Out of all the style tools we describe in this series on tone and voice, interjecting humor is probably the most difficult to pull off well. One reason is that we all see “funny” with different lenses. What is humor to one writer may miss the boat and be perceived as insensitive to the audience. On the other hand, the humor should never be so blatant that it takes away from the story it is helping to tell. There is nothing worse than a humor piece that works too hard to be funny. Remember, humor is just another tool––like voice and tone––to tell a good story.
When should you try adding humor? When it fits what you are trying to say. Sometimes maybe a little tongue in cheek is just what your piece calls for. But maybe not. If it is a story with a serious tone throughout, don’t even risk dropping what you think is a little humor in the middle. It is almost always going to go south.
In essays, there are times for humor even if the subject is serious. But it should be done thoughtfully and in a subtle manner. A little humor, an observation, an oddity, can offer a beat within an intense emotional moment.
If humor isn’t in your skill set, then use tools like similes and metaphors to connect with something that is humorous. You can do a lot with a few words this way. Southern writers are very adept at this. Little descriptors used carefully can not only bring a character to life but can also lighten the tone. Just make sure the words you use are not so jarring that it takes the reader out of the overall tone of the story. Think of the person in sweatpants, who looks like she has two squirrels fighting a death match every time she walks. Or the man whose teeth are so yellow that you need sunglasses to hold a conversation with him. We can see it.
Develop Your Own Style of Humor
Don’t try to be Chris Rock. That job is taken. Louis C.K. is a one of a kind. Tina Fey is her own humor factory. To try to be a copy of an established comedy voice is a real waste of your time. Again, work hard to hone your humor chops, so that the work feels organic to you.
If you are not organically funny, and you don’t enjoy humor in your writing, my guess is that it isn’t your style. But if you do want to hone your funny bone, read good and bad humor. If you immerse yourself in reading people who are known as humor writers, satirists, and novelists who know how to include humor and quirkiness in their stories, you’ll be able to create a master class for yourself in things like timing, understatement, and irony. You can see when they opt to go for the literary punchline.
And the bottom line in humor, like any other aspect of building your skills, is to practice. You must write a lot of bad puns, in order to come up with a couple of stellar ones. In learning to write funny, get ready for the bad news. You are going to kill a lot of your darlings. And those that you don’t kill you are going to wrestle to the ground, black their eyes, give them a Mohawk, and do all manner of terrible things to them before they work well.
Who Does Humor Well?
We all have our favorites. Dave Barry, Elmore Leonard, Tig Notaro, Wanda Sykes––the list goes on. And there is nothing better than discovering a new-to-you humor writer.
David Sedaris is the king of irony. He can do more to create an image that makes you think, smile. and even laugh out loud with just a few words. Listen to him read his Santaland Diaries. It is a master class of humor.
Anne Lamott taps into the things we all want to say. She does this with some pretty heady subjects, tackling motherhood, death and dying, faith, depression, addiction, each in a way that connects to our humanity and our humor. Check out Traveling Mercies, her essays on faith.
The late Erma Bombeck as a humor writer still holds up after all these years. Study the timing that makes her columns come to life with wit. Her collections are still in demand, and must reads for humor writers trying to hone their craft.
Checks and Balances
It is important to understand what works and what works with your style of writing. These are not always two mutually exclusive things. I have been writing with a touch of humor for 30 years. I have learned what usually works for me. But I also have a system to test my work.
- I read it out loud. I can pick up the booby traps that make a phrase flop. Is it awkward? Are there too many words? Am I explaining the joke I’m trying to tell? A good piece of humor doesn’t require explanation.
- Is it politically correct? I care less about that than I am about being hurtful and offensive (also in the eye of the beholder). As I push the envelope in some pieces I walk away and then I come back to see if it makes me giggle, or does it make me cringe. And don’t forget to think about your audience.
Andrea King Collier is an award-winning journalist and author. She writes for leading print, online and broadcast outlets. She is the author of The Black Woman’s Guide to Black Men’s Health, and Still With Me… A Daughter’s Journey of Love and Loss. She is also an in-demand writing teacher and coach.