Humor is a personal thing. There are things about humor that tend to be universal, but for each person, the specific things that will trigger amusement are different. And the level of amusement from a trigger are different. Some humor is merely enjoyable while others hit us hard enough to bring on physical laughter.
The humor you write will be the humor that works for you. It’s hard to make a joke land if you don’t find it funny yourself. Many writers tried writing poop books or fart books or underwear books when those themes seemed popular, but when the writer didn’t really find the jokes funny, the strain showed in the writing, and the authors usually found that writing bathroom humor wasn’t as easy as they thought.
Now for some of us, making jokes at the expense of everything is like breathing. We’re constantly looking for potentially funny moments in the ridiculousness that is life. But serious-minded people can find humor writing more of a challenge. It’s for them that a step-by-step exercise might help shift to see the world at a slant, as humor is usually found only when we knock our perception a bit skew. So let’s look at one possible exercise, inspired by one from Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz in Comedy Writing Secrets.
Step One: Pick Your Topic
This can work with fiction or nonfiction. With fiction, I would suggest you start with the setting of your scene. Will this scene take place in a school hallway? A library? The dining room of the character’s home? A bleacher seat at a ballgame? Your setting will be your topic for this exercise. (There are other potential approaches. You could consider the character’s activity as a topic: pasting stamps in a stamp collection or getting ready for bed.)
With nonfiction, the topic is the subject of your book or article or the subtopic within that subject: driverless cars? dinosaurs? voting? baking? As long as humor wouldn’t be flatly inappropriate or offensive. (For instance, I could write a book about the funeral industry that was packed with jokes, but I wouldn’t likely sell it, especially to a children’s publisher, because it would be inappropriate and offensive.)
Step Two: Free Associate
In this step, you make a list of basically anything you can think of about your topic. For my setting of the school hallway, I would list things in the hallway [fire extinguisher in a box, lockers, scuffed floors, backpacks, dropped papers] and sounds [voices, laughter, the slam of lockers, the shuffle of feet, bells or buzzers, announcements, shouts, sneezes] and smells [sweat, the stench of a forgotten tuna sandwich that bursts into the hall when a locker is opened] and even textures or sensations [the cold metal of the locker, the bumps and dips of the cement block walls, softened by layers and layers of paint]. I might list possible sound effects [Bang! Sniff!]. I could list things kids might be talking about [mean teachers, bullies, TV shows, dorks, and doofuses]. The sky is the limit in the listing phase.
Nonfiction works the same way. Take your topic and list everything you can think of that could be related. Let’s think about driverless cars. The list could include worries [more accidents, cost, infrastructure, morality, would a human take over in time if necessary, laws], parts of the car [lasers, camera, radar, computer, ultrasonic sensors, GPS], etc.
Step Three: Push Your List Further
The more items on your list, the bigger chance you’ll find one that will offer you fertile ground for a joke. So I might want to add to my school hallway list by thinking about things associated with kids, with crowds, with teachers, with bullies, etc. I might think about sayings about crowds or herds. I could compare the kids to lemmings, rushing to throw themselves off the cliff of finals. Or I could see the crowd as a stampede as my main character stands facing the rush in horror, waiting to be trampled by the hooves. Pushing ideas further and further can often present you with possible humor options (keeping in mind that not all humor is laugh-out-loud funny. It can also be mildly amusing and merely add interest. You can push your nonfiction list as well. Because driverless cars are a variant of cars, in general, I might also want to think about things that are associated with any car. For instance: drunk driving. Clearly a driverless car can’t drink. But ethanol fuel is alcohol. So if your driverless car runs on ethanol, could it get a DUI? Playing with that idea until you find exactly the right wording could offer a funny moment to an article that could become too technical or dry.
Step Four: Push Your List with Sub-lists
Take a moment to put at least one thing under each item in your list. Buzzer might make me think about game shows where the buzzer tells the competitor that time’s up. The fire extinguisher might make me think of other things the main character might like to see extinguished. The word sweat might bring to mind the word funk which always struck me as a funny word, almost naughty sounding. When I switch to nonfiction, the word laser could make me think of cars with death-rays and GPS could remind me of the nagging voice of my own GPS and how it might be fun to have her bossing around someone else for a change. The more items I get onto my list, the more likely I am to find one that works perfectly in my writing.
Step Five: Look at it Sideways
The key to humor is to look at things in a new way. Stretch a meaning. Play with sound. Go too far. Let’s look at three jokes in books I’ve written and how the jokes came about. These books are part of a literacy program, so sadly you won’t be able to track them down, but they will help to show how this idea of pushing things can take you. In the first, The Dragon of Woolie, I knew I wanted to poke fun at some things we think we know about dragons. Throughout the book, there’s a running joke about what everyone thinks they know (which proves to be wrong every time). So consider this exchange between my main character, Shep, and his mother who wants him to go out and guard the sheep from the dragon.
“What if the dragon carries me off?”
“You’ll be fine. Everyone knows this dragon only steals sheep.”
“But dragons do grab people,” Shep insisted. “They grab princesses. Everyone knows that.”
His mother nodded. “But you, my darling boy, are no princess.” And she pushed him out the door.
Now, this exchange strikes me as very funny, and it worked for my editor. I have no idea if it works for everyone (I assume it does not since nothing does), but you can see how it grows from a bunch of different elements. In a list about dragons, there would certainly be something on it about dragons grabbing princesses. And that leads to the erroneous idea that anyone who is not a princess should be fine. Which led me to the mother’s remark about how very much Shep is not a princess.
As I love dragons, let’s look at another book featuring them: Alfie and the Dragons. In this one, my main character is descended from a long line of dragon slayers. The family is very fond of their dragon-slaying stories. So one of the first paragraphs contains this list: “His great-grandfather invented the double-spinning lance throw, his grandfather slept in a canopy bed made out of dragon wings. His father killed his first dragon at a dinner party––with a salad fork!” This particular list is leading up to the punchline of ridiculousness where someone kills a dragon at a dinner party with a salad fork. I get fan mail for this one and the joke definitely lands with kids. But the joke came about simply from making a list of dragonslaying methods, getting more and more absurd each time. When I found the salad fork, I was able to build my paragraph about Alfie’s ancestors.
Finally, we’ll switch to another of the literacy books (sadly without dragons). Goldilocks III is science fiction about a colony on another world and is for older readers than Alfie’s story or Shep’s. The problem in Goldilocks III is deadly and there are tense run-for-your life moments, but I still wanted some of the word choice to lighten the load. So consider this excerpt:
Kids and teachers lay on the floor convulsing. The few that were up looked ferocious and ravenous. A bite from the flyers had turned them into creatures with an appetite. Boxer took the route that had more people on the floor and fewer looking for a lunch buddy.
Though this is far from laugh-out-loud funny, the choice of “lunch buddy” shows Boxer’s slightly askew perspective on the world. He’s snarky by nature and it’s reflected in the narration throughout the story. Finding the joke was simply a matter of thinking about zombies (which the sick characters in Goldilocks III resemble and then taking the idea of being hungry like that further, playing with common phrases about food, hunger, meals, etc.) Because I do so much of this kind of writing, I’ve reached a point where all this happens very quickly, and I rarely need to make physical lists. Still, the process is much the same. So if you want to add some humor in your own work. Considering stretching you humor muscles with this exercise. The giggle you get out of it, may be your own.