What's So Funny? (Serious Tips for the Humor Writer)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015
You know that sick feeling when you’ve told a joke to a room full of people and no one laughs? Yeah, I hate that. But there’s a good side to that feeling: at least you get instant feedback. When you write a joke that doesn’t work or a funny story that’s not-so-funny, you may have no idea that you’ve laid an egg. You just go on your happy, chuckling way, thinking you’re hilarious…until rejection lands in your inbox. (Or worse, nothing lands in your inbox. Either way, you get the message.)

Here’s the thing about writing comedy: it can be mighty subjective. One person’s laugh-out-loud might be another person’s eye roll. But still, you’d be hard-pressed to find an editor person who doesn’t want comedy. Comedy sells! So how do you find that sweet, giggling spot?

Know Your Audience

As an adult, you probably have a good grasp of what makes adults in different age groups laugh. Still, if you write funny essays, check out a market before blithely sending off that witty piece of writing. Studying a few issues of your targeted magazine (or anthologies) first will give you a good idea of the kind of humor that works for a particular editor (or if he or she even likes humor).

If you want to write funny for kids, though, you’ll need to do more homework.

What cracks up a four-year-old is guffaws apart from what tickles the ten-year-old. And the sixteen-year-old might be amused by humor that anyone over 40 will never understand. So what’s a writer to do?

Read! Study the writing that makes your target audience laugh. If it’s funny kidlit you want to pen, take that pen and make notes on what makes you smile when reading humorous (and best-selling) picture books, middle grade, or young adult novels.

Read to a child and watch his or her reactions. (And if you don’t have kids handy, go watch a comedy movie. You’ll be surprised that the children and adults are often cackling at different bits!)

And you can help yourself even more by researching the age groups and what makes them laugh. Scholastic, for example, has a wonderful article about humor and the young child.

But hold on a tic. I’m not suggesting you copy another author’s voice and/or style of humor. You’ll need to find your own voice and/or style. Build your comedic muscles by reading those who’ve mastered the art of making others laugh. And then you can move on to the next step.


Listen to your critique partners or beta readers. If they don’t get the humor—and they know you!—rethink it.

If an editor doesn’t get the bit you’ve written—or doesn’t see any humor in it—then you have missed the mark. Don’t waste time, trying to explain the comedy. Rewrite or revise completely (and live to tell another joke another day).

Here’s the bottom line: no one wants to have to work to get the punch line. But people do want to laugh. And if you can deliver the funny, they’ll keep coming back to whatever you write.

(Even if they’ve heard the joke a million times.)

~Cathy C. Hall


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Have you ever written a joke that just fell flat?

I doubt it...

Unknown said...

This is too true. I've written things and given them to others for critique...half of them returned, saying "No, this doesn't work." The other half though they were brilliant! When that happens, I go with the brilliant people...:)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Cathy, I wish I could write as funny as you! My sense of humor is very dark and I find things that aren't supposed to be funny, rofl funny. I have problems. So I always struggle with wether to just go there and try the funny or completely take out everything I thought was funny and go for drama instead.

Cathy C. Hall said...

But I have, Sioux! When I wrote a humor column, I'd get back the occasional note from the editor (a guy) who would say, "Is this supposed to be funny?"

And believe me, he wasn't joking. :-)

Gayle, yes! Stick with the brilliant folks! :-)

As for you, Ang, I have a dark funny side, too. Most people who write funny do, I think, so you're in (weird but) good company. :-)

Debra Mayhew said...

I never quite thought about it this way before. It was more like, Hey, my family thinks I'm funny so I must be funny. But if I understand you correctly, you're saying this will only work if my family is my audience. Hmmmm....it's a thought.:)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Haven't you ever met an editor who has a stick up their butt?

Perhaps you were paying attention to the wrong end. Maybe you should have had him turn around, so you could see what kind of stick was rammed into his anal sphincter... and then taken his comment with a grain of salt.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Well, Debra, I happen to know that you ARE funny. But family is the worst when it comes to judging humor. They love you and know you and will laugh because they know and love you. So if they don't laugh at what you've written, you've REALLY missed the mark.

(On the other hand, it's often easier for me to make perfect strangers laugh than my own family. The Halls can be a tough audience...they ALL think they're hilarious!)

Ha, Sioux! I try to respect my editors' wishes (and opinions), as long as they're signing my paycheck. ;-)

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

See, all of what you wrote is the reason you're my Yoda. Great advice, all of it. :) It is such a relief when an editor says, "Laughed so hard I cried." Whew. And then, of course, you think---Dang, I hope she was laughing in the right place!

Suzanne Pitner said...

But Cathy, what do you do when a reader says, "Oh, you're writing is so funny!" and you're thinking, "Wait. What? I was being serious." Or has that never happened to you? Yep. It's probably just me. Seriously.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top