• 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.
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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 for