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.

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