities reinforce the importance of examining why some¬
thing is funny.
• Return to your joke and cartoon collections, and reanalyze each item
using the two most important humor principles, surprise and superi¬
ority. Identify how the element of surprise is used and the ways in
which the audience feels superior.

34

Comedy Writing Secrets

• Select a favorite humor article or column and highlight the funny
sections. Examine the writing for how the author uses surprise to
deliver the punch.
• Watch a tape of your favorite comedy. Pause after funny scenes and
write down how and why the humor worked. Pay particular attention
to the two most important principles, surprise and superiority.
• Examine the funny personal stories and anecdotes that you share
with your friends to confirm how surprise and superiority play a role
in the humor.

Why We Laugh

35

CHAPTER 3
The Recipe for Humor
Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be
working for the survival of the wittiest, and then we can all die
laughing.
—Lily Tomlin

There are six essential ingredients in any recipe for humor. With few
exceptions, the absence of any one ingredient so disturbs the formula
that the humor might not just taste "off," but might deflate like a ruined
souffle. Whether the humor is a one-liner, a lengthy anecdote, or a threeact theatrical piece, these six elements are required.







Target
Hostility
Realism
Exaggeration
Emotion
Surprise

Although the prescribed order may be challenged, in this configuration
the first letter of each element forms a memorable acronym: THREES.
The THREES formula focuses on the what and why of humor. The
what is the target, and the why is the hostility, realism, exaggeration,
emotion, and surprise contained in the humor.

36

Comedy Writing Secrets

TARGET: AIMING YOUR HUMOR
Our instinctive perception is that humor is fun. It isn't! Humor is criticism
cloaked as entertainment and directed at a specific target.
If there's no corpse, there's usually no joke.
—Mike Sankey

The proper selection of humor targets is not just
important—it's arguably the most critical factor in writing
commercially successful humor. The MAP theory—material,
audience, and performer—postulates that the material must fit
the persona of the writer (or performer) and the interests of
the audience. A humor target can be almost anything or
anybody, but you need to be sure you've focused on the
right target for your particular audience.
You can't target an entire audience any more than you can shame the
whole world. Humor is an attempt to challenge the status quo, but target¬
ing must reaffirm the audience's hostilities and prejudices.
This means that humor is always unfair. Like editorial cartoons, jokes
take a biased point of view. There's no room in one joke for a balanced
argument or explanation. As H.L. Mencken put it, "My business is diagno¬
sis, not therapeutics."
I hate phone solicitors. I'd rather get an obscene call; at least they
work for themselves.
—Margaret Smith

A neophyte writer often selects humor targets with limited appeal, such
as a girlfriend or boyfriend. Here's the problem: Your companion may be
the most bizarre or humorous person in the history of the human
species, but no one else cares about your partner other than your family
members (and even that is questionable). Unless members of the audi¬
ence can vicariously share your experiences, you might as well perform
your material in a bathroom. It will be safer.
Successful humorists select targets with universal appeal. Erma Bombeck
wrote about the struggles of being a mother and did not focus on the

The Recipe for Humor

37

specific eccentricities of her family. Because she invoked common experi¬
ences, Bombeck's humor was appreciated by legions of devoted readers.
Another common mistake when selecting a target is to use general top¬
ics rather than specific premises. For example, the way people drive is a
broad subject that will not readily lend itself to humor. The target must be
more specific, such as how women are able to multitask (put on makeup,
talk on a cell phone, etc.) while driving. By narrowing a general target to a
specific premise, you increase the likelihood of surprising the audience
with the punchline.
Picking a good target isn't a crapshoot. It takes thought, skill, and
precision to MAP your way to the right target. Strong targets, as noted
above, can range from people to personal beliefs. Let's take a closer
look at some of the most common targets: yourself, sex, celebrities,
places, products, and ideas.
Self: Pick on Somebody Your Own Size
By far the least offensive (but most effective) target is yourself. As writer
and director Carl Reiner observed, "Inviting people to laugh with you
while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be the
fool, but you're the fool in charge."
I'm always getting screwed by the system. That's my lot in life.
I'm the system's bitch.
—Drew Carey

Many comics open by ridiculing their shortcomings: their physical charac¬
teristics, finances, intelligence, and even their success. People are always
willing to laugh at someone else, so it's a safe way to warm up an audience.
. Once the audience is laughing, it's time to move on to hotter issues.
I plan to become so famous that drag queens will dress like me in
parades when I'm dead.
—Laura Kightlinger

Sex: Talk Dirty to Me
Sex is the topic of close to 25 percent of all humor, making it one of the
most popular targets. All of us—male or female, young or old—are more

38

Comedy Writing Secrets

ambivalent about sexual activity than about any other single subject. It
isn't that we're fascinated by exaggerated acts of sex; it's that we're frus¬
trated by exaggerated reports of adequacy.
An elderly patient said to his doctor, "Why can't I have sex five
times a day?"
"But you're seventy-five, Sam," said the doctor. "Physically
you just can't do it anymore."
"But my friend Bernie says he has great sex. He says he can
have it five times a day, and he says the most beautiful girls in
town are all after him. That's what he says."
"So, Sam," said the doctor, "you say!"

Studies have shown that men's greatest sexual concerns generally
center around size, the ability to get an erection, performance, the
amount of sex they're having, premature ejaculation, and impotency—
pronounced in West Virginia as im-PO-tan-cy, because it's real impo¬
tent to me! (However you pronounce it, it still means having to say
you're sorry.)
I'm not a good lover, but at least I'm fast.
—Drew Carey

In The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, Shere Hite reported that while
men treasure sexuality, "they also dislike and feel very put upon by it."
Her report suggests that men feel trapped by sexual stereotypes. They
find themselves unable to speak openly about their sexual angers, anxi¬
eties, and desires. Many complain about the escalating pressures to initi¬
ate sex, to achieve and maintain frequent erections, to control the timing
of ejaculations, and to understand (let alone satisfy) their partner's
orgasmic needs. Since the introduction of Viagra, erectile dysfunction
jokes have been in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends.
Cialis warns that if your erection lasts for more than four hours,
you should tell your doctor. Hey, at my age, if I have an erection
for more than four hours, I'd want to tell everybody!

The Recipe for Humor

39

Research on sexual humor indicates that beginning joke tellers are more
likely to select sexual themes that discriminate against males regardless
of the gender of the performer or the audience, and that their preferred
subjects are those that belittle body parts and sexual performance.
I once dated a guy who drank coffee and alcohol at the same time.
What a prince. Bad breath, limp dick, and wouldn't go to sleep.

—Kris McGaha
Many comics use humor based upon deviance from the sexual norm.
You know you're gay when you bend over and see four balls.
—Garry Shandling

Women are also intrigued by ribald humor about sexual activity, because
they're as sexually insecure as men about performance and satisfaction.
I'm just a huge fan of the penis, and they're all different—like
snowflakes.
—Margaret Cho
During sex, men confuse me. They suddenly start shouting, "I'm
coming. I'm coming." I don't know whether they want me there as
a partner or a witness.
—Emily Levine

Celebrities: Humor Fodder and Mudder
Celebrities are also popular targets. Celebrity service is a cheap shot, but
our appetite for a dash of vinegary gossip about our heroes, icons, and
villains is insatiable. Because the public almost indiscriminately idolizes
the famous and the infamous, the American media love to create new
celebrities in entertainment, sports, politics, and letters. Paradoxically,
no sooner do the idol rich reach the apex of their media hype than we
begin to humble them with gossip and humorous digs.
This Halloween the most popular mask is the Arnold
Schwarzenegger mask. And the best part? With a mouth full of
candy you can sound just like him.
—Conan O'Brien

40

Comedy Writing Secrets

Places: Living in a Crass House
Our need for superiority is the motivating factor whenever we ridicule
places: We ridicule countries (France, North Korea); states (West
Virginia, New Jersey); cities (New York City, Washington, D.C.); and local
spots in the news (a neighborhood, a street, a bar, lover's lane). Every
humorist has a favorite dumping ground.
I moved from New York City to Athens, Ohio. Talk about culture
shock. From the city that never sleeps to the city that never woke up.
—Mel Helitzer

Products: Malice in Wonderland
There's a veritable eBay full of products that are favorite humor targets.
They run from buildings and automobiles to sports equipment, jewelry,
and junk food. The basic rule, again, is that your target be an object of
annoyance shared by the entire audience. It's easier to start backwards.
Begin with the punchline, but don't finalize your position until you've
decided it's their position as well. If the audience includes a large contin¬
gent of hunters, forget about quoting either of these Ellen DeGeneres bits.
Stuffed deer heads on walls are bad enough, but it's worse when
you see them wearing dark glasses, having streamers around their
necks, and a hat on their antlers. Because then you know they
were enjoying themselves at a party when they were shot.
I say to a gun owner who owns an AK-47, that if it takes a hundred
rounds to bring down a deer, maybe hunting isn't your sport.

Ideas: Fools of the Game
The list of controversial ideas that can be humor targets is lengthy.
Audacious ideas can include subjects such as religion, the meaning of
life and death, and politics. Trash-talking politicians is the meat and pota¬
toes of a late night host's opening monologue. Idea topics are the most
likely to backfire, because a person's politics and ideologies aren't visible
on the outside, like clothes. That's why David Letterman carefully
screens requests for his show tickets—to eliminate potential audience
members who may not appreciate his sadistic wavelength.

The Recipe for Humor

41

There are no perfect parents. Even Jesus had a distant father and
a domineering mother. I'd have trust issues, if my father allowed
me to be crucified.
—Bob Smith

Although feelings of superiority are essential to humor, you can nonethe¬
less be funny by coming out for a topic or idea, rather than against it.
"Comedy was born of anarchism," said political humorist Mark Katz, "and
now it's moved into advocacy."
Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on
Saturday night.
—Woody Allen

SHOWTIME
As you've just seen, the list of potential humor targets is nearly endless.
Take a moment and list seven to ten possible subjects, topics, or targets
of humor. That is, identify things that you want to make fun of.
As noted in the discussion of the MAP theory in the first chapter, the
humorist's material must fit the persona of the writer or performer. Each
humorist feels more comfortable attacking some targets over others.
Return to your list of potential humor targets and identify the three tar¬
gets that you would feel most comfortable making fun of.

HOSTILITY: RIDICRUEL
The second ingredient in the THREES recipe for humor is hostility. Humor
is a powerful antidote to many of the hostile feelings in our daily lives. All
of us have hostility toward some target. That is why, in humor, ridicule is
spelled ridicruel. Comedy is cruel. The words cruel and ridicule appear
together frequently—where there is one, there is also the other.

42

Comedy Writing Secrets

All of us have hostility toward some person, thing, or idea—unless we
are saints. Did you ever hear a joke about two perfect, happy people? But
when a beer-bellied, blue-collar worker walks in the front door and says
to his battle-ax of a wife, "Can you spare a few minutes? I need to be
taken down a peg"—now, that works as great humor.
Let's discuss some common sources of hostility (and therefore humor):
authority, sex, money, family, angst, technology, and group differences.
Authority: Sock It to Me
While hostility against authority is international, in America, it is a
national heritage. Since the Revolutionary days, we've enjoyed pricking
the bloated arrogance of authority and watching it bleed. Humor is a
great catharsis because it gives the public an opportunity to blow off
indignant steam at authority figures both major and minor.
I looked up the word politics in the dictionary, and it's actually a
combination of two words: poli, which means "many," and tics,
which means "bloodsuckers."
—Jay Leno

One characteristic of this hostility is that invariably we ridicule upward,
attacking those we perceive to be superior (or in a superior position).
The Senate decided they will be smoke-free. They ordained that
all public areas in the Senate are now smoke-free. However, the
senators themselves will still be allowed to blow smoke up each
other's ass.
—Bill Maher

Richard Pryor's audiences were easily defined: mostly young black mili¬
tants, with a fair percentage of young liberal whites. Both the black and
white members of the audience held white authority as a common
enemy. In the following memorable bit, Pryor shrewdly used this shared
hostility to explain his arrest—a front-page story—for shooting his wife's
car one night after she threatened to leave him. (Note that Pryor chose
the police as representative of white authority.)

The Recipe for Humor

43

I don't want to never see no more police in my life, at my house,
taking my ass to jail, for killing my car. And it seemed fair to kill
my car to me, right, 'cause my wife was goin' leave my ass in it.
"Not in this motherfucker, you ain't. If you leave you're goin' be
drivin' those Hush Puppies you got on. 'Cause I'm goin' kill this
motherfucker here." And I had one of them big ol' Magnums, you
know the noise they make when you shoot something. I shot the
car... boom! And the car went, "Ahhhhhhh." It sounded good to
me. So I shot another one ... boom. "Ahhhhhh." And that black
car said to me, "Go ahead. Shoot somethin' else." I shot the
motor. The motor fell out. The motor say, "Fuck it."

Some readers may view Pryor's work as vulgar, but from the perspective
of his peers, he was a comic genius—Pryor was the first recipient of the
annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Hostile humor is usually directed upward. Freshmen ridicule upperclassmen but have little interest in writing humor about their younger
brothers or sisters. Faculty spend very little effort on humor directed at
students and much more on material satirizing the administration. In the
military echelons of command, noncoms gripe about junior commis¬
sioned officers, who ridicule the major support staff, who in turn snicker
about the general's idiosyncrasies, until—so the story goes—General
MacArthur's wife once asked him to convert to a religion in which he no
longer believed he was God.
This necessity for hostility bred what is called nihilistic humor—
humor based on the theory that there is no person or thing so sacred as to
be beyond ridicule. Humorists, protected by the First Amendment, enjoy
the admiration of audiences that laugh and applaud their unbridled criti¬
cism of gods, political leaders, and celebrities. Marty Simmons, who pub¬
lished National Lampoon, credited the antiestablishment climate of
Vietnam and Watergate with the birth and success of his magazine. But this
freedom to criticize must be accompanied by perspective. As one comic
admitted, hostility can be nothing more than intellectual masturbation.
"There am I criticizing the President of the United States. He lives in the
White House, and I'm telling dick jokes in some comedy club basement."

44

Comedy Writing Secrets

When easily caricatured leaders run for reelection, humorists don't
know whether to vote their conscience or their profession. When colum¬
nist Art Buchwald was asked when he was going to retire, he said, "Not
now, when humor's so easy."
As they say around the [Texas] Legislature, if you can't drink their
whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against 'em
anyway, you don't belong in office.
—Molly Ivins

Money and Business: The Loot of All Evil
Men admit they think more about sex than about any other subject, but
studies throughout the years have indicated that women worry more
about finances than sex. There's little doubt, however, that money is a
constant source of irritation and hostility among both sexes.
Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all
respect for humanity. That's how rich I want to be.
—Rita Rudner

If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the
people he gave it to.
—Dorothy Parker

Perversely, financial worries only increase as you get wealthier: The
more money you have, the more problems. Just buying a new product
can multiply anxiety four times: First, you must debate whether you real¬
ly need the product. Then you must decide on a brand, which means you
have to read comparison literature, evaluate alternatives, and physically
shop to find the product. Finally, you must haggle over price and agonize
over how to finance the purchase. Even after you've acquired a product,
you'll be exasperated by breakdowns and the need for repairs.
The concern about financial matters starts with your first cry for
someone to give you candy and continues to your last cry—for someone
to give you oxygen. Since everyone has personal money problems, focus¬
ing hostility on financial matters is one of the best (and least controver¬
sial) ways to show the audience you share their problems.

The Recipe for Humor

45

Business practices are more frequently becoming targets of financial
hostility. But jokes about business practices actually direct hostility
against two subjects at the same time: economics and authority.
The budget problems with Medicare and NASA could be solved if
the country began firing the elderly into space.
—Al Franken

Financial humor targets are countless: Executive shenanigans, wages, taxes,
investments, gambling, lottery awards, and credit cards are just a few.
My VISA card was stolen two months ago, but I don't want to
report it. The guy who took it is using it less than my wife.
—Johnny Carson

Family Affairs: Coming Home Soon
Hostility against family responsibilities, restrictions, and competing
interests needs little explanation as a target of humor. Family members
and household affairs like cleaning, paying bills, and cooking have all
become popular targets.
My theory on housework is, if the item doesn't multiply, smell,
catch on fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one cares.
Why should you?
—Erma Bombeck
The day I get excited about cleaning my house is the day Sears
comes out with a riding vacuum cleaner.
—Roseanne Barr
I left my wife because she divorced me. I'm not going to live with
somebody under those kinds of pressures. But I still love my exwife. I called her on the phone today. I said, "Hello, plaintiff..."
—Skip Stephenson
I wanted to be an actress. I said to my mother, "I want to cry real
tears. I want to show great emotion for someone I don't really care
for." She said, "Become a housewife." She always wanted me to

46

Comedy Writing Secrets

be married all in white—and all virginal. But I don't think a woman
should be a virgin when she gets married. I think she should have
at least one other disappointing experience. One woman friend of
mine told me she hated her husband so much that when he died
she had him cremated, blended him with marijuana, and smoked
him. She said, "That's the best he's made me feel in years."
—Maureen Murphy

Children, especially teenagers and preteens, are common family targets.
Even toddlers are targets (they're not just cute but, according to Bill Cosby,
exhibit signs of brain damage). Parents are unburdening themselves wittily,
even if they can't do it in reality.
Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your head.
—Martin Mull

And children are reciprocating, which means let's give it to our saintly,
gray-haired mother and revered father!
Mother's Day card: Mom, you're the greatest. At least that's what
all the guys at the construction site say!
Children are the most desirable opponents at Scrabble, as they are
both easy to beat and fun to cheat.
—Fran Lebowitz

Angst: The Ecstasy and the Agony
Angst is the intellectual observation that fairy tales aren't true—that
there is an unhappy end to every happy beginning. Angst has pointed a
devil's finger at anxieties so personal that, in the past, we carefully avoid¬
ed discussing them even in private: A long list of such topics includes
fear of death; coping with deformity; deprivations; and neurotic symp¬
toms such as paranoia, insecurity, narcissism, and kinky sexual urges.
Have you ever dated somebody because you were too lazy to
commit suicide?
—Judy Tenuta

The Recipe for Humor

47

Woody Allen popularized angst. "I merchandise misery," he wrote.
"When I named my movie Love and Death, the commercial possibilities
were immediately apparent to me: sight gags and slapstick sequences
about despair and emptiness; dialogue jokes about anguish and dread;
finally, mortality, human suffering, anxiety. In short, the standard ploys
of the funnyman."
They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it
makes me sad that I'm going to miss mine by a few days.
—Garrison Keillor

Technology: Now Fear This
Charlie Chaplin exploited frustrations and fears about rapidly growing
automation to make people laugh. It's ironic that IBM once used his tramp
character as an implied advertising testimonial for computers, because
Chaplin's character didn't promote machines—he ridiculed them.
Computers operate on simple principles that can easily be under¬
stood by anybody with some common sense, a little imagination,
and an IQ of 750.
—Dave Barry

The sense of hopelessness that comes from our apparent inability to
control the environment is now a universal hostility. Industrial chemi¬
cals can lead to pollution, drugs can lead to suicide, and the advertising
drum beats for nonsensical fads. Humor may be our only rational way
of coping with the fear of terrorism, an invasion of spooks from outer
space, or the chemical mutation of our planet.
They asked John Glenn what he thought about just before his
first capsule was shot into space, and he said: "I looked around
me and suddenly realized that everything had been built by the
lowest bidder."

Group Differences: Us vs. Them
Mocking the beliefs or characteristics of social groups is one of humor's
most controversial subjects because it caters to our most primitive

48

Comedy Writing Secrets

instincts—prejudice and insecurity. We hope to maintain some sense of
superiority by ridiculing abnormal characteristics of others. We're
responding to a primitive form of group therapy.
Sophisticated people have retirement plans. Rednecks, on the
other hand, play the lottery. That's our plan. And when we hit the
'pick six," we're going to add a room on to the trailer so we don't
have to sleep with Grandpa no more.
—Jeff Foxworthy

We fear control and intimidation by people of different colors or religions;
and so, by derision, we attempt to stereotype their physical appearances,
ethnic mannerisms, colloquial speech—any unique characteristic we find
odd. We feel the same way about people with different social attitudes
about drugs, sex, education, professions—even music, literature, and
humor. As long as we're in the majority, humor can criticize.
I had a cab driver in Paris. The man smelled like a guy eating
cheese while getting a permanent inside the septic tank of a
slaughterhouse.
—Dennis Miller

Do you know how the Amish hunt? They sneak up on a deer and
build a barn around it.
—Tim Bedore

Humor is often sin without conscience. (A conscience doesn't prevent
sin; it only prevents us from enjoying it.) It used to be the blue-collar
whites that regurgitated the most hostile ethnic humor. Today, comedi¬
ans of all backgrounds are sensing both an increasing freedom for public
humor and an increasing audience who'll pay to hear it.
Mexicans don't go camping in the woods, especially during hunt¬
ing season. Some redneck would say to the judge, "Your Honor, I
saw brown skin and brown eyes. He had his hands up. I thought
they were antlers. I shot his ass."
—Paul Rodriguez

The Recipe for Humor

49

It's time that African-Americans and Korean-Americans put aside
their differences and focus on what's really important: hating
white people!
—Margaret Cho

This is how Cheech and Chong, whose financial successes outstripped
that of every other comedy team in film history, described their type
of humor:
Our jokes may be fifty years old, but our audience, the youth, ain't
seen shit. To them, it's brand new. If you're white, you can be afraid
of people of different color, religious fanatics, but if you're black or
brown, you're afraid of other things, like starvation and not having
a place to live. By incorporating the basic humor of drugs and
poverty into our appeal, it makes it universal—the underdogs
against the world. We know the humor of the rough and ready ...
we pander to the worst instincts in people—caricaturing swishy
gays, dumb blondes, illiterate Mexicans, greedy Jews. We're
shameless panderers.
Redd Foxx bragged about his material being "as outrageous as possible.
That's the humor I hear in the ghettos. We don't pull punches, and we
don't want to hear about Little Blue Boy and Cinderella—and if they
don't like my shit, they can fuck off!" The following story, which often
reappears as an urban legend, illustrates how ethnic humor can be
turned against the majority.
Four doctors' wives from a small Midwestern city decided to brave
a weekend shopping trip in Manhattan. Their husbands were appre¬
hensive about city crime. "If someone wants your pocketbook or
jewelry, don't put up a fight. Just do what they say. Promise?"
On their very first morning, as the four were descending in the
hotel elevator, a well-dressed black man got on leading a large
Doberman pinscher. He looked at the women for a moment, and
then commanded the dog, "Sit!" Immediately the four women sat
on the floor.

50

Comedy Writing Secrets

Each writer has his own definition of humor. Shakespeare said, "Brevity
is the soul of wit." Somerset Maugham wrote, "Impropriety is the soul of
wit." But the soul of wit may just be hostility. When we all think alike,
there will be a lot less humor.

SHOWTIME
Sigmund Freud described depression as anger turned inward. Humor
might be viewed as anger turned into profit. Hostility underlies humor, so
tapping into your anger is an excellent tool for generating ideas for jokes
(and it's less expensive than therapy).
Make a list of people, things, and topics that you feel hostile about.
Freely associate, don't censure yourself, and write down why each target
is frustrating. Exaggerate your emotional state to the point of being PO'd
and fully vent your anger about the target. This exercise can narrow the
focus of each target to a specific premise that will be a springboard for
writing humor (not venting hot air!).

REALISM: RAISE YOUR SITES
The third component in the THREES formula for humor is realism. "Most
good jokes state a bitter truth," said scriptwriter Larry Gelbart. Without
some fundamental basis of truth, there's little with which the audience
can associate. But jokes also bend the truth, and the challenge is to learn
how to tell the truth (be realistic) while lying (exaggerating).
Since it appears that exaggeration is the logical antithesis of realism,
it may seem ludicrous to have both within the framework of one piece of
humor. But good humor is a paradox—the unexpected juxtaposition of
the reasonable next to the unreasonable—and that creates surprise.
Think of the combination of realism and exaggeration as an exercise in
lateral thinking, a technique commonly used by business gurus to solve

The Recipe for Humor

51

problems and generate new ideas. It's defined as an interruption in the
habitual thought process, a leap sideways out of ingrained patterns.
Comedy has been doing this for thousands of years.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor went with the other justices to a restaurant for lunch. The waiter asked for her order first.
"I'll have a steak sandwich and coffee."
"What about the vegetables?" asked the waiter. O'Connor said,
"Oh, they'll have the same."

The basic two-step in humor is to (a) state some common problem, frequently with a cliché, and (b) create an unexpected ending or surprise.
If you've never wanted to kill your mate, you've never been in
love. If you've never held a box of rat poison in your hand and
stared at it for a good long while, you've never been in love.
—Chris Rock

Incongruous humor, as you may remember from chapter two, is based on
the premise of two or more realistic (but contrasting) circumstances united in one thought. Humorist Stephen Leacock wrote, "Humor results from
the contrast between a thing as it is and ought to be, and a thing smashed
out of shape, as it ought not to be."
If the world is normal, then how come hot dogs come in packages
of ten and hot dog buns come in packages of eight?
—Robert Wohl

Dorothy Parker once wrote, "The difference between wit and wisecracking is that wit has truth to it, while wisecracking is simply calisthenics
with words." (So, realism fathers truisms, those witty bits of philosophy
based upon self-evident and generally accepted facts of life.)
To entertain some people, all you have to do is listen. But there is
nothing quite so annoying as having someone go on talking when
you're interrupting.
—Robert Orben

52

Comedy Writing Secrets

The value of realism becomes even more evident when you consider the
humor of children. Their combination of truth and simplistic naïveté
delights grown-ups because it gives us a feeling of benevolent superiority—
if, as is said about benevolent dictatorship, there is such a thing.
A grandmother was babysitting her four-year-old granddaughter.
They both had hazel eyes, so the grandmother proudly asked,
"Debbie, do you know where your eyes came from?" The child
thought for a moment and answered, "Yes, Grandma, they came
with my head."

To be most effective, the "facts" of humor should be logical—the rela¬
tionship between people should be clear and predictable, the time and
the locale of the story should be familiar, the hostility should be com¬
mon to all the audience members and commensurate to the irritation.
Major deviations from reality don't prevent humor, but they may reduce
the payoff of uninhibited laughter. In essence, then, humor should be as
realistic as possible.
A priest in New York City was arrested on gun possession. These
days, you better be happy that the bulge in his pocket is a .38.
—David Letterman

EXAGGERATION: TALKING UP A STORM
We've already begun discussing exaggeration, the fourth element in the
THREES formula for humor. How does realism relate to exaggeration?
As we accept poetic license, let's accept a humor license that grants per¬
mission to expand on realistic themes with soaring imagination and
unabashed metaphors. Audiences rarely counter a joke that the per¬
former has made personal with an admonition "You don't expect me to
believe that?"
Only for humor is the public willing to suspend disbelief and skepti¬
cism. We permit humorists to utilize hyperbole, blatant distortion, and
overstated figures that signal (since the absurd subject matter can't pos¬
sibly be true): Hey, it's only a joke. Therefore, the audience laughs at

The Recipe for Humor

53

exaggerated banana-peel acrobatics because the clown will certainly get
up. That's comedy! If he doesn't get up, that's tragedy!
An example of the likely next to the unlikely is the classic story about
the newspaper that ran two photos: one of a gray-haired matron who'd just
been elected president of the local Women's Republican Club and the
other of a gorilla who was a new addition to the local zoo—but the cap¬
tions got switched. That's likely. The second stage of the humor comes
from the unlikely: The newspaper got sued for defamation—by the gorilla!
EMOTION: BURST THE BUBBLE
The fifth element in the THREES formula is emotion. Hostility, over- or
understated, is not enough. There must be a buildup of anticipation in
the audience. This is really nothing more than the writer's skill in using
emotion to produce tension and anxiety. It's a trick. Think of hostility as
an inflated balloon. When you create tension in your audience, you are
effectively adding more and more air to that balloon, building the audi¬
ence's anticipation over when the balloon will burst. They can hardly
keep their eyes off the stunt. The writer's goal is to see that the balloon
bursts with laughter, not hot air.
Each performer has a stage personality, called a persona or shtick.
While others can steal material, they can't steal the nuances that make
one individual funny. (And an ineffective persona can make a per¬
former unable to tell even a well-written joke). Humorist Larry Wilde
said, "There is a melody and cadence to all comedy that is as stringent
and disciplined as music."
A great comedic performer must be an actor with boundless energy.
The qualities that make a good comedian are over and above those that
make a good actor. Many comedians have become good actors in films
and sitcoms, but you rarely hear of a good actor becoming a great come¬
dian. In the movie The Entertainer, Sir Laurence Olivier played the part
of a small-time comic. It was a brilliant, award-winning performance, and
when Olivier was asked how he managed to make the comic look so
inept, he replied, "I didn't try to do him badly. I played the role as well as
I could." Even the best actor may be a flop as a comedian.

54

Comedy Writing Secrets

The ability to generate emotion is the ability of the speaker to trans¬
late the writer's material into entertainment through voice, enthusiasm,
and action. The ability to create emotion is also experience: knowing
when to pause and for how long, creating a rhythm with inflection, and
sometimes nothing more grandiose than making a gesture—called a take,
because it takes the right gesture.
Woody Allen discovered that "stand-up is a funny man doing material,
not a man doing funny material. The personality, the character—not the
joke—is primary."

QUESTION & ANSWER
HOW DO YOU BUILD EMOTION?
1. The first and most common technique for building
emotion is also the simplest—pausing just before
the payoff word. This pause is called a pregnant
pause because it promises to deliver. Even in Henny
Youngman's classic, "Take my wife—please!" the slight
pause indicated by the dash is essential to the reading
of that line. (Try to read it any other way!) The preg¬
nant pause creates tension, which is relieved by
the surprise ending.

I know you want to hear the latest dope from Washington.
Well—here I am.
—Senator Alan Simpson

Would you be so kind as to help a poor, unfortunate fellow out
of work, hungry, in fact someone who has nothing in this
world—except this gun!
2. The second technique for generating emotion is asking the audience
members a question, thereby encouraging them to become involved. This
was one of Johnny Carson's favorite devices.

The Recipe for Humor

55

Anybody see this commercial on TV last night? It claims you
can send a letter from anywhere in the country to New York for
seven dollars and fifty cents, and it promises next-day delivery.
The Post Office calls it Express Mail. I remember when it used
to be called the U.S. Mail.
Remember how hot it was yesterday? Well a dog was chasing
a cat, and they were both walking.
A common technique used by novice stand-up comics to infuse tension is
to ask the audience, "How many here have ever...?" It's become its own
cliché, and the take-offs are even more fun.
How many here went to grade school?
How many here paid to get in?
3. The third technique is called a build, which is a joke that leads to a joke
that leads to another joke. Ultimately, the jokes work together to prepare
the audience for one big blast.
4. The fourth way to build emotional tension is by working the
audience—a favorite device of today's stand-up comedians. The per¬
former walks out into the audience and throws questions at (what
appear to be) randomly selected members. Tension builds in each audi¬
ence member not from amazement that the comic is able to come up
with toppers to every answer, but from the fear that he or she may be
the next victim of the performer's ridicule.
Every playwright builds emotion into a scene. A humor writer
does the same thing, but because you're working with much smaller
units—sometimes just a joke of a few words—you must be able to
accomplish more with less. Good humor writers are like professional
card cheats. They know how to palm the joker and insert it only when
it's needed. When their act is too evident to the audience, they fail—
and it ain't pretty.

56 Comedy Writing Secrets

SURPRISE: NOBODY KNOWS THE
STUMBLES I'VE SEEN
The final element in the THREES formula is surprise. In the previous
chapter, we discussed surprise as one of the primary reasons why people
laugh. It's no wonder then that it's also one of the primary building
blocks for a successful joke. Charlie Chaplin defined surprise in terms of
a film scene in which the villain is chasing the heroine down the street.
On the sidewalk is a banana peel. The camera cuts swiftly back and forth
from the banana peel to the approaching villain. At the last second, the
heavy sees the banana peel and jumps over it—and then falls into an
open manhole.
It's easy to tell if your surprise works, because a live audience's
instant laughter is the most honest of emotions. You can give a bad
speech, a poor theatrical or musical performance, and the audience will
still politely applaud. If you perform bad humor, you'll get nothing but icy
silence (just a preliminary to unsolicited post-show advice).
No matter how well written, jokes don't come off in performance if
the comedian telegraphs the surprise. Many performers tip off the audi¬
ence to the funny line with a lick of their lips or a gleam in their eyes.
They hold up their hands and stop the audience from laughing all out
("Hey, listen to this!"), and they prime the audience for a big topper. But
then there's no surprise, and no laughter. This can have a domino effect:
The performer loses confidence in the material, then starts to press, then
loses other laughs because the audience has a sixth sense about flop
sweat—when a performer is trying too hard.
"Comedy is mentally pulling the rug out from under each person in
your audience," wrote Gene Perret. "But first, you have to get them to
stand on it. You have to fool them, because if they see you preparing to
tug on the rug, they'll move."
Two roads diverged in a wood and I took the road less traveled
by ... state troopers.

The Recipe for Humor

57

SHOWTIME
Let's see how the entire THREES formula (target, hostility, realism, exag¬
geration, emotion, and a surprise ending) works in a story. Identify which
parts of the story below correspond with each component of the THREES
formula. (At the end of the story, you can rate your answers).
An elderly truck driver was eating lunch at a roadside diner
when three shaggy young hoodlums, sporting black leather
jackets garishly decorated with swastikas, skulls, and crossbones, parked their motorcycles and came inside. They
spotted the truck driver and proceeded to taunt him, taking
his food away, pushing him off the seat, and insulting his
old age. He said nothing, but finally got up from the floor,
paid his bill, and walked out. One of the bikers, unhappy
that they hadn't provoked a fight, said to the waitress,
"Boy, he sure wasn't much of a man, was he?" "No," said
the waitress, looking out the window, "and he's not much
of a truck driver either. He just backed his truck over three
motorcycles!"
Did the THREES formula work for the above story? Yes, because the
humor contained each of the major components.
T = TARGET: The hoodlums, carefully described.
H = HOSTILITY: The story exploits public frustration at the escalation
of juvenile crime.
R = REALISM: There's little doubt that the aggressive actions of the
bikers could happen.
E = EXAGGERATION: One motorcyclist would have worked, but an ele¬
ment of exaggeration is achieved by including three. Their crude
behavior is exemplified not just once, but with three incidents of
hostile action. Exaggeration is also present in the truck driver's
final action—not a simple thing to do quickly.

58

Comedy Writing Secrets

E = EMOTION: The joke is carefully written to squeeze out every drop
of audience hostility: the stereotypical fascist appearance of the
bikers, their childish aggression meant just to provoke a fight with
an outnumbered, aged opponent. We even feel disappointment
when the truck driver appears—for a moment—to be a coward.
S = SURPRISE: The climax of the story is withheld until the last
two words.

The Recipe for Humor

59

Humor Writing
Techniques

CHAPTER 4
POW: Play on Words
My wife made me join a bridge club. I jump off next week.
—Rodney Dangerfield

Where do jokes come from? Well, funny
things do happen to us every once in a while.
If we're extroverts, we dramatically
recount the bizarre experiences with
exaggerated overtones. We get laughs.
And we think we're funny.
But professional humorists can't wait for
absurd things to happen. They have to produce
every day. Two popular ways of doing this are
by revamping old material, and by creating
new humor from ideas sparked by local, national, or world news.
As a beginner, you can't depend on joke files even if you've got a copy
of every joke book written—and dozens of new ones come out every
year. Other comics' jokes will rarely fit you. You have to subscribe to the
second method: creating jokes from scratch. You start by watching the
antics of people in public, on TV, and in films, and you read about them
in news stories. You imagine what-if situations, and you play with words.
I just broke up with someone, and the last thing she said to me
was, "You'll never find anybody like me again." And I was think¬
ing: I should hope not. Isn't that why we break up with people? If I
don't want you, why would I want somebody just like you? Does
anybody end a bad relationship and say, "By the way, do you
have a twin?"
—Larry Miller

More than 50 percent of all humor is based on plays on words (POWs).
The POW acronym is reminiscent of a sound effect in superhero

POW: Play on Words 61

comics, and a POW does pack a punch—and a punchline. A POW is a
twist on a familiar cliché; aphorism; book, movie, or song title; famous
quote; national ad slogan—in fact, any expression widely known by the
public. It can make use of double entendres, homonyms, or puns. A
humorist twist to the aphorism The way to a man's heart is through
his stomach is:
The quickest way to a man's heart is through his chest.
—Roseanne Barr

Unlike slapstick humor (which is strictly physical and therefore appeals
across cultural and linguistic boundaries), the success of written and
performed comedy based on POWs depends on the performer's manner¬
isms and inflections and the audience's knowledge of the nuances of the
language. Punchlines in one language are rarely effective in another.
The POW is a device used by all humor writers, and any successful
work of humor will contain a significant number of POWs. Plays on
words are the basis of practically all puns, limericks, and clever
witticisms. They run the gamut from childish idioms to erudite double
entendres. POW practitioners have included S.J. Perelman ("One
of our stage-craft is missing," and "Stringing Up Father") and Tom
Stoppard ("I have the courage of my lack of convictions"). Writing
POW comedy lines is as second nature for humorists as tying
their shoelaces.
A common misperception is that plays on words are "old-school"
humor. But while POW humor may be considered classic, it certainly
can't be considered stale. The successful Austin Powers movies (one of
the most successful comedy film franchises in recent years) rely heavily
on POWs for character names like Alotta Fagina and Random Task
(spoofs of Goldfinger's Pussy Galore and Oddjob), Fook Mi, Fook Yu,
and Robin Spitz Swallows.
In George Carlin's three best-selling books—Brain Droppings,
Napalm & Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?—
POWs account for a large percentage of the humor. Carlin is one of the
most serious linguists in comedy. Examples of Carlin's POWs include:

62

Comedy Writing Secrets

UNNECESSARY WORDS
emergency situation (emergency alone is sufficient)
boarding process (boarding can be used alone as a noun)
EUPHEMISMS
uniforms = career apparel
prostitute = commercial sex worker
MOCK SELF-HELP AND ADVICE BOOK TITLES
Where to Hide a Really Big Snot
I Suck, You Suck
Mock Punk Band Names
Tower of Swine
Warts, Waffles, and Walter

Over the next few chapters, we'll explain some of the most important
POW techniques.
1. A double entendre is the use of an ambiguous word or phrase that
allows for a second—usually racy—interpretation.
2. A malaprop is the unintentional misstatement or misuse
of a word or phrase, or the accidental substitution of an
incorrect word for the correct one, with humorous results.
Malaprops are effective in part because they allow the audience
to feel superior. Malaprops can incorporate clichés and double
entendres.
3. An oxymoron is a joining of two incompatible ideas in one phrase.
It can also be called a contradiction in terms.
4. A pun is a word used in such a way that two or more of the
word's possible meanings are active simultaneously. A pun may
also be a reformation of a word to a like-sounding word that is
not an exact homonym.
5. Reforming is a process that adds a twist or a surprise ending
to a cliché (a predictable, hackneyed phrase) or a common word,
phrase, or expression. Other POW techniques, such as double
entendres and puns, rely heavily on reforming.

POW: Play on Words

63

6. The simple truth is the opposite of a double entendre. It plays on
the literal meaning of a key word in an idiomatic phrase (and will
be discussed in the next chapter).
7. The take-off is a statement of the standard version of a cliché or
expression, followed by a realistic but highly exaggerated commen¬
tary, frequently a double entendre. (Take-offs will also be discussed
in a later chapter.)

CLICHÉS IN HUMOR
A cliché is an expression that was clever once but has lost its original
impact through overuse. Some people salt every dish, whether it requires
salt or not. Clichés are used just as frequently (and indiscriminately).
They are sprinkled liberally into every conversation, every letter, every
political speech, and (unfortunately) in too many major literary efforts.
They're shortcuts to comprehension that we use when we are creatively
lazy or mentally bankrupt. But the humor writer uses audacious and sur¬
prising interpretations of clichés to shock an audience into laughter.
I've heard that dogs are man's best friend. That explains where
men are getting their hygiene tips.
—Kelly Maguire

Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and the world
laughs at you.
—Caryn Leschen

A cliché can be reformed with homonyms—words that look or sound the
same but have different meanings. In the one-liner below, the humor
works when vein is aptly substituted for vain in the cliché in vain.
However, it only works in print.
I tried to give up heroin, but my efforts were all in vein.
—George Carlin

Clichés are perfect launch vehicles for the neophyte humor writer
because one-liners are the most salable humor form today. Simple cliché

64

Comedy Writing Secrets

humor can be put to immediate use in a wide variety of formats, includ¬
ing photo and cartoon captions, greeting cards, news and advertising
headlines, bumper stickers (a rear view of pop culture), titles of books
and articles, and monologues.
Frequently, a cliché is used to set the audience's train of thought in
motion—so the humorist can derail it. Since the ending phrase of a
cliché is predictable, the audience's thoughts head in a predictable direc¬
tion. The key word here is predictable. The easiest way to achieve sur¬
prise is to use a vehicle that takes the audience for a ride in a predictable
direction—a direction you will change at the last possible moment. It's a
last-second switch in the anticipated verbal conclusion. The result is sur¬
prise, which produces laughter, the payoff of all comedic effort. As you'll
see shortly, there are a number of formulas for altering a cliché so that
its final direction surprises the reader or listener.
Every night I had a strange girl. Same girl—she was just strange.
—Michael Davis

In the above example, the audience initially interprets strange to mean
"different." The surprise comes when the comedian reveals that the literal
meaning of strange is intended.
When people ask me if I see too much sex in the movies,
I tell them, how should I know? I watch the film, not the audience.
—Mel Helitzer

Sex and violence in film and TV is a sensitive topic, so the audience
naturally assumes this is what is under discussion in this example. The
surprise comes by interpreting the phrase "in the movies" to mean "in
the movie theater."

THE DOUBLE ENTENDRE: AWAY WITH WORDS
Double entendre is the French term for an ambiguous word or phrase
that allows for a second—usually spicy—interpretation. Double entendres are 40 percent of all cliché humor because they're so easy to con¬
struct. Consider these names and slogans.

POW: Play on Words

65

Tennis store advertisement: What's Your Racquet?
Sign over urinal: Look before you leak.
Art supplies advertisement: Honest, I Was Framed!

The logic behind double entendre humor is as basic as its English trans¬
lation: two meanings. The audience assumes one meaning; the comic
sneaks in another.
Irving made a lot of money one year in the garment business and
decided to buy a racehorse. One day he brought all his friends to
the stable as the vet was laboriously working on the horse.
"Is my horse sick?" asked Irving.
"She's not the picture of health," said the vet, "but we'll pull
her through."
"Will I ever be able to race her?"
"Chances are you will—and you'll probably beat her, too!"
—Myron Cohen

In the above example, the success of the joke relies on the double inter¬
pretation of the word race. Irving wants to know if the horse will be able
to race other horses. The vet comments that Irving himself would win a
race against the horse.
Three of the four words in the expression wire ahead for reserva¬
tions have multiple meanings. (This phrase has been replaced in com¬
mon usage by call ahead for reservations, but most people would still
instinctively understand its meaning.) By imagining what-if scenarios
and performing mental calisthenics, the humor writer can recast this
common phrase with double entendres.
The Sioux tribe sent one of their brightest young men to engineer¬
ing school. After graduating, he returned home and was immediate¬
ly assigned to install electric lights in all the latrines, so he became
famous for being the first Indian to wire a head for reservations.

As new expressions come into the vernacular, the professional humor
writer looks for every opportunity to play around with words—the most
socially acceptable form of playing around.

66

Comedy Writing Secrets

We call our maid a commercial cleaner, because she cleans only
during commercials.

Be forewarned! Amateurs make the mistake of thinking that, since dou¬
ble entendres are so plentiful, they are easy to cultivate. But you must
evaluate them as you would plants at a nursery—if you don't choose
carefully, you may wind up with a garden of crabgrass. And there is a
second danger to the use of double entendres: They are so often used in
humor that even unsophisticated audiences can predict a punchline if it
has been telegraphed by the comedian. If the double entendre isn't well
hidden, there's no surprise.
Creating Double Entendres: A Dime a Dozen
The most popular double entendre is the word it, which can be used to
mean a hundred different things, but is used most often in humor as a
synonym for intercourse. For example, Librarians do it with books, or
Lawyers do it in their briefs.
MC, after bombing with a sexist joke: Boy, am I going to
get it when I get home. Or maybe I'm not going to get it
when I get home.

The second most common double entendre is the word in, which also
has an obvious sexual connotation.
"Isn't it great to be in June?"
"Yes, but her sister, Barbara, was even better."

KEEPING IT CLEAN
Since the second meaning of a double entendre is frequently considered
risque, broadcast censors examine every word in a script. Mel Helitzer
once spent six months arguing with a representative of the National
Association of Broadcasters' TV code department for permission to use
the jingle line "Two in the bathtub is more fun than one" for a washable
doll called Rub-a-Dub Dolly. The censor, an attractive twenty-five-year-

POW: Play on Words

67

old (who, unfortunately, had a five-second broad¬
cast delay built in to her mind), tried to nix the line
with a challenge to its veracity: "Can you prove that
two in the bathtub is more fun than one?" Helitzer
looked at her for a moment and then said, "You
know, I have a wonderful idea!"

The second meaning of the key word or phrase of a double entendre
does not have to be racy or sexual.
He was a millionaire golfer, so he used his chauffeur as his driver.
One man walking his dog met a friend on the street who admired
his pet.
"I just bought him for fifteen hundred dollars," said the owner.
"Isn't that a lot of money for a mutt?" his friend asked.
"Why, he's not a mutt! He's part Airedale and part bull."
"Yeah, what part is bull?"
"The part about the fifteen hundred dollars."

More sophisticated forms of double entendre make use of irony and sar¬
casm. Irony is notoriously difficult to define (though there seems to be a
general agreement that, despite Alanis Morissette's words to the con¬
trary, rain on your wedding day is not ironic). For the purposes of the
current discussion, irony is a statement that is the opposite of what is
intended. Sarcasm is defined similarly, but sarcasm usually has more of a
bite, the sting of open ridicule. In an excellent example of irony, Bob
Hope once walked into the ward of a military hospital and shouted to the
wounded GIs, "Please, don't get up!"
Irony can be expressed in many ways, but it's often the result of evok¬
ing an absurd meaning from a standard phrase.
Hillary Clinton said she once got a dog for Bill. She said it was the
best deal she ever made.

68

Comedy Writing Secrets

EVERYBODY SHOULDN'T DO IT:
OBSCENE LANGUAGE AND
DOUBLE ENTENDRES
Many funny double entendres are made up of words
that have a sexual connotation. There are endless
possibilities—all obvious. Through frequent use,
some double entendres that were originally shock¬
ing—such as he sucks—have become acceptable.
Richard Pryor popularized making mother half a word
in an act that still represents one of the greatest
creative performances in contemporary comedy.
And often, a play on the double meaning of a word can lead to
powerful spontaneous humor, as illustrated by a classic interview
on The Tonight Show.
Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared as a guest while holding one of her
prized felines. As she was sitting there, she suddenly turned to
Johnny Carson and asked, "Would you like to pet my pussy?"
"Sure," said Carson, "but first move the cat."
Given the abundance of double entendres with sexual connotations,
beginning humor writers often abuse them through overuse. The profes¬
sional humorist recognizes that the problem is not to find them but avoid
them. They're just too easy a joke. Many audiences think they are adoles¬
cent and cheap—a sign of an amateur.
We'll take a closer look at obscenity in humor in chapter eleven.

SHOWTIME
As a warm-up exercise, let's do it: Practice the art of double entendres
with the word it. Complete the following sentences, then compare your
responses to those at the end of the chapter.

POW: Play on Words

69

•Comedians do i t . . .
•Dancers do i t . . .
•Bankers do i t . . .
•Math teachers do i t . . .
•Publishers do i t . . .
•Carpet layers do i t . . .
•Bowlers do i t . . .

MALAPROPS: AN ERROR OF THEIR WEIGHS
A malaprop (sometimes called a malapropism) is an unintentional misstatement or misuse of a word or phrase, or an accidental substitution of
an incorrect word for a (similar) correct one—to humorous effect. These
examples of twisted language only qualify as malaprops if the person
speaking them is unaware (or appears to be unaware) of the mistake.
Malaprops were the staple of George Burns and Gracie Allen's comedic
act for more than thirty years and were used abundantly by various sit¬
com characters from Archie Bunker of All in the Family to Joey of
Friends. Today, entertainment columns are good sources of celebrity
witticisms-turned-malaprops. Publicity agents, when they can't find
something positive to say about their clients, create modified clichés that
turn into malaprops. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was quoted in the
entertainment columns so often with examples of mistaken grammar
that a malaprop became known as a Goldwynism.
A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William.
Include me out.

Baseball managers Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra were credited with
malaprops that helped to cemented their immortality in reference books.
You wouldn't have won if we had.
—Yogi Berra

70

Comedy Writing Secrets

If people don't want to come to the ballpark, nobody can stop them.
—Casey Stengel

Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
—Yogi Berra

That restaurant is so popular, nobody goes there anymore.
—Yogi Berra

Humorists bless politicians who make their jobs easy by fracturing the
English language, as did former Vice President Dan Quayle. His mala¬
props include:
If we do not succeed, then we run the risk of failure.
What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is
being very wasteful. How true that is. (A malaprop based on the
United Negro College Fund slogan A Mind Is a Terrible Thing
to Waste.)
It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities
in our air and water that are doing it.

President George W. Bush's habit of misspeaking spawned several books'
worth of malaprops known as Bushisms. They include:
Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning.
They misunderestimated me.
I promise you I will listen to what has been said here, even though
I wasn't here.

A time-honored rule in comedy is never to do more than three jokes on
one topic, and some comedy writers will argue that two is plenty. The
same rule applies to using the same technique several times within one
joke, as in the next example. The following radio commercial for City
National Bank in Los Angeles uses the malaprop technique seven times,
holding the audience's interest through the cute twist at the end.

POW: Play on Words

71

[PHONE RINGS]
YOUNG DAUGHTER: Smith residence.
FATHER: Hi ya, sport. Let me talk to Mom.
DAUGHTER: Hey, Mom! It's Dad.
MOTHER: Ask him what he wants, hon. I've got my hands
in dishwater.
DAUGHTER: What do you want, Dad? Mom's got her hands
in fish water.
FATHER: Just tell her I've been to City National.
DAUGHTER: He's been pretty bashful, Mom.
MOTHER: What about?
DAUGHTER: What about?
FATHER: About the trust.
DAUGHTER: About the truss.
MOTHER: Truss? What truss?
DAUGHTER: Which one?
FATHER: The life insurance trust, kiddo. The one from
City National.
DAUGHTER: The lighting shirt's truss, Mom.
MOTHER: The lighting shirt's truss?
FATHER: The one that keeps the tax man from being one
of my beneficiaries.
DAUGHTER: The one that keeps the Pac-Man from eating
bony fishes.
MOTHER: Ask him what in the world he's talking about, honey.
DAUGHTER: What in the world are you talking about, Dad?
ANNOUNCER: Come in and talk to a City National trust officer.
We'll show you how a truss can protect your lighting shirts.
DAUGHTER: That's "life insurance."
Note that malaprops give the audience a chance to mock the speaker's con¬
fusion with English, and thereby feel superior. As you remember, the feeling
of superiority is a prime motivator for laughter.

