I’ve been writing newspaper humor columns for over 17 years.
And I can tell you one of the hardest things to do is to be funny week after week. So hard that I can’t always do it. In fact, I slacked off for six months in 1998, but apparently no one noticed.
But I have learned a few secrets about writing humor over the years, based on how humor itself works. These aren’t just the “rule of three” or “end words in a hard K” tricks, but the psychological motivation of humor. If you can learn how to write jokes using these secrets, you can start safely adding humor to your blogs, your articles, or your presentations.
(I have to give special thanks to my dad, Dr. Lambert Deckers, a psychology professor who studied the motivation of humor for a number of years, and Dick Wolfsie, fellow humor writer and features reporter for WISH-TV, for teaching me all of this. I totally stole all of this information from them.)
Humor Rule #1: All Humor is Based on a Surprise
The Purdue University linguist Victor Raskin wrote that all humor is based on a surprise, or a lie. That is, comedians lie to us by setting us up with one premise, and then lie to us (or surprise us) with the punchline. The laugh comes from the surprise.
Here’s an example: writer Dorothy Parker once famously said, “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
Did you see it? As you started reading Parker’s line, by the time you got to “laid end to end,” your mind already started thinking about what was going to come next, like a measurement of distance: “they would stretch across campus” or something similar. But she surprised us by instead questioning the moral virtue of the girls who attended the Yale prom. And that’s where the laugh came from.
This type of sentence is called a paraprosdokian, which is from the Greek meaning “expectation.”
However, not all surprises are paraprosdokian in nature. There are times when endings are just unexpected, but didn’t require a single sentence to get there. Most punchlines to jokes are surprises, which is what makes them humorous.
If you want to add a joke to your posts, throw in a surprise thought or two, almost as a parenthetical statement, at the end of a paragraph where a punchline would typically sit.
Humor Rule #2: Good Humor is Based on Recognition
Writing a punchline that requires previous knowledge of the source material is a great way to get a laugh. If the audience is already familiar with the source of a punchline, the reason behind it, the source it references, or if it’s something they’ve experienced before, you’ll get a laugh. For example, telling computer jokes to a bunch of IT geeks will get a laugh, but telling the same joke to a bunch of fashion models won’t. The way Dick Wolfsie explained it, the reader feels like they’re in on the joke, which makes them feel good, and they laugh.
Here’s an example: As I was writing this post, my friend Rhett Cochran started the #LessIconicMovieLines meme on Twitter. Several of us threw out suggestions based on memorable movie lines. The movie lines that did the best were fairly popular ones — you couldn’t use lines from a movie no one had seen, like Ishtar — and they were surprising enough to be funny.
This is also why “callbacks” work so well: they “call back” to something that was said earlier. A lot of standup comics use callbacks during their act. When the audience recognizes the joke, and remembers where it came from, they feel like they were in on it, and the joke scores.
A lot of character-driven sitcoms rely on recognition for their humor. You get to know their characters, their foibles, their tendencies, their likes and dislikes. Then, whenever they’re placed in a particular situation that draws on one of those facets, it’s funny. But when a different character is placed into the same situation, it won’t be funny.
Recognition is also why jokes often fall flat, especially when you tell inside jokes to someone who wasn’t there. If you have to say “I guess you had to be there,” that’s a good indication the joke won’t be funny.
Humor Rule #3: Humor is Based on Making the Reader Feeling Superior. Good Humor is Self-Deprecating
Making a reader feel superior is another key to humor. Basically, if I feel smarter, better, prettier, richer, or more successful than the subject of the joke, the joke scores. It can often piggy-back off Recognition. That is, if I understand the inside joke or the callback, then I feel smarter, like I’m in on something special, and I’ll laugh.
However, this is where a lot of humor can be dangerous, and I urge you to use it carefully. It’s why people are told to avoid using humor at all. People love to make jokes at someone else’s expense, and end up offending somebody (or a whole lot of somebodies). It’s one thing to make a joke about a single person, but then it becomes tempting to make a joke about a group of people — computer geeks, people from a neighboring state — which can then turn into jokes about race, disability, size, etc., which then creates all kinds of problems.
To safely follow this rule, never, ever make a joke at someone else’s expense, because it will promptly backfire. Don’t think it won’t happen? Think back carefully to that one awful cringe moment in your life where you made a joke about a friend, only to discover that the punchline was related to some childhood condition, sensitive subject they’re in counseling about, or the tragic death of a loved one. (Congratulations if you only have one of those.)
In essence, if your humor has to rely on someone else feeling bad, then don’t do it.
There is one exception where it’s okay to violate this rule: if you make fun of yourself, you are completely safe. By making fun of yourself, the authority, you’re making the audience feel superior to you. I used this in the last sentence of the first paragraph, “In fact, I slacked off for six months in 1998, but apparently no one noticed.”
This is a great trick used by public speakers. By being up on stage, speaking to the audience from a position of authority, they are in the power position. So good speakers will make fun of themselves, which makes the audience feel like they’re superior to the speaker, and the joke scores.
There are several other humor secrets you can use, like exaggeration, being outrageous, or absurd, that can also make your writing or speaking funny.
In a future post, I’ll discuss how to string a few small jokes together to make your next presentation or blog post rock.
At least from a humor perspective. If you suck at speaking, I can’t help you.
My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.