Saturday, January 21, 2006

Humor writing secrets

A lot of people shy away from writing humor. I subscribe to several speechwriting newsletters, and all of them admonish their readers that they should be very, very careful in using humor in their speeches – almost to the point of never doing it. Because, like guns, it’s very dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced and unfunny.

(Surprisingly, my humor writers discussion group, the NetWits, has never warned its members about the perils of writing speeches. Apparently this is the easier of the two vocations.)

Actually, writing humor is pretty easy, if you know the secrets. Of course, knowing the secrets aren’t enough. You have to be able to execute them well. I mean, I can throw a football well enough to play in a pick-up game, but I’ll never beat Peyton Manning out of his job with the Indianapolis Colts. So don't think that just because you know the formula, you're automatically going to be funny. It still takes practice and an ear for a good joke or funny word or phrase.

And maybe that’s why speechwriters should avoid humor: the execution and the ear. (And that's why they should hire me for their joke writing -- call me for freelance rates!) But for those brave souls who want to try it, I’ll reveal some of these secrets in this, and future, blog entries. Practice them, write a few jokes (every clever remark or gag in humor writing is called a joke, whether it's really a true joke or not), and see if you can use them successfully in your next presentation.

The biggest, most important secret is that all humor – jokes, stand-up comedy, sitcoms, humor columns, etc. – is based on a lie. Purdue University linguist Victor Raskin has studied this idea for years, and found that basically humor comes from leading your audience down one path, and then putting a twist on it. (Other humorists, like Mel Helitzer and Darren La Croix, talk about the surprise/twist of a joke.)

The easiest example is Henny Youngman’s classic line, “Take my wife, please.” If you hear the first three words – take my wife – you immediately fill in the blank yourself with “for example.” But instead of saying “for example,” Youngman instead said “please.” He lied to his audience, surprised them, and thus created the joke.

He even paused ever so slightly to give the audience a chance to think “for example,” before delivering the “lie.” Now instead of considering his wife as an example, he’s pleading with us to make his life easier and more enjoyable.

Another example is Groucho Marx’s “I met a man on the way to the theatre who said that he hadn’t had a bite in weeks. So I bit him.” Surprise! On the way to the punchline, the audience is probably thinking, “So I gave him a few bucks” or “So I gave him my lunch.” But instead, Groucho played on the ambiguity of the word “bite,” and did the opposite of what everyone expected. That lie -- biting a total stranger -- creates the humor by surprising the audience. It's a matter of what we expect vs. what he said.

(Watch the “Weekend Update” segment on Saturday Night Live (it usually comes on around 30 – 40 minutes after the start). Most of their jokes come from this lying/surprise element.)

So the next time you’re writing a presentation or speech and want to try a little humor, use the lying technique and surprise your audience. A few (3 – 5) well-placed, tasteful jokes in a 10 minute speech will create a memorable, effective message.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The cool thing about blogging, err, Moleskine Notebooks

Blogging is a great viral marketing tool -- sort of the "I told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on and so on" phenomenon. The great thing about blogging is that 1) it's so easy, 2) it's an easy read, and 3) everyone is peeking over each other's shoulder to see what they're blogging about. Then 4) they write about it in their own blogs, which prompts their readers to check that other stuff out.

That happened to me, when Steve at wrote about my entry about my Moleskine notebook. My first thought was "wow, someone's actually reading this?" But my bigger, and more pressing thought was, "Wow, there are websites devoted to things we use to record our thoughts!" There's also this one at From what I can tell, it's a pretty cool site about a nifty little notebook. Even guitarist Ottmar Leibert likes it.

Turns out Moleskine is pronounced "MOLE-uh-SKEEN-uh" and NOT "MOLE-skein" as I've been stupidly saying. Still, it beats "mole-skinny" as I'm sure someone has said.

But what really caught my eye on was the link to PocketMod. Imagine making an 8-page booklet out of a single piece of paper, with only a single tear. No taping, no pasting, no tearing apart. Make a few folds, a single tear, and BAM, instant mini-notebook. I saw this website and completely geeked out over it. If you get the chance, check it out and make one yourself. Now I carry a PocketMod inside my MoleSkine (remember, MOLE-uh-SKEEN-uh) in case I need to write a quick note to myself.

Ah, the things that impress us when we're easily amused. . . and distracted. Wasn't this post supposed to be about the joys of blogging?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ego Surfing

One of the great things about the Internet is that you have a chance to publish your stuff anywhere. It can be your own website or blog, someone else's ezine, or even a fairly decent news site like The American Reporter. Unfortunately, the downfall is that your stuff can easily be stolen and published elsewhere. While it's sort of flattering to an insecure writer like me, it can be downright aggravating to guys like Bruce Cameron (the 8 Simple Rules to Dating My Teenage Daughter guy). For a while, he had a full-time staffer whose job it was to write nasty letters to people who had plagiarized his columns (he also did the one about the chili tasting judge who suffered horrible agony during the contest).

So I will occasionally ego surf for myself on Ego surfing can be dangerous. On one hand, it's a huge boost to your ego when you find your name in an unexpected place. On the other, it can be a devastating blow if you don't find anything at all. Of course, it's pretty much useless if your name happens to be John Smith or Bill Johnson. Still, if you have a fairly uncommon name, or have some unique identifiers that you can enter, it's worth a try. I usually do a search for my name in quotes, so as to remove any reference to double-decker busses. And I also put -Belgium in the search, since there is a real estate agent named Erik Deckers in Brussel.

Of course, not all word thieves will do me the courtesy of including my name in their purloined material. That happened to me a few years ago, when I caught the assistant editor of a small-town Canadian newspaper plagiarizing one of my columns. I ratted him out to his editor, and then pleaded for mercy if it was his first and only offense (turns out it was). I take plagiarism very seriously, but at the same time, if this was his first mistake, I didn't want to be the reason he became an insurance agent for the rest of his life either.

I always recommend to other writers that they occasionally take a unique phrase or sentence from one of their pieces and Google it. If it pops up, make sure it pops up in the place where it should be (i.e. your website). If you find it elsewhere, investigate further and find out why it's up there.

In some cases, I've found web pages that posted my stuff, but included my name and website. I usually don't complain too loudly about that, becuase I'm more thrilled that someone liked my stuff enough to republish it. But if you're a published writer who makes his or her living doing this stuff, then by all means, write a nasty letter to the thief demanding that your stuff be removed. The whole "It's on the Internet, so it's public domain" argument is crap. Try telling that to the RIAA.

When my stuff is posted but uncredited, I send an email to the offender telling them that my publishing rate is $500, and they can either pay me or take it down. As of today, no one has paid me my pub rate. Jerks.

Still, if you're looking for some validation on your writing career, surf on over to, type in your name (use quotes, otherwise Google returns instances of your first AND last name separately), and see what pops up.

Good luck.