72

Comedy Writing Secrets

OXYMORONS: PRETTY UGLY
Another category of incongruous expressions goes by the suggestive
name of oxymoron—an oxymoron is a contradiction in terms that pro¬
vides a gold mine of humor material, particularly for greeting cards and
T-shirt copy. Consider the following.
• found missing
• living dead
• good grief
• working vacation
• larger half
• soft rock
• extinct life
• Microsoft Works
• plastic glasses
• alone together
• exact estimate
• taped live
• small crowd
• even odds

SHOWTIME
Words are the instruments or humorists, and mastering the subtleties of
language is a necessary step to becoming a successful humor writer.
Use the following exercises to practice your POWs.
• Search a dictionary for ten words that you do not know the definitions
for. Don't look at the definitions! Write each word on an index card,
and on the back of the card, create a logical but whimsical definition.
• Search the Internet for clichés, proverbs, or common phrases that
relate to the potential humor targets you identified in the last chapter.
Compile a list of ten items. Using the techniques described in this

POW: Play on Words

73

chapter, reform the clichés into jokes by changing the original ending
or adding on to the phrase.
Writing humor starts with an audience of one. If your goal is to write
commercially successful humor, you must expand your audience. To
begin testing your writing, use e-mail to showcase your material. Many
people attach to their e-mail messages something called a signature,
which contains contact information, a quote, or a "thought of the day."
Instead of relying on the words of others, you can punch up your e-mail
messages using the exercises you just completed.
• Use your fictitious definitions for a "word of the day."
• Attribute your reformed clichés to a celebrity to create a "quote
of the day."
• Reform famous quotations and credit new authors for the quotes.
For example, transform Freud's famous line Sometimes a cigar
is just a cigar to a Bill Clinton quote: Sometimes a cigar is more
than a cigar.
• Create a series of fictitious names (I. M. Sane, Anita Prozac) to use
as the authors of your clichés, definitions, or quotes.

A BARREL OF PUN
A pun is created from the intentional confusion of similar-sounding words
or phrases. Puns, which overlap with double entendres and homonyms,
can be used as the basis for a joke or to reform an expression or cliché.
They work better when spoken or heard than they do in print, because
the ear transmits to the mind the most familiar interpretation of each
word. (Actually, here is one of the most popular words to use, because it
can sound like hear, hair, and hare: An adolescent rabbit is a pubic
hare. Hair today, gone tomorrow.)
Puns are very versatile and can be used in a number of formats. They
can take the form of riddles.

74

Comedy Writing Secrets

What do you call a smelly chicken?
A foul fowl.
What does a grape say when you step on it?
Nothing. It just gives a little whine.
Or they can be simple quips.
Asphalt, another word for rectal problems.
With friends like you, who needs enemas?
She was chaste, very chaste. Of course, sometimes they
caught her, too.
—Norm Crosby

Often, several puns can be made around the same topic. Here's how
Halloween-themed puns would sound in a dialogue between two phantoms.
"Witch way ghost thou?"
"My house."
"Haunted?"
"Of corpse."
"Howl you go?"
"Broom."
"May I ghoul along?"
"Sure. Always broom for one more."
"What'll I wear?"
"Shroud."
"Why?"
"Because behind every shroud is a shiver lining."
"Sounds frightfully expensive."
"Ya' gotta take scare of yourself, Halloween."
Notice that, in the above example, the puns were based on near
homonyms, reformed words that sound similar to the original, but are
not exact homonyms: howl for how will, broom for room.
Puns can also be used to create "daffy definitions."

POW: Play on Words

75

What's a Fahrenheit? A moderately tall person.
What's an ICBM? Eskimo doo-doo.
What's an infantry? A very young sapling.
What's fireproof? A tenured professor.
Content: Where prisoners sleep while on a camping trip.
Detail: The act of removing a tail.
Arbitrator: An Arby's cook who leaves to work for McDonald's.
Eyedropper: A clumsy ophthalmologist.

Some puns can seem pretty obvious, but they're not easy to create from
scratch. It is said of second-rate comedians that they know a good joke
when they steal one. If you practice enough, it becomes instinctive to
look for words that can form double entendres or that have homonyms
or near homonyms.
For example, try reforming words using homonyms from one subject
group (like fish names), just for the pun of it. Next, use your puns to cre¬
ate reformed clichés or standalone jokes. (Did you hear about the
Norwegian who brought his harpoon to Israel because he knew he'd be
visiting the Wailing Wall?) Or string all the puns together in one sentence:
I got a haddock herring that tuna blow "salmon chanted eel-ing" and,
upon my sole, he did it on porpoise.

SHOWTIME
Many newspapers, magazines, and Web sites hold POW contests in
which readers are asked to submit entries. The Washington Posts annual
contest requires readers to select any word from a standard dictionary;
change, add, or delete only one letter; and then provide a new definition.
(This type of construction, popularized in books by Rich Hall, is often
called a sniglet.)
Here are some submissions from the Washington Posts contest (with¬
out accompanying definitions). Change, add, or delete one letter in each
of the following words, then write a definition for the new word. (The

76

Comedy Writing Secrets

reformed words and definitions originally submitted by Washington Post
readers are listed at the end of the chapter.)
•foreplay
•sarcasm
•inoculate
•hepatitis
•libido
•ignoramus

REFORMING
An invaluable POW technique, reforming is the process of altering a
word, expression, phrase, or cliché to arrive at a twist that cleverly
changes the point of view. There are several ways to reform a cliché
or expression.
1. TRANSPOSE WORDS. The first way to reform a phrase or cliché is
to transpose the words to create a new, related thought. Drama critic
Walter Winchell did this in a review of a season opener: "Who am I to
stone the first cast?" Then there's the classic drug joke: "I'm not as think
as you stoned I am."
2. REPLACE A PEW LETTERS IN A KEY WORD. The second and
most frequent type of reforming is replacing one or two letters in a key
word of an expression in order to achieve a surprise turn of phrase.
I will not cut off my nose to spite my race.
—Golda Meir

3. USE A HOMONYM. The third way to reform a cliché is to use a
homonym, a similar-sounding word with a second possible interpreta¬
tion. Reforming with homonyms often creates double entendres or puns,
as in restaurant names like Wok 'n Roll, Mustard's Last Stand, Blazing
Salads, and Aesop's Tables.

POW: Play on Words

77

That restaurant inspired the TV show That's Inedible!
The things my wife buys at antique auctions are keeping me baroque.
—Peter De Vries

Homonyms and Fractured Clichés
Homonyms are strictly defined as words that are spelled and pronounced
alike, but that are different in meaning (bore a hole vs. bore someone to
death). However, homophones (words pronounced alike but spelled dif¬
ferently, like bough and bow) and homographs (words spelled alike that
differ in meaning or pronunciation, like bow in tie a bow and bow and
arrow) often fall under the rubric of homonym.
Homonyms are particularly popular in print advertisements, T-shirts,
signs, and store names. The bumper sticker "I owe. I owe. It's off to work
I go!" uses a homonym effectively, as do the following store names.
Fishing supplies: Master Bait and Tackle
Towing service: Dyno-Mite Hooker
Glass repair: A Pain in the Glass

Here are some homonyms as signs.
Bird Food—Cheep
Boats for Sail
Lenten Special—Filets of Soul
Your Money Tearfully Refunded

In skits and humorous short stories, you'll often find homonyms and
puns in character names.
Air traffic controller: Ulanda U. Lucky
Customer care representative: Kurt Reply
Funeral director: Hadley Newham
Compassion coordinator: Ophelia Paine
Copyright attorney: Pat Pending
Dessert chef: Tyra Meesu
Dry cleaner: Preston Creases
Loan officer: I.O. Silver

78

Comedy Writing Secrets

There's no limit to the number of POWs you can have in one sentence.
In fact, the paired word humor form (which will be discussed in greater
detail in chapter twelve) requires two homonyms in one joke.
Then there's the overweight jogger who ignored advice and panted
himself into a coroner.
—Bert Murray

Definition of a stockyard: flesh in the pen.
—Robert Fitch

Do under others as you would have them do under you.
No nukes is good nukes.
Some newspaper bloopers—known as typos—form serendipitous puns.
Our paper carried the notice last week that Mr. Herman Jones
is a defective in the police force. This was a typographical error.
Mr. Jones, of course, is a detective on the police farce.
—The Ootlewah Times
(Tennessee)

One common reform process using homonyms is called split-reforming.
Split reforming involves separating—or fracturing—one word into two to
get a surprise double meaning.
An eighty-six-year-old lady was being interviewed by the quizmas¬
ter on TV. "You look wonderful," he said.
"Yes," said the old lady, "I've never had a sick day in my life."
The MC was astonished. "You've never been bedridden even
once?" he asked.
The old lady said, "Oh, many times. And three times in the
haystack."

One of the most common split-reforms begins with a word that starts
with the letter a (alone, around, abreast, abroad, apparent, apiece,
ahead). The initial a is detached, and the second half of the word is
allowed to stand alone.

POW: Play on Words

79

Two partners on a sinking boat are thrown into the sea.
"Can you float alone?" one asks the other.
"I'm drowning," says the other partner, "and he's talking
business."
—Larry Wilde

This example not only illustrates split-reforming but also uses loan
as a homonym of lone. Note that the success of the joke depends on
the audience, when it hears alone, interpreting the word to mean on
your own. In writing, this joke succeeds because you read alone, and
the alternate meaning doesn't occur to you until the last few words
of the joke.
"Would you like to play around?" the young man asked
his girlfriend.
"Are you asking that as a lover or as a golfer?" she replied.

The first line in the above example could be written as it appears
here, or with a split-reform as Would you like to play a round? If you
were already talking about golf or were addressing an audience of
golfers, the audience would probably infer that you meant a round.
In that case, you might want to reverse the order of the words lover
and golfer in the last line. Outside the context of golf, however, the
audience would probably assume you meant around, and the meaning
of the split word would not occur to them until after the girlfriend's
mention of golf.
One actor to another: I was abroad myself for two years, but fortu¬
nately a psychiatrist fixed me up.

This joke depends on the audience assuming that abroad means
overseas. The split-reform occurs when the audience mentally separates
a and broad after the punchline.
Other common types of split-reform are the addition, deletion,
or separation of a prefix (such as a-, an-, pre-, un-, and in-)
from a word.

80

Comedy Writing Secrets

An elderly man and a woman meet for the first time at a Miami
Beach social: "And how's by you the sex?" asks the woman.
"Infrequently," replies the old man.
"Tell me," demands the woman, "is that one word or two?"
—Myron Cohen

An atheist is someone who has no invisible means of support.
At Ohio University, students owe so much money they changed
the initials of the college from OU to IOU.
—Mel Helitzer

Plagiarism: the unoriginal sin.
—Roy Peter Clark

Split-reform can include changing suffixes or interpreting suffixes as
homonyms (such as -ize for eyes).
"Do you want this pasteurized?"
"No! Just up to my mouth'd be fine!"
Split-reform also includes the separation of a compound word into two.
Juggler to audience: Don't worry. I've got a backup system.
Everybody, back up!
Another category of split-reform reinterprets an -er ending as the word
her (catcher, licker, freezer, player), or capitalizes on words that begin
with the her sound (harass). Words that contain a him, sound (vitamin,
Himalayan, hemisphere) work as well.
One frosh to another: I can hardly wait to read the book
the English prof assigned us—J.D. Salinger's Catch Her
in the Rye.
"I was a diesel fitter in a shoe store."
"They don't have diesels in shoe stores!"
"Sure they do. I stood around and said, 'Dese'll fit 'er.'"

POW: Play on Words

81

SHOWTIME
Think of one of the humor targets you identified in chapter three, and
write down some words that relate to that topic. Pick one, and write
down as many soundalikes as come to mind. Then write a joke based
on these soundalikes.
For example, hormone sounds like whore moan, her moan,
and harmony. Now, it's not difficult to write such bits as Tom Padovano's
"Hormone could be heard clear across campus," or that old classic
"How do you make a hormone? Don't pay her."
Okay, so far so good. But how many homonyms can you make from
the following words? Two is fair, four is good, five or more is excellent; if
you can't come up with any, take up accounting.
•Caesar

•bore

•Dewey

•bigamy

•Tudor

•maker

•read

•hoarse

•fowl

•wurst

•liquor

•bare

•atoll

•Hebrew

•Czech

PRINT REFORMS
Because the sound difference in reformed homonyms is so subtle, some
puns and reformed clichés work better in print. That's why they're so
popular on signs and graffiti. But spoken aloud, they may cause puzzle¬
ment in the audience, rather than laughter.

82

Comedy Writing Secrets

I know a transsexual who only wants to eat, drink and be Mary.
—George Carlin

A zebra is twenty-five sizes bigger than an A bra.
Humor writers prefer gag lunches.
Celebrity in snowstorm talking to reporter: If I had a good
quote, I'd be wearing it!
The boy had a lot to be spankful for.
Familiarity breeds attempt.
Note from meter maid to ticketed car owner:
Parking is such sweet sorrow.
Young boy to star baseball player walking out of
DA's office during drug investigation: Say it ain't
snow, Joe!

WRITING A REFORMED CLICHÉ OR EXPRESSION
In the summer of 1985, two Czechoslovakian tennis stars—Ivan Lendl
and Hana Mandlikova—won the U.S. Open men's and women's tennis
championships, respectively. The fact that they were both Czech gave
writers of photo captions, cartoons, headlines, and newscasts a homo¬
nym field day.
Imagine you are a newspaper or magazine editor. You have a photo
of the two winners, each holding a U.S. Open trophy and a huge prize
check. Your assignment is to come up with a photo caption or headline.
A POW using homonyms is an obvious choice.
First, write down all the homonyms associated with the sound of
the word Czech. A sample list would include all those connected with
bank checks.
• bounced check
• bad check

POW: Play on Words

83












good check
rubber check
cashed check
deposited check
big check
paid check
returned check
endorsed check
cancelled check
the check is in the mail

But the word check has many other meanings. The terms check and
checkmate are used in chess. There's the game of checkers, and the
clichéd expression "check and double check." In ice hockey, one player
body checks another. In a roll call, one checks off names with a check
mark. You can ask for separate checks in a restaurant. And when you've
completed this list, be sure to check it out completely!
Next, substitute the word Czech in all the above expressions and
determine if one of the captions or headlines syncs with the specific
picture you have. How many different captions can you come up with?
(You should be able to generate five to ten possibilities from the above
list. For instance, Czech-mated or cashed Czechs.) Only after examining many possibilities would you select the best one.
It seems like a lot of work for one photo caption. It is. But before
long, your mental computer will have a file of all the different possibilities, and you'll be able to call them up at a moment's notice.
Do all those steps really become automatic? To continue the tennis
theme, think of all the moves a tennis pro has to make while setting up
for a tennis shot. As the ball approaches, he decides to move diagonally forward or backward, left or right. At the same time, he is getting
his racket back, planting his feet properly while keeping both eyes on
the ball to judge its speed and spin. He now makes decisions on his
shot: the velocity of his swing in order to block, punch, or slam the
ball. With his peripheral vision, he determines where his opponent is
and guesses where he'll go. A tennis ace does all this and more in less

84

Comedy Writing Secrets

than a second while the ball is traveling nearly a hundred miles per
hour—for every shot. If this type of thing can become automatic, so
can the creation of POWs.
Compared to a champion tennis player, you have a lot more time
to run through your gamut of double entendres and homonyms.
The second time you perform this exercise, it will not only be easier
but will generate better results. The five thousandth time will be
easier still.
Let's try it again. In this case, you'll be a copywriter writing an adver¬
tisement to encourage the public to use your bank for personal loans.
Again, we'll go through similar steps.
STEP ONE: Locate the important word or phrase you would like to
reform. In this case, concentrate on the word loan. Then write as many
words as you can think of that rhyme with or sound similar to loan. Go
for quantity.
STEP TWO: Select the words from your list that seem to have possibili¬
ties as double entendres. You might choose groan, lone, moan, phone,
postpone, and own.
STEP THREE: Now, start eliminating. Groan and moan have negative
associations. Postpone is the opposite of what you wish to recommend.
But we still have lone, own, and phone. That's not bad!
STEP FOUR: Write as many POWs as you can with the word loan or
lone in it, and try some reforming based on changing the spelling. Humor
permits us to take some liberties with the language, so our list (which
would be much longer than this) would include:
Can you float a loan
You'll never be a loan
The loan ranger

STEP FIVE: With a little reforming, the Lone Ranger and Tonto can
become the loan arranger supported by his loyal sidekick, pronto.
Now you have an ad headline that suggests action.

POW: Play on Words

85

Santa Monica Bank
Phone the loan arranger—and pronto!

To appreciate the innumerable variations possible with homonyms, let's
examine POWs on the title of Stravinsky's famous ballet The Rite of
Spring. Okay, the sound rite can be spelled in the following ways: rite,
write, right, and wright. Each spelling, singular or plural, contributes to
a variety of humor possibilities, such as these examples of newspaper
photo headlines.
Over a photo of a high school commencement: The Rite of Spring
Over a photo of a book on spring gardening: The Writes of Spring
Over a photo of the Wrights' annual garden party: The Wrights
of Spring

In addition, the word spring can now be replaced with one of the follow¬
ing eighteen words that rhyme with it.
bing
ding
fling
ling
ping
sing
sting
swing
wing

bring
cling
king
ming
ring
sling
string
thing
wring

Thus, a picture of a coach instructing hitters at training camp could carry
the headline The Rites of Swing.
By multiplying those nineteen words by the four variations on the
sound rite (the other three were right, write, and wright), we now have
a total of seventy-two possible variations on one phrase. And we're not
finished! Just as we did with spring, let's take the word rite and replace
it with one of the twenty-three words that are close in sound. Here your
rhyming dictionary will be of help.

86

Comedy Writing Secrets

bright
dike
flight
knight
might
sight
strike
tyke

brite
dyke
height
like
pike
site
tight
white

cite
fight
hike
mike
plight
spike
trike

This changes the options for rite from four to twenty-seven, and with
the eighteen spring variations, we now have the possibility of 414 varia¬
tions—from just one expression! Of course, only a handful of these
combinations could ever be used, but you never know when odd oppor¬
tunities will turn up: a college president named Ping shows up at his
child's birthday party, so now you can have a news photo caption that
reads: The Tykes of Ping.

THE ANSWER MAN
Here are some possible answers for the Showtime exercises on page 70.
Comedians do it standing up.
Dancers do it to music.
Bankers do it with interest.
Math teachers do it with unknowns.
Publishers do it by the book.
Carpet layers do it on their knees.
Bowlers do it with balls.
Here are the Washington Post reader submissions that correspond with
the Showtime exercises on pages 76-77.
foreply: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose
of getting laid.

POW: Play on Words

87

sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and
the person who doesn't get it.
inoculate: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
hipatitis: Terminal coolness.
glibido: All talk and no action.
ignoranus: A person who's stupid and an asshole.

88

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 5
More POW: The Simple Truth
and the Take-Off
I spilled spot remover on my dog—and now he's gone.
—Steven Wright

Many English phrases,
expressions, and clichés are
idiomatic, which means they
can't be taken literally: I got up
on the wrong side of the bed;
I had a change of heart. Other
phrases and expressions
are understood within a
context of logical assump¬
tions. When you tell someone you are getting your hair cut, it's logical for
them to assume you mean hair in the plural sense, not the singular.
Grandchild: Grandpa, I love running my fingers through your hairs.

The simple truth is a technique for creating humor by considering the
implications of the literal meaning of such expressions—without their
context of logical assumptions. The simple truth is just that—simple and
true. By taking the literal meaning of a key word, you surprise the audi¬
ence members, who have automatically interpreted the cliché with its
traditional meaning. The simple truth makes logic illogical. It's common¬
ly referred to as the "Call me a taxi" or "Call me a doctor" formula. ("Call
me a taxi." "Okay, you're a taxi"; or, "Call me a doctor." "Why? Are you
sick?" "No, I just graduated from med school.")
I was trying to get back to my original weight—seven pounds,
three ounces.
—Cheryl Vendetti

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

89

I got some new underwear the other day. Well, it's new to me.
—Emo Philips
How long was I in the army? Five foot eleven.
—Spike Milligan

The take-off is the most traditional of all humor techniques. Like the
simple truth, the take-off begins with a standard expression or cliché.
But it continues with an outrageous commentary, often containing a
double entendre.
I say live and let live. Anyone who can't accept that should
be executed.
—George Carlin
If truth is beauty, how come no one has her hair done in a library?
—Lily Tomlin
My mind wanders a lot, but fortunately it's too weak to go
very far.
—Bob Thaves

Let's examine the logic and construction behind each of these two
techniques.
THE WHOLE TRUTH
AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH
The construction of a simple truth depends on an almost childlike
comprehension. One of the ways to understand this technique is to
think like a child.
Grandma Elden was baby-sitting, and every five minutes Adrienne
had another request to keep from going to sleep. Exasperated, she
said to her four-year-old granddaughter, "Adrienne, if you call
Grandma one more time, I'm going to get very angry." Five min¬
utes later she heard Adrienne say quietly, "Mrs. Elden, can I have
a glass of water?"

90

Comedy Writing Secrets

Another way to craft a simple truth is through a childish riddle.
"I bet you I can say the capitals of all fifty states in less than thirty
seconds."
"Impossible. It's a bet. Ready, set, go!"
"Okay. The capitals of all fifty states in less than thirty seconds.
I said it. You lose!"

The innocence of children is an easy set-up for the simple truth in humor.
A six-year-old asked her mother: "Ma. Tell me the truth. Where did
I come from?" The flustered mother thought, "Must I really start
explaining the details of sexual reproduction already?" So she
asked, "Tell me, Debbie, why do you want to know?" And Debbie
said, "Cause the kid next door said he came from Detroit. I wanna
know where I come from."

As we mature comedically, simple truth techniques permit a whole series
of formula jokes.
I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman where the
self-help section was. She said if she told me it would defeat
the purpose.
—Dennis Miller

It's no wonder illiterate people never get the full effect of
alphabet soup.
—John Mendoza

Simple Truth Construction: It Ain't Simple
On the surface, the mechanics of the simple truth seem easy to under¬
stand and structure, and therein lies the danger. To create a simple
truth, reexamine every major word in a phrase, reject its most com¬
mon meaning within its context, and reinterpret it literally. This is
not a simple task.
I slept like a log last night. I woke up in the fireplace.
—Tommy Cooper

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

91

When I got divorced, I missed my husband, but I'm getting to be a
better shot.
—Sheila Kay

Because the simple truth is so juvenile, it's frequently denigrated as a
smart-ass remark (which used to be called smart-aleck until they discov¬
ered that Aleck had nothing to do with it).
"What would you say to a martini?"
"Depends on what the martini said to me first!"
—Sophia in The Golden Girls

Let's take a peek under the comedy tent to see how the simple truth
works. Remember that the goal is to create the element of surprise.
I like a girl with a head on her shoulders. No neck!

Try not to be restricted by the logic of the original idea. Comedy writers
are not philosophers. In the simple truth, we are linguistic specialists
concerned with exactly what the literal logic of a word conveys. You
might try to visualize a phrase or cliché to help you get past the standard
interpretation. If you visualize a girl with a head on her shoulders, you
can see that what's missing is her neck.
Once you've spotted the simple-truth potential in a phrase or cliché,
you may come up with a variety of related punch lines.
I like a girl with a head on her shoulders, because I hate necks.
—Steve Martin

Let's illustrate the construction of a simple truth by examining the dou¬
ble entendre possibilities of the word join. Join has three possible
definitions: (a) to cooperate, to become a member, to enlist; (b) to unite,
to bring together, to touch; and (c) to argue, to quarrel, to engage in bat¬
tle. In humor writing, the choice is always up to you.
When a friend asks, "Will you join me?" the obvious understanding is
that he's using the first definition ("to get together"). But if you base your
answer on the second definition ("uniting"), your reply can create humor
by surprise: "Why, are you coming apart?"

92

Comedy Writing Secrets

If, on the other hand, you're asked, "Please join me in a cup of coffee,"
the incongruity of the first definition allows you to respond, "Only if
there's enough room in the cup."
The following examples play on the multiple meanings of the
word nurse.
I majored in nursing. I had to drop it. I ran out of milk.
—Judy Tenuta

I was at a bar nursing a beer. My nipple was getting quite soggy.
—Emo Philips

Such elementary simple-truth jokes will always get a physical reaction:
either a laugh or—more likely—a kick in the pants. In any case, remem¬
ber that one of the rewards of humor is attention, and that people will
admire your courage (maybe).
The simple truth can also be effective in physical comedy. In several
Mel Brooks movies and in his Broadway musical The Producers, the hero
and his cohorts ask the heroine, "How do we get there?," And the beauti¬
ful hostess says, "Walk this way." Then she swishes and sways across the
set and the men imitate her feminine walk.
In a basic simple-truth construction, the first part of the sentence or
paragraph is a cliché. The second part (the punchline) is an unexpected
interpretation because it is realistically literal.
Doctor: I don't like the looks of your husband.
Wife: Neither do I, doctor, but he's good to the children.
—Larry Wilde

Boss to employee: I'd thank you, Harrison, but yours is a
thankless job.
—Frank Modell

I bought a new Japanese car, I turned on the radio. ... I don't
understand a word they're saying.
—Rodney Dangerfield

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

93

With practice, your ear will find countless opportunities to make humor
using the simple truth.
WIFE: You never look out for me!
HUSBAND: Of course I do. And when I see you coming, I run
like hell.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE SYNAGOGUE ADDRESSED
THE CONGREGATION: Lefkowitz just lost his wallet with six
hundred dollars in it. If anyone finds it, Lefkowitz says he'll give
a reward of fifty dollars.
A VOICE IN THE REAR: I'll give seventy-five!
CLERK TO JUDGE: The bar association wondered if you'd like to
contribute ten dollars to a lawyer's funeral?
JUDGE: Here's a hundred. Bury ten of them.

Actor Edmund Kean, on his deathbed, said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is
hard." In the same vein, reading about joke construction is easy, but
creating original humor material using these methods is not. You must
find the perfect construction—and that's difficult.
I bought Odor-Eaters. They ate for a half-hour and then threw up.
—Howie Mandel

The proper setup for a simple-truth joke is essential. If someone asked
you, "Can you tell me how long to milk a cow?," a humorous simple-truth
response would not be obvious. But if you reword the question to "Can
you tell me how long cows should be milked?" you now have a long cow.
An answer could be: "The same way as short cows."
George Carlin, who uses the simple truth in his monologues, exam¬
ines words closely for incongruous variations.
How come my book of free verse costs twelve dollars?
Sometimes they say the wind is calm. Well, if it's calm, they're not
really winds, are they?
When you step on the brake, your life is in your foot's hand.

94

Comedy Writing Secrets

Can placebos cause side effects? If so, are the side effects real?
Why don't they have waiters in waiting rooms?
Research reports and statistics are excellent sources for simple-truth
humor material.
If a single dolphin has as many as two thousand babies, can you
imagine how many she'd have if she were married?
Old joke, old punchline:
Every six seconds in the U.S., some woman gives birth. So what
we've got to do is get hold of that woman and stop her.
Old joke, new punchlines:
MARRIED DAUGHTER TO MOTHER ON PHONE: Ma, I gave
birth to triplets. Isn't that exciting? You know, triplets are con¬
ceived only once in every three million times!
MOTHER: My heavens, Linea, when did you have time to do
housework?
PROFESSOR: Every fifteen minutes in the U.S., some student is
contracting VD.
STUDENT: I think I know him.

A QUICK LESSON IN WORD ECONOMY
In many literary forms, embellishment might enrich a
piece; but when writing humor, less is better. A joke
is not a short story. It's a small story—often a singlesentence story—told in as few words as possible.
Professionals constantly rewrite jokes to remove
unnecessary words, especially in the punchline. The
following Mitch Hedberg joke is a picture of such highimpact shrinkage.

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

95

I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to show it.
Beginning writers, on the other hand, tend to fluff up a joke with unnecessary words. For example, the novice might write the same joke in the
following ways.
I'm against picketing, but I don't know if I should protest it with
a sign or whatever.
I'm against picketing, but I'm not exactly sure what ways to
demonstrate it.
I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to let other people
know that I'm against it.
Each of the alternative tag lines delivers the same general idea, but the
punch of the POW is lost in the verbiage. Professionals call the use of too
many words in a punchline frosting the flake or stacking the wack.
Your goal is avoid extra words and get to the joke as soon as possible. Brent Forrester defined this as the Humor and Duration Principle,
which, simply put, states that the less time you take to get to the joke,
the funnier the joke will be. Embellishing a setup or punchline diminishes
the funniness of a joke.

Joke

96

Comedy Writing Secrets

Time

Funny

Top This: Combining Simple Truths
A good humorist doesn't deliver just one gag and then tax the audience's
patience by developing a new setup. Once you've got the audience laugh¬
ing or on a roll, it's better to stay with toppers—a series of three or four
punchlines, each related to the previous one.
A girl phoned me the other day and said, "Come on over, there's
nobody home." I went over. Nobody was home.
—Rodney Dangerfield

Here are a few examples: The first contains one simple-truth punchline,
while the second—a variation on the same joke—tops the first punchline
with a second simple-truth punchline. The length of the pause between
the two punchlines in the second joke is a matter of judgment. Knowing
how long to pause separates the amateur from the pro.
The forest ranger approached an Indian riding his horse up the
steep canyon trail, his aged squaw trudging slowly along behind
him. "Chief, I've been noticing for months now that you always
ride up the trail and your wife always walks. How come?"
"Because," said the Indian solemnly, "she no gottum horse."

Here's the topper version of the same story. Note how the change in
locale keeps the simple-truth punchline realistic.
In Iraq, a Gl approached an Arab who was riding his donkey
along the military highway. His aged wife trudged along
ahead of him.
"Hey, Abdul," said the Gl, "I've been noticing for months that
you always ride and your wife always walks. How come?"
"Because," said the Iraqi, "she no got donkey."
"But why does she always walk ahead of you? Arab
politeness?"
"No! Land mines."

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

97

SHOWTIME
Now try to finish some on your own. Read the following expressions and
clichés, and see if you can come up with a simple-truth tag. To help you
get started, the key word with the best possibility for a double entendre is
underlined. Check your payoff lines with the ones suggested at the end of
the chapter.

Boy: Are you free tonight?
My girlfriend was faithful to the end.
We never serve women at the bar.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Judge: The court awards your wife $200 a week for support.

SIMPLE TRUTHS AND MISPRONUNCIATIONBASED DOUBLE ENTENDRES
There are thousands of words in the English language that can
become simple-truth double entendres by simple mispronunciation.
Every humorist has his own favorites. Most people consider such con¬
structions to be terrible puns. To overcome this conception, professional
humorists put simple-truth double entendres in the mouths of children.
Art Linkletter used them on his House Party TV show, and so did Stu
Hample's books, such as Children's Letters to God. Everyone is familiar
with take-offs of lines in the Bible (Lead me not into Penn Station) and
fractured Christmas carols (On the first day of Christmas, my tulip
gave to me ... and ...). You can collect your own mispronunciation dou¬
ble entendres by reading the words in the dictionary aloud. Once you
find one, your cleverness must add the punchline.

98

Comedy Writing Secrets

I bought a product for erectile dysfunction and the box said Cialis.
I've been looking for her for the last three months.
Did ya hear about the Buddhist who refused novocaine when he went
to the dentist because he wanted to transcend dental medication?
I'm not as concerned with euthanasia as I am with kids in this
country.
It wasn't my fault, it was the asphalt.
My mother makes our family eat so much salad, I wish she'd lettuce alone.

SHOWTIME
The simple-truth double entendre technique works in oral presentation,
but every once in a while it works best in print. Which method—oral or
print—would work best for the examples below?
The Paul Revere computer virus protection program warns of
impending hard disk attack—once if by LAN, twice if by C:/>.
When George W. Bush was campaigning during an Ohio primary, he and an assistant dropped into a small luncheonette.
"Oh, Mr. Bush," smiled the attractive waitress. "We're
so honored. Have anything on the menu on us. What would
you like?"
Bush studied the menu for a few moments and then said to
the waitress, "You know what I'd like, honey. I'd like a quickie."
The waitress slammed her pad on the table and said, "I
don't care if you are running for President, no one talks that
way to me." And she walked away.
"I don't know what she's so huffy about," said Bush. "It says
right here on the menu: quickie."
"Mr. Bush," said his assistant. "It's pronounced quiche."

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

99

If you guessed print for the first example and oral for second, you
guessed right.

Simple Truths and Non Sequiturs
Another category of simple-truth humor is the non sequitur, an illogical
statement that is humorous because of the juxtaposition of two unrelated
elements. "One must have some grasp of logic even to recognize a non
sequitur," warned author and professor John Allen Paulos.
I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas,
I'll never know.
—Groucho Marx

A hundred years from now, the works of the old masters will be
a thing of the past.
—A. Grove Day

Roadhouse sign: Clean and decent dancing every night but
Sunday.
Store sign: "Big Sale—Last Week!" Why are they telling me this?
I already missed it.
—Yakov Smirnoff

Simple Truths and Non Sequiturs on Stage
Many professional comedians use simple truths and non sequiturs
from time to time in their monologues. Several use non sequiturs most
of the time, including stand-up comedian Steven Wright. Here's a sam¬
ple; by now, you should be able to quickly anticipate most of the
humorous conclusions.
I bought some batteries, but they weren't included. So, I had to
buy them again.
I had some eyeglasses, and as I was walking down the street, the
prescription ran out.

100

Comedy Writing Secrets

I parked my car in a tow-away zone. When I came back, the entire
zone was gone.
If you're sending someone some Styrofoam, what do you pack it in?
I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn't park anywhere near the place.
I walked into a restaurant. The sign said "Breakfast Served—
Anytime." I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.
A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths.
I like to reminisce with people I don't know.

Survey these bits from Mitch Hedberg, and anticipate the humorous
conclusions.
Once you understand Morse code, a tap dancer will drive
you crazy.
I don't wear a watch because I want my arms to weigh the same.
It's dangerous to wave to people you don't know, because if they
don't have hands, they'll think you're cocky.
I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.

SHOWTIME
Try to finish each joke, then compare your answers to the ones listed at
the end of the chapter.
And I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day ...
I woke up one morning and my girlfriend asked me if I slept
good. I said ...
At the gym they have free weights, so ...

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

101

If you shoot a mime ...
If you saw a heat wave ...
I got my hair highlighted, because ...
On the other hand ...

THE TAKE-OFF:
DO UNTO OTHERS ... THEN TAKE OFF
The idea behind the take-off, one of the most popular formulas in humor
writing, is to draw a humorous conclusion from the intended meaning of
a standard cliché. Because the take-off is based on the intended meaning
of the phrase, a take-off is the opposite of the simple truth, which interprets the cliché or expression literally. In the take-off, the phrase or
cliché can either start the joke or be the punchline, but the cliché is typically used as an introduction, and the surprise take-off is the big payoff
at the conclusion of the joke.
An invisible man married an invisible woman. Their kids were
nothing to look at either.
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, but I keep trying to tell them.
—Mignon McLaughlin
Let a smile be your umbrella—and your hair will be a big mess.
Where there's a will, there's a family fighting over it.
—Buzz Nutley
The hands on my biological clock are giving me the finger.
—Wendy Liebman
Animals may be our friends. But they won't pick you up at
the airport.
—Bobcat Goldthwait

102

Comedy Writing Secrets

A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place.
—Harry Anderson
Whatever goes up must come down, but don't expect it to come
down where you can find it.
—Lily Tomlin
Comedy is in my blood. Frankly, I wish it were in my act!
—Rodney Dangerfield
Sign on hot chestnut stand: I don't want to set the world on fire.
I just want to keep my nuts warm.
Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense.
—Steve Landesberg
The race isn't always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—
but that's the way to bet!
—Damon Runyon

The take-off construction is more difficult when the standard phrase is
the second clause or sentence. A groan is the most frequent reaction to
this construction, so it's not as popular with stand-up comedians (they
get enough groans without scheduling them).
The dog's breath smelled terrible, so his bark was worse than his bite.
If you don't want the dentist to hurt you, keep your mouth shut.
I believe Dr. Kevorkian is on to something. Suicide is our way of
saying to God, "You can't fire me. I quit."
—Bill Maher
I know a guy who called up the Home Shopping Network. They
said, "Can I help you?" and he said, "No, I'm just looking."
—George Miller
I stuff my bra. So, if you get to second base with me, you'll find
that the bases are loaded.
—Wendy Liebman

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

103

You can combine humor techniques in one joke. Here's an example
(inspired by author S.J. Perelman) that combines reforming (as discussed
in chapter four) with a take-off (note that the cliché comes second).
The hooker was chasing the comedian down the street—a case of
the tail dogging the wag.

You can also put more than one cliché in a take-off. It doubles the work,
but it also doubles the fun.
Immortality is a long shot, I admit. But somebody has to be first.
—Bill Cosby
Give a man enough rope and he'll get tied up in the office.
Some girls fight against being kissed. Others take it lying down.

Why do people groan rather than laugh at outrageous puns? No one has
the slightest idea.
A pun is the lowest form of humor—unless you think of it first.
—Oscar Levant

Whether you put the cliché first or second in a take-off depends on which
ending holds the surprise to the last possible moment. You may perform
the joke with the cliché first, but remember that humor is written backwards. That means you must first find the cliché you want to work on,
then build a story around it. The trick is not to telegraph the punchline.
Here's a take-off that was so obviously stretched, it looks more like good
taffy than good humor.
A construction worker discovered his wife in the back seat of a
Yugo making love to another guy. He got into his cement truck,
drove up to the car, and dumped an entire load of concrete all
over it. Then, he drove away thinking, "The longer they go, the
harder it gets."

This example is a labored anecdote, but it does follow one essential rule:
Make sure the joke is the last possible thought, and don't add other words

104

Comedy Writing Secrets

to the sentence after the joke. If you do, the audience will think that your
take-off was only a setup for a topper—and they'll be disappointed when
that topper doesn't pop up.

Take-Offs on Stage
One of the great masters of the take-off was Rodney Dangerfield, who
used the technique to emphasize his self-deprecating stage persona of
the man who gets no respect.
I looked up the family tree and found out that I was the sap.
I said to my wife, "All things considered, I'd like to die in bed,"
and she said, "What, again?"
My father never liked me. For Christmas, he gave me a bat.
The first time I tried to play ball with it, it flew away.
When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always
found them.
I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster
and a radio.
When I was born, the doctor said to my father, "I'm sorry, we did
everything we could, but he still pulled through."
My mother didn't breast-feed me. She said she just liked me
as a friend.

The Deep Thoughts book series by fictional author Jack Handey
also uses the take-off. Each "deep thought" typically begins with a
cliché or common phrase, and takes off with a bizarre, off-the-wall
conclusion.
It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at
that man.
Dad always said that laughter is the best medicine, which is why
several of us died from tuberculosis.

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

105

If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to
tell him is "God is crying." And if he asks why God is crying,
another cute thing to tell him is "Probably because of some¬
thing you did."
Children need encouragement. So if a kid gets an answer right,
tell him it was a lucky guess. That way, he develops a good,
lucky feeling.

SHOWTIME
Let's analyze the saying that has more variations than any other in
comedic literature: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again—she expects
you to.
—Guido Stempel
If at first you don't succeed, then quit. There's no sense being
a fool about it.
—W.C. Fields
If at first you don't succeed, don't think of it as a failure. Think
of it as time-release success.
—Robert Orben
If at first you don't succeed, then skydiving isn't for you.
Sometimes it isn't even necessary to use the full cliché. Often, just a sug¬
gestion or variation of the cliché is enough. Here are some classic Homer
Simpson lines, also known as Homerisms.
If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing.
Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. So, the lesson is,
never try.

106

Comedy Writing Secrets

How to weasel out of things is important to learn. It's what sep¬
arates us from the animals ... except the weasel.
Write the opening words for this cliché (If at first you don't succeed),
then create take-offs that have a surprising ending. A result often takeoffs is average; twenty is outstanding.

THE ANSWER MAN
Here are some punchline possibilities for the exercises on page 98. How
do yours compare?
BOY: Are you free tonight?
GIRL: Of course. Have I ever charged you?
My girlfriend was faithful to the end.
Unfortunately, I was the quarterback.
We never serve women at the bar.
You'll have to bring your own.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
No, I looked in the dictionary, and go-getter is next to godliness.
JUDGE: The court awards your wife $200 a week for support.
DEFENDANT: Gee, that's very nice of you, Judge. I think I'll
throw in a few bucks myself.
Here are the professionals' conclusions to the jokes on pages 101-102.
And I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day, because
that means it's going to be up all night.
—Steven Wright
I woke up one morning and my girlfriend asked me if I slept
good. I said, "No, I made a few mistakes."
—Steven Wright

More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off

107

At the gym they have free weights, so I took them.
—Steve Smith
If you shoot a mime, should you use a silencer?
—Steven Wright
If you saw a heat wave, would you wave back?
—Steven Wright

108

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 6
POW Brainstorming Techniques
Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so
they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.
—Steve Martin

Like most creative people, humor writers spend a lot of time
looking for the right figure of speech. Occasionally, the
blank "I'm thinking" gaze progresses to the comatose state
known as writer's block. Unfortunately, humor writers can
not only suffer from writer's block, but also from humor
block: unavoidable moments when the comedic juices stop
flowing. As comedian Marty Feldman overstated,
"Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act."
Even when a writer's imagination is going full steam, the rule of ten
in, nine out applies: For every ten jokes written, only one might be
acceptable. The high ratio of successful to unsuccessful jokes explains
why most late-night talk shows, such as The Tonight Show and Late
Night, employ teams of gag writers. A five-minute monologue may be
written by as many as six writers.
There are ways to jump-start the creative process. The most common
brainstorming methods are association and listing. These techniques allow
you to generate multiple options for humor, thereby improving your chances
of uncovering a successful play on words (POW). Brainstorming can be
time-consuming, and most of the items you come up with will be discarded,
but brainstorming is nonetheless an invaluable tool for writing humor. It also
explains why humor writers are better at wordplay than foreplay.
ASSOCIATION
A humorist's funny bone is like an athlete's muscles or a singer's vocal
cords. It works best when it's warmed up first. Writing instructors insist

POW Brainstorming Techniques

109

that students do fifteen to thirty minutes of brain-stretching exercises
each morning to clear the mind. Developing new associations is a creativewriting technique that can help you discover humor in unexpected rela¬
tionships, and create POW jokes.
Association is putting two activities that haven't been previously asso¬
ciated into a plausible but audacious scenario. Association is a more for¬
mal word for teaming, humor's variation on metaphor. You combine two
simple elements that are logical alone but impossible together. The
humor comes from the unexpected, offbeat relationship.
Associations have several formats. One type of association begins
with a cliché or expression that the audience is likely to interpret one
way, but then the performer gives an illustrative example that reverses
the anticipated meaning.
My opponent has done the work of two men: Laurel and Hardy.
—Governor James A. Rhodes

Another type of association is the teaming of two clichés. This technique
is the backbone of improvisation.
Wife to friend: I call Herb's salary a phallic symbol even though it
only rises once a year.

A third type of association is the Tom Swifty, the teaming of a quota¬
tion with a verb or adverb of attribution that puns on the meaning of
the quotation.
"I want to renew my membership," Tom rejoined.
"I hope I can still play the guitar," he fretted.
"All the twos are missing from this deck," she deduced.
"You're burning the candle at both ends," he said wickedly.
"I think he's dead," she said mournfully.
"I'm as tired as a sled dog," he said huskily.

Robert Orben, one of the most prolific humor writers, warms up by writ¬
ing twenty-five POW jokes inspired by the morning paper. Then, he gets
to work. Others like to imagine funny captions to news photos. Humor

110

Comedy Writing Secrets

lecturer Art Gliner gets his seminars going with a POW association exer¬
cise. He has attendees write down words that might describe how tired
firefighters, police, dogcatchers, plumbers, etc. feel when they get home
at night. For example:
FIREFIGHTER

alarmed
burned up
torched
fired up
like a plugged nickel
steamed
like a ladder day saint
not too hot
like he had made an ash of himself
POLICE OFFICER

beat
half-cocked
blue
charged
badgered
that's the ticket

flat-footed
run down
shot
holed up
it was a riot

DOGCATCHER

muzzled
bitchy
pooped
licked
collared

bone tired
run down
hounded
dog tired
the paws that refreshes

GARDENER

hosed
plowed under
bushed
mulched
seedy
rocky

potted
bogged down
raked over
dug up
all wet

Comedy writer Gene Perret likes to associate puns on famous names. First,
find a name with homonym possibilities. Then, write an anecdote to fit.

POW Brainstorming Techniques

111

Before she became Madonna, she was a pre-Madonna.
—K.C. Conan
An Italian-American farmer erected a tombstone for his beloved
wife, Nellie, that read: "Here Liza Minnelli."
Take pity. I'm Jung and Freud-ened.
"I just can't Handel the Messiah."
"Then you'd better go into Haydn."
"Oh, get off my Bach, or I'll give you a karate Chopin the neck."
A microcomputer that draws geometric patterns on the screen is
called a Micro-Angle-O.

Here are some slogans (based on the same principle) for famous artists.
Seurat: Que Seurat, Seurat.
Monet: A lasting impression.
Van Gogh: Lend me your ear.
Warhol: The new Warhol—uncanny.
Gauguin: Here we Gauguin.
Goya: You can be Jewish and still love a Goya.
—Advertising Age

Humorists take only themselves seriously, no one else. The more you can
combine realism and exaggeration, the more humorous you will be.
That's why disrespectful association of the rich and famous with book or
movie titles is a frequent POW warmup for professionals.
Britney Spears in Once Is Not Enough
Dick Cheney in Raging Bull
Hillary Clinton in Cold Mountain
George W. Bush in Lost in Translation

Associating the last names of two different celebrities is another exercise
in association.

112 Comedy Writing Secrets

If Isadora Duncan had married Robert Donat, would their child be
a Duncan Donat?
If Betty White had married Soupy Sales, would they have called
her Betty White Sales?

If all this is just the first step in humor writing, you're probably reminded
of the ancient warning: Watch out for that first step—it's a bitch! But with
patience and practice, you'll soon be skipping down the sidewalk without missing a crack.

REVISING FOR SURPRISE
It takes a good deal of testing to create a joke
with a surprise ending. So much so that jokes
aren't written—they're rewritten. Precision and
brevity help make a surprise ending effective.
A well-constructed joke:
• uses as few words as possible
• does not reveal key words in the setup
• preserves the funniest word until the end
When you write humor, your first draft can be as long as you wish. The
second draft should cut every nonessential phrase. The final draft should
cut every nonessential word. No machine has needless parts, and no
good comedy routine has needless words. Your mantra should be: Make
every word work.
As you're revising, trim redundant phrases—such as old adage, exact
same, really essential, continue on, four short years, absolutely necessary, advance planning, brief respite, future plans, and interact with each
other—down to the one necessary word.
If surprise is home plate, good humor writing runs the bases as fast as
possible. Normal speech is clocked at two and a half words per second,
so if you can erase just twenty redundant words from your final draft,
you'll save eight seconds that will help keep your audience alert.

POW Brainstorming Techniques

113

Let's analyze three different endings to the same joke. Which would
you select as the most effective?
He was complimented when the editor called his work sophomoric because he had flunked out of college his freshman year.
He had flunked out of college in his sophomore year, so he was
complimented whenever anybody called his work sophomoric.
He had flunked out of college in his freshman year, so he was
complimented whenever anybody called his work sophomoric.
The first joke is less effective because, after you've written sophomoric,
the surprise goes past the payoff window. The second joke loses its
punch because the word sophomore in the middle of the sentence fore¬
shadows the surprise word, sophomoric, at the end. The last joke works
best, because the surprise word—sophomoric—is held to the last instant.
The constant attention to editing may seem extensive, but the con¬
struction of a joke is as important as its content. Word economy and
holding the surprise until the end are two major characteristics of a wellwritten joke, and humor writers spend considerable time ensuring that
they maintain those characteristics.
Consider the following example.
First draft

On the road into town there was a sign in an empty field that
said, "Three miles ahead, lots for sale." So I went to the loca¬
tion, but to my surprise, there was nothing there.
At two and a half words per second, the audience has to wait four sec¬
onds between hearing about the sign and getting to the punchline. This
period is too long and asks too much of the audience.
Second draft

I saw this sign: "Lots for sale." And when I went there, I must
have been too late, because there was nothing there.

114

Comedy Writing Secrets

This joke still contains too much unnecessary information.
Final draft

I saw this sign: "Lots for sale." But there was nothing there.

LISTING: AN EXPLODING MIRTH RATE
The concept of listing seems simple enough: You break down a
topic of your choice into groups of related activities, then create
smaller and smaller subgroups. Regardless of your humor assignment,
the technique is the same. Let's imagine you need to write material
on golf, a favorite topic for speech humorists because so many
clients play golf.
STEP ONE: LIST GROUPS AND SUBGROUPS. The first step is to

chart the subject. On paper, divide the main subject into different head¬
ings. For example:
1. golf equipment
2. golf course
3. golf play
4. golf players
Now add as many subheads as you can think of, and keep adding to the
list every time you have another brainstorm. Don't censor yourself. The
quantity of ideas is important here; quality comes later.
GOLF EQUIPMENT

Under golf equipment you might list:
argyle socks
balls
cart
flag
hats
optic yellow

bag

ball washer

caddy
clothes
glasses
head covers
pencil

cap

clubs
gloves
lucky ball
rake

POW Brainstorming Techniques

115

scorecard
spikes

shoes
tees

socks
towels

Now break down the subhead clubs even further:
drivers
wedge

woods
putter

irons

Even the woods and the irons can be listed by numeric designation:
two wood, nine iron, etc. And that's only category one—golf equipment.
GOLF COURSE

Now do the same with category two, golf course.
apron
clubhouse
dogleg
fairway
lake
nine-hole course
practice green
sand trap
water hazard

ball wash
country club
driving range
green
locker room
nineteenth hole
pro tee
shower
women's tee

bunker
divots
eighteen-hole course
groundskeeper
men's tee
out of bounds
rough
trees
woods

GOLF PLAY

And now category three, golf play:
birdie
chip
eagle
handicap
lost balls
play through
shank
stroke

bogie
double bogie
"fore"
hole in one
mulligan
pro-am
skyball
tournaments

GOLF PLAYERS

Finally, category four, golf players:

116

Comedy Writing Secrets

championship
drop ball
foursome
hook
par

score
slice
trophy

amateurs
cheating
double up
expense
hackers
hustler
opponents
pros

betting
curses
duffer
fanatics
hobby
lessons
pair
sandbagger

bragging
disgust
exercise
foursome
hooker
Nassau
partners
slicer

STEP TWO: LIST CLICHÉS. The next part of the chart is a compre¬
hensive list of clichés or POWs associated with each entry. For example,
in category one (golf equipment) you could list:
CLUBS

got a new set of clubs
make a six-footer
she knows how to putt

he hit a three-hundred-yarder
practice swing

BALLS

they've gotcha by the balls
she addressed the ball
keep your eye on the ball
hit a pair of beautiful balls
BAG
that's not his bag
in the bag

kiss his balls for good luck
he lost his balls
don't stand too close to the ball

she's a bag lady

And in category two, golf course, a list of cliché expressions might include:
name of the game
let's play a round
she gave the caddy a tip

how many strokes per round
great way to meet people
a rich man's sport

In categories three, golf play, and four, golf players, you might include:
he knows the score
it's a gimme

it was a playable lie
she got out of the trap

POW Brainstorming Techniques

117

I lie three
she moved heaven and earth
that shot was a prayer
he's a scratch player
she's a slicer
the woods are full of them
he got distance off the tee

he's a poor sport
what's par for the hole?
she shoots in the low seventies
he's a hooker
she's a weekend hacker
he got out of a hole
how do you like the greens?

STEP THREE: ADD THE POW. As you read over the list, you can
already see a number of humor possibilities, particularly with double
entendres. Now is the time to list double entendres, synonyms,
antonyms, and homonyms that have a connection with golf. Here's
a sample list.
DOUBLE ENTENDRES

a six-footer
ball wash
handicap
hooker
lost ball
nine holes
play through
score
socks
swing

bag

birdie
hole
lie

lucky ball
out of bounds
putt
scratch
sport
tip

ball
game
hole in one
long ball hitter
make
play
rough
slicer
stroke
trap

SYNONYMS

away = longest distance
club = sticks
gimme = concede
green = carpet
lake = drink
oath = curse
putt = tap

118

Comedy Writing Secrets

bar = nineteenth hole
drive = tee-off
good shot = beauty
hat = cap
locker room = showers
par = scratch
tip = gift

ANTONYMS

birdie = bogie
country club = public links
eagle = double bogie
flubbed
= on the nose
hold head down = hold head up lost ball = found ball
match play = lowest score
men's tee = women's tee
opponent = partner
play = practice
stand close = stand away
tip = advice
wager = friendly game
HOMONYMS

fore = four, for, foreplay, foursome
course = enter course (sign), intercourse, curse
play a round = play around
caddy = caddy (Cadillac)
seventies (score) = seventies (Fahrenheit temperature)
putts = putz
STEP FOUR: CREATE THE JOKES. Use all this research to come up
with humorous material for your monologue, sketch, or speech on golf.
Remember that, to be funny, the final line of the story or joke must be a
surprise. Depending on the speed of the performer, four jokes a minute is
maximum, and two jokes plus one anecdote in a minute is average. So if
you need five minutes of material, at the maximum you need twenty oneliners, or seven anecdotes, or twelve one-liners and three anecdotes, etc.
The beginner writes the minimum to fill the time. The professional
writes three times what's needed (as many as sixty different bits for this
example), and tries them out on small groups (but never on her own fam¬
ily), rewrites, discards, rewrites some more, then finally settles on the
twenty that work best for that specific audience.
Let's try a few jokes based on the golf lists above. For this exercise,
let's stick with just one scenario—the dialogue between golfer and
caddy—so we can concentrate on humor technique. These stories would
all benefit from personalizing—substituting a VIP's name for the golfer or
the caddy, for instance. Many of these jokes would work whether the
hacker was male or female.

POW Brainstorming Techniques

119

CATEGORY ONE (GOLF EQUIPMENT)
CADDY TO HACKER: No matter how you slice it, sir, it's still
a golf ball.
HACKER: I got some new clubs for my wife.
CADDY: I know your wife, sir, and that wasn't a bad trade.
CADDY: I don't get it, sir. First, you slice your ball into the
woods. Then you hook it onto the highway. Now you top the
same ball into the water. And you still insist on my finding it?
HACKER: Of course. It's my lucky ball.
HACKER: I hit two beautiful balls today.
CADDY: The only way you could do that, sir, would be to step
on a rake.
CADDY: Here's a lost ball I found on the golf course.
HACKER: Gee, thanks. But how did you know it was a lost ball?
CADDY: Because they were still looking for it when I left.
HACKER: This is my first time playing golf. When do I use
my putter?
CADDY: Sometime before dark, I hope.

CATEGORY TWO (GOLF CLUB)
HACKER: I'm moving heaven and earth to do better.
CADDY: Try just moving heaven. You've already moved plenty
of earth.
CADDY: The traps on this course are certainly annoying, aren't
they, sir?
HACKER: Yes, and would you please shut yours?
HACKER: How does one meet new people at this country club?
CADDY: Easy. Try picking up the wrong ball.

120

Comedy Writing Secrets

CATEGORY THREE (GOLF PLAY)
HACKER TO CADDY: I play golf in the seventies. When it gets
hotter, I quit.
HACKER: Golf is sure a funny game.
CADDY: It wasn't meant to be, sir.
HACKER TO CADDY: This hole should be good for a long drive
and a putt.
CADDY (AFTER HACKER FLUBS HIS FIRST SHOT): Now for
a helluva putt.
HACKER: Any ideas on how I can cut about ten strokes off
my score?
CADDY: Yes, quit on hole seventeen!
CADDY: How come you're not playing with Mr. Anderson today, sir?
HACKER: Would you play with a man who lies, cheats, and
moves his ball?
CADDY: No, sir!
HACKER: Well, neither will Mr. Anderson.
CADDY: Sir, you're teeing off from the ladies' tee.
HACKER: Shut up, willya? I lie three here.
HACKER: With my score today I'll never be able to hold my
head up.
CADDY: Why not? You've been doing it all afternoon.
PRIEST: I wonder if it would help me if I prayed each time I teed off?
CADDY: Only if you prayed with your head down.
CADDY: Father, is it a sin to play golf on Sunday?
PRIEST: The way I play, it's a sin on any day.
HACKER: Ever seen such a long ball hitter as me?
CADDY: Sure, the woods are full of them.

POW Brainstorming Techniques

121

CATEGORY POUR (GOLF PLAYERS)
HACKER TO CADDY: My wife says if I don't give up golf, she'll
leave me. And you know, I'm going to miss her.
HACKER: What do you think I should do about my game?
CADDY: Well, sir, first I'd relax, then stop playing for six months,
then give it up entirely.
Now let's see how several anecdotes are used to construct one golf joke.
A young man in his twenties went to Las Vegas, met a girl, had
a fabulous night, got drunk, got married, and woke up the next
morning. He said to her, "Look I've got a surprise for you. Last
night when I said I don't have a handicap, I meant I am a noscratch golfer. I spend all my time out on the golf course, and
you're the first girl I ever went out with." The girl said, "Well, I
really have a handicap. I'm a hooker, and I can't stop." So, the
kid took out one of his clubs and said, "Look, I can help. Next
time, before you swing, just put your right hand high on the
shaft. You'll do fine."
—Bob Hope

Why Work So Hard?
This seems like an awful lot of labor just to create a few one-liners.
Well, it is. No humor writer will deny that associations are laborious,
tedious, time-consuming, and frustrating when it doesn't come out
right. (And just as you're about to find that last elusive punchline, your
spouse will come up and say, "As long as you're not doing anything,
take out the garbage.")

FOUR MORE BLOCK BEATERS
Here are four more tools for busting through humor block.
1. WORK BACKWARDS. Create the last line—the punchline first. Then
write the anecdote or setup that best prepares the audience for the

122

Comedy Writing Secrets

punchline. For instance, you might accidentally discover a unique literal interpretation of a cliché (which
can happen easily when you accidentally make a
whittle typo). But creating setups isn't easy; you might
try half a dozen before the best one is apparent. Then you
may spend hours changing words and paring the joke down,
whittle by whittle. To get out of the habit of starting with
the setup, take a trip to a greeting card store and read
some of the humorous cards backwards. Start with the inside (the punchline) of the card, and then guess the line on the outside (the setup).
2. LOOK FOR OPPOSITES. One key method of creating surprise is associating two dissimilar things. Choose a topic, then brainstorm for people,
places, things, phrases, clichés, and words that are dissimilar to this topic.
3. TALK INSTEAD OF WRITING. Put down the pen and start talking out
loud. Use a voice recorder to capture ideas, which may come faster than
you can write.
4. IMAGINE INSTEAD OF WRITING. Albert Einstein recognized that the
mind's visual powers greatly exceed its verbal abilities, and he used visualization to discover many of his famous theories. Whenever you need to
kick-start your imagination, close your eyes and let your mind create a
mental movie of you telling jokes to a receptive audience.

SHOWTIME
Aggressive editing is important. Remember that a good joke:
1. uses as few words as possible
2. preserves the funniest part of the joke until the end
3. does not reveal key words in the setup, and does not contain words
after the funniest part of the punchline

POW Brainstorming Techniques

123

If the three criteria for a good joke are not met, a potentially good joke
will become lame. Complete the following exercises to practice
aggressive editing.
Aggressively edit the POW jokes you have written. First, remove any
unneeded words. Second, identify the funniest word or phrase in each
punchline, and if any words appear after the funniest part, rewrite the
joke to get rid of them. Third, make sure that key words that telegraph the
surprise ending are not used in the setup.
Now do the same with one of your favorite funny stories. How can it
be aggressively edited to be even more effective?

124

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 7
The Next Giant Step: Reverses
My boyfriend and I broke up, even though we're still deeply
in love. He wanted to get married and I didn't want him to.
—Rita Rudner

The term reverse has many definitions in humor writing, but one of
the best is "a device that adds a contradictory tag line to the
opening line of a standard expression or cliché."
I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it.
—Jonathan Winters

Other writers call it the old switcheroo; a technique that switches the
characters and setting of a standard humor bit to fit the existing situation.
We were incompatible in a lot of ways. Like for example, I was a
night person, and he didn't like me.
—Wendy Liebman

The most common definition of a reverse is "an unexpected switch in the
audience's point of view." Surprise comes from a basic change in direc¬
tion—a reversal of habitual thinking or activity. To maintain the element
of surprise, the writer must drop at least one prominent clue to mislead
the audience, to push the audience in a false direction. See if you can
spot the misdirection in the example below.
A man and woman are making passionate love in the bedroom.
Suddenly, the apartment door opens, and a man comes in and
shouts, "Darling! I'm home." He walks into the bedroom, sees the
naked couple and says, "What is she doing here?"

Did you spot it? The misdirection is the man shouting, "Darling!" The
audience thinks he's calling to the woman. The unexpected change in
point of view occurs in the last line: "What is she doing here?"

The Next Giant Step: Reverses

125

In each of the following examples, the writer wants you to be thinking
predictably. Despite the careful step-by-step analysis above, you may be
so accustomed to the logical thought process that many of these reverses
will still catch you by surprise.
BOY: Can I take your picture in the nude?
COED: Absolutely not! You'll have to wear your socks and a tie.
A junior executive walks into his boss's office. "I'm afraid I'll have
to leave early today, sir. I've got a terribly sore neck."
The boss says, "Whenever I get one, I go home and my wife
makes love to me. She knows how to massage every muscle in
my body, and when she's finished, all the tension is gone. You
should try it, and that's an order."
The next day the boss walks over to the young executive: "Did
you try what I told you?"
"Yes, I did," says the young man, "and it worked just fine. By
the way, you have a beautiful house, t o o ! "

The standard reverse, then, is a simple statement setting up a point of
view that is effectively cancelled out by the last few words. Pro writers
sometimes spend hours polishing that important last line. In the examples below, the setup statements have been underlined.
I sold my house this week. I got a good price for it—but it made
my landlord mad as hell.
—Garry Shandling
I stayed at one of the crummiest hotels in town. In the middle of
the night, I called the desk clerk and said, "I've got a leak in the
bathtub." He said, "Hey, you paid for the room. Go right ahead."
When the old Sheraton hotel was being renovated, they sold the
ripped-out fixtures, so I bought the two front doors for my house.
After they were installed, I pointed them out to a friend, "These
came from the Sheraton hotel." He was astonished, "Most people
just take soap and towels."

126

Comedy Writing Secrets

REVERSES A N D THE ART OF SURPRISE
Why humor reverses continue to surprise us is a mystery. After all, the ending is logical (if not realistic). A magician is able to use physical misdirection
to accomplish his sleight of hand, while the comic has only words—and the
hope that the audience goes off on the wrong train of thought.
I understand that the doctor had to spank me when I was born, but
I really don't see any reason he had to call me a whore.
—Sarah Silverman
When I was young, I thought that money was the most important
thing in life. Now that I'm old—I know it is.
—Oscar Wilde

Effective humor is carefully scripted to ensure the surprise ending
remains hidden until the writer is ready to reveal it. Each phrase, idea, or
fact is carefully designed so that when the performer reverses the train
of thought, the audience is totally surprised. If they can see the reverse
coming, they're not surprised, just smug.
I made a killing in the stock market. My broker lost all my money,
so I killed him.
—Jim Loy

In the following routine, comedian Emo Philips plants clues that encourage the audience to think along predictable lines.
One day I was playing—I was about seven years old—and I saw
the cellar door open just a crack. Now my folks had always
warned me: Emo, whatever you do, don't go near the cellar door.
But I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me, so I
went to the cellar door, pushed it open and walked through, and I
saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before—
like ... trees, grass, flowers, the sun—that was nice!

Note how he built up the reverse by playing on the audience's assumption that he is outside the cellar.

The Next Giant Step: Reverses

127

I was about seven ...

A child could be forbidden to enter the cellar. He might fall down the
stairs, or the cellar might contain something dangerous.
I saw the cellar door open just a crack.

The parents have warned Philips away from the door, so the audience
thinks there is something dangerous in the cellar. When the door opens
just a crack, tension is created in the audience (who is still thinking that
Philips is outside the cellar).
My folks had always warned me ... whatever you do, don't go
near the cellar door.

The cellar is beginning to sound like some mysterious, horror-filled
dungeon.
I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me.

The word killed further builds tension.
I saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before.

Now the audience is sure that the mysterious cellar is filled with relics
from King Tut's tomb.
Like ...

This is a necessary long pause, which is the apex of tension in preparation for the surprise ending—Philips revelation that he was in the cellar,
looking out.

SHOWTIME
A reverse should not be easy for the audience to spot in advance. Write a
reverse for each of the following setups, and then compare your best
efforts with the pros' versions at the end of the chapter.

128

Comedy Writing Secrets

Condoms aren't completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing
one and ...
My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love.
That doesn't bother me. It's the ...
We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big
problem, of course, is ...
After twelve years of therapy, my psychiatrist said something
that brought tears to my eyes. He said ...

THE ANECDOTAL R E V E R S E
An anecdote—like the Emo Philips routine just discussed—is a short
story with a sudden climax. The setup includes just enough information
to encourage the audience to proceed automatically in a direction the
performer reverses at the end.
"Let me tell you about my big-spending husband," one woman
said to another. "It was our anniversary, so he took me to the
most famous restaurant in town and told me to order the most
expensive dish on the menu. I did ... a Big Mac."
Two old men were watching a Great Dane lick his balls. One turned
to the other and said, "All my life, I've wished that I could do that!"
The second one said, "Better pet him first, he looks mean as hell."
—Billy Crystal

The trick to creating a good anecdotal reverse is to lay out the plot line
of the story so realistically that the reverse isn't expected—even a little
bit—by the audience.
A man was driving on a narrow, winding mountain road when he
almost collided with a car that wildly careened around a blind
curve. "You stupid fool," he shouted at the other driver. The other

The Next Giant Step: Reverses

129

car came to a dead stop. A woman rolled down the window,
looked at the man and yelled, "Pig! Pig! Pig!" and then quickly
drove off. Furious at the insult, the man slammed his car into gear,
roared around the mountain curve—and slammed head-on into a
giant hog standing in the road.

The reversal in this anecdote works so well because the events leading
up to it are completely believable—they could happen to anyone.
Films and sitcoms can lay the groundwork for surprise endings with
seemingly insignificant dialogue sprinkled throughout an entire scene.
But jokes can't take a half-hour, so clues using the minimum number of
words must be dropped seamlessly into anecdotes. Only after audience
members have been fooled by the magician are they anxious to analyze
what really happened. When your audiences retrospectively analyze your
anecdotes, make sure they can note the cleverness of your construction.
A worker on a construction site would wait until the end of the day,
then walk out with a wheelbarrow filled with dirt. Management
was positive he was stealing supplies, but every security check of
the wheelbarrow accounted for nothing but plain sand. After the
job was completed and the worker collected his final paycheck, the
foreman walked up to him and said, "Mike, I know you were stealing something. Tell me the truth, what were you takin'?"
And Mike said, "Wheelbarrows!"

WRITE, DON'T TELEGRAPH
Telegraphing—inadvertently cluing the audience in to the upcoming surprise—is a sign of a beginner. Telegraphing can take the form of a toodetailed introduction, making the setup so obvious that the audience can
anticipate the ending of the story. Here's an example: Jack Ellis, a former
fund-raising director, was being given a testimonial dinner. One speaker
told the following story.
A carnival strongman wet a towel and then squeezed every drop
of water out of it. Then he offered to bet anyone in the audience

130

Comedy Writing Secrets

fifty dollars that they couldn't squeeze out just one more drop. Up
sprang our guest of honor, and sure enough, he squeezed out
three drops. "Who in the devil are you?" asked the strong man.
And the man said, "I'm a fund-raiser for Ohio University."
There is an unwritten law in humor that only one reverse is permissible
in any one anecdote. Two is pushing it, and the audience can usually pre¬
dict a third reverse in advance. The following joke successfully with¬
holds the single reverse until the end of the anecdote.
A man finds a chimp in the middle of the street. A police car drives
by and the man asks the cop, "Hey, what do you think I should do
with him?"
"Take him to the zoo," yells the cop.
The next day the police notice the same man with the
same chimp.
"I thought I told you to take it to the zoo," said the cop.
"I did," said the man, "and we had so much fun, today I'm tak¬
ing him to Disneyland."
A Texan, visiting Vermont, asked a farmer how much acreage
he had.
"Oh, I've got a big farm," said the farmer. "More than 150 acres."
The Texan swelled up and said, "You know, mister, I get into
my car in the morning, I drive all day, and I still can't get to the
end of my property."
The farmer said, "I know what you mean. I've got a car just
like that."
If they are too obvious in their layout, reverses can be telegraphed even
in the shortest anecdotes.
"Sorry to hear your wife ran away with your gardener."
"Oh, that's all right. I was going to fire him anyway!"
After two drinks, my wife turns into a screaming bitch. After five
drinks, I pass out completely.

The Next Giant Step: Reverses

131

HIDE AND PEEK
Hiding is the opposite of telegraphing. Hiding is successful when the audi¬
ence believes the setup to be a straightforward statement. After a short
pause, the humorist reveals the surprise ending—since the audience was¬
n't expecting anything further, the punchline is even more of a surprise.
Ohio University was founded in 1804 and opened with a freshman
class of twelve students. And this year, eight of them graduated.

REVERSES ON STAGE
Reverses are common techniques for all stand-up comedians.
I divorced my first wife because she was so immature. I'd be in the
tub taking a bath and she would walk in whenever she felt like it
and sink my boats.
—Woody Allen

The doctor enters the examination room and says, "Okay, lay
down." I say, "Buy me a drink first, pig."
—Judy Tenuta

When I went to college, my parents threw a going-away party for
me, according to the letter.
—Emo Philips

My mother buried three husbands ... and two of them were
only napping.
—Rita Rudner

Every day people are straying away from the church, and going
back to God.
—Lenny Bruce

To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've won¬
dered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went
to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.
—Jack Handey

132

Comedy Writing Secrets

My husband and I didn't sign a prenuptial agreement. We signed a
mutual suicide pact.
—Roseanne Barr

My grandfather is hard of hearing. He needs to read lips. I don't
mind him reading lips, but he uses one of those yellow highlighters.
—Brian Kiley

I don't believe in reincarnation, and I didn't believe in it when I
was a hamster.
—Shane Richie

I was with this girl the other night, and from the way she was
responding to my skillful caresses, you would have sworn that she
was conscious from the top of her head to the tag on her toes.
—Emo Philips

OPPORTUNITIES FOR REVERSES
One delight of the reverse is that it can be used in speeches to make a
serious point, not just tell a joke. As a result, it's an excellent technique
for sermons as well.
Two manufacturing competitors were roommates at an industry
association outing at a mountain resort. The first night, they heard
scratching outside their cabin door. One went to look, came back,
and started to put on his running shoes.
"What's the trouble?" asked his roommate.
The competitor said, "There's a giant bear outside who's so
hungry he's gonna smash his way right into this room."
"Well," said the other, "why put on sneakers? You can't outrun a
bear." "I know," said the other, "but all I need to do is outrun you."
MCs are notorious for incorporating reverses into their brief introductions.
We usually go for the best in live entertainment. But, tonight we
have to settle for...

The Next Giant Step: Reverses

133

Is everybody having a good time? Well, we'll put an end to that
right now!

Reverses can occur in physical humor as well. During an appearance
on David Letterman's late-night TV show, Jack Hanna, then director of
the Columbus Zoo, was displaying a toucan. Letterman was tossing
grapes to the bird: "One, two, three," toss. The bird caught each grape
to the roaring approval of the audience. Suddenly, Letterman said to
Hanna, "Jack, why don't you try one?" "Fine," said Hanna. "Here we
go," yelled Letterman, and he began tossing grapes into the air for
Hanna to catch in his mouth. "One, two, three," toss.
Reverses are also very practical for deflecting insults. If the critic isn't
carefully specific, the target has the thrill—and it is a thrill when that
opportunity comes—to reverse the point of view and change the critic's
javelin into a boomerang.
I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who
do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means
"put down."
—Bob Newhart
Goldie Hawn is funny, sexy, beautiful, talented, intelligent,
warm, and consistently sunny. Other than that, she doesn't
impress me at all.
—Neil Simon
People say to me, "You're not very feminine." Well, they can just
suck my dick.
—Roseanne Barr

HUSBAND TO WIFE: You are not only beautiful, but stupid.
WIFE TO HUSBAND: Well, God made me beautiful so you
would be attracted to me. And he made me stupid so I'd be
attracted to you.

134

Comedy Writing Secrets

SCHOOL DAZE: REVERSING A CLICHÉ
Now that we've discussed the uses of reverses and how reverses are con¬
structed, let's write a reversal of a cliché. For the target, let's use the begin¬
ning of the school term, when summer is over and parents everywhere
happily send their children back to school. Just writing We all feel relieved
when our kids go back to school and the house is quieter and neater is
not wit. Your first efforts to reverse a cliché may look something like these.
TOO OBVIOUS
When my kids go back to school, I go back to sanity.
For parents, Thanksgiving takes place in September—on the day
school starts.
BETTER
When school starts, my kids think they're going back to hell, and I
think I'm going back to heaven.
The meaning of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" gets a
lot clearer the first day my kids go back to school.
BEST
September is the month when millions of beautiful faces radiating
happiness turn toward school. ...
They all belong to mothers.

It helps to work backward from the reverse. The most obvious reverse
might be to make a point about mothers when the audience thinks we're
talking about the children.
This type of joke would be a fun opening for a speech to a PTA-type
group because the audience members are likely to share a parent's
ambivalence toward children.
When school is out, there's always the tearing up of homework,
screeching, and giggling. You would think professors would act
more dignified!
—Paul Sweeney

The Next Giant Step: Reverses

135

SHOWTIME
The "news" reports on shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Daily
Show With Jon Stewart commonly include reverses in the form of onesentence news headlines followed by contradictory tag lines. Write a
reverse for each of the following setups, then compare your responses to
the pros' versions that appear on the next page.
A Harvard Medical School study has determined that rectal
thermometers are still the best way to tell a baby's temperature.
The University of Nebraska says that elderly people who
drink beer or wine at least four times a week have the highest
bone density.
A man in France was arrested today for using his car to run
down a pedestrian he thought was Osama bin Laden.

THE ANSWER MAN
Here are the pros' conclusions for the reverse setups on pages 128-129.
Condoms aren't completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing
one and got hit by a bus.
—Bob Rubin
My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love.
That doesn't bother me. It's her hiding that seems so cruel.
—Jonathan Katz
We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big
problem, of course, is someone will win.
—Barry Crimmins

136

Comedy Writing Secrets

After twelve years of therapy, my psychiatrist said something
that brought tears to my eyes. He said, "No hablo ingles."
—Ronnie Shakes
Here are the conclusions for the headline news setups on page 136.

A Harvard Medical School study has determined that rectal
thermometers are still the best way to tell a baby's tempera¬
ture. Plus, it really teaches the baby who's boss.
—Tina Fey

The University of Nebraska says that elderly people who drink
beer or wine at least four times a week have the highest bone
density. They need it—they're the ones falling down the most.
—Jay Leno

A man in France was arrested today for using his car to run down
a pedestrian he thought was Osama bin Laden. Even though it
was a mistake, it still ranks as France's biggest military victory.
—Jay Leno

The Next Giant Step: Reverses

137

CHAPTER 8
The Harmony of Paired Elements:
Phrases, Words, Statistics,
and Aphorisms
She was an earthy woman, so I treated her like dirt.
—George Carlin

Humor is a feat of verbal gymnastics, and paired elements are examples
of the type of clever writing that is commonly used in political addresses,
sermons, academic oratory, and toasts. A paired element consists of two
grammatical structures (words, phrases, clauses, or sentences) that are
similar in construction and that play off each other in meaning.
Paired elements appear in humor formats as varied as ad slogans,
bumper stickers, and Shavian wit. You might find paired elements in the
"thought for today" in your desk calendar.
There are three varieties of paired elements.
1. paired phrases or sentences
2. paired words
3. paired numbers

PAIRED P H R A S E S A N D S E N T E N C E S
To be most effective, paired phrases or sentences must be
parallel—equal in grammatical purpose, structure, and
rhythm. Some need an introductory setup line; most do
not. In most cases, the first unit in the pair is a simple
declarative statement. The carefully crafted second
unit of the pair echoes the first, but a key word may be
altered, or the order of the words may be reversed to
change the meaning. Aphorisms, which will be discussed later, often contain paired phrases, which

138

Comedy Writing Secrets

are almost lyrical in repetition, and valuable because they make the
words easy to remember.
Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do
for your country.
—John F. Kennedy

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
—William Shakespeare

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Figures don't lie, but all liars can figure.
Imagination compensates us for what we are not. Humor compen¬
sates us for what we are.

As a humor technique, paired phrases with word reverses are facile
but not necessarily simple. The basic rule, common in most humor
writing, is that the last line is written first—the last line is the one
that makes the point and is most easily remembered. Then, you try to
reinforce the theme by reversing the words so the first line introduces
the cadence.
Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much
you care.
Pilot over intercom to impatient passengers: We're having a
short delay for engine repairs. Aren't you glad you're down here
wishing you were up there, rather than up there wishing you
were down here?
—Joan White Book

Paired phrases are popular with clichés, which afford many opportuni¬
ties for take-off humor—the line after the paired phrase.
Boss to new employee: "Relax, Bitler. You have nothing to fear
except fear itself. And me, of course!"
—Robert Mankoff

The Harmony of Paired Elements

139

Paired elements are frequent applause-getters, and writers know that the
audience is more stimulated by the turn of phrase than by its logic.
Homonyms get laughs even when they don't make much sense.
It is better to have loved a small man than never to have
loved a tall.
—Mary Jo Crowley

As a general rule, you don't want the audience to be able to fill in
your punchline for you. You want to surprise them, because they
won't appreciate the humor if it's predictable. But audience participa¬
tion—mentally engaging the audience—can also be an excellent tech¬
nique for increasing appreciation. If you can create a strong, fresh,
paired-element joke, it may not be necessary to state the second part
of the pair if the audience can deduce it from the first. You can flatter
the audience members by letting them complete the thought them¬
selves. Then they will applaud not only your cleverness, but their
own perspicacity.
The difference between herpes and mono is that you can get
mono from snatching kisses.

Each sentence in a paired-sentence element contains one of two paired
phrases. In a joke format, each sentence is usually attributed to a differ¬
ent person. The final impression is of a snappy comeback—the audience
appreciates the responder's ability to reverse the order of the words and
toss them back in the originator's face.
TELEGRAM FROM PLAY PRODUCER TO GEORGE
BERNARD SHAW: Send manuscript. If good will send check.
SHAW'S REPLY: Send check. If good will send manuscript.
A creditor enclosed a picture of his four-month-old daughter in a
collection letter to a customer, pleading: "This is why I need the
money." The customer replied with a picture of a voluptuous
blonde in a bikini. His note: "This is why I don't have the money."

140

Comedy Writing Secrets

SHOWTIME
Review your jokes from chapters four and five and rewrite seven to ten
of your favorites as paired phrases or sentences.

PAIRED WORDS
Most paired words fall into one of four classifications: synonyms,
homonyms, antonyms, or groupings. No professional humor writer is
without a dictionary of synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms.

Synonyms
Synonyms are different words that share a meaning (horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, ladies glow). Synonyms are popular word pairings.
There are so many words in the language that have a similar meaning
that there are countless double entendre opportunities. One simple
technique for pairing synonyms is to express an idea in one line or
phrase, then include in the second line or phrase a synonym for a key
word in the first. But the synonym should evoke a different and unexpected meaning of the key word in the first phrase.
SHOE SALESMAN: Don't worry about the shoes.
They'll stretch.
WOMAN: Then don't worry about the check. It'll bounce.
—Rita Rudner

In the example above, the paired words are stretch and bounce. Although
stretch and bounce aren't strict synonyms, their close relationship (something that can stretch may be likely to bounce) allows them to work
together in a play on words.
In each of the following examples, the second phrase features a highly
exaggerated synonym for a key word in the first phrase.

The Harmony of Paired Elements

141

She wasn't just throwing herself at him. It was more like taking
careful aim.
He only acts mean. But down deep in his heart, he's thoroughly rotten.

The paired synonym take-off, like any take-off, begins with a cliché or
standard expression and includes a synonym with the unexpected insight
in the punchline.
I love mankind. It's people I can't stand.
—Charles M. Schulz
Redneck against women's lib: I told my wife to stick to her washing, ironing, sewing, cooking, and cleaning. No wife of mine is
going to go to work!
—John Boblitt

Homonyms
Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently or
have a different meaning (see the full discussion of homonyms in chapter four). Our language is rich with words that are pronounced alike.
Take gene, for instance. Gene can be a scientific term or a man's name,
but when spoken, it can sound like pants made of denim (jeans) or a
woman's name (Jean).
One DNA molecule to another: Those genes make me look fat.
License plate of sheep rancher: EWEHAUL.
She was a girl who preferred men to liquor.
Ad for telephone system: From high tech to hi, Mom.

Antonyms
While synonyms are words or phrases that share the same meaning,
antonyms are words or expressions that mean the opposite of each
other: hot vs. cold, tall vs. short. Paired antonyms generate humor
because they are the simplest form of a reverse. The first word of the
phrase starts you in one direction; the antonym flips you in the opposite. When Saturday Night Live was having a bad season, critics were
quick to dub it Saturday Night Dead.

142

Comedy Writing Secrets

There are good and bad politicians in the government: Some are
trying to clean it up; some are trying to clean it out.
—Robert Orben

Young boy to friend: If I'm too noisy they give me a spanking. If
I'm too quiet, they take my temperature.

The use of antonym pairs is compatible with humor based on double
entendres and puns. Since laughter frequently arises from the apprecia¬
tion of clever word play, even antonym non sequiturs can get laughs.
Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.
—Robert Benchley

It's no wonder foreigners are confused by our language. Here a
slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing.
—Joyce Mattingly

Three most frequently used antonym pairs are (a) good and bad, (b) right
and wrong, and (c) good and lousy.
FATHER TO PRETEEN DAUGHTER: "There are two words
I want you to stop using. One is swell and the other is lousy.
Promise?"
DAUGHTER: "Sure, Dad, now what are the two words?"
Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is
good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
—Samuel Johnson

Antonyms can exist as two words that mean the opposite of each other
(hot vs. cold), or one word can form its own antonym by the addition of
a prefix such as un- or in- (sensitive vs. insensitive). There are hundreds
of words that become their own antonyms just by the addition of a
prefix—uninteresting is the antonym of interesting, and impatience is
the opposite of patience.
I left journalism because I met too many interesting people at an
uninteresting salary.

The Harmony of Paired Elements

143

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreason¬
able man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
—George Bernard Shaw

Brainstorming Paired Antonyms
The first step of brainstorming humor is association, as discussed in
chapter six. When brainstorming antonyms, you must dredge up every
related combination. For example, when you think of the antonyms
right and left, you think of the directions right and left, and perhaps the
political perspectives of the right and the left. But good humorists
would notice that the word right is also an antonym to the word wrong.
Some of the most sophisticated (and appreciated) humor combines the
meaning of a word from one antonym pair with the meaning of a word
from another antonym pair.
Most bankers recommend that you wait until you've completely paid
for the right running shoe before you plunge in and buy the left.
—Dave Barry

In comedy, antonym pairs need not fit the dictionary definition of an
antonym perfectly. As long as the suggestion of an opposite is inferred,
the humor can work.
This administration brags that it has developed a new balance of
trade: Young people go south of the border to buy drugs and sen¬
ior citizens go north of the border to buy drugs.
—Mel Helitzer
A new patient was asked by his doctor to list all the prescriptions
he was taking. The doctor looked at the long list of different med¬
ications and said, "You know, Bill, you look better in person than
you do on paper."

It is important, however, not to mix up proper antonym combinations.
The antonym of born is died and the opposite of started is finished. You
shouldn't combine born w i t h finished or started with died.

144

Comedy Writing Secrets

ACCEPTABLE

In this nightclub, a number of famous comics were born—and
tonight, a number just died.
ACCEPTABLE

A number of famous comics started here—and tonight, a number
just finished here.
UNACCEPTABLE

A number of famous comics started here—and tonight, a number
just died here.
It is sometimes possible to include two or more antonyms in the same bit.
Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now.

Groupings
Another type of word play relies on the grouping of two or more words
loosely associated with the same topic. These words don't have to be
synonyms, antonyms, or homonyms.
A political candidate must learn not only to stand on a platform,
but also to sit on the fence and lie on the spot.
—Frank Tyger

I come from out west, where men are men and women are
women, and you can't ask for a better setup than that.
—Red Skelton

I come from New York, where men are men—and women are
men, too!
—Robin Williams

SHOWTIME
Use a thesaurus to create a list of antonyms for the two most frequently
used antonym pairs: good and bad, and right and wrong. Write

The Harmony of Faired Elements

145

seven to ten reverses in which the antonyms are used as
paired words.

PAIRED N U M B E R S
Numbers and figures can also be paired to humorous effect. As with any
joke, save the surprise number or figure for the very end of the joke, just
as if it were a word.
The sheriff said to the outlaw, "I'll give you a fair chance. We'll
step off ten paces and you fire at the count of three." The men
pace off, the sheriff shouts, "One, two"—and then he turns and
fires. The dying outlaw says, "I thought you said to fire on three."
The sheriff said, "That was your number. Mine was two."

Professional humor writers often use numbers in sequences. The
progression of a numerical sequence should be logical and rhythmic,
and sequences should always progress in one direction only: up
or down.
SON: Dad, can I be your caddy?
FATHER: Son, a caddy has to be old enough to keep score.
SON: I can keep score.
FATHER: Okay, if I got six on the first hole, seven on the second
hole, eight on the third hole, and nine on the fourth hole, what
would my total score be?
SON: Eleven.
FATHER: Okay, son, you're my caddy.

Numbers Progressing Up
MC AT OLD-AGE HOME: "We're going to give a prize to the oldest person here."
FIRST VOICE: I'm 63.
SECOND VOICE: I'm 73.

146

Comedy Writing Secrets

THIRD VOICE: I'm 83.
FOURTH VOICE: I'm dead!
There are still things you can get for a dollar—like nickels, dimes,
and quarters.
—Charles Lindner

Numbers Progressing Down
Professor to class: Don't be afraid of rewrites. Just remember the
first draft of Dickens' book was called A Tale of Ten Cities. The second draft was called A Tale of Nine Cities, then it was Eight, then it
was Seven. ...
—Kathy Leisering

Numbers Repeated
The following example not only repeats number pairs, it repeats phrases—
with a reversal of the numbers in the second phrase of the pair.
To have twenty lovers in one year is easy. To have one lover for
twenty years is difficult.
—Zsa Zsa Gabor

The example below repeats the number five and establishes a pattern
of phrases.
The kind of humor I like makes me laugh hard for five seconds and
think hard for five minutes.
—William Davis

A P H O R I S M S A N D PAIRINGS:
P L E A S E WAIT TO BE S E E D E D
Aphorisms are concise expressions of a bit of truth or wisdom.
Following a misfortune, we have certain options. We can turn pessimistic
and curse bad luck, or we can be optimistic and consider that fate has
provided a valuable learning experience. (The comic writer is trained by
necessity to see humor through woes-colored glasses.) These two

The Harmony of Paired Elements

147

options form the basis for one type of aphorism—a humorous contrast
between the point of view of a pessimist and that of an optimist. This
type of aphorism makes good use of paired elements. Let's imagine how
you might go about creating such an aphorism. You can start with a builtin antonym pairing: optimist vs. pessimist. Your first effort might read
something like this.
A pessimist curses fate; an optimist looks for benefits from every
decision.

There is some wisdom in that line, but nothing particularly marketable.
So, you try again, using some repetitive adjectives and subjects.
An optimist sees benefit in every disaster; a pessimist sees recurrence in every disaster.

The word disaster is repeated, and benefit has been contrasted
with recurrence. Still nowhere, but certain possibilities are starting
to appear. The contrast of benefit and disaster is stronger than the
contrast of benefit and recurrence. This could make for good wordreversal opportunities. However, the word disaster seems too exaggerated for this problem. Perhaps calamity, one peg down, might be
more appropriate.
An optimist sees a benefit in every calamity; a pessimist sees a
calamity in every benefit.

There's something wrong with the sound and connotation of benefit.
Opportunity could work, but not every decision is an opportunity.
You might try the word test before settling on challenge. That
sounds better!
An optimist sees a challenge in every calamity. A pessimist sees a
calamity in every challenge.

The result is a set of paired phrases and a set of paired antonyms. It's
good writing, and it's good advice, too!

148

Comedy Writing Secrets

SHOWTIME
Paired elements are another example of how humor is written backwards—joke-first! And whichever medium is used for humor (printed
word, spoken word, cartoons, etc.), writers find paired elements increase
commercial value.
The work will get funny, and the funny will get work.
Whether you're working with paired elements or any of the previously
discussed techniques, humor writing requires daily practice. The following exercises will help fuel your comic imagination. (Additional exercises
are included in chapter nineteen.)
Write a funny ...
• set of new malaprops and Tom Swifties
• list of new college degree programs
• neighborhood watch guide
• online personal ad
• etiquette guideline for using a cell phone
• list of new Starbucks coffee offerings
• review of a local restaurant, bar, or convenience store
• set of announcements for a K—12 PA system
• e-mail soliciting money for a bogus charity

The Harmony of Paired Elements

149

CHAPTER 9
Bewitched, Bothered,
and Bewildered: Triples
I can't think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their
name, or how you met, or why they're dead.
—Laura Kightlinger

Every joke structure has its devotees, but the triple is one format that all
humorists use repeatedly. Featuring a grouping of three examples or a
sequence of three actions, comments, or categories, the triple increases
tension with its longer buildup.
I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast,
and then I killed them and took their land.
—Jon Stewart

Triples are one of the most common humor formulas. They have been used
for so many years in the "There was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi..." format that, when three such clergymen actually did walk into a bar, the bartender asked, "Is this some kind of a joke?"
The triple formula uses hostility, exaggeration, a buildup of
tension, and a surprise ending that inflates the payoff. Most triples are
short—two or three sentences—but longer triples can work if done
correctly. The opening lines are logical setups and the final line is the
most audacious.
A woman recently had a baby from an embryo that had been
frozen for seven years. She said, "I had no idea if I was having a
little boy, a little girl, or fish sticks."
—Conan O'Brien

150

Comedy Writing Secrets

At eighty-eight, the king of popcorn, Orville Redenbacher, passed
away. His family is mired in an ugly dispute over whether to cremate, microwave, or air-pop him.
—Stephanie Miller
If peanut oil comes from peanuts, and olive oil comes from olives,
where does baby oil come from?
—Lily Tomlin
Neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them. My
mother cleans them.
—Rita Rudner
The only really good place to buy lumber is at a store where the
lumber has already been cut and attached together in the form of
furniture, finished, and put inside boxes.
—Dave Barry

Reverse Construction: The Power of Threes
The mystical power of three has been known and used for centuries. The
Bible is filled with triple designations: three wise men, the Trinity, and the
Hebrew forefathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Triple elements occur in
our most powerful historical literature: Thomas Jefferson wrote "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and one of Abraham Lincoln's mostquoted phrases is "Of the people, for the people, by the people." Three
may be an odd number in math, but its even da-da-Ta da-da-Ta da-da-Ta
cadence makes it the most important number in comedy. It's not a coincidence that we treasure Goldilocks
and the three bears, the three blind
mice, the three little pigs, the three
musketeers, and the Three Stooges.
People in the theater are so superstitious
about numbers that actors will knock on
stage doors three times and only three
times. And that's the truth, the whole
truth, and nothing but the truth.

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples

151

Bart, a woman is like a beer. They look good, they smell good, and
you'd step over your own mother just to get one!
—Homer Simpson

According to a comedic theory developed by author William Lang, there
are only three parts to most comedic bits. We call these three elements
humor's SAP test.
S = Setup (preparation)
A = Anticipation (triple)
P = Punchline (story payoff)
Notice how SAP fits these examples.
S = We were Pentecostal.
A = When I was growing up we couldn't go to movies, we
couldn't listen to rock music, we couldn't wear makeup.
P = That's just a lightbulb and a car away from being Amish.
—René Hicks
S = My wife and I don't get along.
A = I take my meals separately, I take a separate vacation,
and I sleep in a separate bedroom.
P = I'm doing everything I can to keep this marriage together.
—Milton Berle

It's possible, of course, to abbreviate the SAP formula by combining two
of the elements in one sentence. In the following example, the third part
of the triple also includes the punchline.
When you die there's a light at the end of the tunnel. When my
father dies, he'll see the light, make his way toward it, and then
flip it off to save electricity.
—Harland Williams

Notice how the triple sequence in the next example sets up the value of
the last line.
If you want to be seen—stand up!

152

Comedy Writing Secrets

If you want to be heard—speak up!
If you want to be appreciated—shut up!

The joke wouldn't be as effective as a series of two. When we leave off
the first line, the triple reads:
If you want to be heard—speak up!
If you want to be appreciated—shut up!

The humor is still there, but the punch is softer without the tension
buildup of the triple. If you were to add more lines to this joke, you
would overstretch the sequence and make the audience impatient to
get to the punchline.
If you want to be involved—show up!
If you want to be seen—stand up!
If you want to be heard—speak up!
If you want to be important—pay up!
If you want to be appreciated—shut up!

There's no reason to give five examples when three accomplishes all the
preparation that's needed.
The final element of SAP humor can include a reverse to make it
sound fresher.
I was told to be accurate, be brief, and then be seated. So I promise I shall be brief as possible—no matter how long it takes me.
—Willard Pearson

The trilogy is not a commandment; it's a formula (which means it can be
taught in schools). Although most series-based jokes are most effective
when they contain three elements, the number of introductory setups in
the series can be two, three, four, or as many as you wish—whatever it
takes to build anticipation and a climax.
A Washington, D.C., police chief once claimed he had broken down
crime in the Capitol into four categories: murder, assault, robbery,
and acts of Congress.

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples

153

Comic Bill Dana once explained why a ranch with eleven names (Bar
Nine, Circle Z, Rocking O, Flying W, Lazy R, Crazy Eight, Bar Seven,
Happy Tow, Flying Nun, Lazy Six, and Bar Five) had no cattle: because
none could make it through branding. Erma Bombeck preferred to use
four, five, and sometimes six in a series. The length of a series is not
what's critical—it's the anticipation created by the series.
I called my friend Bernie in Miami and asked how he was feeling.
"Not well," he said. "I've got cataracts in both eyes, my hearing is almost totally gone, my memory is so bad I can't remember
where I put anything, and my hands shake all the time."
"That's terrible," I said. "Any good news?"
"Yes," he said, "I still have my Florida driver's license."

It's no surprise that there are three rules specifically geared to the number three. Tension is important in humor structure, and a triple helps
build tension, but be wary of too much of a good thing.
1. Never use more than three jokes about one subject in a monologue.
2. Three minutes is the ideal length for a skit.
3. Don't exceed three themes in an article.

SHOWTIME
The punchline to the traditional lightbulb joke (How many

s

does it take to change a lightbulb?) often consists of a triple. Again, the
first and second answers are only setups for the third. Here are some
examples based on state stereotypes.
How many Louisianans does it take to change a lightbulb?
Three: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and
one to bribe officials for the permit.
How many Virginians?
Three: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and

154

Comedy Writing Secrets

one highly refined lady to remark how much lovelier the
old bulb was.
How many Oregonians?
Forty-two: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb,
and forty to draft the environmental impact statement.
Use a triple to write a lightbulb joke for each of the following professions.
Compare your punch lines to the ones listed at the end of the chapter.
How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb?
How many lawyers?
How many doctors?
How many L.A. cops?
How many auto mechanics?

THE ANECDOTAL TRIPLE
An anecdote, as you know from chapter seven, is a short story told in the
fewest possible words. That's why, even in a long triple, you need to give
just enough information to set up the payoff line.
A minister comes home to his apartment early and finds his wife
nude in bed and the room filled with cigar smoke. He looks down
from his tenth-story window and sees a man smoking a big cigar
just leaving the building. Enraged, he picks up his refrigerator and
throws it out the window, killing the man instantly.
"Why did you do that?" someone yelled from the street. "
'You killed my priest."
The minister was so distraught that he threw himself
out of the window.
A few moments later, three men—a priest, a minister, and a
rabbi—approach heaven's gate and an angel asks each how he died.
"I don't know," says the priest, "except suddenly a refrigerator
smashed me into the ground."

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples

155

The minister says, "I threw it. But I was so filled with remorse, I
jumped out of the window and killed myself."
"What about you, rabbi?" asks the angel.
"You got me. All I know was I was minding my own business,
sitting in a refrigerator..."

Humor takes even more literary effort than the average editorial story
because the climax must be powerful enough to cause an immediate
physical reaction in the audience. Your goal is to tell an anecdote in the
fewest possible words. But sometimes cutting words can lessen the
effect of a joke. Consider the following example.
Three sons, with their wives, were celebrating their parents' fiftieth
anniversary. At the dinner, the first son stood up and said, "Dad. Mom.
I'd have brought you a present, but Suzy and I spent the summer in
Europe, so we're kinda broke, but we do wish you the very best."
The second son said, "My dear parents, I, too, would have
brought a present, but I just bought Nancy a diamond necklace,
and we're short right now."
And the third said, "Folks, we purchased a powerboat, which
left us strapped, but good health and love for years to come."
"That's okay, sons," said the father. "I know how it feels to be
broke. I never told you this, but when your mother and I decided
to get married fifty years ago, we didn't even have the money for
a license, so we never had a ceremony."
One of the sons burst out, "My god, Dad. You know what
that makes us?"
"Yes, I do," said the father, "and cheap ones, too!"

You can tell the same story without a triple in half the words.
A son attends a fiftieth anniversary dinner for his parents. He
apologizes that, because of personal luxury expenses, he couldn't
afford a present. The father sympathizes, "We know how it is.
When Mother and I were courting, we were so poor we couldn't
afford a license, so we never got married."

156

Comedy Writing Secrets

"My god," says the son, "do you know what that makes me?"
"Yes," says the dad, "and a cheap one, t o o ! "

The elimination of the triple decreased the suspense and minimized the
buildup of hostility that makes the father's retort so funny. It isn't that
one example isn't funny; it's just that ridiculing three is more pleasurable.
The third element in a triple can also be customized to fit a specific event.

PAINTING HUMOR
Some humorists are blessed with the ability to paint
a picture with words, affording the listener or reader the chance to visualize the joke. For example, the
success of Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon
adventures is in large part due to his colorful phrasing
and vivid references. Here are the opening lines to
Keillor's book Wobegon Boy.
I am a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it's all thanks to a
good Lutheran mother. When I was a boy, if I came around
looking glum and mopey, she said, "What's the matter? Did the
dog pee on your cinnamon toast?" And the thought of our old
black mutt raising his hind leg in the pas de dog and peeing on
my toast made me giggle.
Humor provides the writer with great latitude to embellish—even exaggerate—with imagery. Consider the following triple.
Based on what you know about him, what do you think Abraham
Lincoln would be doing if he were alive today? One: Writing his
memoirs of the Civil War. Two: Advising the President. Or three:
Desperately clawing at the inside of his coffin.
—David Letterman
The joke works only because of the imagery in the final line, "Desperately
clawing at the inside of his coffin." If a general phrase were used, such

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples

157

as "Trying to get out of his coffin," the joke would be less effective. The
colorful language encourages the audience to visualize the joke.
The lack of imagery in many play-on-word (POW) jokes explains why
the response to them is often less than enthusiastic. Most POW humor
depends entirely on language subtleties to produce surprise, and only
half of the brain—the left hemisphere—experiences the joke. When
imagery is incorporated into a joke, both hemispheres are stimulated,
and the result is full-brain humor.
One of the ways to enhance the visual nature of humor is by
specificity. For example, the term candy bar is less likely to conjure up
a visual cue than a specific reference, such as a Snickers bar. The
challenge for comedy writers is to avoid general, abstract phrases and
use concrete descriptions that stimulate the senses.

SHOWTIME
The following exercises will punch up the imagery in your writing.
1. Rewrite each of the following phrases using specificity.
grab some food
watch TV
read a book
drive a car
2. Replace general words or phrases in your previous jokes with specific,
graphic descriptions.
3. When you record everyday events in your humor diary, use the most
vivid, colorful, and graphic descriptions.

158

Comedy Writing Secrets

TRIPLE VARIATIONS
A common variation on the SAP formula is to set up a joke with a triple—
in other words, to include the triple not in the A (anticipation) part of the
formula, but in the first P (preparation). The second element of the joke
then refers to something unrelated to the triple. Finally, in the punchline,
the answer to the question references the triple in the setup. Once you
learn this formula, the variations multiply.
WAITRESS, IN HOARSE VOICE: For dessert, we got ice c r e a m vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
CUSTOMER: You got laryngitis?
WAITRESS: No, just vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

Triples can easily be combined with other joke formats. For example,
you can start with a triple and add a take-off.
The thing about being a professor is that if you can make just one
student successful, if you can make just one student see the light,
if you can make just one ready for the outside world, then you're
still stuck with nineteen failures.
—Mel Helitzer
The thing about being a humorist is that if you only get one laugh,
if you only get one smile, if you can make only one person happy,
then you know your act stinks!
—Gene Perret

Another very popular combination of techniques is to start with a triple,
then switch to a reverse. The reverse can supplement or replace the third
element in the triple.
More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads.
One path leads to despair and utter helplessness, the other
to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to
choose correctly.
—Woody Allen

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples

159

Younger men are all right! They also come too quick and go to
sleep right after, but they can do it every goddamn night.
—Roseanne Barr
I'd like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit.
Unfortunately, he couldn't be here tonight, so instead ...
Any of you see Survivor on TV last night? Talk about plot, drama,
great acting—it had none of those things.
I had a nightmare I was trapped in an elevator with Yanni, Kenny
G., and Michael Bolton ... and I had a gun with only one bullet.
—Dave Attell
My wife's family consisted of three brothers and a dog: Tom, Dick,
Harry, and Rover. Harry was the dog.

You can also combine a triple with another triple.
My rules for dating: I don't want to hear about your car, I don't
want to hear about your ex-girlfriend, I don't want to hear about
your boring-ass job. The most romantic thing you can do is relax,
buy me drinks, and shut the hell up.
—Wanda Sykes

Triples can also be used to enhance a mild piece of humor. Topping the
first bit of humor with two additional comments encourages the audience
to laugh instead of thinking Is that all there was to it?
There are three ways to be ruined in this world. First is by sex, the
second is by gambling, and the third is by telling jokes. Sex is the
most fun, gambling is the most exciting, and being a comedian is
the surest.
—Paul Roth

Triples can also be used in physical humor. Bob Nelson does a visual
triple during his monologue about college football players being interviewed on camera He places two balloons under an oversized sweater to
indicate shoulder pads. But as he is putting them under the sweater he

160

Comedy Writing Secrets

fills the time with a visual triple. He first pushes the two balloons underneath from the bottom and leaves them momentarily side-by-side. "Wanna
see my grandmother?" he asks while the balloons are in a low position.
Then he moves the balloons midway up the sweater and says, "This is
what my dream girl looks like." Then he moves the two balloons, one to
each side of the sweater, and says, "My dream girl lying down." Finally, he
puts them in the shoulder-pad position for his football segment.
This is called a joke on the way to a joke because the triple is used to
enhance a dead moment while changing props. Except in intentional
pauses, silence is a comic's deadly enemy.

SHOWTIME
Like a joke in any other format, a triple must be concluded with an audacious and surprising climax. Write an unexpected conclusion for each of
the following jokes. Compare your answers to the pros' versions on the
next page.
Someone did a study of the three most-often-heard phrases in
New York City. One is "Hey, taxi." Two is "What train do I take
to get to Bloomingdale's?" And three is ...
I like Florida; everything is in the eighties: the temperature, the
ages, and ...
Men should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and ...
Making love to a woman is like buying real estate ...

THE A N S W E R M A N
Here are some possible punchlines for the lightbulb jokes on page 155
How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb?

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples

161

Thirty-six: Two to sponsor the bill, thirty-three to constitute
a quorum, and one to change it.
How many lawyers?
Three: One to change it, one to call the electrician who
wired the house, and one to sue the power company for
causing the surge that made the bulb burn out.
How many doctors?
Three: One to find a bulb specialist, one to find a bulb installation specialist, and one to bill Medicare.
How many L.A. cops?
Six: One to screw in a new bulb, four to beat the crap out of
the old one, and one to videotape the scene.
How many auto mechanics?
Six: One to give you an estimate, one to force it with a
hammer, and four to go out for more bulbs.
Here are the professionals' conclusions for the triples on page 161.
Someone did a study of the three most-often-heard phrases in
New York City. One is "Hey, taxi." Two is "What train do I take
to get to Bloomingdale's?" And three is "Don't worry. It's only a
flesh wound."
—David Letterman
I like Florida; everything is in the eighties: the temperature, the
ages, and the IQs.
—George Carlin
Men should be like Kleenex: soft, strong and disposable.
—Cher
Making love to a woman is like buying real estate: location,
location, location.
—Carol Leifer

162

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 10
Realism, Exaggeration, and
Understatement
When a thing is funny, search it for a hidden truth.
—George Bernard Shaw

Humor only appears to be free-form. To the trained ear,
it's predictable because it's structured. Nowhere is this
structure more evident than in the interaction of realism
and exaggeration, two of the six ingredients in the THREES formula (target, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, surprise).
In humor, they balance each other like equal weights on a scale.
Sometimes one side of the scale may tip, but the variation is
always small—and that's no exaggeration.
My dad's pants kept creeping up on him. By
sixty-five he was just a pair of pants and a head.
—Jeff Altman

In the preceding joke, the realistic element is the rising waistband of
the father's pants. The exaggeration is the waistband reaching the
father's head. Realism is essential in order for the audience share hostility toward a common target. On the other side of the scale, facts and
conclusions are exaggerated to build tension and surprise. This is a
standard theatrical device, a dramatic license that portrays objects and
events as larger than life.
MAKE IT REAL
Realism was a big reason for the success of such classic sitcoms as All
in the Family and The Cosby Show. "My one rule is to be true, rather
than funny," said Bill Cosby. The more realistic we make the humor piece
seem, the more our audience identifies with it.

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

163

My way of joking is to tell the truth. It is the funniest joke
in the world.
—George Bernard Shaw

Truth (realism) involves the audience. This is why people want to know
the latest news. (The most influential words in advertising are free, sale,
and new.) We all care more about current events when they affect us
directly. The key is remembering that a premise must be true and interesting to we, the audience, not you, the writer. Remember how bored
you get when people dwell at length on their recent business or domestic
problems. The classic line is:
He's the kind of bore who, when you meet him on the street and
say, "How are you?" he stops and tells you.

Fifty percent of the time people don't care about your problems, and the
other fifty percent of the time they're glad you're getting what you deserve.
You want to avoid having the audience react this way to your jokes.
A customer in a bar is talking to the man seated next to him.
"Strange, isn't it? Normally, I'm a very caring person, but in your
case, for some reason, I don't give a damn."

The importance of realism might seem to run counter to our understanding that humor is fictional. But humor must contain some element of truth
if people are to care. If everyone knows from the beginning of a joke that
"any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental," they
won't care, and they won't laugh.
I know a man who teethed on a set of alphabet blocks when he
was a baby. He finally tired of them when he was fifteen.

This story is simple enough. We have some realism: Babies do teethe on
building blocks. We have exaggeration with the age fifteen. We smile at
the insult, but there's no big laugh, because nobody cares about "a man."
Yet, if we could find someone whose public reputation indicates limited intellectual abilities, and that person is an authority figure or some
celebrity who irritates us, then naming that person adds realism and

164

Comedy Writing Secrets

gives the audience something that focuses their laughter. Remember that
good humor includes a strong target for the audience's hostility.
Sylvester Stallone's mother reported he learned to read by
teething on a set of alphabet blocks, and he's been swallowing
his letters ever since.

We are so influenced by the hyperbole of media, theater, and advertising,
we fall into the habit of believing that certain special events and celebrities are extraordinary. This inflated posturing by publicity specialists is
the balloon humorists aim to prick.
E X A G G E R A T I O N CONSTRUCTION:
THE S T R E T C H - B A N D THEORY
The British believe that the underclass overstates and the upper class
understates. Humor writers are classless; they use both understatement
and overstatement. Exaggeration is the Silly Putty of humor writing.
You start with a realistic scenario, then bend and distort it for comic
effect. Exaggeration is one of the easiest and most effective comedic
tools, and it is used in all types of humor: Cartoonists magnify physical
features, impressionists exaggerate speech mannerism, and comedians
embellish language.
Effective humor is truth-based, so the key to maximizing comedic
potential is striking a balance between realism and exaggeration. There
can be too much distortion. The audience must understand the connection between the truth and the exaggeration.
If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times:
Don't exaggerate.

Humor comes out of the unexpected: no surprise, no laugh. In a triple, as
discussed in chapter nine, the first two lines are frequently straight lines;
this is the realistic element. The third line is the surprise twist—logically
related to the first two lines, but unexpected and exaggerated. Realism is
the setup, while exaggeration is the joke. "Get your facts first," wrote
Mark Twain, "and then you can distort them as much as you please."

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

165

Humor is like a rubber band; the more it can be stretched, the more
useful it is. The process of refining the relationship between exaggeration and realism in humor can be related to stretching a rubber band.
Imagine that the unstretched band is the realism, and exaggeration
stretches the band.
When the rubber band is stretched to capacity, several things happen at once.

1. Stretching alters the shape of the band; exaggeration alters the perception of reality.
2. The rubber band can be stretched a little (understatement) or a lot
(overstatement).
3. Just as tension increases in a rubber band when it is stretched, exaggeration increases tension in the audience—up to the breaking point.
4. When you pluck a rubber band, it makes a sound. The pitch of this
sound gets higher as you stretch the rubber band further. This sound
can be compared to emotion in an audience. The more you stretch
the rubber band, the higher the level of emotion in the audience.

166

Comedy Writing Secrets

Finding the proper balance between realism and exaggeration is the
ultimate test of a comedy writer's skill. Humor only comes when the
exaggeration is logical. Simply being ludicrous or audacious is not a
skill. It's amateur.
The humor writer starts with realism, then tries to determine how far
in any direction the truth can be exaggerated without destroying credibility. One way to do this is to create possibilities under the headings good,
better, and best. A story about a prisoner who calls his companion a cellmate is good, but calling him a roommate is better, and calling him a
suite-mate is the best of all.
Realism is frequently funniest when it's exaggerated to the most
extreme possibility. In math, 1 + 1 = 2. In humor, 1 + 1 = 11. Exaggeration
can work by either overstatement (hyperbole) or understatement. Here
are examples of both.
OVERSTATEMENT
CEO to members of the board: There you have it, gentlemen.
The upside potential is tremendous, but the downside risk is jail.
—Robert Mankoff
The scarecrow scared the crows so badly that they brought back
the corn they had stolen two years before.
—Fred Allen
UNDERSTATEMENT
I have my standards. They may be low, but I have them.
—Bette Midler
I have low self-esteem. When I'm in bed with someone, I fantasize
that I'm someone else.
—Richard Lewis

How far can you go with exaggeration? Generally, the more your punchline
exaggerates the introductory realism, the better the result.
I drink to make other people interest me.
—George Jean Nathan

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

167

I'm Jewish. I don't work out. If God had wanted us to bend over,
He would have put diamonds on the floor.
—Joan Rivers
There's nothing random about the random search at the airport. You
go to the gate and they're standing there with a Sherwin-Williams
paint chart. If your ass is darker than khaki, you're getting searched.
—Wanda Sykes
Exaggeration seems obvious, but it isn't easy. Many of today's novice
stand-up comedians have trouble with it. They'll start with some realistic
premise like the way women dress, picking up men in a singles bar, outsmarting the police, or advertising slogans, but then they'll shift into fifth
gear in a wild display of ludicrous fantasy that's not well connected to
the initial premise. Their material has a success rate of only about 20 or
25 percent because they make the same mistake repeatedly: They disrupt
the equal balance of realism and exaggeration.

THE PERFECT PUNCH
Three criteria determine whether a premise properly sets up the punchline: truth, emotion, and explicitness. The three factors form a memorable
acronym, TEE. A solid premise will TEE-up a joke by containing the following elements.
T = TRUTH: The most effective humor is reality-based,
genuine, and true. If a setup is exaggerated, insincere, or untrue, then you lose the ability to bend
reality to produce the surprise punchline.
E = EMOTION: A solid setup includes a factual
statement, opinion, or observation with a stated or implied emotion. The emotion is usually anger or hostility
driven by the stupidity, absurdity, or weirdness of the premise.
E = EXPLICITNESS: An effective premise is specific and readily understood by others.

168

Comedy Writing Secrets

The following exercises will help you identify targets with broad appeal,
and premises that TEE-up the punchline.
• Previously, you identified the ways in which each of your targets
causes anger, frustration, or irritation. Review each statement to
determine if it is reality-based, genuine, and true. If a statement is
exaggerated, insincere, or untrue, then either rewrite the premise or
discard it.
• For each statement that passed the truth test, determine whether
the premise is specific and clear. Also, consider whether the premise will appeal to others. Rewrite as needed.
• At this point, you'll have a list of premises that can TEE-up jokes. In
the upcoming chapters, we'll explain how to fit your premises into
various joke formulas.

U N R E A L I S T I C V S . REALISTIC HUMOR
If there's anything instinctive about humor writing, it's being able to
determine the right balance of reality and distortion. It's the same
instinct news editors use daily to determine what is newsworthy. You
have to know it when you see it.
In show business, the key word is honesty. And once you've
learned to fake that, you're in.
—George Burns
Many believe that failed humor is most often the result of too
much exaggeration. That isn't true. Most often, it results from too
little realism.
Here's an example of humor that's unrealistic. It doesn't mean it's not
funny. It does mean the performer has to work harder than if she had
used more realism.
Tommy came home from school very dejected. "I had an awful
day," he told his mother. "I couldn't remember an answer and it
was embarrassing."

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

169

"Forgetting one answer is nothing to be embarrassed about,"
soothed his mother.
And the boy said, "During roll call?"
—Dick Shebelski

The following examples are more realistic.
"They threw me out of my hotel in Fort Lauderdale this spring
break for pissing in the pool."
"How could they do that? Lots of kids piss in the pool."
"From the fourteenth floor?"
The bushman remarked, "I'd like to get a new boomerang, but I
can't get rid of the old one."
You are not drunk if you lie on the floor without holding on.
—Dean Martin
Even my daughter doesn't give me any respect. I put her to bed
and tried to kiss her and she said, "Not tonight, Daddy, I've got a
terrible headache."
—Rodney Dangerfield

Turning Sense Into Nonsense
Turning realism into exaggeration is easier to understand if we think of it
as a transition from sense to nonsense. Exaggeration is embellishing that
which you've seen or heard. It's almost instinctive. We learned as children that we could get attention by exaggerating. We also learned we
could get in a lot of trouble. But if we told stories in the form of jokes,
we not only got away with it, we got appreciative laughter.
In grade school, I was such a hit with my exaggerated mimicking
and clowning that the teacher was charging a four-dollar cover
and a two-drink minimum.
—Billy Crystal

Every installment of I Love Lucy began with a logical premise, such as
Lucy's desire to be a singer in Ricky's band, or her suspicions he might be

170

Comedy Writing Secrets

philandering. Only after a plausible foundation had been established was
the element of absurdity introduced. Then exaggeration continued to
inflate the plot until the inevitable slapstick climax.
Since comedy encourages the audience to suspend disbelief,
humorists can take advantage of every opportunity to stretch the truth.
In other circumstances, unmitigated exaggeration would be castigated
as lying. In humor, clever exaggeration guarantees laughter.

SHOWTIME
Jeff Foxworthy's signature line, You might be a redneck if... is always
followed by an exaggerated punchline.
You might be a redneck if your front porch collapses and four
dogs get killed.
You might be a redneck if you think the last words to The StarSpangled Banner are "Gentlemen, start your engines."
You should be able to provide the exaggerated last words of the following
possible conclusions to the setup You might be a redneck if... Compare
your efforts with Foxworthy's at the end of the chapter.
You might be a redneck if ...
... you think watching professional wrestling is ...
... you go to your family reunions looking for...
... on Thanksgiving Day you have to decide ...
... your child's first words were ...
... you've ever paid for a six-pack of beer with ...
... the most common phrase you hear at your family
reunion is ...
... you can't marry your sweetheart because ...

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

171

Exaggerated Numbers
Math is usually logical. But when there's a lapse in the logic surrounding
or involving numbers, it's hilarious.
I want to live to be a hundred, because you rarely read any obituaries about people who are more than a hundred years old.
—George Burns

Exaggerated numbers are an accepted part of humor writing, They signal to
the audience that they are listening to something fictional, that the ludicrousness of the plot is intended to make a point by shock as well as surprise.
A graduating senior went to the board of health and asked for two
thousand cockroaches. He said he promised his landlord he would
leave his apartment exactly the way he found it.

The exaggeration is obvious. Would fifty cockroaches have been an
acceptable number? Although that number might be more realistic, the
mental image of two thousand roaches is more graphic. On the other
hand, what about fifty thousand cockroaches? It could be argued that
such an overwhelming number creates an image straight out of
Hollywood's chamber of horrors and would be more distracting than
effective. The number two thousand is easy to say (compared to two
thousand five hundred) and easy to remember. It sounds right.
For some reason, fifty-nine sounds larger than sixty, sixty-nine sounds
larger than seventy, and seventy-nine sounds larger than eighty—perhaps
because the number nine is the highest number you can reach in the decimal system (before resetting to zero) and it can be emphasized during a
performance. When including an old age number in a joke, choose seventy-nine over eighty.
An elderly man, seated in a doctor's waiting room, picks up a copy
of JAMA—the Journal of the American Medical Association. He
reads that research indicates that young men who masturbate frequently in their youth have fewer prostrate problems in their senior years. The man slams the magazine down on the table and
shouts, "Great! I'm seventy-nine and now they tell me."

172

Comedy Writing Secrets

SHOWTIME
The selection of the best number for a particular bit is a basic skill. Test
yours. Each of the following jokes uses a number as the surprise element.
After you read each one, select a wide variety of numbers—from the highest conceivable to the lowest. Ask yourself if the humor can be strengthened by altering the number in any way.
The average man speaks twenty-five thousand words a day. The
average woman says thirty thousand words a day. Unfortunately,
when I get home at night, I've spoken my twenty-five thousand,
but my wife doesn't start hers until we get into bed.
—Michael Collins
One evening a Washington street vendor came home with
over a thousand dollars. "Where'd you get all that money?"
asked his wife.
"Selling hot dogs for fifty times their regular price."
"Who'd pay that?" asked the wife.
"Lots of people. They all work in the Pentagon."
—National Enquirer
A newspaper editor was honored as one of the great leaders of
his community by the governor at a testimonial dinner. Flushed
with pride, he asked his wife on the way home, "I wonder just
how many great leaders our city has?"
The wife said, "One less than you think."

UNDERSTATEMENT
Subtle humor isn't underrated, it's just understated. Understatement is an
effective humor device because it encourages the audience to participate. One of understatement's most famous practitioners is Woody Allen,

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

173

whose own humor was influenced by S.J. Perelman, a master of the art.
Allen's understatements start out very realistically, and are frequently
non sequiturs.
If there's a God, why are there such things as famine and
daytime TV?
I don't really believe in the afterlife, but I am taking a change of
underwear.

Understatement is an excellent technique in self-deprecating humor.
The audience feels more comfortable with people who have a modest
attitude toward their own accomplishments.
People always ask me if I get stage fright. Believe me, it's not
the stage that frightens me; it's the audience that scares the
hell out of me.
—Robert Orben
A few years after my father died, my lonely mother moved to Florida
to find Mr. Right. In Miami, the description of Mr. Right is a man who
has money in two banks and is ambulatory.
Wilted father to wife and five children at front door: I've had a
rough day, honey. Tell me everybody's name again.
EDITOR TO WRITER: That article wasn't bad.
WRITER: It wasn't meant to be.
—Fred Allen
I'm not shooting for a successful relationship at this point. I am
just looking for something that will prevent me from throwing
myself in front of a bus. I'm keeping my expectations very, very
low. Basically, I'm looking for a mammal.
—Janeane Garofalo

Understated Numbers
Understated numbers are as equally effective as exaggerated numbers.

174

Comedy Writing Secrets

When New Yorker editor Harold Ross was asked why he printed
the cartoons of James Thurber, a fourth-class illustrator, Ross
said, "I don't think he's fourth-class—maybe second-class!"

As in most humor, the pause before the surprise word effectively builds
tension. When a reporter asked comedian David Brenner what he
thought of the remodeling of a nightclub, he said, "It's beautiful, impressive. Must have poured three hundred and fifty ... dollars into this place."
TV quizmaster to dull contestant: Well, I could go on talking to you
for seconds!

OVERSTATEMENTS A N D
U N D E R S T A T E M E N T S ON STAGE
Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres each combine observational humor
with understatement and hyperbole. Here are some of DeGeneres's
under- and overexaggerations.
The sixties were when hallucinogenic drugs were really, really big.
And I don't think it's a coincidence that we had the type of shows
we had then, like The Flying Nun.
You always know when the relationship is over. Little things start
grating on your nerves: "Would you please stop that? That breathing in and out, it's so repetitious!"
I have just learned that penguins are monogamous for life, which
doesn't really surprise me all that much because they all look
exactly alike. It's not like they're going to meet a better-looking
penguin someday.
When going to a restaurant, "party of one" is rarely cause
for celebration.
When I was growing up, we had a petting zoo, and well, we had two
sections. We had a petting zoo, and then we had a heavy petting
zoo. For people who really like the animals a lot.

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

175

Here are some of Seinfeld's exaggerations.
What is a date really, but a job interview that lasts all night? The
only difference is that in not many job interviews is there a chance
you'll wind up naked.
Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains, a pretty
violent image there. I think if you've got a T-shirt with a bloodstain
all over it, maybe laundry isn't your biggest problem. Maybe you
should get rid of the body before you do the wash.
I was the best man at the wedding. If I'm the best man, why is she
marrying him?

SHOWTIME
Exaggeration and understatement both distort personal attributes, behaviors, or experiences. Write an overstated or understated conclusion for
the following setups and compare your response to the pros' versions at
the end of the chapter.
My father was so cheap. For Easter...
My town was so little ...
My childhood was so bleak ...
I dye my hair so much ...
I have so much cybersex ...
I've been on so many blind dates ...

WALK THIS WAY: BALANCING
REALISM A N D EXAGGERATION
As an exercise in balancing realism and exaggeration, start with an incident that really happened and make it bigger than life. But be careful.
Outrageous doesn't mean creative.

176

Comedy Writing Secrets

Consider this description by critic Laurence Shames of a Monty
Python "silly walk" sketch, in which John Cleese portrays a very ordinary
Englishman on his way to work at a government office.
Suited, hatted, carrying briefcase and cane, the Silly Walker
faultlessly conforms to the type of the proper civil servant.
Except that something is very wrong with the way he moves. He
suddenly swoops down from his enormous height like some
primeval, featherless bird; now he dodges, his spine contorts, his
feet perform a going-nowhere shuffle; now his knees buckle so
that, apelike, his hands are nearly dragging on the ground. So
far, so good—in terms of sheer physical funniness, the sketch is
virtuosic; it can have you rolling on the floor. But the kicker is the
Silly Walker's face. It is expressionless, implacable, and smug.
The fellow is a self-respecting Briton on his way to his perfectly
acceptable job, and never in a zillion years would it occur to him
that he's ridiculous.

The following examples contain an equal balance of realism and exaggeration to reinforce the surprise. Carefully examine them and note
the formula: A realistic statement is followed by an exaggerated takeoff reply. But when using this formula, be on guard not to overload
both elements.
Prof to class: Good morning students. And to those of you on
speed, good afternoon!
—Mel Helitzer
At my age, sex is sensational. Especially the one in the winter.
—Milton Berle

In the following example, the exaggeration occurs in the setup.
A waiter, his uniform badly torn, his hands scratched and bleeding, walks up to seated guests: I hate to inconvenience you, sir,
but would you kindly pick out a different lobster from the tank?
—Arnie Levin

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

177

Many adults are ambivalent about taking their elderly parents
into their homes for care. Their guilt, when personal comfort gets
in the way of tender loving care, contains all the elements for
realistic humor.
Wife: Your father is playing basketball again. He's dribbling all
over the house.
Son to aged father: Hey, pop, we're having company tonight. Do
you mind staying out in the garage?

One of the writing modes that maintains realism along with exaggerated
humor is the movie or play review. Critics feel compelled to use their
own rapier wit to slice up the work of others, and excerpts from reviews
are in every comedic library.
When Mr. Wilbur calls his play Halfway to Hell he underestimates
the distance.
—Brooks Atkinson
In King Lear last night, the lead played the king as though under
a momentary apprehension that someone else was about to
play the ace.
—Eugene Field
In a review of Cecil B. DeMille's movie Samson and Delilah: Saw
the movie. Loved the book.
—John Steinbeck

SHOWTIME
Write an overstated or understated description of someone you know.
Focus on the person's salient features and distort each characteristic to
the point of absurdity.
Rewrite a favorite anecdote using exaggeration. As you write, try to
enter a dreamlike state in which reality blurs with fantasy. The resulting

178

Comedy Writing Secrets

story will be far-fetched, but the idea is to tap the full potential of your
comic imagination.
Whose Line Is lt Anyway? is a TV program that showcases the improvisational skills of four comedians. A regular feature requires the performers to create new uses for miscellaneous everyday items. You can do the
same by imagining creative and inventive uses for various items around
your house. As you do this, maintain a childlike, playful mood that encourages exaggerated imagination.
Select someone you know and write a series of overstated and understated punchlines about that person using the following antonym pairs:
fat and skinny, organized and sloppy, conservative and liberal, poor and
rich, and dumb and intelligent. For example, My father is so organized
that... and My father is so sloppy that...

THE A N S W E R M A N
Here are the conclusions for the redneck jokes on page 171.
You might be a redneck if ...
... you think watching professional wrestling is foreplay.
... you go to your family reunions looking for a date.
... on Thanksgiving Day you have to decide which pet to eat.
... your child's first words were "Attention Kmart shoppers!"
... you've ever paid for a six-pack of beer with pennies.
... the most common phrase you hear at your family
reunion is "What the hell are you lookin' at, Diphead?"
... you can't marry your sweetheart because there is a
law against it.
Here are the pros' exaggeration jokes from page 176.
My father was so cheap. For Easter, we'd wear the same
clothes, but he'd take us to a different church.
—A.J. Jamal

Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement

179

My town was so little, when I was a kid we used to play
Monopoly on it.
—Jean Young
My childhood was so bleak, I wanted to stick my head in my
Easy Bake oven.
—Mary O'Halloran
I dye my hair so much, my driver's license has a color wheel.
—Nancy Mura
I have so much cybersex, my baby's first words will be
"You've got m a i l ! "
—Paulara Hawkins
I've been on so many blind dates, I should get a free seeingeye dog.
—Wendy Liebman

180

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 11
Funny Words and Foul Language
In his play The Sunshine Boys, Neil Simon wrote about funny words.
One of the main characters, Willy, says to his nephew:
Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know
what makes an audience laugh. You know what words are funny
and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say
"Alka Seltzer" you get a laugh. ... Words with "K" in them are
funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not
funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny.
Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland. ... Cleveland is funny.
Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny.
Pickle is funny.

Mel Brooks agrees. There are phonetic values in certain words that
almost guarantee a laugh. "Instead of saying salmon, turkey is a funnier
sound. It just helps."
Why is the k sound funny? Research indicates that babies associate
the sound with comfort and joy. Think of many of the words we coo to
babies, and you'll notice they have a k sound, even though most of them
begin with the letter c. Just a few are cutie, cookie, kitten, cuddle, car,
come, count, kiddie, clean, and cupcake. No other sound
has such a universal humor kick. As you say kiss, for
example, your mouth smiles, it doesn't pucker up.
There are thousands of funny words that kick over
the laugh motor. While, in humor, most key words come
at the end of a sentence, funny-sounding words work best in
the middle of a joke and are frequently used in groups—for
example, as lists of names, foods, or physical activities.
All writers have their own favorite buzzwords,
and they're jealous of them, even to the point of

Funny Words and Foul Language

181

anger when someone else uses them. Fortunately, these words are not
private property.
Every time I look at what I have to pay in taxes, it scares
me shirtless.
—Robert Orben

THE SPARK PLUGS OF HUMOR
To be categorized as funny, a word has to have at least one of the following
three characteristics: a funny sound, a double entendre, or an association
with a famous person. The same is true of funny names.
1. IT MUST HAVE A FUNNY SOUND. Jonathan Winters's characters
have names like Granny Frickert, Melvin Gohard, Lamargene Gumbody,
and Elwood P. Suggins. Other funny names are Faith Popcorn, Hortense
Powdermarker, and Daphne Kugelmass.
S.J. Perelman, the master of humorous appellations, invented
Professor Motley Throng, Ernest Void, Irma Voltaire, the Flagellation
Trust Company, and the Cutlass and Blintzes Pub. His version of
Sleeping Beauty starts off with "Once upon a time, there was a king
and queen named Morton Steinberg and his wife, Fanny. ... They made
up their minds that if they ever had a child they would name it Shirley,
even if it was a boy." In this case, the names themselves aren't funny,
but their association with fairy-tale royalty is.
Was it only a coincidence that Jacob Cohen first started with a stage
name of Jack Roy, but gained fame and respect only after changing his
name to Rodney Dangerfleld? Or that the Marx Brothers' act went into
high gear when Julius became Groucho and his brothers Leonard and
Adolph became Chico and Harpo?
Zero Mostel's real name was Sam. He said he changed it to Zero so he
could make something out of nothing.
2. IT MUST HAVE A DOUBLE ENTENDRE. It's hard to forget a name
like John Dough. And it's easy to understand a characterization when a
character has a name like Lionel Bedwetter or Sandor Needleman.

182

Comedy Writing Secrets

As children, our first exercises in homonym humor consisted of fabricating book titles to match off-color author names.
The Yellow Stream by I.P. Standing
The Open Kimono by Seymour Hare
The Hawaiian Prostitute by Wanna Layahora
My Shotgun Wedding by Himalaya Last
The Russian Rabbi by Ikan Kutchadikoff

3. IT MUST BE A NAME OF A FAMOUS—OR INFAMOUS—PERSON.
The person's activities should be well known and should encourage
our ridicule, hostility, or derision (even if we're really not justified in
feeling these emotions). As soon as these names hit the headlines
(Monica, Saddam, Osama), they also hit the top of the humor charts.
Old jokes—new names!
At least one of these same three qualifications must apply to all funny
words. Here are just a few examples, listed by the most popular categories.

Names
Every ethnic group has names that encourage a smile. One of the best
recent examples is Tony Soprano. Here are few examples for various
ethnic groups.
AMERICAN

ENGLISH

ITALIAN

Dick
Chuck
Spike
Trixy

Percy
Humphrey
Reginald
Victor

Guido
Tony
Giuseppe

JEWISH

FRENCH

CHICANO

Mendel
Sadie
Irving
Sam
Morris
Lena

Pierre
Francois
Henri
Pepe
Suzette

Margarita
Jose
Pablo
Manuel

Funny Words and Foul Language

183

Most male comedians purposely take short names, more often than not a
nickname: Woody, Soupy, Adam, Chris, Dave, Jay, Tim, Billy, Eddie, and
Sinbad. Female humorists names are just as short: Goldie, Lily, Lucy,
Whoopi, Rita, and Tina.
Donald Trump said he named his daughter Tiffany after his
favorite store: Tiffany's. How ridiculous is that? In fact, I was just
talking about that with my two sons, Crate and Barrel.
—Shawn Dion

Cities and Places
There seems to be no limit to the names of cities, small towns, streets,
restaurants, bars, hotels, colleges, and department stores that can be used
as humor fuses. The more localized they are, the better.
Years ago, funny names for hick towns (Oshkosh, Paducah) frequently appeared in jokes. Today, because a large portion of comedy is played
to New York audiences, no locale seems to be a target of humor more
often than New Jersey. (Isn't it a shame that the light at the end of the
tunnel is New Jersey?) Within New York, no borough gets kidded more
often than Brooklyn. Sheboygan is a funny name, and no city is the butt
of more jokes than Cleveland (either because of the k sound, or because
Cleveland is proof that God had a quality control problem).
Foods
Many generic and brand-name food products just sound funny. There's
probably no more guaranteed laugh in comedy than the word Twinkie. Use
it at the end of a list of foods you ate last night, and involuntary smiles
come to the lips of your audience. Archie Bunker used this word ad nauseam, but not so much to refer to the snack food. Here are some other funny
generic and brand-name foods.

184

GENERIC

BRAND NAMES

frankfurter
salami
tutti-frutti
fruitcake

Jell-O
Fig Newtons
Whopper
Ex-Lax

Comedy Writing Secrets

hot dog
coconut
kumquats
meatball

Kotex
McNuggets
Chock Full o' Nuts
Spam

Ethnic Expressions
While ethnic jokes are a major category in contemporary humor, the utilization of ethnic expressions in a joke requires precise knowledge of
their meaning and cadence. For example, many comedians use the
Yiddish word schmuck to describe a loser, not realizing that the word's
literal meaning is "penis."
When Jewish comedians dominated mainstream American comedy,
Yiddish expressions achieved a certain humor value because Yiddish
words sound funnier than their English counterparts. For example, bar
mitzvah sounded funnier than confirmation, and rabbi—because of
stereotyping—conjured up more humorous possibilities than the title of
minister. The following are common Yiddish words: putz, klutz,
schlemiel, shtick, chutzpah, goyim, schlep, kvetch, and meshuggener.
Closely allied in humor with Yiddish expressions are German names
and foods (a good deal of Yiddish originated from German). When the
monster makes love to Madeline Kahn in Mel Brooks's film Young
Frankenstein, he thrills her with his enormous shvantzenstucker. Sid
Caesar's stupid German professors had names like Kurt von Staffer,
Siegfried von Sedative, and Rudolf von Rudder. And Meet the Fockers
was a multimillion-dollar movie.
Animals
The names of certain pets and animals also convey funny images. Puppies,
cats, mice, and rabbits all have double entendre associations. And even
insects—like bees and cockroaches—are funny humor sources.
A German professor was addressing a Westchester ladies club on
the life of the porcupine. "And would you believe it, ladies," he
said, "that the porcupine has a prick that is ten inches long?"
There were gasps all over the room, and the MC hastily whispered
in the professor's ear. "Oh, my dear ladies," the professor said, "I

Funny Words and Foul Language

185

have made a terrible mistake in English. What I should have said
is that the quill of the porcupine is ten inches long. Obviously, the
prick is only one inch long."

Numbers
Even some numbers are funnier than others, and we're not just talking
about sixty-nine. In humor, the economy of words is almost fanatical.
There is one exception, and that is when numbers are used. If they're
essential in the joke, when we want to give them extra power, they must
sound or look important. The number 1,500 should be pronounced (or
written) as one thousand, five hundred. The time of 8:15 should be pronounced (or written) as a quarter after eight. The height of 6'2" should
be pronounced (or written) as six foot, two inches tall. Every syllable
must be an atom of meaning as well as information.

SHOWTIME
From now on, every time you hear a name, place, product, or ethnic
expression that tickles your funny bone, write it down. Create a funny-word
catalog that can be referenced when you need to embellish the setup.

FOUL LANGUAGE: THE M U C K STOPS HERE
The punchline of this story is a classic combination of surprise and
shock. The vulgarity—so unexpected—is like watching a friend take a
banana-peel fall. We laugh, and then look around to see who else is
laughing. If no one is, we realize that perhaps we shouldn't have either.
A walking path bordered the golf course. One afternoon a tee shot
nearly smashed into a little old lady.
She screamed, "Why didn't you yell fore?"
"I didn't have time," said the golfer.

186

Comedy Writing Secrets

"Oh, no?" said the little old lady, "Then how come you had
time to yell 'Oh, shit!'"

But vulgarity sometimes works. In fact, the writer could not have used
any other word to end this story. It just wouldn't be as funny if the
woman had said, "You had time to yell 'Oh, darn!'" There would still be
an element of surprise, but not the double surprise triggered by the
expletive. "Humor is like guerrilla warfare," wrote author Dwight
MacDonald. "Success (and survival) depends on traveling light, striking
unexpectedly, and getting away fast." The original sin may have been
nothing more than a bad pun Eve made about Adam's apple.
Both Lenny Bruce and George Carlin used the most shocking language
possible to enliven their material—and call attention to themselves.
(Lenny Bruce once called George Carlin his comedic heir.) Obscenity is
partly in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, and Carlin believes that "if a
word shocks you, it's your problem." The fact is, there are no strong words
left anymore. Carlin's list of "unmentionables on TV" is down to seven, and
some of them are acceptable when used in a certain way.
On TV today, you can say I pricked my finger, but you can't say it
the other way around.
—George Carlin

There also are times when obscenity enhances a joke. Consider the following joke. If any other phrase replaces the final words, the joke loses
its punch.
I had an interesting morning; I got into an argument with my Rice
Krispies. I distinctly heard "Snap, crackle, fuck y o u ! "
—George Carlin

Body functions and malfunctions are another favorite source of humor
because they are generally taboo table conversation and therefore lend
themselves to shock appeal. There's a lot of genuine fun in bedpan
humor—however, there is a proper time and place to use hard-core language, as we'll discuss shortly.

Funny Words and Foul Language

187

I'm in a restaurant and I'm eating and someone says, "Mind if I
smoke?" and I say, "Uh, no. Mind if I fart?"
—Steve Martin

Rock the Boat
According to Professor William Chisholm of Cleveland State University,
obscene language is now so prevalent and commonplace in our society
that nobody is really shocked or disgusted by it anymore. Since humor
is disguised hostility, violent language can be a device to communicate
true feelings.
People tell me that they're disgusted with my kind of language.
So, I ask if I can take 'em out to the parking lot and slam a car door
on their hand. Then, they'll say both "shit" and "motherfucker."
—Redd Foxx

To get mass attention in public concerts, Chris Rock deliberately uses
material guaranteed to offend everybody by challenging the established
order, yet Rock's language and persona reflect everyday inner-city street
conversation.
Black people dominate sports in the United States. We're 20 percent of the population, but 90 percent of the final four. We own
basketball, baseball, football, golf, tennis, and as soon as they
make a heated hockey rink, we'll take that shit, too.
—Chris Rock

Nothing is more pestiferous in contemporary comedy than the growing
use of unexpurgated language and the emphasis on bed-to-bidet humor.
Many may not like it, but the widespread use of obscene words is closely
braided into the fabric of contemporary comic material.
I think pot should be legal, I do. I also think if your cousin is really
hot, you should be able to fuck one time.
—Dave Attell

There's straightforward logic for using appropriate obscenities. Humor
doesn't lead society—it follows. Humor pokes fun at human antics, and

188

Comedy Writing Secrets

that includes our language. In everyday life, we use shock words to get
attention, so while obscenity isn't synonymous with humor, it's certainly
an important ingredient.
A lot of humor serves as communion among members of a specific
social, political, or ethnic group. It reinforces group solidarity. If the
audience is prejudiced, so is the performer's humor.
SHOCK T H E R A P Y
Irreverence is a salable commodity. Comedy questions everything
that's said and done. Nothing is off-limits, nothing is so sacrosanct as
to be beyond criticism—the pope, God, the president, the flag, handicapped children, debilitating social diseases, and not just mother-inlaw, but mother.
We spend so much money on the military, yet we're slashing education budgets throughout the country. No wonder we've got
smart bombs and stupid fucking children.
—Jon Stewart

On the other hand, many question whether shock language is humorous
or just adolescent exhibitionism. Successful writers are more often
lauded for the hard work that goes into creative art than for outrageous
acts. Too often, it is claimed that blue humor doesn't make us laugh, it
makes us blush.
I have one pick-up line which never works. If I'm at a club and I see
a guy I like, I smile. And if he smiles back and I feel really comfortable, I'll walk over and say, "Stick it i n ! "
—Margaret Cho

And why, critics ask, must humor concentrate on the negative aspects of
life: drug- and alcohol-related problems, sexual inadequacy, perversion, and
communicable diseases? The answer is simple—shock humor gets laughs.
Permissive language has grown rapidly. More than sixty years ago,
Clark Gable shocked the nation with his closing line in Gone With the
Wind: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!" Today, depending on a film's

Funny Words and Foul Language

189

rating, there are no longer any unmentionables. Meryl Streep wins awards
for movies in which she says words that once got Lenny Bruce arrested.
"Mor-Ass" in the Future
While there's a difference between being rude and being funny, obscenities
are sometimes the perfect words. And when they are, they should be used.
A word is not just a sound or a random combination of printed letters.
Each word in humor is a carefully designed missile calculated to penetrate
the mind and create a very specific impact. The perfect word is not easily
interchangeable, even if you have access to an unabridged thesaurus.
Consider this story.
A few days before Christmas, a postman is greeted at the door of
a suburban house by a beautiful, curvaceous wife in a see-through
negligee. "I've got your Christmas present upstairs," she says,
grabs the man's hand and leads him to the bedroom. In seconds
she is making passionate love to him.
Finished, she takes him back to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.
"I gotta tell you, Mrs. Martin," says the postman, "I've fantasized about this moment since you moved into the neighborhood
a few months ago. That was quite a present."
"Oh, and that's not all," says the woman. "Here's five dollars."
"What the hell is this for?" asks the mailman.
"Well, if you must know," said the wife, "I asked my husband
last night what we should give you for Christmas, and he said,
Screw him. Give him five dollars."

The following two examples are the same joke told with and without
profanity. Which do you think is more powerful?
WITHOUT PROFANITY
Two chickens are talking. One says, "My farmer gets sixty cents a
dozen for my eggs. Laying eggs is easy." The other hen says, "Not
for me, it isn't. I grunt and groan, so my eggs are bigger and my
farmer gets sixty-five cents a dozen." The first hen replied, "For
five cents a dozen, it doesn't pay to strain yourself."

190

Comedy Writing Secrets

WITH PROFANITY
Two chickens are talking. One says, "My farmer gets sixty cents a
dozen for my eggs. Laying eggs is easy." The other hen says, "Not
for me, it isn't. I grunt and groan, so my eggs are bigger and my
farmer gets sixty-five cents a dozen." The first hen says to her
companion, "What! I should bust my ass for a nickel?"

Audiences appreciate clever word play with off-color words even without regard for a statement's logic.
Toastmaster: Please be patient with Sam. He's having trouble with
his pacemaker. Every time he farts, his garage door goes up.

Why do we laugh? The joke doesn't even make sense. And that's the
point. It wasn't the joke, it was the language.
Writers search for the perfect word just as composers search for the
perfect note; both are searching for the perfect sound. And when it's
found, it shouldn't be cast aside because of fear or priggish morality.
Humor must use the colloquial language of its subject and the audience—and be appropriate to the persona of the performer.
A visitor to Harvard asks a professor, "Excuse me, but would you
be good enough to tell me where the Harvard Library is at?"
"Sir," came the sneering reply, "at Harvard we do not end a
sentence with a preposition."
"Well, in that case, forgive me," said the visitor. "Permit me to
rephrase my question. Would you be good enough to tell me
where the Harvard Library is at, jackass?"
—Charles Osgood

Humor writers who fail to shrink from carefully selected risque language
and situations may incur severe criticism from Bible-thumpers and
English purists. Fortunately, humor is as constitutionally guaranteed as
any free speech—in fact, courts have held that satire is the freest of free
speech—and shouldn't be censored, especially by its own writers.
The following story is a test case in the acceptable use of obscene language. Without profanity, there's no point to the joke.

Funny Words and Foul Language

191

A young man walked into a bank and said to the teller, "I want to
open a fuckin' checkin' account."
The young lady gasped. "I beg your pardon, but we don't tolerate that language in this bank."
"Get your fuckin' supervisor!" the man said.
In a few moments the supervisor came up. "What's the problem?"
"I just won ten million in the lottery, and I want to open a fuckin'
checkin' account!"
The manager said, "I see. And this bitch is giving you
a hard time."
—Playboy

People who rail the loudest against tastelessness are often the most hypocritical. What magazine in the country could be more conservative and
apple-pie than Reader's Digest? Yet, 50 percent of the humor in Reader's
Digest is jokes on brassieres, girdles, toilets, breasts, and sex (although
there is no profanity in these jokes). In fact, the following anecdote by
gossip columnist Hy Gardner was reprinted in the Digest:
Advertising director Mel Helitzer flew to the coast to discuss a TV
show starring Jose Ferrer. The actor apologized for the absence of
his wife, Rosemary Clooney, explaining that she was upstairs caring for their five children. "What ages?" asked Helitzer. "Five, four,
three, two, and one," smiled Ferrer. "Say," commented the advertising executive, "I hope I'm not keeping you from anything!"

SHOCK HUMOR ON STAGE
Today's comedians take a no-holds-barred attitude toward obscene language and taboo subjects.
Religion to me is like a sanitary napkin—if it fits, wear it.
—Whoopi Goldberg
A man's not a man until he can find his way to Sears blindfolded,
and the Craftsman tool department makes his nipples rock hard.
—Tim Allen

192

Comedy Writing Secrets

At my age, I'm lucky to get an erection. I'd be happy if a flag came
out with a sign that said, "Hey, thanks for the opportunity."
—Richard Lewis
The Web brings people together because no matter what kind
of a twisted sexual mutant you happen to be, you've got millions of pals out there. Type in "Find people that have sex with
goats that are on fire" and the computer will say, "Specify
type of goat."
—Richard Jeni
I spent five years in the air force, and if it weren't for sexual
harassment, no one would have talked to me at all. An officer
accused me of being a lesbian. I would have denied it, but I was
lying naked on top of her at the time.
—Lynda Montgomery
How much roadkill do you think is actually suicide? Come on,
some of those bastards are stepping out on purpose.
—Kathleen Kanz
I know more about Bill Clinton's penis now than I do my own,
which says something about the media or just something really
sad about me.
—Jon Stewart
Read the condom boxes, they're pretty funny. Trojans says, "new
shape." I didn't know this was necessary. Another box said,
"reservoir." I said, "You mean these things can actually generate
hydroelectric power?"
—Elayne Boosler
I thought about being a nun for a while and believed I'd
make a god-darned good nun. Then I had sex and thought,
"Well, fuck that."
—Diane Ford

Funny Words and Foul Language

193

TO SHOCK OR NOT TO SHOCK
It's easy to be prudish and claim that hard-core expressions are just intended to shock, and whether the expressions are funny or not, hard-core language—in fact almost anything taboo—shocks young people into laughter.
That's why second-rate comics use it as fallback shtick when their firststring jokes fail. Your decision to use profane or obscene language—and at
what level to use it—should be guided by the MAP theory—your act
should match your character as a performer and the character of the audience. Hard-core language and situations, even when overused by shock
comics like Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison, are likely to be successful,
which makes them hard to disparage.
The question then is not whether shock words should be used, but
when and to what extent. Experienced performers test the limits of their
racier subjects by purposely inserting trial material in their act up front.
If the reaction is negative, they respect the signals immediately, because
humor can never be forced.
You ever wake up with an erection, roll over, and think you broke
your dick?
—Dave Attell

Opinions about what constitutes good taste in humor are as varied as sex
acts between consenting adults. However, humor has so many forms, it's
easy to avoid words that might offend the audience. X-rated material
only works in venues such as comedy clubs, movies, and cable shows.
There are just as many "clean" synonyms for hard-core words as there
are for a man's penis. A humorist's language should be appropriate to the
specific audience. There is a comedic axiom: Insult only ugly people and
ignoramuses. Who's going to come up and complain, "Hey, man, I'm an
ignoramus"?
There are three instances when professional writers should work very
hard to avoid hard-core words.
1. When it is the definition rather than the shock of the word that sparks
the humor, the soft-core word can be just as funny.

194

Comedy Writing Secrets

Young man to drug store clerk: "Do you handle condoms?"
"Yes, I do."
"Well, wash your hands, I want a ham sandwich."

2. The soft-core word is acceptable to a wider range of audiences.
Therefore, it's more commercial—if earning money is an important
consideration.
My husband's idea of oral sex is talking about himself.

3. Soft-core may suggest the act and encourage the audience to fill in the
blanks. Then, who can complain about the language?
When doctors tell us that our teens were our peak sexual period, we feel bad that we let so many good years slip between
our fingers.

Another issue to consider is political correctness, particularly in broadcast. The FCC constantly patrols the marketplace of humor, and unfortunately, many humorists have been fined or busted for politically
incorrect speech.
Shock humor has its place, but it's often the easy way out or is simply
unnecessary. More importantly, shock humor has limited marketability. If
you plan to sell your writing, you should recognize that most markets
require PG—or at most PG-13—material. You might have a gift for using
obscenities, but that skill will not translate into profitability. If you don't
believe us, then we don't give a doo-doo.
UNDERSTATEMENT:
EAT, D R I N K , A N D BE MARY
Understatement is an admirable alternative to obscene language and
one of the higher techniques of humor writing, because it's so difficult
to carry off effectively. Both understated realism and understated
shock material cater to the audience's imagination and intelligence,
encouraging them to complete the script using their own words. Then,
who can complain?

Funny Words and Foul Language

195

Saw this commercial on TV for Ex-Lax, it says, "Works while you
sleep." That scares me.
—Steve Mendoza
'Doc, my girlfriend has a problem. She thinks she's a rabbit."
"Okay, bring her in. I'll examine her."
"Thanks, doc, but whatever you do, don't cure her!"

Understating is a sign of confidence as well as maturity. Just as in real
life, the rich and the very successful understate. The insecure or nouveau
riche overstate.
Soon after I arrived in Athens, our gardener invited me
to go fishing. At the end of the day, I said, "I don't understand
it. I've got better gear than you. I use better bait. I'm in the same
boat. And I haven't caught a thing and you've caught
the whole lake."
The man said, "I fish by hunches. When I get up in the morning
to go fishing, if my wife is sleeping on her right side, then I fish off
the right side of the boat. If she's sleeping on her left side, then I
fish off the left side of the boat."
"And if she's on her back?" I asked.
"Then, I don't go fishing."

James Thurber's most famous cartoon shows two dueling men. One of
them slashes his foil across the neck of his opponent, decapitating him,
and shouts, "Touché!" That's shocking, but it has lived for sixty years as a
classic example of understatement.
I knew psychology as a child. I had a lemonade stand and I gave
the first glass of lemonade away free. On the second glass I
charged five dollars—it had the antidote.
—Emo Philips

One of George S. Kaufman's most famous quotes came from a letter to
his daughter.
Try everything in life except incest and square dancing.

196

Comedy Writing Secrets

That's shocking enough, but a biographer added a reverse that really
throws your imagination into high gear.
... so you can see that Kaufman's humor comes from the fact that
he is ridiculing something increasingly popular, lots of fun, and
American as farm apple pie. Now, as for square dancing ...

Outrageous Humor: Disguise the Limit
Reforming words is an easy way to be shocking. It takes no great talent.
The talent comes from suggesting hard-core humor but never actually
stating it.
A sexually frustrated young girl sat on Pinocchio's nose and said,
"Now lie to me. Now tell me the truth. Now lie to me. Now tell me
the truth."
—Paul Krassner

When Ron Nessen, a former presidential assistant, guest hosted Saturday
Night Live, writer Alan Zeibel created a skit that reformed presidential
elections to presidential erections. That could have been a cheap laugh—
and probably wouldn't have been acceptable to NBC censors—but Zeibel
finessed that by referring to buildings and monuments. The audience got
the point immediately, and the laughter was even louder because the
implicitness of the joke made them feel more comfortable.

Funny Words and Foul Language

197

Writing Humor for
Specific Markets

CHAPTER 12
Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three:
Writing Humor for Speeches
Once you get people laughing, they're listening and you can sell
them almost anything.
—Herbert Gardner

The first humor performance for most young people is when they're
called upon to deliver a speech. Newscaster David Brinkley once commented that we are reaching the point where there are more people willing to give luncheon speeches than are willing to listen to them.
A recent survey stated that the average person's greatest fear is
having to give a speech in public. Somehow, this ranked even
higher than death, which was third on the list. So, you're telling
me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the
coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy.
—Jerry Seinfeld

But the fact is that speechmaking continues to be more popular than ever.
In this electronic society, in which so much information comes to us via
the Internet, television, PDAs, radio, e-mail, and mobile phones, there still
seems to be a need to get out from behind our desks and communicate in
person with groups of other people.
We make the time for it. The number of luncheon
clubs, service clubs, and social, political, and religious organizations—all looking for entertaining
speakers—continues to grow. Event planners still
think of speeches first when they're assigned to schedule programs for organizations.
I feel very much more at ease speaking here
than I did at the last luncheon. They had a sign

Writing Humor for Speeches

199

there that read: "Do not photograph speakers while they are
speaking. Shoot them as they approach the platform."

According to the old saying, all of us are ignorant—just about different subjects. The corollary is that each of us can be an expert at something—or at
least know more than the other people in the room—so we're qualified to
talk about it. But that's only half the story. Speakers are selected just as
much for their ability to know how to say things. This hasn't changed in a
hundred and fifty years. In the late nineteenth century, British politician
John Morley wrote: "Three things matter in a speech. Who says it, how he
says it, and what he says. And of the three, the last matters the least."
Speeches provide a good opportunity to test comedy material, and
humor writers will often accept small speaking engagements just to test
public reaction. If George Carlin had not plunged into stand-up comedy, he
could have made his fame as a great speechwriter. After his wife died, he
wrote a 1,500-word homily on the need for people to cherish their moments
together. In this essay, he used several formulas and techniques—such as
pairing, triples, and association—that are effective in both serious and
humorous speeches. Here is a small part.
We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. These are the
days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, onenight stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything. It is
a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing
in the stockroom. Remember, spend some time with your loved
ones, because they are not going to be around forever. Give time
to love, give time to speak, and give time to share the precious
moment. Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take,
but by the moments that take our breath away.

Whether you are writing a speech for yourself or for a client, there are
five areas in the speech in which humor can be important.
1. the title
2. the introduction of the speaker
3. the introductory remarks

200

Comedy Writing Secrets

4. the body of the speech
5. the closing remarks
THE TITLE: GETTING 'EM INTO THE HALL
The title of a speech is far more important than most writers believe. The
title not only indicates the subject, but also attracts attention when listed
in advance publicity; sometimes it can prompt press coverage. Then, when
it is announced by the MC during the event, the title sets the mood for the
audience. The audience is ever hopeful that the next speech they hear will
be far better than the last one. That's why experienced MCs often thank
the previous speaker and then add, "And now, we've got a special treat for
you. Our next speaker ..." (After all, you wouldn't want the MC to say,
"Well, folks, you've heard the best, now on to the rest.")
The last time I made a speech, the program chairman asked
me to talk about the serious problems resulting from sex between
faculty and students. But my wife doesn't like the subject, so I told
her I was going to talk about the problems with too much air travel. Well, the sex speech got a good reception. And the next day,
the wife of a member of the audience met my wife in the supermarket and she said, "I heard Bill made a very good speech last
night. He must be an expert on the subject." And my wife said,
"Oh, no. He's only tried it twice. The first time, he lost his bag, and
the second time he got sick to his stomach."

Even if the speech is on a serious topic—politics, the economy, business,
or education—a humorous twist in the title will increase interest and
attendance. For example, there's nothing more important than sales
training speeches, but astute sales managers have learned to avoid making them deadly with titles like these.
Yogi Berra Was Right—It Ain't Over 'til It's Over
As Alexander Bell Said: "What D'ya Mean My Three Minutes Are Up?"
Caterpillars and Other Special People
What They Never Dared Tell You About...

Writing Humor for Speeches

201

SHOWTIME
List topics that you are qualified to speak about, and for each topic, write
three to five titles with a humorous twist. Remember, the title must identify
the content of the speech while being funny.

THE S P E A K E R ' S INTRODUCTION:
HOLD ON TO YOUR SEATS
If done correctly, a humorous introduction can humanize the speaker
and put the audience at ease. Don't let some inept MC start the speech
off on the wrong footnotes. (Who remembers any facts from a detailed
bio lifted from Who's Who?)
To give an introduction true character and spark, write it yourself.
Several days in advance, ask the MC if there's one already written.
Even if there is, suggest that yours contains some humor that may help
make the introduction more fun. MCs always respond positively to
that suggestion, since they'd like to use a few funny lines, too. Don't be
timid. You and the MC will be the only ones who'll know who wrote
your introduction.
Nothing helps you to be a better listener than knowing you're
going to be the next one called to the podium.

SHOWTIME
Write a one-paragraph introduction that summarizes your professional
experience. The introduction should connect to the speech title, prepare
the audience for the content of the speech, and explain why you are
qualified to give the speech. Humor should be included in the introduction,

202

Comedy Writing Secrets

but not at the expense of minimizing your qualifications. Take a look at
how Mark Twain chose to introduce himself before a public speech.
Ladies and gentlemen: The next lecture in this course will be
delivered this evening by Samuel L. Clemens, a gentlemen
whose high character and unimpeachable integrity are only
equaled by his comeliness of person and grace of manner.
And I am the man!
I was obliged to excuse the chairman from introducing me,
because he never compliments anybody and I knew I could do
it just as well.

INTRODUCTORY R E M A R K S
After the flattering introduction, you can take the stage and charm the
audience with acknowledgments like this pairing.
I'm sorry my father and mother aren't here. My father would have
loved it, and my mother would have believed it.

A little self-deprecating humor always helps.
I was flattered by our toastmaster's introduction. The hardest
thing for a speaker to remember is to not nod his head in agreement when the toastmaster praises him.

Although you want to display a little humility, it's important not to go
overboard. The audience gets suspicious of those too pious. Former
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said to a colleague after an introduction: "Don't be so humble. You're not that great."
Even for an accomplished professional, a certain amount of anxiety is
natural (and even desirable). Anxiety pumps adrenalin into the system
and primes performers—including speakers—to do their best. A few
humorous lines can overcome skepticism from the audience and make
the audience members receptive to the speech.

Writing Humor for Speeches

203

I must admit I am more comfortable behind a desk than I am
behind a podium lectern. Let me give you an example. As I was
coming into the building today, I decided to go to the washroom
and freshen up. I heard a voice behind me ask, "Mr. Wells? Do you
always get nervous before a speech?" "Why, no," I said, "not really.
Why do you ask?" And the voice said, "I was just wondering what
you were doing in the ladies' room!"

Here's a line so overused as a dinner speech opening that it's become a
cliché—and was even the basis for the title of the Broadway musical A
Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It would be easy to
recommend that it never be used again, yet—as with so many other
rules—there are exceptions.
I had a terrible day. This morning my collar button fell off. On my
way here, the handle of my briefcase fell off. You know, I'm afraid
to go to the men's room!
—Larry Wilde

A speaker should never use more than three pieces of humorous material
during the introductory remarks. (Remember the rules of three from chapter nine: Never use more than three jokes about one subject in a monologue; three minutes is the ideal length for a skit; don't exceed three
themes in an article. These rules of three often apply to other activities and
situations.) And a speaker should never try to act like a pro comic or brag
like David Letterman, who gets away with it because that is his character.
The following opener puts a small smile on the lips and a large pain in
the stomach.
One thing I can guarantee you. You may not be a great deal wiser
from my talk today, but you will be a great deal older.

SPEECH CONTENT: EVERYBODY'S
ENTITLED TO MY OPINION
Usually, the easier something reads, the harder it was to write. Public
speaking is like writing. But it does come more easily if you have some-

204

Comedy Writing Secrets

thing to say, so it's important that you never forget why you're making a
speech in the first place.
Public speaking is the art of diluting a two-minute idea with a twohour vocabulary.
—Evan Esar

Don't sacrifice the message for the sake of the humor. Speechwriters
who spend all their time writing funny words would be better off
if they put in a few important ideas. Wit is the salt of conversation,
not the meat.
The recipe for being a successful after-dinner speaker includes
using plenty of shortening.
A good speaker is one who rises to the occasion and then
promptly sits down.

A speech, including introductory material, should never take more than
twenty minutes. The normal speaking rate is two and a half words per
second, and that means a speech should be a maximum of 3,000 words
long. That was Ronald Reagan's favorite time frame, and his motto was
that an immortal speech should not be eternal.
If you can't write your message in a sentence, you can't say
it in an hour.
—Dianna Booher

Sentences in speeches must be shorter than sentences meant for reading, because the audience members have no chance to reread something they haven't comprehended. The best length for a sentence in a
speech is approximately fourteen words. This is a good guideline to
remember, but you should of course vary your sentence length to
avoid monotony.
Making a Speech F u n n y
For a humorous speech to be successful in delivering its message in a
memorable way, all three of the following ingredients are necessary.

Writing Humor for Speeches 2 0 5

1. It must be funny.
2. It must be comfortable for the speaker.
3. It must be comfortable for the audience.
As required by the MAP theory, all three of these items are of equal importance, and each depends upon the others in order for the speech to work.
After all, if the speaker's uncomfortable, then the audience is going to be
uncomfortable, and the material is going to come off as stiff and awkward.
During an election campaign in the backwoods of Kentucky, a
Huey Long-type state senator was running against the president
of a small college. He would begin his speeches with "Now, you
all know me. But what do you know about my opponent? Did you
know his college is a den of iniquity? Why, in his college, male
and female students use the same curriculum. Not only that, but
they sometimes secretly show each other their theses. And if that
isn't bad enough, folks, he even lets these young people matriculate together."

Make It Funny
The humor must be funny, and not just funny on paper but performable.
Some humor takes a long buildup (that's out), some requires a dialect
(that's out), and some reformed clichés (puns) contain homonyms that
work only on paper (those are out, too). The following puns would be
next to impossible to pull off aloud.
Once a knight, always a knight. But once a night is usually enough.
In my day, the little red schoolhouse was all too common. Today,
however, it's the little-read schoolboy who's all too common.

Jokes and anecdotes should not be read, but told looking out at the audience. If there's anything a speaker needs to memorize, it's the humor. It
must be delivered confidently, and memorizing it encourages a more
accurate rendition.
Personalize and localize the humor whenever possible, even though
many in the audience will know it's fabricated. Humor, as we've already

206

Comedy Writing Secrets

noted, permits the audience to set aside disbelief. No one will stand up
and challenge you. Use words like "I" and "last week," and mention local
names and places.
President Ronald Reagan usually began each speech—particularly the
less formal ones—with self-deprecating humor. For example, when hundreds of school principals and teachers gathered on the South Lawn of
the White House for a recognition ceremony, the president's gag writer
gave him a typical Reagan charmer.
Y'know, I've been out of school for some time now, but I still get
nervous around so many principals.

This opener is also a perfect example of using the right joke for the right
audience. This rule should not be a law—it should be a commandment.
It's the apex of the MAP triangle. Reagan would never use the following
line in a speech to members of Congress, but it always hit the nail on the
head when he used it in speeches to voters.
Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I've come
to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.

By letting the voice rise on the last word or two of a joke, the speaker can
punch up the punchline. It's the last few words that gives the joke life.
I thought I was a good drinker, but I'm nothing compared to Mike.
He doesn't drink when he's driving, not only because it's dangerous, but because he might spill some.
Just before lunch, he went up to the bartender and said,
"A martini, very dry. In fact, make it about twenty to one."
The bartender asked, "Shall I put in a twist of lemon?"
And Mike said, "Listen, when I want lemonade, I'll order
lemonade."

Never apologize. Saying "Here's something I just dashed off or "This
may not be very funny, but..." sets an expectation that the humor is
weak. Also, don't explain. "See, the guy was an atheist, and ..." If you
have to explain a joke, don't use it. And avoid words that are hard to say

Writing Humor for Speeches

207

or that don't sound good when spoken. The words dejected, appraisingly, and sarcastically read better than they sound, and should be deleted
from your speech.
Don't hesitate to give credit to other professional humorists when
using their material. Not only is it courteous, it shows you're well-read
and aren't afraid to surround yourself with brilliance. And don't be afraid
to use a story you've used before. You can never satisfy 100 percent of an
audience with any material, so if you've got surefire material that a few
audience members may have heard before, don't hesitate to reuse it.
Humorist Robert Orben states that the only old joke he knows is the one
told by the previous speaker.
One day I went to a trial of a guy accused of trying to rob a
warehouse, but the police grabbed him when his getaway car
stalled. I was seated next to a little old lady in the back of the
room who was weeping and repeating, "They never listen.
They never listen."
Being a parent, I tried to comfort her. She turned and
said, "If he had only listened to his mother. How I begged him.
How I pleaded with him. 'Get the points checked, get the
car overhauled.'"

QUESTION & ANSWER
HOW DO YOU LOCALIZE HUMOR?
Localizing—tailoring material for specific audiences—
is an important and common practice for professionals
who play on the road or make frequent personal appearances at banquets. The audience wants to know that you
care enough to use material personalized for them. Bob
Hope was famous for inside material. He would send a
writer to a site a few days before his appearance to write dozens of
opening lines about local people, places, and controversial activities.

208

Comedy Writing Secrets

You can customize material with the name of a local hotel this way.
A guest at [name of a posh local hotel] called room service. "I
want three overdone fried eggs, hard as a rock, some burnt
toast that crumbles at first touch, and a cup of black coffee that
tastes like mud."
"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't serve a breakfast like that."
"No? Well, you did yesterday!"
You can use a similar technique for a local airport.
Passenger to [name of airline] ticket agent: "Ship this bag to
New York. This second one to Kansas City, and this third one
on your overseas flight to Calcutta."
"We can't do that."
"Well, you did when I was here last time!"
It's a good idea to keep a file of open-ended jokes that can be completed
by inserting the names of local targets.

Make the Humor Fit the Speaker
The humor must be comfortable for the speaker (who may be yourself or,
if you're a speechwriter, someone else). Here are just a few do's and
don'ts for making sure the material fits the speaker.
You must believe in the importance of the material, because the audience will be able to tell if you don't. If you don't care about what you're
saying, why should the audience? Go slowly, but not too slowly, and take
pauses so that the speech will sound less rehearsed.
Use self-deprecating humor. The audience appreciates it when—
despite a speaker's title, age, or reputation—the speaker is human. When
people comment that someone has a good sense of humor, they mean
they can relate to that person.
Tell funny anecdotes in addition to one-liners. This is important, because
unlike one-liners, anecdotes add a personalized feel to the material.
Never use multimedia software, such as PowerPoint, for humor. If
you are making a multimedia presentation, make sure the humor is not

Writing Humor for Speeches

209

on screen but spoken over the slide so it appears that the humor was
spontaneous and not programmed.

SHOWTIME
By now you're probably tired of hearing about the importance of matching the material with the right audience. You probably think you've got it
down. Fair enough, then answer this quiz. What audience would be the
most receptive to this joke?
A lawyer dies and goes to Heaven. "There must be some
mistake," the lawyer argues. "I'm too young to die. I'm only
fifty-five."
"No," says St. Peter, "by our calculations, you're
eighty-two."
"Impossible," retorts the lawyer. "How did you calculate that?"
"It's all here in black and white," answers St. Peter. "We
added up your time sheets."
There are four audience choices: (a) consumers, (b) lawyers, (c) corporate executives, or (d) religious leaders. Pick one.
Lawyers would be irritated for being ridiculed, consumers don't know
a great deal about time sheets, and religious leaders have heard this joke
a score of times before. The correct answer is corporate executives, who
are always suspicious about professional time sheets and overcharges,
making them the right audience for this hostile material.

Make the Audience Comfortable
The speech and the humor in the speech must be comfortable for the
audience. According to columnist Ed Hercer, audiences want each
speaker to succeed. They spent time and money to hear you and they

210

Comedy Writing Secrets

want their just desserts. If the speaker is enthusiastic, they'll be supportive. But here are a few warnings.
E.B. White once wrote, "Nothing becomes funny by being labeled so."
Therefore, don't predict humor or give it a preliminary fanfare: "Hey,
here's something funny!" The audience will be thinking, "Just tell us the
joke. We'll decide."
When you do humor, hecklers seem to feel encouraged to join in. For
instance, hecklers might respond to a line like "to make a long story short"
with the reply "Toooo late!" And don't ever say, "I just threw that in,"
because some heckler will shout, "Well, you should have thrown it out."
Technical difficulties are a constant hazard, so you should be prepared for what can go wrong. And hecklers can take advantage of these
types of situations, too. If the mike goes dead and the speaker yells,
"Can you hear me in the back?" and someone says "No!" then the heckler
will stand up and shout, "Well, I can hear him, and I'll change places
with you."
If there is a question-and-answer period, don't reply to the loaded
questions of hecklers. First of all, you'll be giving them the attention they
want. More importantly, if you answer one, you may find there are fifty
more, each with one good line. They will always outnumber you.
According to author Fred Ebel, humor in front of a small audience—
ten or twenty people—is very hard to bring off because each individual is
afraid to laugh for fear of being conspicuous. The speaker should try to
find the one person who's got a booming laugh, look at him, and even
wink at him once or twice. His laughter may be the catalyst that starts
the audience laughing. Also, the speaker should get as friendly as possible with the senior officials of the group. People follow the leader. If the
boss laughs heartily, it gives them permission to break out.
Let me tell you how I got elected. I was campaigning against the
former incumbent and we were asked to speak at a farm festival.
My opponent went first, but just as he was really getting going the
rain started. Most of us ran and stood under a tree. But not him.
He just kept talking to a few die-hard supporters who were left.
Finally, a farmer walked over to me and said, "You certainly

Writing Humor for Speeches

211

proved you're the smartest. None of us are ever going to vote for
anybody who's too dumb to come in out of the rain."

GIVE YOUR SPEECH A PULSE
When writing a speech, you should know the reasons why speeches fall
flat so you can prevent yourself from tripping in the first place.
1. INADEQUATE BACKGROUND RESEARCH. You need

the following information to determine the proper
style, tone, content, and humor for the speech.
• What is the occasion? (Is it a social event,
seminar, conference?)
• What is the purpose of the speech?
(To entertain, enlighten, persuade?)
•Who is the audience? (What will be their number, composition,
background, expectations?)
If you are writing for a client, you'll also need to know the speaker's professional qualifications, personal experience, and speaking habits.
2. BORING OPENINGS. The audience is most attentive in the first few
minutes and will quickly pass judgment on the speech and speaker.
As George Jessel noted, "If you haven't struck oil in the first three
minutes—stop boring!"
3. INFORMATION OVERLOAD. The ideal speech length is twenty minutes,
but groups often request talks of forty-five to sixty minutes. Long speeches are usually too detailed, and quickly become monotonous, tedious,
and boring. As Thomas Jefferson observed, "Speeches that are measured by the hour will die with the hour." Humorous personal anecdotes,
good metaphors, and funny stories and jokes will keep the speech going.
It's also a good idea to use the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) approach
and only focus on a few key points, and to use repetition to reinforce the
critical concepts.

212

Comedy Writing Secrets

4. SOUNDS LIKE A SPEECH. The language of speechwriting is different
from that in other media. It should be written and performed in correct,
colloquial, spoken English. If a sentence is longer than fourteen or so
words, edit it down.

CLOSING R E M A R K S : GETTING OFF STAGE WITH
A STANDING OVATION
Any speaker can rise to the occasion, but few know when to sit down.
The best speeches seem to have a good beginning and a good ending—
close together!
During my last speech, I noticed a little old man in a wheelchair.
After I stepped down from the podium, I went over to him
and thanked him for coming. I said, "And I hope you get better
real soon." And he said, "After listening to you, I hope you get
better, t o o ! "

If possible, never be the last speaker at a conference; if you can't avoid it,
then never speak at length. And end with lines like this one.
It has been my responsibility to speak and yours to listen. I am
delighted that we've fulfilled our responsibilities at the same time.

Always thank the audience. There is no better exit line.
If I've held your interest, this is a good place to stop. And if
it's been a bad speech, then this is a very good place to stop.
Thank you.

In conclusion, say "In conclusion." Next to "I'll take the check," this is a
dinner audience's favorite phrase.
In conclusion, I have had a very difficult task. The food has been
good, the drinks plentiful, and you have been a wonderful audience. I feel like the preacher who noticed a small boy sitting in the
front pew alongside his father, who was nodding off.

Writing Humor for Speeches

213

"Billy," he said, "wake up your father."
And the boy said, "Wake him up yourself. You put him
to sleep."

A good salesperson always ends a pitch by asking for the order, and
that's not a bad idea for speakers. Tell the audience what you want them
to do: buy a product, donate to a cause, or vote for a person or issue. You
can do it with humor, too.
Young boy to family: I'm going up to say my prayers. Anybody
want anything?

SHOWTIME
Compose a five-minute speech following the guidelines described in the
previous sections. Include humorous remarks in the opening, make just
three key points, and conclude with a humorous ending.

S P E E C H E S FOR CLIENTS
Whatever the reasons, humor speechwriters for politicians, businessmen,
newspaper editors, and entertainers are in such tremendous demand that
there are not enough qualified writers to fill the demand. A ghostwriter
with humor material has become a businessman's status symbol, like a
chauffeur. For full-time business employment as a speechwriter, the
salary runs high.
Preparing the Speaker and the Speakeasy
It's critical that the speechwriter work directly with the presenter and
not get the assignment from a third party. Writing and thinking are interwoven. You can't have one without the other. Writers must know the
client's philosophy intimately in order to clarify "executive thinking."

214

Comedy Writing Secrets

I asked my secretary to find some good "quotable quotes" that
packed some solid advice in them for today's speech, and she came
back with this little memo: "Dear Boss: The only good quotes I could
find are these few from Socrates, who also went around giving people advice, and—in case you've forgotten—they poisoned him."

A good speechwriter is aurally oriented. There is a major difference
between language for the ear and language for the eye; the way a speaker
phrases humor is as important as what's written. "Write a speech with
your mouth," recommends Ed McMahon. So, speechwriters must practice with the client, because only you know the sound, the appropriate
phrasing, of the words you wrote.
Speakers should rehearse their speech at least twice. The second
rehearsal should be recorded, and the recording should be played back
over and over. Many speakers sincerely believe that one run-through is
sufficient before going onstage. But once is not enough in any area. And
it's particularly not easy with humor, in which timing is so critical. The
pros just make it look easy.
Nobody realizes that I work eighteen hours a day for a solid month
to make that TV hour look like it's never been rehearsed.
—Jimmy Durante

Speakers are in show business, whether they want to admit it or not (and
because they like the sound of it, they admit it). Even seated at the head
table, they're on stage. When they look bored, talk to their neighbors
when others are speaking, or make last-second changes in the speech,
they may think they're invisible—but not to a critical audience.
All speechwriters must develop tolerance—that's the ability to listen
to a client louse up one of your best jokes. Instruct your client not to try
to finish a joke that's been stumbled over. The joke has been killed, so
take the loss right away. Write savers, those little disclaimer lines that
help save face when a joke gets messed up or bombs.
Now you know why my wife says, "Unaccustomed as you are to
public speaking, you still do it!"

Writing Humor for Speeches

215

My husband says I have a wonderful way of making a long story
short. I forget the punchline.

The speechwriter is also a director, a detail person, and a publicist. Here
are just a few tricks of the trade.
Early Birds
You and your client should get to the hall early. You must check the
mikes, the podium height, and whether the AV and multimedia systems
are cued up and the lighting system is organized. While you're doing all
that, the client should be shaking hands with as many members of the
audience as possible, reading their name tags and calling them by their
first names as soon as they're introduced. The speaker should circulate
quickly and not stay in any one place for too long. The object is to make
friends, since we laugh more easily with friends.
Theater critic John Mason Brown was a famous lecturer, particularly with women's clubs. As he was circulating around the
room before a speech, a little white-haired lady holding a cane
approached him and said, "I'm so looking forward to your
speech, sir, because I've heard that you just love old ladies."
Quick as a flash, Brown said, "I certainly do, but I also love
them your age, too."

The More the Merrier
Laughter is contagious. Everyone wants to know, while they're laughing, that this is a shared experience—so they can enjoy even taboo
material without being ridiculed. Try to jam-pack the hall. Better fifty
standers than fifty empty seats. Also, the smaller the room, the better
laughter sounds.
There is something else unique about laughing out loud. We rarely laugh
out loud when we're alone. To encourage the home TV viewer to laugh out
loud, sitcom producers refined the electronic laugh track. Even when
action takes place in a combat zone operating room (as in M*A*S*H), the
home audience enjoys the show more when an amplified laugh track is
added. It gives them permission to laugh.

216

Comedy Writing' Secrets

Can You Hear Me Now?
Goose the sound system slightly above normal. At best, the client is competing with normal crowd movement, whispers, paper rustling, and plates
clinking. At worst, a speaker may need to overcome competition from
those who are telling their companions how the joke ends two seconds
before you deliver the punchline. And avoid attempting humor outdoors.
The vastness of any outdoor arena dissipates even enthusiastic laughter.
POLITICAL SPEECHWRITING:
I N H A L E TO THE CHIEF
Every public servant from the president of the United States to the mayor
of your local town has to speak regularly to fellow lawmakers, organizations, and the voting public—and for the most part, they hate it. So they
look for writers who can make them sound erudite. While hard to break
into, political humor is one of the most profitable areas for professionals
who know how to write a speech.
Today's public figures can no longer write their own speeches
or books, and there is some evidence that they can't read
them either.
—Gore Vidal

Months before every major election, candidates duke it out with the witty
gibes that have become standard in the dog-eat-dog world of politics.
Aneurin Bevan, a British prime minister, once called politics a blood sport.
Every U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had a gag writer
on his speechwriting team. Their humor has two objectives—to destroy
the opponent or to humanize the speaker, especially with self-deprecation.
President George W. Bush used such humor very successfully in 2004.
(His opponents said this was because he had so much material to work
with.) Humor is the most acceptable method to characterize your opponent as a wimp, or a menace, or a fool, or a puppet, or a crook (or all of
the above). Years ago political humor was gentle and mean. Today it is
harsh and mean.

Writing Humor for Speeches

217

If a committee had written the Gettysburg address, "four score
and seven years ago" would have to be written as eighty-seven or
rounded off to ninety for fear the less sophisticated would think
that scoring has something to do with sexual prowess. And "our
fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation" would have
had to be reworded because it left out women.
—Mike Royko

Mark Katz was President Bill Clinton's official humor writer. Several times
a year, Katz prepared Clinton's humorous speeches for various off-therecord events, such as the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Tidbits
from those speeches always made a column in the next day's news.
Political speeches are like steer horns. A point here, a point there,
and a lot of bull in between.
—Alfred E. Neuman

Humor may be just a small part of any speech, but most often it ends up
being the most memorable and most effective part. Franklin Roosevelt
once described his opponent, Tom Dewey, as looking like "a little man on
a wedding cake." Dewey lost big. And when Bill Clinton was running
against George H.W. Bush, former Texas governor Ann Richards
described Bush as having been "born with a silver foot in his mouth."
Richards's oft-quoted remark opened the humor floodgates, and Bush
was stigmatized as a mixed-up, double-talking politician for his entire
losing campaign. John F. Kennedy lambasted Richard Nixon's dark facial
make-up by claiming, "Nixon was offered two million dollars by Schick
to do a TV commercial for Gillette."
Unquestionably, former president Ronald Reagan was the most expert
at delivering great lines. Like this triple:
Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is
when you lose yours. And recovery is when President Carter
loses his.

During his campaign against Walter Mondale in 1984, Reagan's humor
completely spiked the Democrats' best personal attack—the age issue

218

Comedy Writing Secrets

(Reagan was seventy-two years old). Everyone knew this concern would
come up during the election debates. It did, in a question from a reporter.
Reagan's humorous reverse will be a textbook classic for generations, for
it deflated the press and even had Mondale laughing.
I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going
to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth
and inexperience.

According to Newsweek, Reagan's joke sealed his reelection.
Here's how an important political joke, using a paired antonym,
was actually written. When Adlai Stevenson was running for president
in 1956, he was accused of having homosexual affiliations. If the
public believed these stories, Stevenson would have no chance in the
election. Governor Stevenson had few choices. To defend the charges
in public would only give them wider currency. To sue would take
too long. The Democrats decided to use humor to get the voters on
Stevenson's side and began working on a joke he could use in an
upcoming speech. The bottom line was to get President Eisenhower,
or his associates, to stop telling lies. The first time the joke was drafted it went like this.
Eisenhower must be worried. Just as soon as I started telling stories about him, he started telling lies about me.

That was the thrust they wanted, but the last line was not what
Stevenson wanted the people to remember. So, they tried a number of
other variations until they found a paired antonym that worked. This is
still heralded as one of Stevenson's great lines.
President Eisenhower and I have a pact. If he'll stop telling lies
about me, I'll stop telling the truth about him.

Breaking into the field of political speechwriting without the proper
background training and experience is difficult. And while the pay can be
excellent, humor writers are only temporary employees unless their candidate wins. Even after they are hired, the identities of joke writers is

Writing Humor for Speeches

219

kept as secret as those of CIA operatives. Only the politician—never the
public or even the press—knows who placed those pearls of humor in
his campaign oratory. And only a few comedy writers have ever become
famous after leaving public life. They include Robert Orben, Al Franken
and Peggy Noonan, who once quipped, "The battle for the mind of
Ronald Reagan is like trench warfare in World War I; never have so many
fought so hard for such barren terrain."
Disseminating political humor via the Internet increases its impact a
hundred fold. The Internet is uncensored by broadcast or publication
codes, and a joke can be passed on through hundreds of independent
sites to thousands of people with similar political leanings and tastes in
humor. However, because political humor is so biased, political analyst
David Cross believes the humor incites the faithful more than it convinces swing voters. "I'm mostly preaching to the choir, but at least the
choir is laughing."
Speechwriter wannabes can practice with humor for local candidates,
who make dozens of speeches and are constantly quoted in the city
press. Offer them your personalized zingers. A few may make national
wire service round-up stories.
THE P R O F E S S I O N A L SPEECHWRITER:
THIS LIU PIGGY WENT TO MARKET
Writing for public speakers is lucrative, with rates of five hundred dollars
and more per speech. But the insatiable demand for humorous speeches
means writers are even better compensated, with fees of a hundred dollars and up per page of text.
Before attempting speechwriting, explore the profession and its
available markets. Professional organizations include the National
Speakers Association (www.nsaspeaker.org), Toastmasters
International (www.toastmasters.org), and The Executive Speaker
Company (www.executive-speaker.com).
The most important factor for marketing a speech is the topic.
Booking agents look for humorous motivational presentations—a speech
that is informative, inspirational, and entertaining.

220

Comedy Writing Secrets

If you plan to deliver your own speeches, begin with freebies for community groups and local organizations. After you develop a "stock"
speech, contact a local speakers bureau and request a listing in their catalog. The agencies will help with marketing and booking your speech.
Each bureau has different guidelines for listing speakers, and commission rates vary (typically 25 to 35 percent), but most will require a videotape of one of your speeches.

Writing Humor for Speeches

221

CHAPTER 13
Stand-Up or Sit Down:
Humor for Live Entertainers
He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the
world was mad.
—Raphael Sabatini

Stand-up and sketch comedy are undergoing a renaissance.
Just consider the popularity of the Comedy Central
network (Comedy Central Presents), movies showcasing stand-up comics (The Original Kings of Comedy,
Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie), and even standup comedy contests (Last Comic Standing).
The problems of stand-up and sketch comedy are
often attributed to the public's diminishing attention
span. Larry the Cable Guy, one of the Blue Collar
comics, explained the audience's preference of
sketch performances to sitcoms, saying, "It's boom-boom. In just two
minutes, there are thirty jokes. With a sitcom, if you're three or four minutes into it and you haven't laughed, you're turning the channel."
The need for humor writing is now nearly insatiable because of the
renewed interest in live comedy. Professional stand-ups need it to get
started, and they need it even more when they're on top, because that's
when they're the most fearful.
Now that my ratings are good, I have a different kind of fear. It's
like a tap on the shoulder from an ominous unknown force. That's
the position you don't want to find yourself in, the one you can't
sustain. It's like a warning that I've got to do better, and keep
doing better, or the ratings will go down and I'll be left a lonely
broken shell of a human—like I am now.
—David Letterman

222

Comedy Writing Secrets

In today's comedy climate, there are many golden opportunities for
humor writers. Because, next to drops of water on a hot frying pan, nothing evaporates faster than the value of a topical joke. If you can write
funny fast, you can expect a seller's market for the foreseeable future.
Many resources, such as The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter and the
Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy by Jay Sankey, explain the art of
stand-up and sketch comedy. But it's also a craft, with learnable characteristics and skills. The first—and most important—aspect of the comedy
craft is the performer's character.
Stand-up comedy hasn't changed. It's still the last refuge of the
bitter alcoholic.
—Bob Odenkirk

STAY IN CHARACTER:
S P E A K SOFTLY BUT CARRY A BIG SHTICK
Just as you're obligated to know your audience before you write material, it's essential to know the character the performer is playing. Humor
doesn't go into a character; it comes out of a character. This point is critical and merits repeating—each successful performer has a persona, and
humor is written for the persona, not the performer.
Your stage character is the magic glue. It makes sense of all your
jokes, giving them a context to spring out of and a perspective to
reflect. If your material is the what, then your delivery is the how,
your timing is the when, and your character is the who.
—Jay Sankey

A character needs a trademark, a predictable point of view that does not
change. If a performer doesn't have an individual style (sometimes called a
hook or shtick), the writer (frequently a writer/director like Jane Wagner,
who works with Lily Tomlin) shares the burden of finding one that fits.
Without a shtick, the performer is just a reciter of jokes, an eyewitness to
insignificant history. With it, a comic can get laughs even with mistakes—
because, in a way, the character is part of the joke.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

223

It's unusual for a famous performer to have more than one
character—it's also dangerous, because audiences feel more comfortable with stereotyped humorists. It's also easier to write for just
one character.
Stereotypes are a shortcut around thinking, and the audience may
get confused if a performer changes characterization in mid-act. Rarely
do comedians established in film or theater play characters that are
opposite to their personas. The most successful movie comedians are
those who play every part the same, such as Woody Allen, Billy Crystal,
and Steve Martin.
When those same comedians attempted to alter their film characters, audiences were not always receptive. That said, it is possible
for performers to successfully change their personas, as Robin
Williams has proven.
Audiences are really something else. When you're apprehensive
and show a little fear and doubt because you're not getting any
laughs, man, an audience will eat you alive. They sense fear, and
it's like being in a confrontation with a wild animal that senses
you're afraid. In both cases, you're doomed.
—Richard Pryor

Professional humor writers are known for two types of reliability:
They can reliably produce material that is (a) of high quality and (b)
on target. A rejection slip that reads "I don't do that kind of material"
is damaging because it indicates that the humor writer didn't know
the market. He not only wasted his time, but that of the performer as
well. Sad sacks who get that kind of rejection had better hold on to
their day jobs.
Pro writers involve themselves in serious performer research.
Reading previously published material, attending live performances, and
watching recorded performances takes time. The background research
will help you identify the style and tone of the performer's character, as
well as the performer's typical material. Humor written for one character
will rarely work for another—even if it's written for a similar character.

224

Comedy Writing' Secrets

Basically every joke's been done, so you get laughs out of looks,
gestures, and catchphrases. The writer must instinctively hear a
little voice inside that says, "This isn't right," or "Hey, this works!"
— Eric Allen

SHOWTIME
As you watch performances of your favorite comedians, identify each
performer's dominant characteristics (style, attitude, mannerisms)
and the material used (topics, tone, catchphrases, form). Write a onesentence description that summarizes each comic's character.

QUESTION & ANSWER
HOW DO I KNOW IF I'M REALLY FUNNY?
Try your material out before a live audience, but
remember that the audience must be your target audience.
And that's where most beginners make a fatal mistake.
The MAP triangle (discussed in chapter three) identifies the audience with the letter A at its apex,
because it is essential for a comedian to appear
before or write for a specific audience. And the right audience is as different for each performer and writer as is the right spouse. The male
student audience for Letterman is directly opposite the feminist audience for Ellen DeGeneres, and Jeff Foxworthy's redneck beer swillers
would be out of their element shuffled into Rita Rudner's mature audience. The Academy Award audience is so grumpy that the awards
show proved to be a deathtrap for MCs David Letterman and Chris

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

225

Rock, both of whom tested Hollywood's waters with their best laugh
preservers, and drowned.
If any test produces a two-second laugh, you've hit pay dirt—or
some kind of dirt. Getting a four-second laugh is known as going gold.
Most jokes go vinyl.
Before Jay Leno delivers his five-minute monologue each evening on
The Tonight Show, he tests his material the night before at a local Orange
County comedy club, with an audience similar to his show's audience
profile. His twelve writers provide him with twenty minutes of new jokes,
and then the audience helps Leno throw out 75 percent of the test material and get down to the final five minutes he delivers the next evening to a
national TV audience. That's a lot of rejection every day. Professionals
are used to those odds. So should you be.

THE M A S K S OF COMEDY
Theater began in Greece with one actor in a variety of masks playing all
parts. In humor, there are many distinctive character masks. But each
comedian can have only one. The character can be anything from an erudite scholar to a simpleton, a suburban yuppie, a dope addict, a sexual
deviate, a braggart, a tightwad, a drunk, or a coward (and that should
take in every friend you've got).
A comedian says funny things. A comic says things funny.
Tonight, I will prove that I am a juggler!
—Michael Davis

Each of the masks has a number of variations; there is also a great
deal of overlapping. The basic stock characters are categorized into
three groups: the single, the team, and the artist (with props). In the
majority of cases, the character fits the personality of the performer,
complementing physical appearance and speech ability as well as talent. Paradoxically, the comedian must create a perfect characterization of an imperfect character.

226

Comedy Writing Secrets

Although humorists debate the appropriate label for each comedy
mask, most agree that there are about twenty different comedic characters. The twenty masks of comedy are:
THE SINGLE
1. The Jester
2. The Aggressor
3. The Sad Sack
4. The Drug Rebel
5. The Intellectual
6. The Political Satirist
7. The Storyteller
8. The Rube
9. The Old Timer
10. The Ethnic Type
11. The Immigrant
THE TEAM
12. Partners
13. The Sketch Performer
14. The Ventriloquist
THE ACTOR
15. The Impersonator
16. The Clown
17. The Artist, Musician, and Cartoonist
18. The Vaudevillian
19. The Improviser
20. The Bumbler
As audience preferences change, characters may disappear from the stage.
For example, there are few comedic partnerships today—with the exception of Penn and Teller, who are primarily magicians. Skits, the heart of
burlesque and review comedy, have also become rare comedic meat. They
appear in only a few TV formats: in take-offs on quiz shows and news
broadcasts, and in interview shows on Saturday Night Live, Whose Line

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

227

Is It Anyway?, and MADtv. Many of the masks of comedy, such as The
Vaudevillian, The Old Timer, and The Ventriloquist, have not been performed on a regular basis for years, and no one can explain why. It's also
impossible to predict whether the retired masks of comedy will ever return.
Stand-up comedy is transient. History shows that you can stand
up for so long; after that, you're asked to sit down.
—Steve Martin

Comedic styles and audience preferences may change with time, but
the basic building blocks of comedy remain the same—the humorwriting formulas that comprise an Ellen DeGeneres routine are the
same as those used in a Jack Benny monologue. Most successful comics,
if given truth serum, will admit that another performer influenced their
style and delivery.
Here are the seven most common characters seen in today's stand-up
and sketch comedy.
The Jester
The most popular comedic character is the stand-up comedian—sometimes called a jester, a jokester, a wag, a wisecracker, or a quipster. The
jester's material is a series of one-liners and short comments on the contemporary scene. Thousands of comedians could be listed in this category,
including veterans such as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Henny Youngman.
I love to go to Washington—if only to be near my money.
—Bob Hope
Any time a person goes into a delicatessen and orders pastrami
on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.
—Milton Berle
My doctor grabbed me by the wallet and said, "Cough!"
—Henny Youngman

Variations of the jester character can be heard today in the freeflowing material of such performers as Chris Rock, Laura Kightlinger,
and Wanda Sykes.

228

Comedy Writing Secrets

You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white
guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is
Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the
U.S. of arrogance, Germany doesn't want to go to war, and the
three most powerful men in America are named "Bush," "Dick,"
and "Colin."
—Chris Rock
I hate the saying "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride." I like to
put things into perspective by thinking, "Always a pallbearer,
never a corpse."
—Laura Kightlinger
They say marriage is a contract. No, it's not. Contracts come
with warrantees. When something goes wrong, you can take
it back to the manufacturer. If your husband starts acting up,
you can't take him back to his mama's house. "I don't know;
he just stopped working. He's just laying around making a
funny noise."
—Wanda Sykes

Today's stand-ups differ from past jesters in their joke-telling method.
The old-school approach was a recitation of a series of one-liners. The
"new-school" method places more emphasis on social commentary and
extended rants on everyday life.
Remember the crayon box with the flesh-colored crayon? Little
white kids: "I'm going to draw my mother and father." Black kids:
'I don't know nobody who looks like this." "Don't throw it out, I can
use it to draw the police."
—D.L. Hughley

The most successful jesters match their delivery, content, and attitude to
their character. The brash Joan Rivers inspired Roseanne Barr, the disgruntled housewife, and Rita Rudner and Wendy Liebman became the
women's-lib icons.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

229

My mother always said don't marry for money, divorce for money.
—Wendy Liebman

The Sad Sack
The sad sack has been a comedy standard for centuries. The comic plays
the insecure, timid Milquetoast, always seeking approval, confused by
the opposite sex, unable to get dates or make any relationship work.
Rodney Dangerfield played this character for decades.
I went to my psychiatrist. I said, "Doc, I have this terrible feeling
that everyone is trying to take advantage of me."
He said, "Relax. Everyone thinks somebody else is trying to
take advantage of them."
"Gee, thanks, Doc. How much do I owe you?"
"How much have you got?"

The audience delights in laughing at the plight of others. The sad sack is
one of the easiest characters to use when you're a neophyte performer
trying to get your first laughs. The trick is to get the audience to like you;
otherwise, they'll have no sympathy and will be happy to see you get
what you deserve. Thus, the opening joke is far more important for this
persona than for most others because it clearly defines the character.
Garry Shandling and Richard Lewis are two other practitioners of this
style. Every joke is self-deprecating.
I'm dating a girl now ... who's unaware of it, evidently.
—Garry Shandling
I quit therapy because my analyst was trying to help me behind
my back.
—Richard Lewis
I have such poor vision, I can date anybody.
—Garry Shandling

There are many variations of the sad sack. The box office successes of
Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller are largely due to their ability to create the
lovable sad sack. Writer and actor Larry David morphed the sad sack into

230

Comedy Writing Secrets

the schmuck by creating two unforgettable sitcom characters: his own
alter ego on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and George of Seinfeld. The following are classic George Costanza lines.
For I am Costanza, Lord of the Idiots.
I'm a great quitter. I come from a long line of quitters. I was raised
to give up.
I can't carry a pen, I'm afraid it'll puncture my scrotum.

The D r u g Rebel
During Prohibition in the 1920s, the comedic performer who assumed a
drunken posture was a popular nightclub, film, and campus entertainer.
W.C. Fields was one of the first; then came others, like Joe E. Lewis,
Robert Benchley, and Dean Martin. They frequently went on stage with
drinks in their hands or would borrow one from a ringside table.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house unless they have a wellstocked bar.
—W.C. Fields

The fascination with alcoholic clowns has turned into fascination with the
druggie. When the druggie character emerged, this eccentric counterculture weirdo was a delight to college students and a disgust to the middleaged. Comic Lenny Bruce was the guru of drug humor. Fellow comedian
Robert Klein said that every modern comedian owes Bruce some debt of
gratitude. Bruce claimed he entered the arenas of drugs, sex, and scatology to make a philosophical point. Don't believe it. He got in the smoking
ring because it separated him from more erudite satirists like Mort Sahl.
Marijuana is rejected all over the world. Damned. In England,
heroin is all right for outpatients, but marijuana? They'll put your
ass in jail. I wonder why that is? ... The only reason could be: To
Serve the Devil—Pleasure! Pleasure, which is a dirty word in
Christian culture.
—Lenny Bruce

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

231

George Carlin continued Brace's legacy as a counterculture comedian.
"The population segment I appeal to is the one that feels there is no hope
for the human race," Carlin said. In the 1960s, his essential themes were
drugs and rebellion, and he used hard-core words and ideas to shock his
stunned audience to attention. Since that time, Carlin has dropped the
druggie character, but he has continued to use dazzling word play as he
viciously ridicules all parts of the Establishment. Following in Carlin's
smoke are many others, including Emo Philips and Denis Leary.
I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
—Mitch Hedberg
Cocaine is God's way of saying you're making too much money.
—Robin Williams
I would never do crack. I would never do a drug named after a part
of my ass, okay?
—Denis Leary

The Intellectual
Before he shifted his focus to filmmaking, Woody Allen was the most
successful erudite character. He played the mascot of the intellectuals
for twenty years. His humor was based on the incongruity between his
appearance and his material: the mousy physical look that disguised a
secret sexual prowess, the very antithesis of the aggressive dominance of
his peers, including Shecky Green, Jan Murray, and Jack Carter.
I told my sexual experiences to Parker Brothers, and they made it
into a game.
—Woody Allen

Stand-up comics who have been influenced by Allen include Steven
Wright, whose act is one of abstract surrealism—illogical logic based
upon literal interpretation. His onstage costume is always the same:
jeans, work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, tennis shoes, frizzy hair, and a
sullen face that never laughs. It gives him the appearance of an iconoclastic drifter.

232

Comedy Writing Secrets

I've never seen electricity. That's why I don't pay for it. I write right
on the bill, "Sorry, I haven't seen it all month."

Today's reigning intellectuals include Dennis Miller and Lewis Black.
Their characters are hip and sarcastic, frosted with a thick layer of
sadistic hostility that belittles public figures and criticizes social and
political trends.
The radical right is so homophobic that they're blaming global
warming on the AIDS quilt.
—Dennis Miller
Look, if New Jersey needs money, they could raise the sales tax
on press-on nails. They'll make a killing!
—Lewis Black
Man, these things [solar-powered cars] are so ugly they are powered by humiliation.
—Lewis Black

The Political Satirist
Satire is a humor maverick. Like topical humor, it has the life expectancy of a fly. One of the most famous satirical stylists, Mort Sahl, used to
carry a rolled-up copy of the day's newspaper on stage as if he were
ready to swat that fly. Satire reflects who and what are in the news at
the very moment a joke is being told. The following week, the same
material may be too old. On the other hand, some satirical commentary
seems to illustrate the aphorism that the more things change, the more
they stay the same.
Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel
they deserve everything they've stolen.
—Mort Sahl

Satire attacks both social and political targets, and therefore is risky when
the audience is large and mixed. Will Rogers felt that if he could score a 50
percent "laugh rate," he was doing well. Until the explosion of cable networks, Mark Russell was the most prominent TV political satirist.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

233

The Republicans have a new healthcare proposal: Just say
no to illness!
—Mark Russell

Today, Real Time With Bill Maker and The Daily Show With Jon
Stewart provide the uncensored cable forums with political satire. Jon
Stewart and his collaborators also wrote the best-seller America (The
Book), a parody of a political science textbook. Examples of their satirical look at democracy include the following "Were You Aware?" factoids.
The fact that the Magna Carta was written in 1215 is, by law, the
only thing you are required to know about it.
Supreme Court justices fend off physical confrontations
from lower court judges to maintain supremacy, much like
silverback gorillas.
Ninety-six percent of congressional incumbents are reelected—
which means the other four percent must really suck.

The public feels more tolerant toward print satirists like Art Buchwald,
Russell Baker, and Ellen Goodman. Perhaps that's because, in performance, there's a second when the audience is thinking—not laughing. And
for a performer, thoughtful silence is deadly.
Would somebody please tell George W. Bush that he is not
Commander in Chief of the Judiciary? No matter how "hot" he
looked in his flight suit, black robes require a cooler demeanor.
—Ellen Goodman

The Storyteller
There's a lot of characterization in the storyteller shtick. The story line is
not a potpourri of one-gag anecdotes but is confined to one unique
theme. The performer makes heavy use of strong critical comments that
are strung out for as long as ten minutes (eventually, the comedian
arrives at the point). Jokesters like Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, Richard
Pryor, and David Sedaris don't flip from gag to gag. Instead, they share
with the audience a universal experience and irritation. Like actors, they

234

Comedy Writing Secrets

carefully rehearse and dramatize their stories. As a result, their material
tends to stay away from current events and concentrate on standbys like
family, business, and social situations.
It's so much easier for me to talk about my life in front of two
thousand people than it is one-to-one. I'm a real defensive person,
because if you were sensitive in my neighborhood you were
something to eat.
—Richard Pryor

Before broadcast humor, folk tales were the staples of frontier humor.
They went with the territory—a world of yokels and rustics, where
everything was tall. They had joke-telling contests, storytelling contests, and even awards for the biggest liars. Imagination was encouraged, and humor opportunities were limited only by the boundaries of
the individual's mind. The antecedents of Western homespun fabulists
were George Ades and Mark Twain (at the beginning of the twentieth
century), and decades later, Danny Thomas, Buddy Hackett, and Alan
King continued the tradition.
If you want to read about love and marriage, you've got to buy
two separate books.
—Alan King

Today, Garrison Keillor's radio program, A Prairie Home Companion,
uses myth and exaggeration as its only story line; it emanates from
fictional Lake Wobegon, "a small town that time forgot," located in a
state of mind. It's a love poem to America's small towns, a universal
birthplace for those who once lived (or would like to think they once
lived) west of the Hudson, and who like to go home for a few hours each
week. The audience warms to Keillor's mythical folk humor about a town
"where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the
children are above average."
Where I'm from we don't trust paper. Wealth is what's here on the
premises. If I open a cupboard and see, say, thirty cans of tomato
sauce and a five-pound bag of rice, I get a little thrill of well-

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

235

being—much more so than if I take a look at the quarterly dividend report from my mutual fund.

Bill Cosby started out with a "one of the boys" routine on neighborhood
characters (Fat Albert, Weird Harold). Now, he's so confident in his own
material that he breaks the first commandment of comedy—push for a
first, big laugh. He's a stand-up comic who prefers being a sit-down storyteller, chatting with his audience about a common problem, creating a
facsimile of his family life. He calls it building a rapport. His stories start
with a stock situation, and then he follows with exaggerations. He builds
animated cartoons with words, not jokes. In storytelling, the big benefit
is that if the audience doesn't laugh at what was supposed to be a funny
line, it doesn't seem to matter unless it's the last line.
As I have discovered by examining my past, I started out as a
child. Coincidentally, so did my brother. My mother did not put all
her eggs in one basket, so to speak: She gave me a younger brother named Russell, who taught me what was meant by "survival of
the fittest."
—Bill Cosby

David Sedaris's wickedly jaundiced and funny observations push storytelling to a new level. With a brilliant deadpan delivery, he takes the audience on a surrealistic journey based on his eccentric life experiences.
Part of his success is his unusual material, such as stories about working
as an elf at Macy's. But Sedaris's true gift is his unique slant on topics like
the perils of inter-elf flirtation, and doing drugs in his parents' house.
After a few months in my parents' basement, I took an apartment
near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of these things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy
entire civilizations.

One reason so few comedians adopt the storyteller mask may be that the
seemingly extemporaneous style of storytelling requires a talented actor
with exquisite timing and accent, skills that can only be perfected

236

Comedy Writing Secrets

through years of careful character honing. Many young performers don't
want to practice that hard. Another reason may be that in our frenzied
tempo of communication, we just don't take the time to listen to long stories. It's a product of our credit card mentality—every hour today must
be devoted to paying for the excesses of yesterday. Humor, like commercials, is judged in thirty seconds.
The Rube
This country-boy humorist, tipping back in a cane-bottom rocker on the
front porch of the general store with a hound dog at his feet, was a consistent hit with rural audiences. They felt comfortable laughing at some
yokel less intelligent than they were. Over the past hundred years, there
have been few costume changes for this character, except that the widebrimmed farm hat was replaced with a John Deere cap.
I have never been jealous. Not even when my dad finished fifth
grade a year before I did.
—Jeff Foxworthy

In the 1970s, the most famous and (paradoxically) most obnoxious character on commercial TV was Ernest P. Worrell, a cavern-mouthed gangly redneck created by actor Jim Varney. Ernest spewed a fountain of overbearing,
unsolicited advice, and he looked like the consummate Appalachian rube.
Ernie gave his advice to his unseen friend ("Hey, Vern"), but then—to give
the viewer a feeling of superiority and the satisfaction of revenge over his
annoying character—he transformed his "Know what I mean, Vern" smugness to self-ridicule by going berserk and doing something incredibly stupid, like slamming a tailgate on his hand or electrocuting himself.
The country rube has spun off into two new characters: the NASCAR
bubba and the urban idiot. Jeff Foxworthy and his Blue Collar buddies
own the market on redneck-based comedy.
Right now there's a bill in the Texas legislature that would speed
up the execution process of those convicted of a heinous crime
with more than three credible witnesses. If more than three people
saw you do what you did, you don't sit on death row for fifteen

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

237

years, Jack, you go straight to the front of the line. Other states
are trying to abolish the death penalty. My state's puttin' in an
express lane.
—Ron White

The movie Dumb and Dumber created a variation on the rube—the raging moron—and the movie's success ensured that future comedy films
would feature at least one outrageous act of stupidity or lewdness.

QUESTION & ANSWER
HOW DO I FIND MY OWN SHTICK?
The most common advice given to beginning comedians is to be yourself. Writers receive similar advice
when they are admonished to find their own voice. In
theory, being yourself or finding your own voice are good
ideas. However, in your quest for self-discovery, remember not to exclude the audience, the most important
element of the MAP theory.
Audiences quickly—and unconsciously—stereotype performers
into characters. Audiences understand and appreciate characters, not
performers. If the audience cannot quickly identify a performer's character, there will be no emotional investment by the audience—and
thus no laughs.
Character development relies on two elements of the THREES formula: realism and exaggeration. An effective character is an extension of
the performer's personality, with exaggerated features. A comedic character is a caricature (because normal ain't funny).
Anyone can tell a joke, but a well-defined character makes it easier.
Rodney Dangerfield's sad sack was so obvious that it could be summarized by a two-word catchphrase, No respect. A hidden benefit of
creating a distinctive stage persona is that it reduces joke stealing by
other performers.

238

Comedy Writing Secrets

SHOWTIME
Develop a character and find your voice. Take a crash course in the history of comedy by completing the following exercises.
Watch performances of past and present comedians to understand
the diversity of comedic characters. Keep a journal identifying the dominant characteristics of each character, and note how the masks of comedy changed overtime.
Collect twenty jokes by past performers, and examine each joke for its
content and style. Then, rewrite each joke for a contemporary audience.
Do a comparison of early sketch shows, such as Your Show of Shows,
to Saturday Night Live. Note the differences between the main characters, sketch structure, and joke formulas.
Read the Encyclopedia of 20th-century American Humor by Alleen
Nilsen and Don Nilsen for a comprehensive overview of comedic trends.
Never stop writing.

ESTABLISHING A N
I D E N T I F I A B L E CHARACTER
If your character isn't instantly recognizable, the performance is off to a
shaky start. Generally, there's no time to build a character the first time
the audience meets you. Comedy demands that you get laughs within the
first few paragraphs or within the first thirty seconds.
To make the audience feel secure, the performer must eliminate any
threat of intimidation. The nebbish look of Woody Allen, the weirdo
clothing of Emo Philips, and the squeaky voices of Jerry Lewis, Pinky
Lee, and Paul Reubens's Pee-wee Herman were all carefully designed to
let the audience feel superior. Just imagine the difference in perception if
Ellen DeGeneres started wearing business suits and doing material on
corporate America.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

239

The mind plays tricks on you. You play tricks back! It's like you're
unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting
and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting....
—Pee-wee Herman

Since we tend to feel sympathetic with the underdog, performers often
try to make the audience care through a discourse on their misfortunes.
But there's always the danger that no respect can lead to disrespect.
Once you find your character, you must stay in character. During one
of the annual San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy competitions, Jon Fox, a coproducer, reported that after Charles Cozart won a
number of preliminary rounds with a take-off on a militant black, several
of his competitors implied he wasn't versatile enough to do any other
material. Cozart rose to the challenge, and in the next round did a completely different set. Unfortunately, his critics were right. He went down
in flames, finishing dead last.
Comedians as a group are a neurotic bunch. Most are immature
and self-centered, insecure, and (at one time) at least three of the
funniest were certifiably emotionally unbalanced.
—Steve Allen

Characterization can also be enhanced or accomplished using one or a
combination of the following.
1. costume
2. props
3. voice
4. physical appearance
Costume
A farcical costume is certainly one of the most visual ways to signal the
audience that the performance is nonthreatening. It's the first thing the
audience notices—that is, after they note whether the performer is male
or female, and that's getting harder to tell every year.
To appear silly and nonthreatening, jesters of the Middle Ages wore
floppy, belled caps; scalloped shirts and trousers; large, pointy-toed

240

Comedy Writing Secrets

shoes; and carried a wand or scepter. Even today, baggy pants signal a
comic character. Only a fool dresses like one.
A scout is a boy who dresses like a schmuck. A scoutmaster is a
schmuck who dresses like a boy.

Today, clowns carry on the same harlequin tradition. Mimes, whether on
stage or street corner, have an established costume of top hat, white
grease-painted face with red lips, black leotard, and soft black shoes.
Their costume is so traditional you can spot them a quarter of a mile off:
Caution—Mimes Ahead!
The outlandishness of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, who sported a toothbrush moustache, a bowler, enormous trousers, and gigantic shoes, and
who always carried a slender walking stick, was "a totemic figure of such
deceptive simplicity that it can be imaginatively interpreted by everyone," wrote Luc Sante. Chaplin took several years to develop a character
that was hapless, yet graceful; mischievous, yet chivalrous. In many
respects, the Tramp was a descendent of Peter Pan. He played for tears
as well as laughs.
I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed,
the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was.
I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he
was fully born.
—Charlie Chaplin

A large black moustache was a comic symbol in the slapstick films of
Ben Blue (among others), and the painted moustache was the comic
trademark of Groucho Marx.
Steve Martin, after writing gags for the Smothers Brothers for several
seasons, decided to go on stage himself. He played the jerk originally,
but he struck out on the adult comedy circuit the first two years. Only
after he went from witticisms to put-down humor and re-created his
character as a wild and crazy show-off in a pure white three-piece suit,
white shoes, and arrow through his head, did he find his audience with
college-age kids.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

241

I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art,
but if you set out to make art you're an idiot.
—Steve Martin

Robin Williams's trademark is a printed Hawaiian shirt. Lily Tomlin always
wears black trousers and color-splashed blouses. Her characters—militant
feminists looking for intelligent life ("I'm against war, but if it weren't for
Army surplus I'd have nothing to wear")—wouldn't permit her to wear
dresses or frilly anything.
Props
Effective props range from Denis Leary's dangling cigarette to Carrot
Top's trunk of goofy items and Gallagher's mallet and watermelon.
Groucho Marx's cigar, nose, moustache, and glasses are more often used
as the symbol of comedy than the traditional clown mask.
Groucho to TV quiz contestant: "Tell me, Mrs. O'Leary, how many
children do you have?"
"I have fourteen, Groucho."
"How come so many?"
"Well, I love my husband."
"I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once
in a while."

George Burns commented: "I use my cigar for timing purposes. If I tell a
joke, I smoke as long as they laugh. When they stop laughing, I take the
cigar out of my mouth and start my next joke."
Voice
Voice is certainly the most obvious physical instrument for conveying
character. In some scripts, the words are written on music bars with
pitch notes. Voice inflection, from malicious cackling to nasal whines,
indicates personal characteristics not physically evident.
The right tone can portray ignorance, anger, sophistication, regional
heritage, and even ethnicity. There are five major regional American
accents: New York, New England, Southern, Appalachian, and Western.
In addition, this country is rich in ethnic voices, such as Black, Yiddish,

242

Comedy Writing Secrets

Hispanic, Italian, and Indian. And finally, there is the personal character
voice: the homosexual, the redneck, the gangster—and scores of others.
While heavy dialect humor, on the national level, is becoming rare, character humor using regional accents, pauses, and grammatical levels is as
popular as ever.
Physical Appearance
Some comedians, like John Candy and Jackie Gleason, had such comic
looks that you laughed just watching them screw up their faces. Buster
Keaton, "the great stone face," learned at an early age that audiences
enjoyed him more if he acted passively with every slapstick trick the
heavy played on him.
No man can be a genius in slap shoes and a flat hat.
—Buster Keaton

But cosmetic pride has killed off a lot of humor. Phyllis Diller for years
ridiculed her face; her hair purposely looked as if she'd stuck her finger
in an electrical socket. She could have played the witch in The Wizard of
Oz—without makeup. One day she had a facelift, and then had to concentrate on exaggerated gown colors. She was funnier when she looked
funnier. Jack E. Leonard was so big he was known as "Fat Jack." Then
one year he went on a crash diet and lost one hundred and fifty pounds.
This killed his act—his material had disappeared.
Yeah, I'm overweight. Actually, it's due to water retention. Right
now, I'm retaining Lake Erie. Once I laid down on a beach. I got
harpooned twice and fourteen guys tried to drag me back into the
water. I buy Hefty designer jeans, not at The Gap, at The Gorge.
—Billy Elmer

If you have big eyes (or if your client does), make them work for you as
Marty Feldman and Carol Channing did in the seventies, and Eddie
Cantor did in the thirties. Woody Allen made his eyeglasses a part of his
act, particularly in films.
The performer must be honest as well as comfortable with the character. Makeup and lights can change looks. Props and costumes can

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

243

emphasize the characterization—Tina Fey's glasses represent the serious
anchorperson. But many things are almost impossible to change: age,
color, height, and whether you're male or female (or both). Therefore,
over the long haul, personality must coexist with character.
Beginning performers are well advised to try several characters
before they settle on one. And that's when the real work begins.

SHOWTIME
All successful sitcoms must have well-defined characters. And the public
must know them intimately. Monica, Chandler, Ross, Joey, Rachel, and
Phoebe never deviated from their Friends personas for more than ten years.
Watch several sitcoms and complete an analysis of the main characters.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE
There are a number of techniques stand-ups use to enhance their performances. Whether she needs to keep an audience laughing or respond
to a sudden interruption, a good comedian is always prepared. Here are
the most commonly used writing techniques in monologues and sketches.
Toppers
Getting an audience laughing from a dead start is like pushing a truck
stuck in snow. It takes a great deal of effort and luck, and if you start by
gunning the motor, you'll end up spinning your wheels. First, you've got
to rock the truck (the audience) back and forth until the wheels catch.
Then, when the weight is going forward, you keep momentum rolling
with split-second timing. If it works, you're on your way.
One popular device that works to keep the energy up is the topper, a
follow-up joke that builds on a previous laugh. Essentially, it's a second
line that comes when the audience thinks the joke is already finished.
The topper surprises them with an even funnier coda. The trick is to

244

Comedy Writing Secrets

create a laughing roll—wait for the laughter to come down to about
one-third or one-half of its peak volume, and then immediately start
your next line.
I'll tell you what I like about Chinese people. They're hanging in
there with the chopsticks. You know they've seen the fork. They're
staying with the sticks. I don't know how they missed it. Going out
all day on the farm with a shovel. Come on. Shovel. Spoon. You're
not plowing fifty acres with a couple of pool cues.
—Jerry Seinfeld

Jack Benny's writers used this device frequently because Benny's tightwad
character was so strong, a laugh could come from every reference. Here,
Benny uses a topper in a dialogue with a bum who begged for money.
BENNY: Here's a quarter. Buy yourself a pair of shoes.
BUM: With a quarter? [small laugh, followed by a pause]
BENNY: You'll need laces, won't you?

Toppers can also be used in a number of the joke combinations
discussed earlier. For example, here's an attempt to build a topper
with a triple.
QUESTION: Do you know the definition of fame?
FIRST M A N : Sure, fame is when I'm invited to the White House
for a personal meeting with the president.
SECOND MAN: No, fame is when I'm invited to the White House,
the phone rings, and the president ignores it.
THIRD M A N : No, real fame is when the president answers the
phone, listens for a moment, and then says, "It's for you."
—Robert Orben

Comedy should be written so that each joke in the series is funnier than
the previous one. Since the setup has already been established, the second, third, and fourth jokes are short, shorter, and shortest. You can keep
the roll building with physical action. When the audience laughs, it's the
equivalent of a home run with the bases loaded.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

245

QUESTION & ANSWER
WHAT'S THE HOLY GRAIL OF LIVE COMEDY?
Hollywood's annual Academy Awards, one of the highestrated TV specials, demands a comic for host—not for the
stodgy attendees, who feel too superior to laugh at an
outsider, but for the millions of pop-culture watchers
who are being fed tedious acceptance speeches by
actors, directors, and producers (who pathetically ad lib
mandatory bons motes of depreciation). One of the first
assignments of the show's producers is to find an MC
whose humor appeals to the youth—cinema's present
and future core audience.
Recently, the producers began to feature such humor "aristocrats" as
Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg, both of whom delight in ribald humor
about irreverent subjects. Unfortunately, their lewd digs did a disservice
to the art. They encouraged neophytes to believe that comedy is not truly
style and construction but a torrent of verbal farts into souped-up microphones. Those who think obscenities are a basic humor building block
are all fucked up.

The R u n n i n g Gag
A running gag (sometimes called a combo) is a line that comes early
in a monologue and then is repeated as a payoff line for jokes
scattered throughout the piece. Milton Berle's running gag was the
"makeup" line. Every time Berle called "Makeup!" a man would run
on stage and hit him in the face with a giant powder puff. The Russianborn comedian Yakov Smirnoff used a running gag in several of
his stories.
Soon after I came to America, I went to Tennessee. They are
always checking your hearing there. They keep saying, "Now, you
come back. You hear?" I can hear. Then a farmer played a practical
joke on me. He told me to milk his bull. Now when you milk a bull

246

Comedy Writing Secrets

you've made a friend for life. The bull kept running down the field
yelling, "Now you come back. You hear?"

One of the most famous running gags was Jack Benny's joke about
his parsimony. For years, he repeated the gag that resulted from a long
pause after a robber demanded, "Your money or your life!" Finally, the
robber asked, "Well?" And Benny would retort, "I'm thinking it over!"
The Callback
A callback is a reference to something said earlier in a routine or sketch.
The reference is usually a previous joke, but stand-up comics often use
callbacks after interacting with the audience—an audience member's
name will be inserted into a later joke. For a callback to work, the time
between the original reference and the callback must be relatively brief.
Repeated callbacks can be used (but never more than three times, of
course). Audiences like callbacks because repeated references cause
them to feel as if they are part of a shared experience.

The Saver
The saver is a line used to save you when a joke bombs. Johnny Carson
frequently used "I knew that joke wouldn't work." Others savers are
"That's the last time I buy a joke from [the president of the club]" or
"When did you all become members of a jury?" Comedy writers have to
prepare a fistful of savers for their clients. The most dangerous time is
when the fist is empty.
There are also savers for when a performance is interrupted by an
unexpected event—which no professional performer ever fails to expect.
A plane flies overhead: I hope it's one of ours.
Police siren: Here comes my ride home.
Electricity goes off: Call the power company and tell them the
check is in the mail.
Someone enters late: That's okay. Let me tell you what
you missed.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

247

Attractive man or woman enters late: I thought I told you to
stay in the tub.
Trip and fall to the platform: Now I'm ready to take questions
from the floor.

The worst thing a performer can do in the event of an onstage emergency is publicly complain. A humorist should alleviate tension,
not cause it.
Switching a Joke
Woody Allen called the old switcheroo the big non sequitur. You start
with a familiar story, then reverse (or switch) the ending. This is a popular technique because it catches the audience by surprise—especially
if you don't overuse it.
He carried a bullet in his breast pocket. Someone threw a Bible at
him and the bullet saved his life.
—Woody Allen

Working the Audience
Working the audience is a performance technique that requires a rare
skill. The performer goes into the audience and asks questions, then
makes brilliant insult rejoinders regardless of the target's answer.
Audiences love it because the humor is at the expense of someone else.
Tension is high: What if he comes over to me? Others don't mind being
insulted as long as they're the center of attention.
While difficult, working the audience can be deconstructed like
a magician's hocus-pocus. The performer must be in control at all
times, only asking questions or picking on people for whom he has
already prepared material. The questions are general—about hometowns, professions, clothing being worn, marital status, and size
of family. Therefore, answers can be predictable. There are only
so many states, professions, and colors of hair. Even our ages can
be categorized.
Working the audience can be dangerous because it runs counter to
the advice against threatening your audience, so this type of ad-lib per-

248

Comedy Writing Secrets

formance requires a great deal of practice, and must be carefully plotted
by the writer and the performer. Material should be tested repeatedly in
performance situations.
I love the complete fear when the curtain goes up. I never believe I
am completely prepared.
—Howie Mandel

A beginning version of this technique uses the audience as a
Greek chorus.
PERFORMER: Hey, every time I ask you a question, yell back
"Shit, no!"
CROWD: Shit, no!
PERFORMER: Having a good time tonight?
CROWD: Shit, no!
PERFORMER: Am I your favorite entertainer?
CROWD [LOUDER]: Shit, no!
PERFORMER: Are you going to get laid tonight?
CROWD [VERY LOUD]: Shit, no!
PERFORMER: Hell, I could have told you that!

SHOWTIME
The only way to truly understand the unique dynamics of live performance is to perform live. Most comedy clubs hold open-mic evenings on
Mondays for amateurs. Find out when your local open-mic nights are,
then create and perform a five-minute routine. Even if you don't plan to
become a stand-up comic, this experience will help you better understand how to write for performance.

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

249

QUESTION & ANSWER
WHY IS THE SAME PERFORMANCE GREAT ONE
DAY AND TERRIBLE THE NEXT?
Some psychologists believe outside factors account
for the wide variety of responses to identical humor from different audiences. The rule is that you can neither hypnotize
nor amuse an unwilling subject. External factors like bad
weather, current events (terrorism alerts or attacks), or
temporary physical irritations (the air conditioning
broke down, or the show started late) increase audience tension and
overcome their initial desire to take a vacation from reality. No performer
wants to face an audience daring him to abruptly change their mood.

MARKETING: SELLING YOUR HUMOR WRITING
TO STAND-UP P E R F O R M E R S
Most established comics will work only with freelance professionals—
and a freelance professional is defined not as someone who is funny but
as someone who is consistently funny for a living. It's not a waste of time
to send your material to big-name entertainers—only a fool would refuse
to look at new material. If the material is good, there's certainly a chance
they'll buy it, but it's not easy to sell material this way.
Some entertainers are afraid that unknowns may not be sending original material. Although jokes cannot be copyright-protected, anybody can
file a lawsuit for stealing material. Until a performer trusts you, you're in
a catch-22 situation. One way to promote trust is to not waste the performer's time by submitting unusable material.
Many beginning writers are afraid of being ripped off. Sometimes they
do get ripped off, but this doesn't happen as often as they fear it does.
Performers are anxious to develop reliable sources of material, not to
steal one joke. They are looking for consistency as well as quality, writers who can produce today, tomorrow, and next week.

250

Comedy Writing Secrets

One-joke sales are a thing of the past—no one buys them except
Reader's Digest. But repetitive formats, like David Letterman's Top Ten
List, are a freelancer's dream (this format, which Letterman fought to
take with him from NBC to CBS, was submitted by a freelance writer
from West Virginia).
The best strategy for selling your writing is to start locally and hang
out at comedy venues. Attend performances, then linger in the bar to network with managers and performers. Don't push your material on anyone right away. Get a feel for the types of material that the performers
use, and eventually ask if they will consider your work. Payment may not
be much at first, but the experience will be invaluable.
Beginning and established comics will probably be members of the
American Guild of Variety Artists. If there's a chapter where you live, it
may be willing to put you in touch with a particular performer to whom
you'd like to offer material.
When you submit material, send a collection of gags or routines, not
just a single item. If the performer reads something she likes, she'll try to
test it before purchase. A joke never tested cannot be funny; it can only
be called a bit. (If it works, it's called a funny bit.)

Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers

251

CHAPTER 14
Print Humor: Columns,
Articles, and Fillers
Humor is a rubber sword—it allows you to make a point without
drawing blood.
—Mary Hirsch

Magazine and newspaper editors are demanding more
levity in their publications. Even in serious nonfiction
pieces, they're anxious to lighten the load with humor.
They realize there are few new stories, so they're
looking for new ways of telling an old story. They
also recognize that their readers want more humor.
Studies show that the two most popular newspaper
editorial features are both humorous—the editorial
cartoon and the humor column. And material for
Reader's Digest humor columns are requested
in every issue.
Writing a humor column beats honest work. It leaves mornings
free for other projects, such as writing rare books. In my case, the
books are extremely rare.
—Art Hoppe

Humor for print is written differently than for live performances. This
chapter will describe humor-writing techniques for columns, articles,
and fillers. Other forms of print humor, including Web sites, bumper
stickers, T-shirts, and fortune cookies, will also be discussed.
COLUMNS
Journalists call it the toy department—the editorial columns of a newspaper. Reporters dream about seeing their own columns. "If the editorial

252

Comedy Writing Secrets

column is the land of Utopia," wrote writer Ed Cohen, "then the humor
column is its capital city."
The humor column is a soapbox upon which clever writers can air
their views. Humor permits them to take stands on issues of major and
minor importance. Some of the most controversial subjects start out as
humor pieces.
Bob Greene was an avid Coke drinker, and when Coca-Cola broke a
ninety-nine-year tradition and changed the recipe, he wrote an outrageous humor column demanding that Coke bring back the old formula.
He thought his temper in print would have no more sting than the usual
political cartoon. Even he was surprised when his article helped snowball a national protest, and the public outcry forced Coca-Cola to bring
back the old formula as "Coke Classic."
Frequently, humor columnists are discovered while they're writing for
some other area of a paper, shuffling humor into their news articles. Erma
Bombeck started out as an obituary writer for the Dayton Journal Herald.
In 1963, she talked the editors into letting her have her own column. (She
was paid three dollars apiece for her columns, but she claimed they were
really worth twice that much.)
Anybody can bring out your tears. That's a piece of cake. It is
twenty times—no, make that fifty times—easier to make people
cry rather than laugh.
—Erma Bombeck

For some time, the two most popular syndicated columns in newspapers were the personal advice columns written under the fictional
names Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, both of whom were read as
much for their humor as for their advice. For many years, the next in
popularity were the four Bs: Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, Russell
Baker, and Dave Barry.
The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work,
and that writing didn't require any.
—Russell Baker

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

253

The average columnist works under deadline three times a week. Humor
columns average 450 words, and rarely exceed 600. Humor columnists
cannot make the reporter's standard excuse—that it was a slow news day.
As a result, they frequently concentrate on the beat they know best: themselves. Humor columns often have a second life—Bombeck's columns
were the source of several bestselling books, such as The Grass Is Always
Greener Over the Septic Tank.
Some columnists work in rhyme, and nothing could be verse than
that! This four-liner by Don Marquis, titled "Nothing to It," refers to his
humor column.
I do not work in verse or prose,
I merely lay out words in rows.
The household words that Webster penned—
I merely lay them end-to-end.

Russell Baker once ridiculed the Internal Revenue Service with a
"Taxpayer's Prayer," a parody in the form of Biblical text.
O mighty Internal Revenue, who turneth the labor of man to ashes,
we thank thee for the multitude of thy forms which thou hast set
before us and for the infinite confusion of thy commandments
which multiplieth the fortunes of lawyer and accountant alike.

But verse or prose, column humor comes in five forms.
1. the anecdote
2. the one-line joke
3. overstatement
4. understatement
5. ironic truth
The Anecdote
Humor in print demands a lighter touch than verbal humor. According to
Roy Paul Nelson in his book Articles and Features, a light touch simply
means a relaxed writing style—but not so relaxed it ends up cute. Rejection
slips from editors often mention that an article could have used anecdotes to

254

Comedy Writing Secrets

illustrate generalizations. Generalizations include adjectives like frugal,
tough, fast-thinking, and horny.
There are two types of anecdotes: (a) a short, one-paragraph tale of
simple humor, and (b) a short, short story, rarely more than three paragraphs. Both types of anecdotes breathe life into any article and can
either precede or follow a generalization.
All anecdotes should:
1. sound true, or at least realistic
2. depict a common situation
3. start off with an attention-getting opening line
4. end with a one-line, bright response
Here are examples of short and long anecdotes. Note how they both have
the characteristics mentioned above.
SHORT ANECDOTE
These days, ask a child a simple question, better be prepared
for a very honest answer. I was baby-sitting my six-year-old
granddaughter the other night and when we sat down for dinner,
I asked, "Nyika, at home do you pray before every meal?" And
she said, "No, grandpa, we don't have to. Mom is a great cook!"
LONGER ANECDOTE
As I was walking across campus yesterday, I saw one of my blind
students, Troy, being led by his seeing-eye dog to the campus gate.
I followed closely behind because I was curious to see how the
dog was going to get Troy safely across the street. At the busy
corner, they came to a stop when the light turned red. Then, as
soon as it turned green, the dog lifted his leg and urinated over
Troy's pants.
I watched in amazement as Troy bent down and called the dog
over and patted him on his head. Then he reached in his breast
pocket and took out a biscuit and put it in the dog's mouth.
I couldn't help saying, "Troy, that was the kindest act I've
ever seen."

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

255

"Kind, hell," retorted Troy, "I just wanted to find out where his
head was so I could kick him in the ass."
—Mel Helitzer

Ultimately, it's more important for anecdotes to be humorous than to be
true. Writers shade facts and edit true stories to save the punchline for
last. When stories are made up, the readers should not be clued with
lines like "This story may be apocryphal, but. ..." (Few readers know
that word, anyway.)
Some anecdotes are obviously fictional; others may need a disclaimer.
(But if you start with "One day, God, Jesus, and Moses were playing
golf," don't bother using a disclaimer.)
Three baseball umpires were arguing. Said the first, "I call
balls and strikes exactly the way they come." (This man was
an objectivist.)
Said the second, "I can't do that. I call them balls or strikes the
way I see them." (This man was a subjectivist.)
But the third had ideas of his own. "They are neither balls nor
strikes until I call them." (He was an existentialist.)
—Nels F.S. Ferre

The One-Line Joke
One-liners are the backbone of humor writing. In print humor, oneliners inject humor without detracting from the message of the article
or column.
It's important to remember that a joke is written differently for the
printed page than it is for a performer. Columns and articles use a high
percentage of cliché-inspired aphorisms. The printed page also permits
more use of puns and double entendres, because homonyms are more
understandable in writing.
A pastor said to his congregation: To meet our budget deficit, I ask
all of you to consider giving 10 percent of your income. Frankly,
your church is fit to be tithed.
—Herm Albright

256

Comedy Writing Secrets

You'll find double entendres and puns all over the editorial pages. Puns
are also a staple of newspaper headlines and photo captions. Within
hours after a humpback whale got lost and mistakenly swam sixty miles
up the Sacramento River into the middle of California, editors and T-shirt
designers were having "a whale of a time." And when a luxury car fell
into a giant pothole in Columbus, Ohio, even the South China Morning
Post in Hong Kong ran the picture with the caption: "The hole truth—
Mercedes bends."
A skilled columnist can turn an average one-liner into a thoughtprovoking observation—on life, children, husbands, even sports. Erma
Bombeck filled her column "Wits End" with clever truisms that are as
sharp today as they were when she first wrote them.
I don't think women outlive men, it only seems longer.
There is nothing more miserable in the world than to arrive in paradise and look like your passport photo.
No self-respecting mother would run out of intimidations on the
eve of a major holiday.
Before you try to keep up with the Joneses, be sure they're not
trying to keep up with you.
The Rose Bowl is the only bowl I've ever seen that I didn't
have to clean.

Columnist Dave Barry is the reigning king of pithy observations.
Karate is a form of martial arts in which people who have had
years and years of training can, using only their hands and feet,
make some of the worst movies in the history of the world.
Life is anything that dies when you stomp on it.
Buying the right computer and getting it to work properly is no
more complicated than building a nuclear reactor from wristwatch
parts in a darkened room using only your teeth.

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

257

I have long contended that, however many zillion dollars the federal government costs us, we get it all back and more in the form
of quality entertainment.

Overstatement
Russell Baker is a cynic who sees the world as it is, instead of as it
should be. In his column "An Idea That Must Be Unfolded Now," Baker
used exaggeration to describe an early success of his "National
Bumbershoot Academy."
The pattern is familiar to us all. If you rise on a rainy morning and
go to the closet for your umbrella, you find the umbrella gone.
Usually it has gone to the office. If you go to the office on a clear
morning, and it rains in the afternoon and you go to the closet for
your umbrella, what do you find? Your umbrella is gone. Most
cases it has gone home.

Another example of overstatement was Baker's attack on the Super
Bowl, the Miss America pageant, and the Academy Awards as three
American religious rituals.
They are utterly boring, meaningless, pointless, and whatever
happens doesn't make a goddam bit of difference to anything that
is going to happen tomorrow. But when they run, the whole country comes together in some kind of great national town meeting.
—Russell Baker

Understatement
Art Buchwald's ironic humor is so understated, the uninitiated reader
thinks Buchwald is deadly serious. After the attorney general published a
report recommending action against pornography, Buchwald wrote:
I'd like to volunteer my services. One of my greatest fantasies has
been to censor magazines and send those who sell them to jail. ...
My qualifications? I've read many of the magazines the pornography commission finds objectionable. Secondly, I know exactly
where in the store such reading materials are kept. ... I have done

258

Comedy Writing Secrets

a lot of dry runs since the report was published. I know how to distinguish between literature with no redeeming value, as opposed
to magazines which are just trying to give me a cheap thrill.

H O N E YOUR HUMOR WRITING

SHOWTIME
Select one of the five humor-writing techniques for columns, and compose
a 500-word humorous column. Write about the subject, not yourself.

ARTICLES
When writing jokes, you just want to be funny. When writing a humorous
article, you want to inform and educate in a humorous way. Humor is
appropriate in either of the two following situations.
1. THE SUBJECT OF THE ARTICLE IS A PERSON KNOWN FOR
HUMOR. This makes humor in the article almost mandatory. The trick
to profiling a humorist is to avoid trying to upstage the subject by forcing
your own humor into the article. This is especially risky when you are

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

259

writing about humor professionals who've spent many years perfecting
their lines, because you've got only a few days to perfect yours. You're
bound to come off looking second-rate. Make use of the great lines the
subject has created. Don't rewrite and don't compete.
2. THE SUBJECT MATTER IS SERIOUS, BUT IT CAN BE MADE
FUNNY. Some article topics are inherently funny: a dog who sings along
to rock music. Others are serious but can be treated in a humorous manner an old lady who rides a motorcycle. It's obviously easier to produce
humor when the subject itself is humorous, as is the case in the first example. The humor for the second type of subject, however, must be gentle,
reassuring, and predictable. It should celebrate ordinary events in a new
way. It should bring a smile of recognition rather than a hearty laugh. Its
success is based upon genuineness of feeling and clarity of writing.
Even very serious subjects are more memorable when humor is
added. In serious articles, humor works best as an opener. You can suck
the reader into the story faster with a good anecdote. You'll find examples of this technique every day in front-page features in the Wall Street
Journal. A humorous anecdote also works well as a sign-off.
FILLERS
The term filler, which originated when type was set by hand or
Linotype, refers to the one- or two-line tidbits editors used to quickly
fill space at the end of a column or a page. A filler can be a joke, quote,
short anecdote, or other small contribution. Today, fillers are more
common in Reader's Digest than in daily newspapers.
There is no precise formula for a filler. "A good filler," wrote Betty
Johnston, a former Reader's Digest editor, "is one that the reader will
want to quote or read aloud to a colleague." Because most magazines
have editorial deadlines four and five months in advance of publication,
fillers need a certain timelessness and relevance—a quote or anecdote
from the past must have some special application for today.
My father, a retired Air Force pilot, often sprinkles his conversation
with aviation jargon. I didn't realize what flying had meant to him,

260

Comedy Writing Secrets

however, until the day he showed me the folder with his last will
and testament. It was labeled "Cleared for departure."
—Cheryl E. Drake

Several staff editors at Reader's Digest review all humor anecdotes and
fillers. Humor is read by at least two editors before being rejected so that
the bad mood of one editor won't automatically eliminate a marginal possibility. Then, the magazine submits all material seriously being considered for publication to an index department, where it's checked for
originality. (A beginning writer can ruin her reputation with a magazine
by trying to pass off someone else's material as her own.) Finally, a
research department checks original sources for verification.
Personal anecdotes are acceptable fillers, but anecdotes about
famous people are particularly desirable because names make news (or
the other way around).
Many general publications have taboos against bathroom humor, vulgarity, and stories that ridicule the handicapped. Put-down humor is
acceptable when the joke is in the cleverness of the response to the putdown, so self-deprecating stories have a much greater chance of publication. A few magazines are also interested in reprinting good humor from
other publications, and will pay readers handsomely for discovering it.
The New Yorker delights in typos and short items with unintentional double entendres or weird phrasing.
Unlike a regular article, a filler is usually paid for only on publication.
(Which means that if your piece is omitted at the last minute because
they ran out of space, you'll get no check.) Reader's Digest gets thousands of submissions each month, many online (at www.rd.com), so they
don't return material even if you include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). If they like your piece, you'll generally hear within three
months—but sometimes they may take up to a year to respond. Keep this
in mind when deciding whether to submit the same material elsewhere.
(If you have sold the item elsewhere and any magazine's research department calls to verify, never lie. You'll win that game only once, and will be
blackballed forever.)

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

261

SHOWTIME
Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper on a controversial subject—it's one of the easiest ways to get published. Remember, you'll have a
better chance of getting published if you use humor and follow the writing
guidelines previously described. For example, the annual swimsuit issue of
Sports Illustrated prompts more letters from readers than many other issues
combined. (It gets a lot of subscriptions renude.) Here's an example of a letter that got published because of a basic reverse technique.
I was shocked at the display of flesh [that issue] contained.
What legs! What chests! Where did you find those Sumo
wrestlers?

QUESTION & ANSWER
HOW CAN I INCREASE MY CHANCES
OF GETTING PUBLISHED?
The key to the sale of a column, article, or filler is the
perfect marriage of quality humor with the periodical's subject matter and audience. Look through
an annually updated directory—like Writer's Market,
which lists hundreds of publications and their submission guidelines—and identify publications that match
your specific areas of interest and accept humorous material. After you've selected several publications, go to a bookstore or library and look through them. Once you're
certain that your material matches a certain magazine, follow the publication's submission guidelines.

262

Comedy Writing Secrets

Comedy writers Stef and Mary Kaiser Donev sell regularly to regional
medical journals with small pieces like: "Hemorrhoids: They Won't Kill
You—You Just Wish They Would," and "The One Sure Cure of Acne—Old
Age." They claim that a 1,500-word article on a subject like hospital-room
etiquette can contain up to eight humorous anecdotes or jokes and still
be considered serious and informative.

THE I N T E R N E T
The humor-writing principles discussed in this book also apply to
pieces posted on the Internet, with one exception: Internet pieces
must be shorter than print articles. The physical layout of a Web
page and the short attention span of the typical Web surfer both
mandate concision. The title and opening of an Internet piece are
critical—if surfers are not hooked by the first few lines, they'll click
to the next site.
One of the most popular and well-written humor Web sites are
McSweeney's Internet Tendency (www.mcsweeneys.net), College Humor
(www.collegehumor.com), and The Onion (www.onion.com); a news source
with factitious stories and funny takes on "real" news. Examples of headlines from The Onion are:
Deadbeat Dads March on Las Vegas
Goth Kid Builds Scary-Ass Bird House
College Student Does Nothing for Tibet Over Summer

If you'd like to get published on an established Web site, review
the submission guidelines on the site and follow their instructions.
Many sites require sample submissions to the editor. You can also
look for sites that hold writing contests for readers. Some of the
more popular sites, like The Onion, for example, do not accept freelance material.
An alternative to getting published on an established site is to construct
your own Web page. You can also post your best jokes, anecdotes, and stories in a personal blog (Web log). Setting up a blog is simple, and numerous

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

263

Web sites (including www.blogger.com) provide step-by-step instructions
for creating your own humor space on the Internet.
A B B R E V I A T E D P R I N T HUMOR:
E V E R Y W H E R E YOU WANT TO BE
Abbreviated humor copy appears in a wide variety of forms, from
bumper stickers to window signs. They don't get written by themselves.
For pros, such writing assignments are a great way to earn petty cash
with material that doesn't fit anywhere else.
Bumper Stickers: Put It on Your Rear
Bumper stickers publicly indicate the way we feel about ourselves. They
are for adults what T-shirt humor is for adolescents. They are more popular than buttons and more socially acceptable than painted graffiti. Their
form is very structured.
1. They must be short, rarely more than eight words.
Cover me. I'm changing lanes.
I brake for no apparent reason.

2. They are usually a play on words (POW).
Archaeologists do it with any old thing.
Where there's a will, I want to be in it.

3. Paired words are effective in this format.
To make America work, Americans worked.
4. They frequently refer to specific interests and activities.
I is a college student.
Work is for people who don't know how to fish.

5. They are often nihilistic.
Get a taste of religion. Bite a preacher.
Learn from your parents' mistakes—use birth control.

264

Comedy Writing Secrets

6. They include a lot of put-down humor and insults.
Watch out for the nut behind me.
Forget about world peace—use your turn signal.
Keep honking. I'm reloading.

T-Shirts: Put It on Your Front
If there was ever a cottage industry in humor land, it's the T-shirt business. You can not only write the gags from your own kitchen, you can be
in business in less time than it takes to marinate a steak. Typical of T-shirt
success stories is that of Dan Gray, a high school dropout from Cleveland
who went into business with an investment of six hundred dollars, and
five years later was grossing six million dollars in sales under the name of
Daffy Dan's T-Shirts.
T-shirt humor is written from the point of view of adolescents who
have discovered that body language is the next step up from sticking out
their tongues. T-shirt copy is frequently made up of in-jokes brazenly
poking fun at some local happening: a current news event, sports event,
or a success story ("I survived ..." is the most popular legend).
The writing techniques used most often for T-shirts are double
entendres and reformed clichés. The only other requirement is that
the copy be short. T-shirt manufacturers must get in and out of fads
quickly because the humor is topical and very short-lived; three
weeks is average, and a fad that lasts three months is a big winner.
As a result, they welcome ideas and suggestions offered on spec
(payment only if accepted, with no guarantee of acceptance). The only
value, in this case, of an on-spec presentation is that a meeting may
result in an assignment from the manufacturer to focus on a specific
future happening.
T-shirts are popular premium giveaways for all types of commercial
businesses. A dental practice might request T-shirts with the quip: "I got
drilled by Dr. Allen," for instance.
T-shirt humor, like the T-shirt itself, gets dirty quickly. Sex teasers are
one of the biggest commercial T-shirt successes.

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

265

Consume now before I'm all used up.
You can't win if you don't play.
Feel good all under.
Help with the fun raising.

Fortune Cookies: Put It in Your Mouth
In most Chinese-American restaurants, guests are awarded a free fortune
cookie at the end of a meal. Fortune cookies are unknown in China,
although a few Chinese historians believe they were invented by revolutionaries during the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644) who used the brittle
folded cakes to pass secret messages. (No, one of them was not "Help! I'm
a hostage in a fortune cookie factory.") Today, they are like the prize in the
Cracker Jack box. Some restaurants even provide pornographic cookies
on request.
Fortunes must sound like Confucius composed them.
Success is relative. More success, more relatives.
Anger improves nothing except the arch of a cat's back.

In truth, they're written by gag writers who knock off fifty improbable
predictions, bits of sage advice, and witticisms a day.
Money not key to happiness, but unlocks interesting doors.

Chinese restaurant managers even have their own gag line for when a
customer accidentally receives an empty cookie. Sara Wilson tells the
story of the waiter who said to his customer, "Ah, very lucky. No news
is good news."
MARKETING A B B R E V I A T E D P R I N T HUMOR: PUT
IT IN YOUR WALLET
If you're interested in producing your own ideas instead of selling them
to a company, there are a number of do-it-yourself software programs
that allow you to create your own products. Many printers also specialize
in bumper stickers, T-shirts, and fortune cookies. Search the Internet for
a current listing.

266

Comedy Writing Secrets

SHOWTIME
Write a series of one-liners that could be used for bumper stickers,
T-shirts, or fortune cookies. For example, write abbreviated copy for
advertising your job, identifying your hometown, or promoting your
sexual prowess (that won't take you long).

Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers

267

CHAPTER 15
Saw the Picture, Loved the Gag: Humor
for Cartoons and Greeting Cards
Now I'm getting paid for what I used to get in trouble for when I
was in school—drawing in class.
—Ben Sargent

Even if your artistic skills are limited to stick figures, you can still work
with visual humor. For the professional gag writer, cartoon and greeting
card humor are no different than the basic one-liner—a play on words
(POW), a reverse, exaggeration, or take-off. The cartoon (or the outside
of the greeting card) is typically the setup, and the caption (inside of the
card) is the punchline.
Most humor historians agree that the advent of The New Yorker in
1925 most influenced the development of the gag cartoon. This magazine
made cartoons respectable, and according to English scholar M. Thomas
Inge, it also "established the standard against which the works of all
modern cartoonists are measured."
Prior to The New Yorker, humor cartoons consisted primarily of illustrations indicating a dialogue between two people, both of whom were
identified by pronouns, names, or titles, as if the caption was a play script. Drawings were stylized and not
intended to add much to the comedic impact. The narrative was expected to carry the full load.
GENTLEMAN CALLER TO MAID: You
might ask your mistress if she is at home?
MAID: It's no use, sir. She saw you coming

Today, the formula is the same, but the style is different. The humor copy is shorter—pithy—and specialized. Because of the influence of The New

268

Comedy Writing Secrets

Yorker, the two-person dialogue has practically disappeared in favor of
the one-line gag caption. Today's satirical cartoons demand an audience
that's sophisticated and literate enough to be comfortable with the
eccentricities of modern life.
The three major cartoon formats are single-panels, comic strips, and
political cartoons.
SINGLE-PANEL CARTOONS
You see these cartoons everywhere you look, from magazines as varied
as Cat Fancy, Skydiving, and Highlights for Children to your local editorial page (we'll discuss political cartooning shortly). A single-panel
cartoon is just that—a single, self-contained cartoon generally consisting of a short joke and an illustration. Your chances of succeeding in
this field are greatest if you can provide both the verbal and visual components yourself.
The Verbal Component
Single-panel cartoons generally include little or no text. At most, you
may see three or four short lines. Since you don't have a lot of room to
showcase your humor, technique is especially important. Some of the
most common humor techniques for the verbal component of singlepanel cartoons are one-liners, reverses, double entendres, and social
commentary in the form of a spoof.
The Basic One-Liner
The one-liner is the meat and potatoes of cartoon humor. Such gags combine a stereotype setup with a surprise caption. Since the caption can
usually carry its own weight without a distinctive graphic, it can be successful in publications like Reader's Digest without any artwork at all.
Girl introducing one beau to another: Albert, this is Edward.
Edward, this is goodbye.
—Leo Garel

The Reverse
The illustration is straight, but the caption is a reverse on a cliché.

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

269

Doctor, pointing to the X-ray of a beautiful girl: What's a joint like
this doing in a nice girl like you?
—Jack Markow

More often, the caption is a reverse of a train of thought.
Husband, watching TV, to wife at door: A walk in the moonlight?
Sounds like a great idea. Take the dog with you.
—Hagerman

Exaggerations: Ticks of the Trade
The jargon of every profession encourages double entendres and the
simple (exaggerated) truth. They are especially valuable for trade magazines looking for customized humor.
Bookseller, staggering under the load of a large, flat stone covered
with hieroglyphics, to customer: Here's that first edition you wanted.

Spoofs of Language. Habits, and Customs
Current habits and customs can be humorous when spoofed by supersophisticated children, super-sprightly elders, aliens, and animals.
Turns of phrase can also be humorous, especially when they don't fit
the speaker.
Two children, looking at a bent nail: I think it's called a dammit.
—Burbank

The Visual Component
The visuals in a single-panel cartoon should not be complex. The illustration must take only a second to absorb, and must immediately be within
the reader's intellectual grasp.
Even aspiring humorists who can't draw with much skill have a
chance in this field if they can hone in on their own style.. "Most people
can't draw anymore in the classical sense, and that can be oka," said Bob
Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker. "I like to say to the people
who can't draw: There's bad-bad drawing and bad-good drawing. Now
when you look at Thurber, you see bad-good drawing. You see something
that's easy and consistent and confident. I don't have a formula, but in a

270

Comedy Writing Secrets

drawing that's simple, you want some sort of charm and personality to
come through."
Most single-panel cartoons feature two characters, but usually only one
character does the talking. Other basic illustrations range from one central
character talking on the phone to cartoons showing small groups of three
or four easily identifiable characters. The only purpose of the illustration is
to communicate the basic context in which the reader should interpret the
joke. The caption is about the only thing that surprises.
Two chorus girls: I think a girl should marry for love. I'm going to
fall in love with the first millionaire I meet.

Let's take a closer look at some of the most common visual techniques
used in single-panel cartoons.
This Is Balloony
Humor copy can be written in balloons above the speaker's head or as a
caption underneath the illustration. The balloon doesn't even have to contain copy. In a cartoon by Randall Harrison, a man and woman are depicted
with a balloons above their heads. The man's balloon is empty, while the
balloon above the woman reads: "Richard, you're always so thoughtless."
The Hidden Element
The basic gag in this type of illustration is that something is hidden from
one of the characters. Everyone else, including the reader, knows what's
taking place. For example, a scuba diver doesn't see what's coming up
behind him; or a wife, looking out into the jungle, keeps talking to her
husband, who's being swallowed by a python. Incongruity is fundamental
in humor, and this type of cartoon is a perfect example of the superiority
theory. We laugh because we know somebody else is about to become, in
more ways than one, a fall guy.
Understatement and Overstatement
Another type of cartoon juxtaposes an outrageous caption with a commonplace visual image, or an exaggerated illustration with mundane text
below. When the illustration is exaggerated, the main character usually
speaks in a way that indicates innocence, naïveté, or general stupidity.

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

271

Department store information clerk to flasher who has opened his
raincoat: Men's department. Third floor center.

When the caption is exaggerated, the cartoon usually depicts a commonplace setting.
Caveman to friend playing golf: I feel safe in saying that this game
we've invented will be a calming and soothing influence on
mankind for all time to come.
—Bernhardt

Transformations
Transferring human characteristics to animals is called anthropomorphism. In humor, it is called transformation, and it has been a favorite
cartoon device since the times of cavemen.
One forest ranger to another as bear drives off in Jeep: I warned
you about leaving the key in the ignition.

A popular practitioner of transformation is Gary Larson, creator of The
Far Side. An example of Larson's style of humor shows a lady crouching
down to feed squirrels. One squirrel says to the other, "Oh I can't stand
it! They're so cute when they sit like that!"
Nowadays, transformations can be applied not just to animals but to
such things as technology.
A baby computer crawls up to a big computer and says: Data.

Change of Time Frame
When today's customs, habits, or phrases are juxtaposed with those of
another era, you have an opportunity for understated or overstated
incongruity. Cartoonist Charles Addams's scene of a space rocket ready
for launch being boarded by a long trail of animals, two by two, works
visually and needs no caption.
The Reverse
This technique, so popular in other forms of humor writing, can appear
in cartoons in the illustration, in the caption, or in the interplay between

272

Comedy Writing Secrets

the two. A visual example would be two horses playing horseshoes with
a set of human shoes. In a caption, the reverse would work just like a
standard reverse in humor writing.
Woman talking to friend: I like sex in the morning—right after Bill
goes to work.

When the reverse is in the interplay between the caption and illustration,
it can go something like this.
MC introducing beautiful girl to reunion dinner party: And now for
the award to our former classmate who's changed the most since
graduation. You may remember her better as Ed Furgeson.
—V.M. Yels

A frequent reverse formula is to apply new visual interpretations to a cliché.
" Darling, they're playing our song" is a straight line when it's a caption under
a picture of a couple dancing. It becomes a reverse when the illustration
shows a stout couple on a luxury liner hearing the steward strike the dinner
bell. It also works (without the word darling) when one mechanic shouts it
to another as two cars smash into each other just outside of their garage.

SHOWTIME
Check out The New Yorker's cartoon collection online at www.
cartoonbank.com. After you get a feel for cartooning techniques, find
fifteen to twenty cartoons, illustrations, or photographs without captions
and write a humorous punchline for each one.

COMIC STRIP HUMOR: THE PLOT NEVER THICKENS
Comic strips, such as Jim Davis's Garfield and Scott Adams's Dilbert, differ
from single-panel cartoons in that they contain three to six panels that

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

273

work together to convey a single joke. The amount of text in each individual panel varies from nothing at all to two or three short lines. Since most
comic strips are syndicated, freelancing in this area can be more difficult
than finding work as a single-panel cartoonist. Here are a few tips for creating successful comic strips.
1. KEEP THE SPOTLIGHT ON THE STAR. The focus of humor should
always be on your lead character. Just as in a sitcom or sketch comedy,
the cast is there to support the central character. This is why there are
never more than three main characters in any one panel.
2. A CHARACTER IS A CONSTANT. The star of the strip doesn't
change. He always looks the same and wears the same basic expressions—and not too many of those, either. This character's actions are
predictable.
3. THERE IS NO PLOT. The first frames are only the setup and background for a simple line of logic or illogic. Running gags are popular.
Popeye's spinach and Dagwood's super sandwich are still working after
more than fifty years.
4. DIALOGUE IS ALWAYS SPARSE. Sentences run four or five words
per panel. There is much use of exclamations. The key words are repeated,
as in this Peanuts example from Charles Schulz.
PANEL ONE: Two kids sitting on steps watch Charlie Brown
approach. Boy says to girl: Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown.
PANEL TWO: Charlie is next to them: Good ol' Charlie Brown. ...
Yes, sir!
PANEL THREE: Charlie has just passed: Good ol' Charlie Brown ...
PANEL FOUR: Charlie is out of sight: How I hate him!

POLITICAL CARTOONS: W H E R E EVERYTHING'S
BLACK A N D WHITE
Political cartooning is an example of the use of hostility in humor—they
are vicarious opportunities to bitch and gripe. Typically consisting of a

274

Comedy Writing Secrets

single-panel image and a biting one-liner, these jewels of the editorial
page offer readers a chance to blow off steam, a chance to say, "Yeah!
Give it to 'em."
What can be better than being able to draw, get pissed at people,
and mouth off whenever you want to?
—Mike Peters

A political cartoon's value is as an irritant, lightning rod, or catalyst. As
Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury, observed, "We're not paid to be
fair. In fact, if it were fair, then it would become something altogether different ... once you say you may not exaggerate, you may not use hyperbole, you may not stretch the truth, you take away all these tools, and you
don't have satire at the end of the day."
Practitioners of political cartooning have been a powerful intellectual
and political force. Benjamin Franklin drew the famous "Join or Die" cartoon that showed the colonies as separate pieces of a serpent. Thomas
Nast created the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, and
helped drive Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall crowd from power in
New York in the 1870s. Clifford Berryman's drawing of Teddy Roosevelt
refusing to shoot a bear cub was the inspiration for doll manufacturers to
create "Teddy's bear."
Today, in the golden age of political cartooning, hundreds of full-time
editorial cartoonists, protected by the First Amendment, are daily lampooning the controversial issues and attitudes of our day.
Most cartoonists like me—who like to attack—are like loaded
guns. Every morning we start looking through the newspaper for a
target to blast. That's our function. If you're trying to be fair, whatever you're putting across would have to be watered down.
—Mike Peters

Drawing heat for their work is the norm for political cartoonists.
Cartoonists aren't positive they're getting their message across unless
they're besieged with obscene mail, threatening phone calls, and petitions urging they be reassigned to the unemployment line.

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

275

The dream of every editorial cartoonist is to get picketed.
It's got to be.
—Mike Peters

The single element all political cartoons must have in common is devastating wit. Their caricatures and situations raise smiles, laughs, whoops,
and the desire to repeat the message to your associates. Increasingly, editorial cartoons not only expose the emperor's lack of clothes (or
thought), but do it humorously.
Political cartoons are inherently more difficult than other types of cartoons. In order for the reader to get the joke, the visual metaphor in the
cartoon must instantly conjure a well-known subject. "People must really
understand what you're talking about before you start communicating,"
said cartoonist Hugh Haynie. Therefore, humor must make a biting point,
not just play against the illustration. It can do this by either exaggerating
the art or exaggerating the joke.
The real test is coming up with ideas day after day, so while they
don't like to advertise it, political cartoonists are ripe markets for freelance humorists who know their style and are able to work off current
headlines. Just send them the item. They'll do the drawing. You can
draw the check.
Exaggerated Art
Artwork for political cartoons is far more important than that for singlepanel cartoons. For one thing, the ability to caricature famous personalities is a must. The best cartoons must hit you squarely in the jaw,
so the artists look for a distinctive physical feature of each personality
and exaggerate it. A stout woman becomes very fat. A tall man
becomes a giant.
Another requirement is the use of stereotypical symbols. To some
cartoonists, the CIA is a cloaked individual stealthily sneaking around
corners. To others, it's Frankenstein's monster breaking down doors and
crushing innocents.
The most frequent subject of caricature is the person who happens to
be president. Richard Nixon, with his dark-shadowed face and beady

276

Comedy Writing Secrets

eyes, was a political cartoonist's ideal target, and was pounced on with
devastating force. Another popular target was Bill Clinton and his personal foibles.
You know, with the Clinton years, reality was getting ahead of
satire. I mean, you were almost just drawing what was happening,
and it was hard to get ahead of it, and when that happens, that's
very hard for a cartoonist. So I hope things are going to settle
down and we can get to work on being satirists again, instead of
having it done for us by the guy who's the object of it all.
—Pat Oliphant

Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Pat Oliphant usually engages
his characters in a burlesque of some current controversy. And always,
a wisecracking penguin comments on the action from a lower corner of
the panel. Oliphant's style has been so widely copied that young cartoonists almost find it obligatory to insert smart-aleck animals of their
own in the corners of their drawings. As cartoonist Mike Luckovich
noted, "There wasn't a sense of fun in editorial cartooning, I think,
before Oliphant."
Exaggerated Text
Political cartoonists jump on names that lend themselves to double
entendres. Cartoonist Bill Sanders told of a municipal court judge by the
name of Christ T. Seraphim who "used to take his first name seriously
and the Bill of Rights in vain."
To attack the high cost of health care, cartoonist Steve Kelley drew a
scene of a patient in a doctor's office falling backwards off his stool after
reading his bill. The doctor scribbles on his chart, "Reflexes normal."
Outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a
good political cartoonist than ill will. Cartoons are more likely to
be effective when the artist's attitude is hostile, to be even better
when his attitude is rage, and when he reaches hate, then he can
really get going.
—Jules Feiffer

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

277

B R E A K I N G IN TO CARTOONS
Finding work in political cartooning can be difficult, especially if your
goal is to see your work appear in a publication such as The New Yorker.
Bob Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor and a cartoonist in his own
right, receives more than 1,000 submissions each week, 980 of which he
rejects. If you target your submissions carefully, however, and hone your
skills by creating cartoons for publications that are more open to working with freelancers, your chances of success increase.
As recently as twenty years ago, it was common for a writer to
write the caption and an artist to draw the illustration, but things have
since changed. According to Mary Cox, editor of Artist's & Graphic
Designer's Market, "You really need to be able to do both—or know a
collaborator—if you're going to be successful in this field. It's rare for
editors to set up artists and writers—especially if they're beginners
with no track records."
While it may be easier to find work if you can handle both the visual and
the verbal aspects of cartooning yourself, collaborations between a cartoonist or illustrator and a gag writer still exist. But the partnership is not
equal. The illustrator gets three times as much money, 75 percent of the fee.
The lion's share of the money goes to the illustrator because editors
usually contract for the services of the illustrator first. The artist, or his
sales rep, comes in with a portfolio of material on spec. If the editor loves
it, she'll try to work out some agreement, either exclusive or first-option,
because each major cartoon market—magazines, newspapers, or syndicates—wants an individual look. You can achieve that in graphics more
easily than with one-liners.
Once the job is assigned, it's up to the artist to produce the quality of
humorous material demonstrated by his portfolio. Buyers don't care how
it's done. The artist is the only one paid, and how the fee is split with the
gag writers is none of the buyer's concern. As a result, the artist in need
of ideas hires gag writers. An established artist can work through the
mail with a dozen freelance writers on a "pay if used" basis.
In a sense, the cart is more valuable than the horse. Illustrations are
not great works of art; most of them are stereotyped setups, and the

278

Comedy Writing Secrets

fun is in the text. The gag writer does most of the creative work, and
the artist gets most of the money. It doesn't sound fair, but it's not that
different a setup from the one between on-stage performers and their
gag writers.
The writer should submit each gag line on an individual index card.
The back of the card should include contact information and the file
number you assigned to that gag so it can be referred to in correspondence. Gag ideas are all the artist requires, unless the humor is the result
of a unique illustration.
The National Cartoonist Society (www.reuben.org) offers comprehensive resources for the professional cartoonist. The annually updated
Artist's & Graphic Designer's Market includes submission guidelines
and contact information for hundreds of publications that accept cartoons from freelancers. Other recommended books include The Big
Book of Cartooning by Bruce Blitz and Everything You Ever Wanted to
Know About Cartooning but Were Afraid to Draw by Christopher Hart.
GREETING CARDS: HUMOR IN THE MAIL
Personal sentiments, such as love and sympathy, have been incorporated
into American greeting cards since the 1870s. When telephones became
popular, there was fear in the greeting card industry that these brief missives would be one of Ma Bell's first victims. Au contraire! Letter writing
is down, but greeting card sales continue to skyrocket. Forbes once estimated that half of all personal mail is now preprinted greeting cards—
you can't put a phone call on the mantle.
Most cards are printed on one piece of 6' 3/4" x 9" stock folded once so it
has a front cover (known as the outside) that opens to a double spread
(known as the inside). Including multicolor printing, the cost of manufacturing the average greeting card (consisting of, say, four lines and a muted
sunset) doesn't even approach the retail price. Even after adding the usual
costs of distribution, sales, advertising, and overhead, the profits from
greeting card publishing are enormous.
What is more significant for the world of humor writing is that every
year buyers are willing to spend billions of dollars to have someone else

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

279

write a funny (albeit mass-produced) message for one of their dear relatives or friends. This means that greeting card companies are a highly
desirable market for budding humor writers. If you think receiving a
greeting card is heartwarming, think how you'll feel receiving heartwarming checks for writing them!
Greeting card humor is no different from that in cartoons and one-liners—it's often based on a classic cliché gag. The opening (outside) is
most frequently a cliché. The payoff line (inside) is a take-off, often
another reformed cliché.
OUTSIDE: You're the cat's meow.
INSIDE: Purrfect in every way.

Or the text may consist of a paired expression.
OUTSIDE: You not only light up my life,
INSIDE: you light up the whole darned world.

For freelancers attempting to sell their humor to greeting card companies, there are six steps to follow.
1. Take a field trip.
2. Specialize.
3. Communicate.
4. Energize.
5. Revise.
6. Get real.
l. TAKE A FIELD TRIP. Go to all your local card shops, because most
small retailers carry only one brand (Hallmark, American Greetings, or
Gibson), and read. It's essential research. Read the back of each card to
get acquainted with the styles of the different publishers. You may have a
better chance of breaking in by targeting smaller card companies. For
example, American Greetings and Hallmark do not accept unsolicited
material from freelancers. But P.S. Greetings, for example, relies entirely
on freelancers' submissions.

280

Comedy Writing Secrets

You can obtain writing and submission guidelines for most card companies by checking their Web sites or by requesting them via snail mail.
Submission guidelines for more than thirty different card companies are
also available online at www.WritersMarket.com, a subscriber-based Web
site that's updated daily. Remember that the more informed you are about
a publisher's needs, the greater your chances of success.
2. SPECIALIZE. Create a specific idea for a specific occasion. For
example, as much as we rejoice in put-down humor, market studies indicate that sugarcoated "I love you" messages still account for 80 percent
of total sales.
The vast majority of cards are sent for specific occasions, like New
Year's, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and birthdays. The public may call them
holiday and special occasion cards, but they are called everyday cards in
the industry. Other specialty cards apply to situations in everyday life, like
a death in the family, a wedding, the birth of a child, a severe illness, or a
graduation. Thank you and congratulations cards are also standard.
Get-well cards have become so humorous that, if you don't get
sick, you're missing half the fun.
—Earl Wilson

3. COMMUNICATE. Greeting cards are a form of interpersonal communication. They must convey an intimate thought from the sender to the
receiver. Slant the point of view for women because they buy the majority of all cards (with the exception of Valentine's Day cards—for that holiday, the male-female ratio is closer to fifty-fifty).
Today is Valentine's Day—or, as men like to call it, Extortion Day!
—Jay Leno

Cards talk to the reader, telling them what they want to hear. They
are not just opportunities for you to get a gag off your computer. When
Peter Stillman began writing greeting cards, his first effort was a photocopy of a dozen dimes on the outside and a picture of a coin-operated
dryer with socks spinning around in the window on the inside. The tag
line: "These are the dimes that dry men's soles." Funny? Yes. Salable? No!

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

281

4. ENERGIZE. What sells a greeting card is the tag line, not the art.
According to researcher Marcy Brown, many card publishers have their
writers work in teams to encourage brainstorming. One easy way to
encourage the creative process is by association—playing around with
simple truths or tossing clichés around. (We'll discuss other brainstorming exercises shortly.)
5. REVISE. Your message must be conveyed clearly and with as much
impact as possible. You must repeatedly go over your copy, asking if
each word is necessary. Review is a continual process. Is there a clearer
way to say what you want to say? What's the rhythm? Do you really need
twenty-eight words on the inside?
Most copy can be tightened. Once you've sharpened a few cards,
you'll see the difference and so will the editors. Editors do not want to
do your work. If your copy takes too much editing, they'll toss it out.
OUTSIDE: I'd like to tell you just how much I love you.
INSIDE: Have you got all night?

6. GET REAL. You have a set of twenty or more ideas you've fallen in
love with and now you're ready to mail them off. Before you do, set them
aside for a week—and then put them through a test suggested by Helene
Lehrer, creative director at Oatmeal Studios.
1. Look at them again. Be honest with yourself. Are they
still funny?
2. Would you personally spend a dollar for each and send them
to someone you know?
3. How would you feel if you received them? How would you feel
about the person who sent them?
4. Show them to your friends. Do they laugh? Would they buy it?
5. Are they true? Is there a grain of truth to make the receiver
relate to them?
If you can't get a resounding positive answer for each question, it's back
to the computer.

282

Comedy Writing Secrets

H O W TO BRAINSTORM A GREETING CARD
Say you have to come up with a birthday card that would be sent from
a boss to an associate. You start thinking about what a birthday really
means: well, it's once a year, you get older, you get gifts, parties, and
people are nicer than usual—bingo! When you hit "people are nicer
than usual," an idea flashes. And you may come up with a reverse as in
this Dale card.
OUTSIDE: Enjoy how sweet, how thoughtful, how kind I'm being
on your birthday.
INSIDE: Because tomorrow it's back to the same old shit.

Or say you want to write a birthday card focusing on fun. Birthdays are
fun, but "Have a great time" and "Hope you enjoy yourself' are not salable. Again, you turn to associations: cake, drinks, hugs and kisses, the
morning after—bingo! The morning after is generally a big letdown. It
happens to everybody. Why not exaggerate and make it exceptionally
lousy, as in this Hallmark card.
OUTSIDE: (The cover art features a woman hiding under her covers, her arms wrapped around her pillow as the one last secure
comforting thing in her bleary-eyed, headachy world.) The morning after your birthday celebration, pause and ask yourself ...
INSIDE: Who put the socks on all my teeth and how could I have
slept through it?

You can also be creative with clichés. Keep an active mind. For an alloccasion card that tells someone how great she is, you might run through
all the appropriate clichés, taking each word apart, doing verbal gymnastics, and hoping to find one that sparks. "You are the sunshine of my life ..."
No. "How much do I love you? Let me count the ways ..." No. (Didn't
someone else write that?) How about "Mere words can't describe how
wonderful you are"? No. But wait! A sound there suggests a reformed
homonym. Bingo! You're inspired, just like the person at Hallmark who
got a check for this one.

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

283

OUTSIDE: Three men badly dressed in plaids, stripes, and spectacles are scratching their heads and looking obviously confused.
MAN ONE: You're s o . . . uh?
MAN TWO: No, you're more like ... ahhh?
MAN THREE: You have so much ... uhhh?
INSIDE: Mere nerds can't describe how wonderful you are.
Once you're on to a good idea, a whole series of cards can be assembled.
OUTSIDE: Same group of nerd characters.
INSIDE: Beware of geeks bearing gifts. Happy birthday.
A good rhyming dictionary and thesaurus are essential in humor writing,
and many of the techniques we've already discussed can also be applied
to greeting card humor. Once you know how to write humor, you'll see
greeting cards as merely one of the most formalized humor formats.
GREETING CARD TAKE-OFF
OUTSIDE: Some people might say that I think too highly
of you b u t . . .
INSIDE: I worship the water you walk on.
GREETING CARD REVERSE
OUTSIDE: It's your birthday, so pucker up.
INSIDE: And kiss another year goodbye.
GREETING CARD TRIPLE REVERSE
OUTSIDE: You're perverted, twisted, and sick.
INSIDE: I like that in a person.
GREETING CARD PAIR
OUTSIDE: Happy birthday to a man who has it all.
INSIDE: From a woman who wants it.
GREETING CARD INSULT
OUTSIDE: Sometimes, we get too smart for our own good.

284

Comedy Writing Secrets

INSIDE: But you don't appear to be in any danger at this
particular time.

B R E A K I N G IN TO GREETING CARDS:
DO YOU HAVE THE RIGHT STUFF?
It's not as easy as it may seem to break into the greeting card business as
a full-time freelancer. Several larger companies, like Hallmark and
American Greetings, prefer to work with in-house staff writers or a stable of trusted freelancers. But that doesn't mean that you're completely
shut out. Start with smaller card companies and then set your sights on
the major league companies.
The mechanics of sending out freelance material for consideration by
greeting card publishers are rather simple. Most companies prefer submissions to be sent in batches of ten to twenty ideas typed individually
on index cards with contact information listed on the back of the card.
(Remember that each company has a specific set of guidelines, and be
sure to double check the submission requirements before sending out
your work.)
Be forewarned: Simultaneous submission of the same ideas to different companies is a major mistake. Because of the long time delay in
receiving a response, however, it is impractical to just write twenty ideas,
send them out, and then wait three months for an answer. You'll need to
contact other publishers with additional ideas you didn't send to the first.
The sales price for a card idea runs from twenty-five dollars and up, so
you'll need volume sales to break even with your mailing costs.
Keep your submissions moving. Don't get discouraged after a few
rejections. Persistence is the name of the game. And stop fearing that a
company will copy your ideas before sending them back with a canned
rejection letter. They're looking for reliable sources. And if you're close
to the mark, they might send along a rejection letter with some helpful
advice—and encouragement.
If they give you advice, take it. But more often, they will return your
batch with a form letter, even though their rejection may be for no better
reason than they're overflowing with birthday messages to grandma, and

Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards

285

that's what you sent. You'll never know, and they won't answer your calls
or letters to explain why.
These days, the large greeting card publishers are more leery of
unknown writers than ever. What they fear most is a lawsuit from some
amateur who spots a published card with an idea similar to one he
claims he submitted years previously. It's hard to prove or disprove these
claims. Most of all, it's expensive. Many lawyers instruct their publishing
clients to return all unsolicited material unopened. Solicited material
results from a favorable reply to your original query letter by a specific
editor, who will then specifically request that you submit your material.

SHOWTIME
Write twenty humorous greeting cards for special occasions, including
graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries. Instead of buying brandname cards, start sending out your own. Use software programs such
as Print Shop to create personalized greeting cards that are close to
professional. As a new father wrote to his wife, who had just given birth
to a beautiful daughter:
Sweetheart. Many Thanks. I knew you had it in you.

286

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 16
The Scarce Comedy:
Writing for TV Sitcoms
There is so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy
in the streets?
—Dick Cavett

Sitcom writing is a seller's market for those writers who can consistently
produce acceptable material—and, once again, the key word is consistently. Writers not only make good bread, they eat cake—with all the
frosting. Each thirty-minute show needs a squad of approximately twelve
writers to maintain quality while racing strict deadlines.
Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in
your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home.
—David Frost

The standard salary per writer for a half-hour sitcom script is approximately twenty thousand dollars, but keep in mind that a portion of that salary
goes to Uncle Sam, and another portion—10 to 15 percent—goes to an
agent (agents are necessity in this
field). For writers who have hyphenated titles like writer-director or
writer-producer, it isn't unusual for
salaries to average twice that amount.
And, of course, TV reruns generate
residual payments. There is never a time when reruns of such legendary
hits as All in the Family, M*A*S*H, I Love Lucy, and The Jeffersons
aren't playing somewhere around the globe. In their old age, some writers will have nurses endorsing residual checks.

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

287

Sesame Street Workshop announced that they have laid off sixty
workers. News of the firing was brought to the employees by the
letters F and U.
—Tina Fey

Until they learn the importance of being earners, however, comedy writers start out very lean and hungry. To be a sitcom writer, you must reflect
your world not through an ordinary mirror, but through what author Bert
Andrews once called "a Coney Island mirror that distorts and makes
amusing every little incident, foible, and idiosyncrasy."
BARNEY: Hello, my name is Barney, and I'm an alcoholic.
LISA: Mr. Gumble, this a Girl Scout meeting.
BARNEY: Is it? Or is it that you girls can't admit you have
a problem?
—The Simpsons

You must also be aware of the serious constrains of demographics on the
creative process. A successful sitcom must satisfy the production company, the networks, the stars, the sponsors, the critics and—most importantly—a large enough segment of the viewing public to outdistance all
competitive programming. That takes skill, then work, and then luck!
It might seem easy to please the audience, but the script must consider advertising demographics. The major consumer market is women
between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine, and since men of brawn
(and some brains) are attractive to this audience, macho types must get
as much exposure as well-endowed young ladies in tight outfits.

SHOWTIME
Study as many sitcoms as possible. You can find collections of scripts
on the Internet and in the libraries of many colleges and universities,
particularly those with large drama departments. Tape and analyze
some of the many classic sitcoms now in syndication to develop a feel

288

Comedy Writing Secrets

for pacing and a better understanding of how all the elements come
together in performance.

IT'S STILL THE SAME OLD STORY
One of the things you'll notice when watching both old and new sitcoms
is that the same themes recur decade after decade. Successful shows like
Seinfeld and Friends spawned many unsuccessful copies featuring
groups of young city-dwellers.
ELAINE: ... I know it's terrible, but I'm not a terrible person.
JERRY AND KRAMER: No.
ELAINE: No. When I shoo squirrels away, I always say, "Get out of
here." I never ever throw things at them and try to injure them like
other people.
JERRY: That's nice.
ELAINE: Yeah, and when I see freaks in the street I never, ever stare
at them. Yet, I'm careful not to look away, you know, because I
want to make the freaks feel comfortable.
JERRY: That's nice for the freaks.
—Seinfeld

The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy begat dozens of shows with bickering married couples (there was even a radio show called The
Bickersons in the 1950s). Hillbillies, cops, show-biz professionals, and
talking apparitions each go in and out of favor. But you can bet on one
thing—they'll be back again someday to delight a new generation.
(You'll also notice recurring story lines—review TV Guide to identify
the crux of each story. By the way, unless you can summarize your plot
in one simple sentence, it is probably too complex.) A number of years
ago, comedian Beth Davidoff joked:
I'm writing a new sitcom for HBO. It's called Sex and the Suburbs.
It's about a five-minute show.

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

289

Today, Desperate Housewives, about sex in the suburbs, is a hit one-hour
drama, and it's no joke—it's a big winner.
Humor is like magic. Any magician still uses the old tried-and-true
tricks—the excitement comes from the new way in which these tricks
are packaged. In sitcom writing, standard, audience-approved, funny situations must be portrayed in novel ways.
ROBERT: I could of been a pretty good hockey player. I was big, I
had the toughness, good hand-eye coordination.
RAY: Yeah, but eventually you would've had to let go of the side.
—Everybody Loves Raymond

The heart of every sitcom is the What if? scenario (think back to chapter one). The plot is determined by the reaction of the main character
when he is placed in a unique—frequently uncomfortable—situation.
Not all sitcom dialogue is humorous. In fact, more than 65 percent of a
sitcom's time is taken up with serious situations, which are highlighted
by comic relief.
Trouble? Who doesn't have any? If the experience is painful to you,
don't block it out. Save it. Maybe in three days it will be funny.
—Garry Marshall

The following are ten of the most common recurring setups, popular
with audiences since the beginning of motion picture production
(the grandfather of all contemporary sitcoms). Most of these setups
are just exaggerations of ordinary situations. In practical use, two or
more of these themes may overlap or play out concurrently in a single
sitcom episode.
1. family aggression
2. workplace aggression
3. mistaken assumptions
4. intrusions
5. heartbreak
6. moral and ethical conflicts
7. sympathy for the disadvantaged

290

Comedy Writing Secrets

8. physical mishaps
9. something of value
10. failure to cope
1. Family A g g r e s s i o n
People in close contact will eventually compete with and irritate each
other. Husbands compete with wives, in-laws compete with married children, children compete with parents, and entire families compete with
relatives and neighbors. The mother-in-law visit is still one of the hundred most common plots on TV. Laughter is created when characters
interact with love, illness, jealousy, prejudice, death, and cream pies.
MARIE: These breadsticks are old.
FRANK: Well, you are what you eat!
MARIE: Bobby, give your father his helping of Miserable Bastard.
—Everybody Loves Raymond

Someone in the family—or the entire family—must always be the fall
guy, the target. The audience wants to watch the stupidity of others and
feel superior.
GEORGE MICHAEL: I like the family. I mean, if we leave, who's
gonna take care of these people?
MICHAEL: I don't know. The state or the police. Maybe the
Magician's Alliance will pick up some slack.
—Arrested Development

3. Workplace Aggression
Offices, factories, schools—even morgues—provide the setting for thriving antagonisms. Workers resent bosses and each other.
ELIOT: Does this shade of red make me look like a clown?
DR. COX: No, it makes you look like a prostitute who caters exclusively to clowns.
—Scrubs

In every sitcom, close proximity produces enmity, and your story must
reveal the farce around the friction.

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

291

KAY: Oh, good morning, my little worker ants! That's just a figure
of speech; I would never compare you to insects. At least not after
that sensitivity training seminar those maggots at the network
forced me to attend!
—Murphy Brown
DREW: Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called everybody, and they meet at the bar.
—The Drew Carey Show
Some of the on-the-job plots used frequently today include: Someone gives
the boss a compliment that goes to his head, someone expects an important job promotion she's not going to get, someone is accused of being a
crook or of trying to weasel out of work.
DR. COX: Morning, class. As residency director, it is my pleasure
to have both Surgical and Medical personnel here with us today.
In fact, in this room we have enough brain power to light up a
city! Not a real city, mind you, but definitely a tiny ant city whose
government has recently passed a series of stringent energy conservation laws!
—Scrubs

T H E I M P O R T A N C E OF A N A M E
Names and nicknames often express an important
personality trait and keep the viewer focused on
character expectations. The nickname "Hot Lips"
was appropriate for the passion of Major Margaret
Houlihan on M*A*S*H; Archie Bunker talked bunk;
and "Hawkeye" Pierce sounded like the name of a
rascal, not a Park Avenue doctor. And Seinfeld
memorably introduced viewers to a controlling
soup-shop owner with this.

292

Comedy Writing Secrets

JERRY: There's only one caveat—the guy who runs the place
is a little temperamental, especially about the ordering procedure. He's secretly referred to as "the Soup Nazi."
—Seinfeld

3. Mistaken Assumptions
One essential ingredient in drama is that the audience be kept in the dark
about something. In humor, it's just the reverse—the audience is clued in
from the beginning, but one essential character is purposely not. Three's
Company is a classic example of mistaken assumptions in action. In fact,
if all the characters in a sitcom told the truth in the first three minutes,
there would be no need for the other twenty. Examples are common:
One character tries to hide his true ability, a body is hidden in a trunk,
someone is hiding in the closet, a married couple pretend they're single,
the boss is mistaken for a worker, a house painter is mistaken for a doctor, or someone has communication problems with a foreigner.
STAN: You guys, I'm getting that John Elway football
helmet for Christmas.
CARTMAN: How do you know?
STAN: 'Cause I looked in my parents' closet last night.
CARTMAN: Yeah, well I sneaked around my mum's closet too
and saw what I'm getting. The Ultravibe Pleasure 2000.
STAN: What's that?
CARTMAN: I don't know, but it sounds pretty sweet.
—South Park

4. Intrusions
Anything that disturbs the status quo heightens emotions and creates
conflict. Relatives, friends, objects, and events cropping up at inconvenient times and places disturb the equilibrium, and the attempted cover-up
provides the humor.
GEORGE SR.: Don't get involved. Believe me. When I thought
your first wife was pulling us apart, I did not make a stink.

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

293

MICHAEL: You complained all the time, and she was my only
wife. And she died.
GEORGE SR.: Yeah, well. See? Things have a way of working
themselves out.
—Arrested Development

Examples of intrusions are workmen in the house, a pest of a kid
coming for a visit, a surprise birthday party held at the wrong time,
a house suddenly appearing to be haunted, or an unexpected visit
by a famous celebrity.
JACK: Kevin Bacon's stalker log, 6 p.m. eastern stalker time. My
heart is racing and so am I. Moving in for a closer look! [Jack runs
up to the window, which is open a crack.]
JACK: Hmm, new plant in living room. Must be gift from studio
wooing "La Bacon" to do Hollow Man II. Note to self: See if I can
get a job applying body makeup. [Jack pushes open the window
and feels the drapes.]
JACK: Satin! Soft! Manly! Must remember this for fantasy dream
later! [Jack climbs in and lands on the floor.]
[Kevin Bacon enters the room, talking on the phone.]
KEVIN: [on phone] Honey, I got it!
[Jack runs around in circles.]
JACK: Abort! Abort! Abort!
—Will and Grace

5. Heartbreak
Heartbreak is the oldest of all emotions—next to love—and frequently
runs in tandem with it. In humor, it must focus on absurdities: an
American GI falls for a Korean aristocrat; an old flame is discovered
but is already married; or a doctor must tell a patient the truth about
her illness.
GEORGE: I get the feeling when lesbians are looking at me,
they're thinking: "That's why I'm not heterosexual."
—Seinfeld

294

Comedy Writing Secrets

RAY: You're already planning the wedding?
DEBRA: I've been planning it since I was twelve.
RAY: But you didn't meet me until you were twenty-two.
DEBRA: Well, you're the last piece of the puzzle.
—Everybody Loves Raymond

6. Moral and Ethical Conflicts
These scenarios—so obvious and predictable—are the kindergarten of
original satirical humor. The protagonist is a lone dissenter, or wants to
go to a class reunion without a date, or tries to crash a celebrity party.
Deeper issues include fighting for women's rights; single-parent families;
and unique professional, business, or religious practices.
LISA: Dad, we did something very bad!
HOMER: Did you wreck the car?
BART: No.
HOMER: Did you raise the dead?
LISA: Yes.
HOMER: But the car's okay?
BART AND LISA: Uh-huh.
HOMER: Alright, then.
—The Simpsons

AH in the Family was the first sitcom to address racial issues and racism.
ARCHIE: If your spies and your spades want their rightful share
of the American dream, let 'em get out there and hustle for it
like I done.
MIKE: So now you're going to tell me the black man has just as
much chance as the white man to get a job?
ARCHIE: More, he has more. ... I didn't have no million people
marchin' and protestin' to get me my job.
EDITH: No, his uncle got it for him.
—All in the Family

Lighter plots involving moral and ethical issues include finding money, a
lost lottery ticket, or jewelry; calling the police to report a crime commit-

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

295

ted by a well-known person; purposely ignoring new rules; and trying to
hide something from a friend.
LISA: Oh, Mom, are you sure you want to sell a family heirloom
to pay the gas bill? I mean, what would grandma say?
MARGE: I'm sure she'd be proud that her descendants had piping
hot tap water and plenty of warm, dry underwear.
—The Simpsons

7. Sympathy for the Disadvantaged
Sitcom plots are getting into more and more delicate areas. Humor plots
that deal with handicapped people, victims of crime, those with sexual
disabilities, or the elderly are common.
JAY: Lady, don't take this the wrong way, but you're nuts!
OLD LADY: Oh, you sound just like the toaster.
—The Critic

The audience instinctively feels for the underdog if there is some other
fall guy on which to focus the humor.
BART: Dad, how would you like it if you were sold to an
ivory dealer?
HOMER: I'd like it fine.
BART: Even if they killed you and made your teeth into
piano keys?
HOMER: Of course. Who wouldn't like that, being part of the
music scene?
—The Simpsons

8. Physical Mishaps
This is a variation on the previous theme, but the plot conclusion generally indicates that an accident caused only a temporary disability: amnesia,
broken bones, or impotency. These are the vaudeville shticks of slipping
on a banana peel, falling down a manhole, and getting a pail of water flung
in your face. No slapstick plot is more popular than two or more characters getting locked together in a room and not being able to get out.

296

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHANDLER: [while stuck in the ATM vestibule, voice-over]
Oh my God, it's that Victoria's Secret model. Something ...
something

Goodacre.

JILL: [on phone] Hi Mom, it's Jill.
CHANDLER: She's right, it's Jill. Jill Goodacre. Oh my God. I am
trapped in an ATM vestibule with Jill Goodacre!... Is it a
vestibule? Maybe it's an atrium. Oh, yeah, that is the part to focus
on, you idiot!
JILL: [on phone] Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just stuck at the bank, in an
ATM vestibule.
CHANDLER: Jill says vestibule ... I'm going with vestibule.
JILL: [on phone] I'm fine. No, I'm not alone ... I don't know,
some guy.
—Friends

9. Something of Value
Everybody wants money, promotions, awards, or material goods, and
many will create havoc to get it. The more oddball the need, the better.
The audience even identifies with get-rich-quick schemes if the hero
needs money—his own or someone else's.
RALPH: This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into.
ALICE: The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants.
—The Honeymooners

10. Failure to Cope
These plots are based on the inability of the lead character to handle a
new situation at home, on the job, in a social event, or at a new school.
LOIS: They have a special program for gifted children. They have
advanced textbooks and devoted teachers and all sorts of good
things they don't wanna waste on normal kids.
—Malcolm in the Middle

Becoming unemployed is one example; others are getting a divorce and
explaining the facts of life to a child.

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

297

NORM: It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I'm wearing Milk-Bone
underwear.
—Cheers

SCRIPT MECHANICS
Scripts are decided upon six months before airdate, and final taping
takes place three to six weeks before airing. Therefore, writers must be
thinking of what the world might be like up to a year in the future. That's
normal. (What happens if the show you're working on gets cancelled?
That's normal, too!)
Scripts must be timed precisely. In most cases, playing time is less
than twenty-four minutes in every half-hour. Commercials take up four
and a half minutes; opening and closing titles may take more than a
minute. In addition, a certain amount of time is set aside for a promo of
next week's show.
Dictum on television scripts: We don't want it good—
we want it Tuesday.
—Dennis Norden

The first drafts of scripts are written with minimal stage directions.
Only the final scripts are blocked (separately for actors, cameramen,
and sound-effect specialists). Script format should follow the Writers
Guild guidelines.
Make a Scene
As you get used to timing, you'll develop a feel for the logical number of
characters, sets, and scenes in any given show. You can't allow the plot to
get too complex in a sitcom. Your story is really no more than a good
excuse for your characters to interact in a humorous situation.
DEWEY: And then the monster started growling at me, so I threw
rocks at him, and I killed him, and then he started flying around on
rocket boost, and I got to ride inside his head, and now the monster's my friend, and we went—and we went to get Slurpees.
REESE: You did not. You just lied.

298

Comedy Writing Secrets

HAL: Reese, if that's what Dewey says happened, there's no reason to argue about it.
REESE: No one believes I beat the last level in Mortal Kombat.
HAL: Because that's just ridiculous. No one beats Sub-Zero.
—Malcolm in the Middle

Scenes usually start sensibly but get silly before ending abruptly with a cut
to the next scene. Each scene may run two to three minutes, so in a halfhour show there may be eight to ten scene changes.
When you've decided on one or more of your What if? ideas, expand
them into a one-page outline. Then, with a collaborator, brainstorm your
ideas. How would the characters react? Who would take the lead in
resolving the conflict? Who would obstruct the action? Why?
Break the idea down into the various scenes. You only have three sets
to work with, so don't jump all over the globe. Your work will be filled
with false starts, weak dialogue, and then finally—sudden brilliance.
Think of the rewriting process as a mandatory luxury, probably the only
luxury in a writer's life that never seems to end.
Create Characters
The biggest mistake beginning sitcom writers make is writing in new
characters who share (or hog) the spotlight. For many good reasons, the
stars of a sitcom demand 80 percent of the dialogue. The audience, too,
has been conditioned to see the whole show as a vehicle for the stars
they love. Don't fight it.
RICHARD LEWIS: Can't we have lunch or something and
discuss this?
LARRY: I can't.
RICHARD: Why not?
LARRY: I've been auctioned off for some charity.
RICHARD: What is this, Roofs?
—Curb Your Enthusiasm

It used to be that the lead characters in a sitcom always supported moral
goodness—a throwback to the American film code that insisted that

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

299

crime—at least on film—should not pay. More recently, characters fight
for their rights, but their beliefs as to what constitutes right and wrong
may vary. Overprotective parents are all right, because they are just looking out for their children's well-being. The audience may allow sitcom
characters to get away with more, because the characters are goofy and
lovable, but never wicked. Remember, The Sopranos is not a sitcom.
No matter how tense the situation becomes within one episode, your
story should end happily. This construction is reassuring for the audience, who looks forward to a familiar situation each week. But although
your ending resolves the immediate problem, it rarely resolves the basic
conflict of the series. That's the cliffhanger.
Develop Your Own Style
TV is a visual medium, so what we see must be even more entertaining
than what we hear. If this weren't true, radio soap operas would still be
popular. Characters must wear unusual clothing and flash signals with
their face, hands, and body. You must incorporate physical humor—even
slapstick—into your script: Audiences never seem to tire of seeing the
wall of a house fall on a character—who, when the dust clears, is standing unscathed in the space left by a window frame.
TODD: That was a compliment. Why won't any women talk to me?
NURSE: Because you're slimy, and you turn everything into a
double entendre.
TODD: Not true! ... I'd like to double her entendre.
—Scrubs

It is not the mark of a poor writer to write in one particular style, but to
be a successful sitcom writer you must write in the style that works for
the show. You must learn from every comedian and every show. If you're
writing for an existing show, that's the formula you must use.
LUCILLE: Get me a vodka rocks.
MICHAEL: Mom, it's breakfast.
LUCILLE: And a piece of toast.
—Arrested Development

300

Comedy Writing Secrets

Only when you are conceiving your own show idea (success is about a
ten-thousand-to-one shot these days!) can you establish your own characters and style.
FRASIER: I'm deep enough to realize I'm shallow.
—Frasier

MARKETING A SCRIPT
Daily Variety (www.variety.com) and The Hollywood Reporter
(www.hollywoodreporter.com) list shows in production and the names
of producers to contact for script submission. You can also watch a
show's rolling credits for the name of the executive producer. TV
Market List publishes the names of shows in development. But your
best—and frequently only—bet is through is an agent.
The names of agents, with notations on who will (and who won't)
look at unsolicited manuscripts, are available through the Writers Guild
of America, West and East (www.wga.org and www.wgaeast.org) and
through Literary Market Place (www.literarymarketplace.com). You
don't have to submit a script for a show in production—submitting your
script for an oldie in syndication permits agents to evaluate your ability
and sales potential.
Other resources include Writing Television Comedy by Jerry
Rannow, Successful Sitcom Writing by Jurgen Wolff, and Writing
Television Sitcoms by Evan S. Smith.

SHOWTIME
One of the best ways to attain skill in sitcom writing is to write for
an existing show. It's not likely that you'll sell the script, especially
since you'll be competing with a dozen pro writers who sweat the
show weekly, but you'll provide yourself with a benchmark for
evaluating your work.

The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms

301

You learn by doing it. I only learned by doing. I just kept writing
and writing. I failed a lot. Then I found out I was in great company.
—Selma Diamond
Find a show that reflects the type of humor you feel comfortable
with. Watch as many different episodes as you can, noting plot treatment, character development, set locations, timing, and running
gags. Record the program for review and use an audiocassette to
remember where you—and the laugh track—laughed. And then, write
your masterpiece.

302

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 17
We Mean Business
The difference between the right word and almost the right word
is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
—Mark Twain

Most neophyte humor writers believe that, in order to be
commercially successful, they need to be writing material for
stage, TV, or film. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The biggest purchaser of humor material today is not the
entertainment industry but the business community. Humor is
a powerful means of communication in advertising, speeches,
newsletters, sales meetings, fund-raising efforts, business publications, Web sites, and even voice mail. And corporations are hungry to find people who have the ability to
use humor as a persuasive tool.

THE SALESPERSON:
DO I HAVE A GOOD ONE FOR YOU!
It is traditional for a salesperson to break the ice with a customer by
telling a joke. For this technique to help with the sale, however, the a
salesperson should use the joke to create an opportunity for the customer to state, "I've got a better one."
I had a customer who broke my arm in two places, so we don't go
to those places anymore.

One of the best compliments you can pay anyone is, "You know, you've
got a terrific sense of humor."
An astute salesperson tells a joke about an area likely to interest the
customer—like golf, fishing, grandchildren, a specific sport, etc. Once
you determine the customer's interest, tell jokes on that subject during

We Mean Business

303

each subsequent visit. By the third visit, the customer will hardly be able
to wait to get in her contribution, and the salesperson must laugh enthusiastically before writing the order.
Double Your Pleasure: The Roll Out
Business humor, like that in a courtroom, is often chastised with remarks
like "Quit your kidding, this is serious!" To find out whether your customer is open to humor, try a combination known as a roll out. The roll
out follows the punchline of a joke with a pause (not to last longer than
two or three seconds), then follows the pause with a topper. Both punchlines get a laugh—or at least a smile—and the pause promotes a bigger
laugh for the second line because the listener doesn't expect it—unless,
of course, it's telegraphed.
Company president to nervous employee: I can only make one
person happy a day, and today ... is not your day. [Pause] And
tomorrow doesn't look good either.

In this example, the second line is telegraphed by the opening sentence,
so the roll out is unsuccessful.
Surgeon to patient: I have two pieces of good news. The first is
that I've never done this life-or-death operation before, but I slept
at a Holiday Inn last night. [Pause] And we won't explain the procedure since you'll be awake throughout the operation. The anesthesiologist is on vacation.

If you don't get a laugh or at least a smile from such a surefire technique
as a roll out, than stick to business (because if at first you don't succeed,
maybe your wife was right).
ADVERTISING: A WORLD GONE AD
The congestion of modern advertising messages makes it more and more
difficult to get an audience's attention. Advertising research claims that
nearly a thousand ads vie for our attention each day, and our attention
spans get ever shorter from exposure to a plethora of distractions. If you

304

Comedy Writing Secrets

can remember one ad from yesterday, you are not only very perceptive,
you are unique.
Humor advertising is like marriage. There may be a better way,
but what is it?
The advertising business does not have the right to bore the blazes
out of 250 million Americans. The public has been beaten about the
ear with a baseball bat of hard sell for so long that it is difficult to get
the message through the scar tissue.
—Stan Freberg

Advertising is first a business and second an art form. Product success is
measured at the cash register, and your personal success is measured at
the bank. Positive reviews are meaningless if the product doesn't sell.
You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising is right
and the budget is big enough.
—Joseph E. Levine

There are eleven common creative techniques in advertising.
1. testimonials
2. humor
3. plays on words (POWs)
4. mnemonic devices
5. unique selling propositions (USPs)
6. product comparisons
7. problem solving
8. sexual innuendo
9. new product introductions
10. sale prices
11. musical jingles
The use of humor as an advertising technique has been growing in
popularity to become one of the most effective methods of persuading
a target audience to remember and to try a product. Of the forty-five
commercials in a typical Super Bowl telecast (each of which may cost

We Mean Business

305

a million dollars to produce), 30 percent are intended to be humorous.
But humor is also one of the most difficult of all advertising concepts.
It is very subjective, elusive, and in a constant state of flux. Give a hundred creative directors the same humor assignment with the same set
of facts, and you will get a hundred different campaigns. Without being
able to test them all, it is impossible to predict which one would score
best with the audience. And just when you think you've come up with a
general rule, such as "Humor commercials should be created to appeal
to a sense of enjoyment rather than a sense of logic," someone will
break the rule and achieve a smash hit.
Skeptics of humor as an effective advertising technique abound.
All the world may love a clown but nobody buys from one.
—David Ogilvy
Humor doesn't have much stature because there's not one funny
line in the two best sales books of all time: the Sears catalog and
the Bible.
—Andy Rooney

Expensive commercial production costs must be amortized, so spots
must run often over the length of the marketing campaign without inducing viewer fatigue. If the humor is predictable, the commercial will have
a short life expectancy and soon will not be funny at all. "Humor always
works, and unexpected humor works particularly well," said Bob Lachky
of Anheuser-Busch. Unpredictable, fresh, or surprising ad humor will
continue to make you grin over the lifetime of the campaign.
There must, however, be a balance between the message and the
humor. If too much humor is used, it can ultimately be counterproductive for a number of reasons.
1. Laughter can distract from the sales message.
2. Humor attracts attention, but then when the sales message comes on,
the public can resent having been tricked into listening to a pitch.
3. A favorable attitude toward the product can be negated by humor
of questionable taste.

306

Comedy Writing Secrets

Creative advertising is increasingly expensive, and marketing a product is
so costly that the prospect of failure is terrifying. Humorous commercials,
unlike straight commercials, have two opportunities to fail: They can be
unfunny and irritating, or they can be so funny that the product name and
value is lost in the humor.
ONE MAN TO ANOTHER: I saw a very funny commercial yesterday. This guy tells his friend at a bar what lines to use to pick up a
girl, and when he mistakenly repeats a few words about the cost
of a beer (which his friend is actually asking the bartender), the
girl knocks him on his ass.
SECOND MAN: Sounds great. What was the name of the product?
FIRST M A N : I don't remember, but it was as funny as hell.

Humor should never be at the expense of the product or the heavy user.
The product and the advertiser must come off as likeable. And the facts
of the product must be emphasized over the humor.
TV Commercials: Air This
Advertisers who need to reach the influential target market of women
aged eighteen to forty-nine should be impressed by the value of humor
in commercials to this demographic. According to a survey by Oxygen
Media, 93 percent of women in that age group not only enjoy humor
commercials the first time they see one but enjoy watching the ads
repeat; 88 percent claimed they would be less likely to change the
channel during a commercial break if the ad was funny. When future
generations open today's buried time capsules, they'll feel positive that
every major decision in our lives was made in thirty seconds. They
may be right.
Humor advertising transforms a yawn into a yearn.

If Moses brought down the Ten Commandments today, CNN Headline
News would probably broadcast the event this way.
Today, in the Middle East, Moses carried God's Ten
Commandments down from Mount Sinai. We'll be back with the

We Mean Business

307

three most important commandments after this vital message
from Hartz Mountain cat food.

The seven most effective subjects and formats for humor commercials
are, logically, also the most popular.
1. cartoons
2. anthropomorphic animals
3. physical slapstick
4. the underdog
5. celebrity comedians as spokespersons
6. plays on words (POWs)
7. children
Other formats and subjects are used less frequently because they are
fraught with problems. The one-joke commercial wears thin too quickly;
sex jokes can gross out the public and regulatory agencies; absurd situations can be too juvenile; and mistaken identity makes fun of the purchaser.
Humor in Print
Only 15 percent of all print ad readers actually take the time to read a full
ad. Therefore, 85 percent of the impact of an ad is the responsibility of
the headline and illustration. If they don't stop a reader's eye, they won't
stop her from turning the page.
Humor is one of the concepts that seem to do the job best. It also is a
refresher. Manufacturers of products that have been on the market for
many years (beers in particular) often use a short humor campaign as an
effective way to breathe new life into the product and make it more
memorable.
There are five major creative techniques in which print advertising
utilizes humor.
1. POWs or puns in the headline
• God is like Bayer aspirin: He works miracles.
• God is like Coke: He's the real thing.
• God is like Hallmark cards: He cares enough to send the
very best.

308

Comedy Writing Secrets

• God is like General Electric: He brings good things to life.
• God is like Scotch tape: You can't see him, but you know he's there.
2. use of an anecdote in narrative copy
3. professional comedians in testimonials
4. humorous or sexy photographs (Grin and Bare It)
5. cartoons or multipanel comic strips (Peanuts for MetLife)
Humor on Radio: The Gang's All Hear
The four most common formats for radio advertising are:
1. the straight pitch
2. an ad-lib fact sheet to be used by the DJ
3. the jingle
4. skit humor
Obviously, humor works best as a skit. Skit humor reached its peak popularity in the 1970s and 1980s when Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis produced numerous Clio award-winning spots for Concertina tomato paste,
and Time magazine and Stan Freberg created humor spots for Chun King
Chow Mein. These conflict-and-resolution skits ran sixty seconds in
length, were brilliantly cast with comedic teams—like Jerry Stiller with
Anne Meara; Bob and Ray—playing humorous characters in abnormal
situations. This technique encouraged listeners to believe they were
eavesdropping on a private conversation. The absurdity had the rare
property of making listeners both laugh and buy.
To succeed, radio humor requires clever writers and clients with a
strong sense of humor. Skits never make fun of the product, but they do
have fun with the product—a difference most copywriters fail to see.
"There really isn't anything you can't sell with humor," claims Berdis,
and to prove it, he did commercials for a cemetery "located just six feet
under Cleveland."
The formula for skit comedy is very structured.
1. Because radio is a medium that is used as a background companion, attention-getting words or sound effects must be used in the
first five seconds.

We Mean Business

309

2. The first three to five seconds must also clearly establish the locale
and the major characters. Radio commercials usually feature
stereotyped characters, because there's no chance for a confused
listener to go back to the head of the script.
3. Listeners must immediately empathize with the characters and
the plot ("Oh, I've been in that situation myself'). The script must
build on an embarrassing situation. Humor will depend on the
surprise ending.
4. The humorous part of the commercial must be concentrated
together in one part of the ad. The fall guy is easily identified and
slowly winds the rope, which is about to hang him.
5. The commercial must sell product, not just entertain. In a
sixty-second spot, the brand name should be mentioned four
or five times. And the ad must be realistic. The fact that performance humor is often based upon a suspension of disbelief
doesn't mean that humor advertising can benefit from fictional
association.
6. The commercial punchline should generally be no more than a few
words—certainly no more than one or two lines. It must resolve
the conflict.
7. The commercial must end properly. Strangely, not enough copywriters know how to write a goodbye ending that doesn't just pass out.
The last line is one last chance to establish the commercial's most
persuasive sales point.
Underlining all these points is that the fact that a listener's imagination
is perfect. You can take them anywhere at any time in history. Notice
how all the above points are made in this sixty-second gem.
I ANNOUNCER: Stiller and Meara for Blue Nun wine.
STILLER: Good evening, miss. Will you be dining alone?
MEARA: [in tears] Yes!
STILLER: What can I get you?
MEARA: Manicotti.
STILLER: Oh, I'm sorry, we're all out.

310

Comedy Writing Secrets

MEARA: No, I meant Carmine Manicotti. He just broke our
engagement. He had his mother call me.
STILLER: Oh, the swine.
MEARA: No, she was very sweet about it.
STILLER: No, I meant Carmine. Anyway, may I suggest the
surf and turf?
MEARA: Is that some new singles bar?
STILLER: No, surf and turf is our new delicious combination
of lobster tail and filet mignon. And to raise your spirits, a very
special wine.
MEARA: But no wine goes with seafood and meat.
STILLER: Certainly. May I bring a little Blue Nun to your table?
MEARA: I'm sure she'd be very sympathetic, but I'd rather
be alone.
STILLER: No, miss. Blue Nun is a wine. A delicious white wine
that's correct with any dish. It goes as well with meat as it does
with fish. And perhaps after dinner, cantaloupe.
MEARA: I don't see cantaloupe on the menu.
STILLER: No, that's me. Stanley Cantaloupe. I get off at eleven.
Maybe we could go out on the town.
ANNOUNCER: Blue Nun, the delicious white wine that's correct
with any dish. Another Sichel wine, imported from France.
MEARA: Fabulous! Why didn't I know about this before?
STILLER: You mean me?
MEARA: No, the Blue Nun!

COMEDIANS AS SPOKESPERSONS:
BRAND-NAME LIP SERVICE
One of the most expensive broadcast humor techniques is using established comedians as spokespersons. While the benefits seem obvious,
the pitfalls are many.
Comedy stars will fight to get their own humor writers to do the material.
Their reputation is built on their particular brand of funny, and they prop-

We Mean Business

311

erly feel that their own writers know their style best. Ultimately, they will
endorse anything short of leprosy if they get to endorse the check first.
But what is more important to them is the need to satisfy their fans.
Therefore, they will fight for laugh lines in the copy whether or not it's
beneficial to the product.
I've been chewing Beechnut gum for twenty-five years. Its price
never changed. It is either a big bargain now, or it was a big
gyp then.
—Bob Hope
Some critics claim that comedians are risky spokesmen because they
can't be taken seriously. They are also so memorable in the public mind
that they can overwhelm the product. For eleven years, actor and comedian Jonathan Winters, dressed in an all-white sanitation outfit, did commercials for Hefty bags, but the Glad bag continued to rank number one.
Trouble was people kept asking me if I liked doing those Glad
bag commercials. It tells you something about the bag, or it
tells you something about me.
—Jonathan Winters
Yet, despite the fact that radio is a powerful medium
for humor, there are few nationally sponsored spots.
This means that most commercials are locally written for local clients. And since small local agencies
are rarely expert with humor, skit comedy on radio
has become rare—and no longer well done.

THE D R E A M M E R C H A N T S
National or local, humor advertising must be written by specialists. Satirical
humor has as many varieties as Heinz foods, but it is not a panacea for inferior creativity. On the other hand, humor wins more awards at annual bestof-advertising competitions, and it is the fastest route to critical acclaim.

312

Comedy Writing Secrets

The guy you've really got to reach with great humor advertising is
the creative director of your chief rival's ad agency. If you can terrorize him, you've got it licked.
—Howard Gossage

Beginners have two wonderful venues in which to practice their humor
without fear of commercial failure: their local college's radio station and
newspaper. Local advertisers generally welcome student attempts at
unique creativity. But the bar keeps getting higher each year. If you prove
yourself truly adept at writing humor, you can get a job at any advertising
agency in the world.
N E W S L E T T E R S : HOW'S IT GLOWING?
All public relations college graduates know that one of the first assignments they'll be responsible for at their first job will be to write or edit
the company newsletter. Humor can make the text more readable and
the information more memorable in newsletters to employees, newsletters to the sales staff, and newsletters to wholesale or retail customers.
Regardless of the target audience, humor can be included via POWs in
headlines and captions. Humor can improve morale when it is injected
into the CEO's otherwise staid opening letter; when it accompanies photographs in personnel feature stories; when it is used in letters to the editor; and when it is applied to fortune cookie advice columns.
Employees love to see their own names in print. Newsletters can
fulfill this need and incorporate humor by publishing employee-submitted anecdotes and jokes.
As Fortune magazine reported, newsletter stories about executives who
take their product seriously, not themselves, always get a good reception.

SHOWTIME
Office humor can start with your voice mail message. Make your
basic message humorous.

We Mean Business

313

Please leave your name, phone number and VISA card number—
that'll help—and I'll get right back to you.
By infusing voice mail messages with humor, you immediately establish
your character and your ability while making your message memorable.
By making every word count, you can keep the message to ten seconds.
When you do call back and identify yourself, you can almost see the
smile on the caller's face. They already know that speaking to you—
even about business—is going to be fun. Popularity breeds success.
Writing voice mail messages is also among the best humor warm-up
exercises. Since you can erase and change messages easily, you have
innumerable opportunities to find the messages that get the best reactions. And this is one business communication that doesn't cost a cent.
When the beep sounds, leave me a short message and I'll get
back to you as soon as possible, unless you're inviting me to
dinner, in which case I'll get back to you immediately.
If you're my mom, please send another check tomorrow. If
you're my new girlfriend, please spell your last name carefully.
And if you're my professor wanting to know where I've been
for the past week, I've got a communicable disease from your
friggin' class.
Thanks for calling the psychic hotline. I'm not in, but leave your
number and what you think of when you hear the following:
kumquats, mother, and unicorn. Also leave a brief history of
your current diseases. Thank you.
Hi, I'm not in. Now you say something.

314

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 18
Teach, Learn, and Laugh
It's not what's taught, but what's caught. And if we can get our
students' mouths open for laughter, we can slip in a little food
for thought.
—Virginia Tooper

Humor is a proven tool for improving instruction and
increasing retention. Studies show that humor enriches
learning by increasing student interest and attention—
making even the driest subjects come to life.
Humor also reduces anxiety concerning challenging subjects and makes difficult concepts clearer
and more memorable. More importantly, humor
ultimately promotes creativity, exploration, and
critical thinking—skills that students can carry
with them for a lifetime.
The appropriate use of humor also creates a positive classroom environment that opens minds, fosters communication, and encourages
active participation. And it allows teachers to model and reinforce a critical educational lesson—learning is fun.
The growing interest in educational humor affords new opportunities for humor writers. Publishers of educational and business training materials—such as books, online courses, and instructional
videotapes—are increasingly seeking writers whose light touch can
change dreaded subjects into interesting and memorable ones. John
Cleese of Monty Python fame uses humor to teach management principles in his highly successful line of business training videotapes.
His instructional philosophy is simple.
He who laughs most, learns best.
—John Cleese

Teach, Learn, and Laugh

315

A CLASSROOM IS NOT A COMEDY CLUB
Audiences expect comedians to be funny and entertaining. Students
expect instructors to be scholarly and boring. The expectation that learning will be dull lowers the humor threshold. Simpler forms of humor that
would bomb in a comedy venue—such as puns and riddles—can work in
educational humor. Students appreciate any attempt at humor, and studies show that teachers who use humor are considered more enthusiastic
and engaging.
Keep in mind, however, that while the planned, systematic use of
humor can enhance instruction, humor can be either an educational
lubricant or irritant. When used appropriately, as noted above, humor
can reduce student anxiety, enhance comprehension, and promote critical thinking. But humor that is derogatory or ridiculing has no place in
an educational setting, and too much humor is distracting and unnecessary. The judicious, developmentally appropriate, and timely use of
humor makes learning memorable and enjoyable. Humor must address a
specific instructional goal. Unless a joke is appropriate to the subject,
students are more likely to remember the joke than the concept.
A teacher in Oklahoma is in a lot of trouble for operating on a cat
during class. Particularly since he's the math teacher.
—Conan O'Brien

The PC Hall Monitors
Educational humor must be inclusive and avoid any appearance of ridiculing others or stereotyping groups. Sexist, racist, derogatory, or
obscene humor is never appropriate. Even a flippant remark might be
viewed as offensive.
As a teacher it's important to be politically correct. I've learned not
to tell a student they're failing my class, but rather that they will
have another semester in which to get to know me better.
—Bonnie Cheeseman

Given the double-edged nature of humor, the safest target is always the
instructor. Self-deprecating humor puts students at ease and avoids belit-

316

Comedy Writing Secrets

tling or alienating others. The "Oops, that was a stupid remark!" response
to a mistake by the teacher allows students to view the instructor as
more human.
Some of you might have heard that I am unfair, rigid, and boring.
For those of you who have not talked to my wife ...

Most topical subjects and community targets are appropriate targets, but
they must be carefully selected.
MAP the Students
The audience ingredient of the MAP theory is critical in educational
humor. The material must be student-oriented and factor in cultural, gender, and age differences. A joke that works in one setting for one student
group may fail in another. But the humor must also fit the subject and
reflect the teacher's personality.
It's also critical to recognize developmental differences in humor
appreciation. Children in kindergarten through sixth grade delight in
wordplay such as puns, comic verse, and riddles. The cornier the joke,
the better the response.
How did the Vikings send secret messages?
By Norse code!
What is the fruitiest lesson?
History, because it's full of dates!
Knock Knock
Who's there?
Ada!
Ada who?
Ada burger for lunch!

The same humor for older children might produce the "teacher is an idiot"
stare. Satire, parody, and irony are more appropriate for high school students and adult learners. Older students will appreciate the irony-based
"Murphy's Laws of Applied Terror," for instance.

Teach, Learn, and Laugh 317

When reviewing your notes before an exam, you'll discover that
the most important ones are illegible.
Eighty percent of the final exam will be based on the one lecture
you missed.
If you're given an open-book exam, you'll forget your book.
If you're given a take-home exam, you'll forget where
you live.

When possible, the demographics and interests of the students should
be identified before attempting humor. This can be challenging, given
the diversity of the typical classroom, and is almost impossible for distance learning, such as correspondence or Internet courses.
TEACHERS DO IT AT THE PODIUM
Effective lectures, presentations, and workshops follow the same
principles as speeches. Whether you're speaking to third-graders
about social studies, to tenth-graders about economics, or to corporate employees during a manager's training session, you have to
stay on-message. Use humor to supplement your message—not
overshadow it. Here are a few techniques you can use when you're
up at the podium.

Open With a Bang
Students will quickly stereotype teachers. Opening with a joke or
humorous anecdote sends the message "this will be fun."
I will never forget my first day of school. My mom woke me up,
got me dressed, made my bed, and fed me. Man, did the guys in
the dorm tease me.
—Michael Aronin
I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally
disturbed teachers.
—Woody Allen

318

Comedy Writing Secrets

I knew school was back in session because I saw a postman buying ammunition from a New York City schoolboy.
—David Letterman

Other possible openers include a funny subtitle, a visual or cartoon with
a humorous caption, inserting funny factitious names in the roll call,
exaggerated unit objectives, a reformatted quote, or a witty remark introducing the subject.
Today's lecture will be an experiment—half of you will get real
information, while the other half will get a placebo.
—Matt Coleman
Our topic today is déjà vu: Stop me if you've heard this before.

A fun icebreaker that works at any level and ensures group interaction is
the Find Someone Who activity. Prepare a handout that requires students
to obtain classmates' names based on physical features (someone who is
taller, someone who has the same color hair) and personal preferences
(someone who likes the same music or lives in the same neighborhood).
Also include humorous items (someone who took a shower this week)
and items that pertain to the class subject.
Bridge the Gap
When eyes begin to glaze over, it's time to shift gears. As a transitional
device, humor affords students a mental break. The trick is to "sandwich"
the humor: Teach a concept, use humor to regain student attention, and
summarize the principle. To be effective, humor transitions need to be short.
If you use an anecdote, remember to keep it brief. If the transition takes
too long, it can be difficult to calm students down and return to the topic.
I used to substitute teach. The worst. I will never forget this secondgrade class where I was subbing for a teacher named Susan. All
day long these annoying little children would say, "Susan doesn't
do it that way. Susan lets us play, Susan gives us gum. Susan is
prettier than you." "Oh, really? Susan's dead."
—Cathy Ladman

Teach, Learn, and Laugh

319

The Unexpected One-Liner
Teachers can prepare one-liners for when a class is interrupted by an
unexpected event. (These are similar to savers prepared for speeches
and live performances.)
Police siren: I knew I shouldn't have parked in the principal's space.
A plane flies overhead: Here's my ride.
AV equipment fails: That's what happens when you buy
from eBay.
Student enters late: I guess I'll have to repeat my lecture ... not!
School bell rings prematurely: Your prayers have been answered.
Cell phone goes off: For me?

Leave 'Em L a u g h i n g
Longer humor pieces, such as humorous exercises, are best suited for
wrapping up a subject lesson or at the end of the day. A popular closer is
a top-ten list.
TOP TEN EXCUSES FOR SUBMITTING A LATE
HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT
10.I thought Groundhog Day was a national holiday.
9. My pit bull ate my ferret, which ate my homework.
8. After watching Oprah, I realized that homework lowers my
self-esteem.
7. I was too wrapped up in the latest Survivor episode.
6. I think I'm ADD.
5. My assignment was confiscated by Homeland Security
officials.
4. The answers for the assignment were not in the CliffsNotes.
3. My mom didn't have the time to complete my homework.
2.I accidentally drank a six-pack of beer and thought I had
already graduated.
1. Hey, President Bush was a C student.

320

Comedy Writing Secrets

CREATE GROUP HUMOR
Humor in the classroom can be more than a joke here and an anecdote
there. It can be an innovative approach. Group exercises, for example,
invite lively interaction by their very nature. When humor is added into
the mix, the exercises become even more engaging and the lessons more
memorable. For example, you can spice up a reading scenes from
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by having the class perform it as a rap,
or you can transform the Gettysburg Address into a Dr. Seuss-type story.
Other group activities with a humorous spin include:
• developing a class Web page with students' jokes, tongue twisters,
riddles, funny anecdotes, and nonsense poems and songs
• drawing an event or theory as a comic strip, comic book, or
group mural
• holding mock trials for notorious historical figures
• acting out the functions of different body parts
• creating a POW bulletin board or scrapbook with homonyms,
euphemisms, double entendres, and Tom Swifties
Even junk food can lend itself to the educational process: The
T.WI.N.K.I.E.S. Project (www.twinkiesproject.com) teaches the scientific
method via experiments with Twinkies. The experiments consist mostly
of abusing Twinkies in extreme situations (dropping them from a skyscraper, bombarding them with radiation).
Written in F u n
Creative writing exercises allow for more opportunities to introduce humor
into the classroom and can make a mundane assignment fresh and fun. For
example, students who are asked to create humorous—yet factually accurate—news headlines for past scientific discoveries will not only learn to
appreciate a subject in a new way but also hone their critical-thinking (and
headline-writing) skills.
Additional creative writing exercises with a humorous flair include:
• modifying proverbs, nursery rhymes, or maxims with subject-related
names and principles

Teach, Learn, and Laugh

321









composing a dictionary of fictitious definitions for topical terms
creating funny words or phrases for remembering course concepts
adding new captions for textbook illustrations and photos
writing intentional malaprops for famous quotes
transforming conceptual principles into a Sesame Street spot
generating crazy predictions based on existing theories or principles
writing funny last words, nicknames, bumper stickers, Wanted
posters, fortune cookies, or resumes for historical figures.

The two most important words in humor writing, What if? can also
breathe life into the dullest of homework assignments: the essay. The
What if? prompt can be used to inspire original and humorous creative
writing assignments that encourage students to look at their subjects in a
new light. For example, what if:
• fairy-tale creatures appeared before Judge Judy (say, Pinocchio,
for slander)?
• maps were relabeled with funny names for geographic locations
and landmarks?
• children's stories were forced to be politically correct (Hansel,
Gretel, and the co-dependent nonbiological mother)?
• animals could talk?
• children had written the Bill of Rights or the school rules?
Blending humor into a writing assignment has a hidden benefit for the
teacher—it provides humorous material for future courses. (Unless
you're Art Linkletter or Bill Cosby, and then you can turn all this material
into a book.)
Show and Tell
Visual humor—such as cartoons, illustrations, and photographs—works
especially well in the classroom; it seems mandatory that every teacher
display at least one Far Side cartoon. Captions that accompany the visual
(or visuals that accompany a caption) can be reformatted as punchlines.
When discussing the difficulty of an exam, show a picture of comically
frightened people and state, "And this is how students often feel after the

322

Comedy Writing Secrets

test." A visual doctored with editing software can also produce humorous results. Digital cameras are increasingly popular for producing
humorous instructional vignettes.
Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.
—Gail Goodwin

Props such as puppets, stuffed animals, or costumes can enliven a lecture. Teachers with a theatrical flair can dress and play the part of a historical figure—Abe Lincoln discussing the Civil War, for instance, or
Albert Einstein explaining physics.
COURSE MATERIALS
Humor can add spice to syllabi, handouts, overhead transparencies, and
other materials. Examples of POWs include silly names, funny titles or
headings, oxymorons, and factitious terms or definitions. Exaggerated
humor examples include self-effacing humor; distorted numbers, concepts, or phrases; and outrageous theories or studies.
I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think
about besides homework.
—Lily Tomlin

Periodicals such as the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity (www.psych
humor.com) and Annals of Improbable Research (www.improb.com) offer a
rich selection of exaggerated theories and studies, including the following.
The Theory of Gravy
Inducing Religion in Sea Monkeys
Electron Band Structure in Germanium, My Ass

Pass, Fail, or Laugh
Humor can lighten the pressure of examinations in several ways.
In high school, I could not pass a math test. I couldn't pass a drug
test either. There may be a correlation.
—Lynda Montgomery

Teach, Learn, and Laugh

323

Test directions can include a whimsical remark, ridiculous answers can
be added to multiple-choice questions, student names can be incorporated into test questions, and trivia or goofy questions can be added to the
exam. The test can also end with a humorous final question.
The exam is over and you
A. hope this was a bad dream
B. should have read the book
C. should have at least bought the book
D. wonder if it's too late to drop the course

Y O U ' V E GOT M A I L
At the college level, adding humor to online communication with students is another way to build rapport. Students frequently repeat the
same questions, such as whether certain information will be on the
exam. Teachers can prepare canned e-mail responses with a funny quote
("As Shakespeare once said ...") that pertains to the question.
Discussion boards and chat rooms afford additional opportunities to
use humor. Students should be encouraged to participate in class humor
by posting jokes, collecting funny comments concerning the course, or
identifying links to humorous Web sites.

LIVE ON THE INTERNET:
A CASE STUDY
Humor works as an instructional strategy, and it isn't
just for kids. Mark Shatz and his colleagues Frank
LoSchiavo and Matt Coleman completed the first study
of the efficacy of humor when it is integrated into an
online college course. Students in a humor-enhanced
section of introductory psychology—as compared to students in a traditional section—viewed the class as
more interesting and interacted more often. The following examples were used in an online context and

324

Comedy Writing Secrets

are psychology-based, but they illustrate the wide-ranging potential of
humor as an instructional strategy.
Lecture modules contained a sprinkling of fictitious items based on
wordplay.
DEFINITIONS
Independent variable: doesn't need other variables to feel
good about itself
Double-blind experiment: both the researcher and subjects
are blindfolded
MEDICATIONS
Anti-flunkotic: a major relaxant for forgetting a really bad
test score
Cramonol: a stimulate for pulling all-nighters
BOOKS
Stalking, Locating Spies, and Other Practical Uses of
Paranoid Disorders
Overcrowding: The Internal Life of a Multiple Personality
Unit closers included extended humor pieces using exaggeration.
QUESTIONS YET TO BE ANSWERED BY PSYCHOLOGISTS
Does drinking Pepsi Blue cause depression?
How does the metric system impact the self-esteem of inchworms?
DREAMS OF FAMOUS PEOPLE
Al Gore: Florida was never granted state rights
Martha Stewart: Designing the new fall orange jumpsuit line
THE REAL WARNING SIGNS OF OBESITY
The only number on your speed dial is Pizza Hut
Seven times daily you say, "Super-size, please!"

Teach, Learn, and Laugh

325

Triples included the following.
You probably will not pass this class if you think a hard drive
involves an SUV, if you go to the bathroom to matriculate, or if
you wonder why all college principals are named Dean.
Seldom-used yet practical applications of hypnosis include
training men to ask for directions, forgetting your last test
score, and convincing your parents that completing a college
degree takes seven years.

SHOWTIME
The steps for writing educational humor are the same as for writing any
other joke. Let's write a joke with the setup Sigmund Freud's Pet Peeves.
Start by listing things associated with Freud: the couch, patients
freely associating or looking at ink blots. Then, identify the opposite of
each item: clients sleeping instead of talking, clients drawing on the ink
blots. By combining the associations and disassociations, you'd able to
create the following triple.
Sigmund Freud's major pet peeves were patients who fell
asleep on the couch, drew on the inkblots, and complained
about being charged for free association.
The joke is no gut-buster, but it does meet the criteria for effective educational humor—it relates to the topic, avoids offending anyone, and
emphasizes three professional terms.
Now you try it. Select a familiar subject and write a series of jokes
that are topic-related and student-oriented.

326

Comedy Writing Secrets

CHAPTER 19
That's a Wrap
I think everybody is entitled to my opinion!
—Victor Borge

Any intelligent person can learn humor, work at it, and even produce it.
The problem is that the commercial world won't pay enough for second
best to allow everyone to make a living. In humor, good enough is no
longer good enough. Only a small percentage of those who study humor
go on to become professional humorists, but the same is true in many
professions. Since you're only as good as your last joke, there's a great
deal of insecurity in comedy writing—and a great deal of turnover. There
are four ways that you can improve your chances of succeeding as a professional humor writer.
1. WORK WITH OTHERS
Write with a partner whenever possible. Despite the added difficulty of
scheduling, teams of two or three writers spark each other's wit, and test
and refine each other's ideas. "I love working with other writers," wrote
humorist Phil Lasker. "I have learned to appreciate surrounding myself
with talent. Others may have better lines than you or better story points.
You have to listen to those you respect, and it's also fun to notice that the
great writers are listening to you."
As Eric Idle of the six-member Monty Python
group observed:
Getting six guys to agree on what's funny
is easy. We read it aloud. If we laugh, it's in;
if we don't, it's out. If four guys think something's funny and two guys think it's not,
we solve that very simply: We take the two
guys out and kill 'em.

That's a Wrap

327

Often a student will point out that the most famous comedies were written by one person—Charlie Chaplin or Neil Simon. Well, if you're as good
as Chaplin or Simon, you can do it alone, too!
2 . HIRE A N A G E N T
Agents are a great example of a catch-22 situation. The big agents won't
touch unknowns, but beginners can't become known without an agent.
There are many exceptions, however, and your job is to find them.
Playwright Abe Burrows said he thought of his agent as family. When
Burrows paid his agent 10 percent, he didn't think of it as a commission,
but as sending money home to mother.
Names and addresses of agents can be obtained by searching the
Internet. Just never give a new agent your wallet to hold when you
go on stage.
3. TEST, TEST, TEST
Humor can't be tested in a vacuum. You need an audience, and it must be
an audience receptive to humor. If you can't find an audience, try your
jokes out on another humor professional—writer or performer. Don't
walk up to a stranger and ask, "What d'ya think of this?" The only thing
worse than that is trying your humor out on your friends, spouse, parents, or children. They are too subjective, too critical, and—instead of
just relaxing and enjoying it—they turn into pseudo-analysts.
There are a hell of a lot of jobs that are scarier than live comedy.
Like standing in the operating room when a guy's heart stops, and
you're the one who has to fix it.
—Jon Stewart

Only one out of every ten jokes will probably work the first time out. And
no joke will ever please every person in the audience. It's impossible.
Getting laughs from 50 percent of the audience is doing very well.
If you're writing material for public speaking, put thirty seconds
of new material at the very beginning of a tested speech. The first

328

Comedy Writing Secrets

thirty seconds are the toughest because that's when the audience
is most skeptical, but if the new material goes over then, you know
it has merit.
Jokes are like machine-gun bullets. They don't all hit the target, but if
you shoot enough of them accurately at the audience, you'll kill 'em.
Count one point for a twitter of laughter, two points for a solid laugh, and
three points for applause. If a a joke doesn't score any points after it has
been tried at least three times, throw it out. If it gets only one point, try
rewriting it, so your score is constantly going up. Don't fall in love with
your own material, and don't blame failure on the performer or the audience. Once you learn about flop sweat yourself, you'll never write bad
material for a client.
If I get big laughs, I'm a comedian. If I get little laughs, I'm a
humorist. If I get no laughs, I'm a singer.
—George Burns

4. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE
Writing humor is an all-day assignment, because new ideas can pop into
your head anytime, anyplace. Some feel humor can be conceived even
when they dream, so keep a notebook by your bed.
Once you've learned the basic techniques, don't let anybody talk you
out of writing your own way. Humor styles change with each generation
and, while formulas rarely vary, standard subject matter, formats, fads,
and characterizations are constantly being challenged. New ideas are the
lifeblood of comedy, as they are of most businesses. And most new ideas
take at least several years to germinate.
There are two other essential elements to comedy success—luck and
perseverance. Some claim they go together—that the luckiest people are
those who work the hardest. In any case, you must be your own publicist. That means having confidence in your own material and ability. The
business is so competitive that self-effacing writers rarely make it. Have
the confidence to sell yourself and a few sheets of paper covered with
jokes—without gagging.

That's a Wrap

329

Rest in Piece or Whole
In addition to luck and perseverance, your success as a humor writer
depends on:
1. WATCHING. Look for the absurdities of life. Notice the physical
actions that bring a smile to people's lips.
2. READING. If you read something funny, make a note of it. Notice the
construction. Keep adding to your joke file.
3. LISTENING. Try to remember how people phrase things, what Mel
Brooks calls "the rhythm of human speech." Things that look good on
paper don't always perform well. We don't speak in full sentences, we
often skip words, and we almost always use contractions.
4. SPEAKING. Do your own stand-up. Don't hesitate to deliver your
own material in a meeting, at private parties, or to dinner guests. You'll
notice how audiences differ, how your performance differs, and how
important it is to have the right material for the right audience.

SHOWTIME
Fuel your comedic imagination with these high-octane exercises.
Write a funny...
• letter to the IRS defending an outrageous deduction
• set of directions for using a common personal hygiene product
(soap, toothpaste)
• application letter for an unusual job (mortician, proctologist)
• "I'm out of the office" e-mail message
• top-ten list of your pet peeves
• list of new cable TV networks or shows
• weather forecast
• obit for roadkill
• travel guide for your local neighborhood
• insurance policy, will, or tax return

330

Comedy Writing Secrets

• scene for a silent film
• movie, play, or music review
• set of fake news headlines
• list of new car models
• short story of your worst dating experience
• roast for yourself, family members, or pet
• short story about how turkeys feel on Thanksgiving
• fairy tale about animals with mental disorders
• song or poem
• guide for parenting
• dress code for the office or home
• list of Internet domain names
• set of captions for old family photos
• fax cover sheet

That's a Wrap

331

APPENDIX
Glossary
AMBIVALENCE THEORY: A theory of comedy that stresses conflicting
emotions, such as love and hate, toward a person, object, or idea.
APHORISMS: Concise expressions that contain truth or wisdom.
ASSOCIATIONS: A creative-writing technique that is used for discovering humor from unexpected relationships and creating POW jokes.
BRAINSTORMING: A humor-writing strategy that involves listing all
available ideas.
CONFIGURATION THEORY: A theory of comedy that states we laugh
when disjointedness falls into place, for example, when we solve a mystery or figure something out.
DOUBLE ENTENDRE: An ambiguous word or phrase that allows for a
double interpretation of words, images, and associations.
EVOLUTIONARY THEORY: A theory of comedy that emphasizes that
laughter is an instinct.
EXAGGERATION: A comedic device, used in conjunction with realism,
to distort to an outrageous degree.
INCONGRUITY THEORY: A theory of comedy that
emphasizes the logical but unconventional
pairing of actions or thoughts.
IRONY: The use of sarcastic statements that
generally mean the exact opposite of what's
being expressed.
MALAPROPS: The use of twisted language that is innocently spoken by an ignorant person.

Glossary

333

MAP: An acronym for material, audience, and performer. This theory
postulates that the material must fit the persona of the writer or performer and the interests of the audience.
MASKS OP HUMOR: A comedic characterization that can be used to
enhance humor.
NON SEQUITUR: An illogical statement that is humorous because of
the juxtaposition of two elements.
OBSERVATIONAL HUMOR: A type of humor in which the humorist
focuses on a realistic action or logical thought with the intent of
destroying it.
OVERSTATEMENT: A comedic device to produce exaggerated humor.
OXYMORON: An incongruous double entendre that combines two contradictory terms in a humorous fashion.
PAIRED ELEMENTS: In the form of paired phrases, sentences, words,
or statistics, this comedic device has a simple parallel structure that is
craftily repeated by reversing the order at the end.
POW: An acronym for a play on words, which is a twist on common
expressions, such as clichés or metaphors.
PSYCHOANALYTICAL THEORY: A theory of comedy presented by
Freud that states that humor is therapeutic and allows people to express
inhibited, perhaps childlike, tendencies in a socially acceptable manner.
REALISM: A comedic device, used in conjunction with exaggeration,
meaning to state what is acceptable or true.
REFORMING: A comedy tactic that alters either the word order
of a cliché or the spelling of words and substitutes a homonym or
rhyming variation.
RELEASE THEORY: A theory of comedy that emphasizes that laughter
is a planned event, a voluntary reduction of stress triggered by a conscious effort to unlock life's tensions and inhibitions.

334

Comedy Writing Secrets

REVERSE: A comedic device that adds a contradictory tag line to the
opening line of a cliché, thus changing its point of view.
RUNNING GAG: A line that comes early in a monologue and then is
repeated as a payoff line for jokes scattered throughout the routine.
SAP HUMOR TEST: An acronym given for the three parts of most
comedic bits—setup, anticipation, and punchline.
SATIRE: A form of humor in which the comedian ridicules the vices of
another, especially those in political or social positions.
SAVER: A line that is used to save "face" when a joke bombs.
SIMPLE TRUTH: A comedy tactic that takes the explicit meaning of a
key word in an idiom and interprets it literally.
STRETCH-BAND THEORY: The theory that relates humor to a rubber
band—the more it can be stretched, the more useful it is.
SUPERIORITY THEORY: A theory of comedy that involves comparing
ourselves with others we consider inferior by ridiculing their intelligence, their social standing, and their physical infirmities.
SURPRISE: A theory of comedy suggesting that we laugh at the unexpected and to hide our own embarrassment.
TAKE-OFF: A technique that starts off with a common interpretation of
a cliché followed by a bizarre reference. The take-off implies something
that is not explicitly stated, making it the opposite of the simple truth.
TEE: An acronym for truth, emotion, and explicitness—the three criteria
that determine whether a premise properly sets up the punchline.
TELEGRAPH: This occurs when a beginner gives too detailed an introduction to a story, making the setup so obvious that the audience can
anticipate its ending.
THREES FORMULA: An acronym for the six essential elements of
humor: target, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, and surprise.

Glossary

335

TOPPERS: A comedy tactic that involves a series of punchlines,
each related to the previous one, especially used when the audience
is on a roll.
TRIPLES: A comedic device used to build tension by using a triad
grouping of examples or a sequence of three actions, comments,
or categories.
UNDERSTATEMENT: A comedic device in which the humorist uses
subtlety or shows a lack of emphasis in expression.
USAGE BLUNDERS: A tactic comedians use, on purpose or accidentally,
which involves making spelling and grammatical errors.

336

Comedy Writing Secrets

INDEX
A
abbreviated print humor,
264-267
Academy Awards, 225, 246
accents, 242
actor characters, 226-227
ad lib, 248-249
See also working the
audience.
Addams, Charles, 272
advertising, humor in,
304-313
agents, 328
alcoholic. See drug rebel.
All in the Family, 70, 163,
185, 287, 292, 295
Allen, Gracie, 70
Allen, Woody, 1, 12, 15, 20,
48, 55, 173-174, 224, 232,
239, 243
ambivalence, 21, 28, 39, 178
American Guild of Variety
Artists, 251
Andrews, Bert, 288
anecdotes, 129-130, 131,
155-157, 209, 254-256
angst, as source of hostility,
43, 47-48
animals, funny-sounding,
185-186
anticipation, in triples, 152
antonyms, in paired elements, 142-145
aphorisms, 138, 147-148, 256
appearance, physical, 240,
243-244
articles, 256-260
Artist's & Graphic
Designer's Market,
278, 279
association, 109-115
audiences
authority figures in, 31, 211

business, 303-314
classroom, 317-318
evaluating, 13,14-15
greeting card, 281
live, testing material on,
225-226, 330
persona and, 238
print ads, 308
selection of targets and,
14-15, 37
sitcom, 288
for speeches, 216, 217
TV commercial, 307
working, 56, 248-249
See also MAP.
authority figures
in audiences, 31, 211
as source of hostility,
43-45, 50

B
Baker, Russell, 234, 253,
254, 258
balloons, thought, 271
Barr, Roseanne, 12, 229
Barry, Dave, 253, 257
Benny, Jack, 228, 245, 247
Berdis, Bert, 309
Bergson, Henri, 19, 27
Berle, Milton, x, 4, 16,
228, 246
Berryman, Clifford, 275
Black, Lewis, 233
block, overcoming, 109,
122-123
See also brainstorming.
blogs, 263-264
Blue, Ben, 241
Bombeck, Erma, 4, 37-38,
154, 253, 254, 257, 259
Boskin, Joseph, 33
brain, humor and the, 32-33
brainstorming, 109-124

association, 109-114
greeting cards, 283-285
listing, 109,115-122
paired elements, 144-145
Brenner, David, 175
Brooks, Mel, 1,12, 93, 181,
185, 330
Bruce, Lenny, 187, 190, 231
Buchwald, Art, 45, 234, 253,
258-259
build, 56
bumper stickers, 264-265
Burns, George, 4, 70, 242
Burrows, Abe, 22-23
Bush, George W., 71, 217
business
humor in, 3-4, 10-11, 12,
303-304, 313-314
as target of hostility, 45-46

C
Caesar, Sid, 12, 185
callbacks, 247
Candid Camera, 27-28
captions, 268-270, 271
caricature, 276-277
Carlin, George, 62-63, 94,
187, 200, 232
Carrot Top, 242
Carson, Johnny, 12-13, 55, 247
cartoons, 268279, 309
celebrities
names of,
in jokes, 183
as targets, 38, 40
Chaplin, Charlie, 48,
57, 241
characters, sitcom,
299-300
See also masks of
comedy,
persona.

Index

337

Chase, Chevy, 12
Cheech and Chong, 50
children
as inspiration for simple
truths, 90-91
as targets, 47
See also family.
classroom, humor in the, 11,
315-326
Cleese, John, 177, 315
clichés, 64-65, 135, 265,
280, 283
See also reforming.
Clinton, Bill, 218, 277
Cohen, Ed, 252-253
columns, 252-254
comedy, vs. humor, 4
comedy clubs, ix
comic strips, 269, 273-274
commercials, 307-311
configuration humor, 30
consistency, 13, 20, 224, 250
See also MAP.
Cosby, Bill, 28, 163, 234,
236, 322
costumes, 240-242, 323
Cox, Mary, 278
Cozart, Charles, 240
creativity, 8
Cross, David, 220
Curb Your Enthusiasm, 231

D
Daily Show With Jon
Stewart, The, 136, 234
Dana, Bill, 154
Dangerfield, Rodney, 105,
182, 230, 238
David, Larry, 230-231
Davis, Jim, 273
Deep Thoughts series,
105-106
DeGeneres, Ellen, 12, 41,
175, 225, 228, 239
differences, as source of
hostility, 43, 48-51
Dilbert, 273
Diller, Phyllis, 243

338

disclaimers, 256
Donev, Stef and Mary
Kaiser, 263
Doonesbury, 275
double entendres, 62, 63, 6570, 74, 77, 256, 257, 265,
269, 270, 277
mispronunciation-based,
98-99
in names, 182-183
in simple truths, 92-93
drug rebel, 231-232
Dumb and Dumber, 238
Dundes, Alan, 23

E
Ebel, Fred, 211
economy of words, 95-96,
113-115, 123-124, 130,
153, 155-156, 282
educational humor, 11,
315-326
embarrassment, 21
See also surprise.
emotion, 36, 54-56, 166
in setups, 168-169
Entertainer, The, 54
entre-nous humor, 33-34
Erma Bombeck Writers'
Workshop, 256
ethnic humor, 24, 49-50, 183,
185, 242-243
exaggeration, 36, 51-52, 5354, 112, 163, 165-169,
170-178, 238, 268, 269,
276-277, 290, 323, 325,
323, 325
balancing, with realism,
167-168, 176-178
of numbers, 172-173
explicitness, in setups,
168-169

F
family, as source of hostility,
43, 46-47
Far Side, The, 272, 322
Feldman, Marty, 109, 243

Comedy Writing Secrets

Ferrell, Will, 230
Fey, Tina, 4, 244
Fields, W.C., 5, 231
fillers, 260
flop sweat, 57
Flugel, J.C., 30
food, funny-sounding,
184-185
fortune cookies, 266
foul language. See obscenity.
Foxworthy, Jeff, 15, 171,
225, 237
Foxx, Redd, 50
fracturing, 79-81
Franken, Al, 5, 220
Franklin, Benjamin, 275
freelance writing, 250-251,
276, 285-286
Freud, Sigmund, 19, 26, 30,
34, 51, 326
Friends, 39, 70, 244, 289
Funt, Allen, 27-28

G
gags, running, 246-247
Garfield, 273
Garfield, Bob, 16
Gelbart, Larry, 51
gesture, 55
Gleason, Jackie, 243
Gliner, Art, 111
Goldwyn, Samuel, 70
Gray, Dan, 265
Greene, Bob, 254
greeting cards, 268, 279-286
group differences, as source
of hostility, 43, 48-51
group experience, humor as,
29, 31, 49-50, 216, 321
groupings of elements, 145

H
Handey, Jack, 105-106
Harrison, Randall, 271
Haynie, Hugh, 276
hecklers, 211
Hedburg, Mitch, 95-96, 101
Hercer, Ed, 210

hiding, 132
Hite Report on Male
Sexuality, The, 39
Hite, Shere, 39
Hobbes, Thomas, 19
homographs, 78
homonyms, 62, 64, 74, 77,

humor and duration
principle, 96
humor writing
careers in, 12-13
for cartoons, 278-279
courses in, x, 3
for greeting cards, 280-

78-83, 140, 142, 256
homophones, 78
Honeymooners, The, 289
hook. See persona.
Hope, Bob, 16, 68, 228
hostility, 36, 42-51, 54, 164-

281, 283-286
for live performance,
250-251
markets for, ix, 214-221,
222-223, 250-251, 315
for print, 252-267
sitcoms, 287-290, 298-302
for speeches, 214-221
tips, 327-331
humor, abbreviated print,

165, 274, 291
Hubbard, Elbert, 4
humor
benefits of, 34, 10-11, 19
comedy vs., 4
as criticism, 37, 24, 44,
274-277
entre-nous, 33-34
ethnic, 24, 49-50, 183, 185,
242-243
as group experience, 29,
31, 49-50, 216, 321
as learnable skill, 1, 7-9
localizing, 207, 208-209
nihilistic, 44, 264
paradox as, 51
physical, 62, 160-161, 296297, 300
print, 99, 308-309
put-down, 265, 284, 316
recipe for, 36
self-deprecating, 203, 209,
230, 316-317, 323
shock, 189, 191, 192195, 197
sick, 33-44
slapstick, 62, 296-297, 300
in speaker introductions,
202-203
in speeches, 199-221
theories of, 19-21
visual, 268, 322-323
the what and why of, 36
at work, 3-4, 10-11, 12,
303-304, 313-314

264-267
hyperbole. See exaggeration,
overstatement.

I
I Love Lucy, 170-171,
287, 292
ideas
generating, 16-17
as targets, 38, 41
See also material.
imagery, 158
imagination, 8
incongruity, 21, 22, 27-28, 52,
271, 272
inferiority, 24-25
See also superiority.
Inge, M. Thomas, 268
instinct, 21, 26-27
intellectual, 232-233
Internet humor, 220, 263264, 324-326
ironic truth, in columns, 254
irony, 4, 68

J
Jeffersons, The, 287
jerk, 241
jester, 228-230
Johnston, Betty, 260
joke on the way to a joke, 161

jokes
originality of, 4-5, 261
restricting number of, per
topic, 71, 154
world's funniest, 32
See also material.

K
Katz, Mark, 42, 218
Kaufman, George S., 196-197
Kean, Edmund, 94
Keaton, Buster, 243
Keillor, Garrison, 157, 234,
235-236
Keith-Spiegel, Patricia, 21
Kelley, Steve, 277
Kennedy, John F., 218
KISS approach, 212
Klein, Robert, 231
L
Landers, Ann, 253
Lang, William, 152
Larry the Cable Guy, 222
Larson, Gary, 272
lateral thinking, 51-52
LaughLab, 32
laughter, as instinct, 26-27, 29
Leacock, Stephen, 52
Leary, Denis, 232, 242
Leno, Jay, 4, 15, 226
Leonard, Jack E., 243
Letterman, David, 4,12, 41,
134, 204, 225-226, 251
Lewis, Jerry, 239
Lewis, Joe E., 231
Lewis, Richard, 230
Liebman, Wendy, 229
Linkletter, Art, 98, 322
listing, 115-122
live performance, 222-223,
239-251, 330
localizing humor, 207, 208-209
Luckovich, Mike, 277

M
MacDonald, Dwight, 187
malaprops, 62, 70-72

Index

339

Mankoff, Bob, 270, 278
MAP, 13-15, 37, 225-226, 238,
317-318
shock humor and, 194
in speech-writing, 206-212
Martin, Steve, 12, 224,
231, 241
Marx Brothers, 182
Marx, Groucho, 241, 242
masks of comedy, 226-238
material
generating, 16-17, 20, 61
organizing and tracking,
16-17
originality of, 4-5, 261,
289-290
targeting to performer and
audience, 13-14, 15, 37
testing, 74, 200, 225-226,
328-329
McMahon, Ed, 215
McSweeney's Internet
Tendency, 263
Meara, Anne, 309-310
Meir, Golda, 203
Mencken, H.L., 37
Miller, Dennis, 232
Mindess, Harvey, 25
misdirection, 22, 125-126
money, as source of hostility,
43, 45-46
Monty Python, 177, 315
Morley, John, 4, 200
Mostel, Zero, 182

O
obscenity, 34, 43-44, 67-68,
69, 186-195, 246, 261, 316
Oliphant, Pat, 277
Olivier, Sir Laurence, 54
one-liners, 64, 254, 256-258.
268, 269, 280
Onion, The, 263
online humor, 263-264,
324-326
Orben, Robert, 110, 208, 220
overstatement, 166, 167, 175176, 254, 258, 271-272
See also exaggeration.
oxymorons, 62, 73

P
paired elements, 138-149,
280, 284
in aphorisms, 138, 147-148
numbers, 146-147
omitting second element
of, 140

names
funny, 182-184
nick-, 292-293
Nast, Thomas, 275
National Lampoon, 44
Nelson, Bob, 160-161
Nelson, Roy Paul, 254
Nessen, Ron, 197
New Yorker, The, 261, 268-

phrases, 138-140
reverses in, 139, 140
sentences, 138-140
take-offs in, 139, 142
words, 141-145
paradox, as humor, 5l
Parker, Dorothy, 52
parody, 4
Paulos, John Allen, 100
pauses, 55, 97, 175, 304
Peanuts, 274
Perelman, S.J., 62, 104,

269, 270, 273, 278
newsletters, 313-314
nihilistic humor, 44, 264

174, 182
performance, live, 222-223,
239-251, 330

N

340

non sequiturs, 100-101, 174
nonsense, exaggeration as,
170-171
Noonan, Peggy, 220
numbers
exaggerating, 172-173
funny, 186
paired, 146-147
understating, 174-175

Comedy Writing Secrets

performer, matching audience and material to,
13-14, 15, 37
See also MAP, persona.
Perret, Gene, 57, 111
persona, 14, 15, 37, 54, 191,
223-244
Philips, Emo, 127-128,
232, 239
phrases, paired, 138-140
physical appearance, 240,
243-244
physical humor, 62, 160-161,
296-297, 300
places
as targets, 38, 41
funny-sounding, 184-185
plays on words, 22, 61-87,
89-108, 264, 268, 305,
308, 313, 323, 325
brainstorming, 109-124
clichés and
daffy definitions, 75-76
double entendres, 62, 63,
65-70, 74, 77, 92-93, 9899, 182-183, 256, 257,
265, 269, 270, 277
groupings in, 145
malaprops, 62, 70-72
oxymorons, 62, 73
paired elements in, 138-149
in print vs. spoken aloud, 82
puns, 62, 63, 74-77, 78,
104, 256, 257
reforming, 62, 77-83, 83-87,
197, 104
simple truths, 64, 89-102
take-offs, 64, 90, 102-107,
139, 268, 280, 284
plots, sitcom, 290-298
political cartoons, 269,
274-276
political satirist, 233-234
POW. See plays on words.
Powers, Austin, 62
practicing, 225-226, 328-329
Prairie Home Companion,
A, 235

print ads, 308-309
Producers, The, 93
products, as targets, 38, 41
profanity. See obscenity.
props, 240, 242, 323
Pryor, Richard, 43-44, 69, 234
punchlines, 152, 310
creating, first, 122-123,
135, 139, 149
placement of, 104-105,
114, 119, 131, 256
Punk'd, 27
puns, 62, 63, 74-77, 78, 104,
256, 257
put-down humor, 265,
284, 316
puzzle-solving, 21, 30

Q
Quayle, Dan, 71
questions, using, to build
emotion, 55-56

R
Rackham, Marty, 16
radio commercials, 309-311
Reader's Digest, 192, 251,
260-261, 269
Reagan, Ronald, 205, 207,
218-219
realism, 36, 51-53, 97,
112, 163, 165, 169-170,
238, 310
balancing, with exaggeration, 167-168, 176-178
recipe for humor, 36
reforming, 62, 77-83, 104
and shock humor, 197
split-, 79-81
step by step, 83-87
Reiner, Carl, 12, 38
release, 21, 29
remember, 11
researching, 17-18, 239, 273
for greeting cards, 280-281
performers, 224-225
for sitcoms, 288, 302
respect, 10-11, 34

reverses, 110, 125-137, 248,
268, 269, 272-273, 284
anecdotal, 129-130
of clichés, 135
misdirection in, 125-126
in paired elements, 139, 140
setting up, 125-126
surprise in, 127-128
telegraphing, 130-131
triples as, 151, 153
uses for, 133-134
revision, 113-115, 123-124
See also economy of words.
reward, 12
Richards, Ann, 218
Richards, Michael, 15
Rivers, Joan, 229
Rock, Chris, 4, 12, 15, 188,
225-226, 228, 246
Rogers, Will, 5, 233
roll outs, 304
Romano, Ray, 15
Rs, three, 9-13
rubber-band theory, 166
rube, 237-238
Rudner, Rita, 4, 15, 225, 229
running gags, 246-247

S
sad sack, 230-231
Sahl, Mort, 231, 233
sales, humor in, 303-304
Sanders, Bill, 277
SAP formula, 152
sarcasm, 4, 68
satire, 4
satirist, political, 233-234
Saturday Night Live, 136,
142, 197, 227
savers, 247-248
scenes, sitcom, 298-299
Schulz, Charles, 274
Sedaris, David, 234, 236
Seinfeld, 15, 32, 39, 231, 289,
292-293
Seinfeld, Jerry, 12, 15, 176
self, as target, 38
self-censorship, 9

self-deprecating humor, 203,
209, 230, 316-317, 323
sentences, paired, 138-140
sentences, varying the
length of, in speeches,
205, 213
setups, 152, 159, 168-169, 268
sitcom, 290-298
TEE formula for, 168-169
sex
as source of hostility, 43
as target, 38-40
Shandling, Garry, 12, 230
shock humor, 189, 191, 192195, 197
See also obscenity.
shtick. See persona.
sick humor, 33-34
Simmons, Marty, 44
Simon, Neil, 29, 181
simple truths, 64, 89-102
double entendres in, 98-99
mispronunciation-based, 98
non sequiturs, 100-101
in physical comedy, 93
toppers and , 97
single characters, 226-238
single-panel cartoons, 268273, 274-275
sitcoms, 287-303
sketch comedy, 222-223
skits, 227-228, 309, 312
slapstick, 62, 296-297, 300
Smirnoff, Yakov, 15, 246
sounds, funny, 181-182
speeches, 201-221
booking, 221
closing remarks of, 213-214
and introduction of
speaker, 202-203
introductory remarks of,
203-204, 212
length of, 212
political, 217-220
preparation of venue
before, 216
rehearsing, 215
researching, 212

Index

341

titles of, 201-202
writing, for clients,
214-220
split-reforming, 79-81
spoofs, 269, 270
stand-up comedy, 222-223,
239-251
Stevenson, Adlai, 219
Stewart, Jon, 4, 234
Stiller, Ben, 230
Stiller, Jerry, 309-310
Stoppard, Tom, 62
storyteller, 234-237
stretch-band theory, 166
superiority, 21, 23-26, 27-28,
29, 30, 32, 41, 42, 49, 53,
72, 271, 291
surprise, 21-23, 30, 32, 36,
51, 52, 57, 165, 310
generating with plays on
words, 65
in reverses, 127-128
revising for, 113-115, 119
See also telegraphing.
switching. See reverses.
synonyms, in paired elements, 141-142

T
take-offs, 64, 90, 102-107,
139, 268, 280, 284
takes, 55
targeted material, 13
See also MAP.
targets, 36, 37-42, 164-165
teaching, humor in, 11,
315-326
team characters, 226-227
technology, as source of
hostility, 43, 48
TEE, 168-169
telegraphing, 57, 67, 104,
130-131, 304
television, 12-13
commercials, 307-308

342

See also sitcoms.
tension
creating, 54, 56, 152154, 248
increasing, with exaggeration, 166
testing material, 200, 225226, 328-329
three, rules of, 154, 204
three Rs, 9-13
THREES, 36-59, 163, 238
Thurber, James, 196, 270
timing, 244
of scripts, 298
See also pause.
Tom Swifties, 110
Tomlin, Lily, 223, 242
Tonight Show, The, 109
toppers, 97, 105, 160, 244246, 304
tragedy, humor as a
response to, 33-34
Tramp, 241
transformation, 272
triples, 150-162, 245, 284, 326
anecdotal, 155-157
creating tension with,
152-153
in physical humor, 160-161
reverses in, 151, 153, 159
SAP formula in, 152
take-offs in, 159
toppers in, 160
variations of, 159-161
Trudeau, Gary, 275
truth, in setups, 168-169
T-shirts, 265-266
Twain, Mark, 4, 5, 165,
203, 235
typos, 79

U
understatement, 166, 167,
173-176, 254, 258-259,
271-272

Comedy Writing Secrets

as alternative to obscenity,
195-197
universities with humorwriting courses, 3

V
Van Buren, Abigail, 253
Varney, Jim, 237
visual humor, 268, 322-323
voice, 240, 242-243
voice mail, 313

W
what if? technique, 8-9, 61,
66, 290, 299, 322
White, E.B., 211
Whose Line Is It, Anyway?,
179, 227-228
Wilde, Larry, 34, 54
Williams, Robin, 4, 12, 29,
224, 242
Winchell, Walter, 77
Winters, Jonathan, 182, 312
Wiseman, Richard, 32
wordplay. See plays on words.
words
economy of, 95-96, 113115, 123-124, 130, 153,
155-156, 282
ethnic, 185
funny-sounding, 181-182,
185-186
paired, 141-145
working the audience, 56,
248-249
world's funniest joke, 32
Worrell, Ernest P., 237
Wright, Steven, 100-101, 232
Writer's Market, 16, 262
writing. See humor writing.

Z
Zeibel, Alan, 197