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"The second most-frequent writing request, after books, is for school papers.  We respond to all such queries by refusing to help a student cheat himself (or herself) out of an education."
David Leonhardt of The Happy Guy Marketing, as quoted in Maclean's

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Freelance writer logo Top Ten Tips for Writing Humor

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Ever want to write a funny book or a humor column? Or add spice to your newsletter or web page so that people read beyond the typical drivel that sends otherwise eager-to-spend customers into a boredom-induced coma?

Here are my top ten favorite humor tools for you, along with real live examples from my own humor column (which has been reported to be funny amongst certain rare species of cormorants.

Threading a theme through the text.

Are you into practical jokes? Try sewing a single thread of bright red wool across Uncle Henry's new green golf shirt. Or sew a thread through your text.

My Parenting Pumpkin Cheesecake Recipe is actually a delicious recipe. But I assumed there is a little helper around, and I threaded her through the text, making for sort of a running gag.

OK, time to up-tempo the laughs. Mid-way through, I run a second thread, renaming the cake with each mistake. The thread within a thread multiplies the humor.

Contrast what should be with the obviously deficient reality

I use this technique in Home Of The Year. Most people will agree that a home is more than just a house.

I contrast the reality of my I-survived-the-hurricane home with the Martha Stewart image of how a home should look -- the old little-miss-perfect Martha Stewart image, not the new-and-not-improved, scandal-defying, corporate shark image.

Notice I also use the threading tool in this piece - the drawings on the wall -- and bring it together at the end to reinforce the main point.

Build on a ridiculous notion

Consultants call this thinking outside the box and charge you for it. I call it humor and give it to you for free.

I had a bad hairdresser day. I held my hairdresser accountable for my thinning hair, a ludicrous idea that works.

Let's up-tempo the laughs. Mid-way through, I compound the humor with another ludicrous notion: growth formula making my scalp taller rather than my hair thinner.

Mock a public figure

This is possibly the easiest humor tool to use. Public figures are just so mockable. They naturally rise to their own level of mockability. I wrote a column mocking Michael Jackson - and the media's over-fascination with his arrest. That was one of my worst columns, so I won't show it to you. Hey, I said it was easy, not funny.

Act like a clown

I start off my Vulture column, based on a true news story, by playing the fool, saying silly things and displaying a general ignorance. This gives my uncle the opportunity to set me straight. In classic Laurel and Hardy style, the straight man makes the comedian funny.

By the way, this also allows a humorist to be funny on touchy subjects, without offending.

The heckler

I love to inject a heckler into an already silly situation. I applied a news story about a law suit over cow hormones to my "New York Times best seller". It was actually a bit like mocking a public figure, but what made this column exceptional is how Ruby Red kept interjecting her own slightly out-of-context comments into what was already a silly situation.

Give human characteristics to non-humans

This is a great tool for laughing at human foibles. It is at the very heart of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons. I offered leadership lessons from six penguins who were helping the other penguins live up to their full "penguinhood". This is also based on a news story, although some of the penguin dialogue had to be contrived.

Build laughs upon laugh

My favorite column is where I try so hard to be a giver, but everybody makes me out to be a taker. I start with the simple premise that givers sleep better at night.

The whole column is a play on words, but what makes it one of my best is how I react to people calling me a taker. You can feel the desperation, and almost picture me running away in horror. This is the same tool every stand-up comedian uses; as your laughter subsides, a new punch line builds on the previous one.

Give silly names to things

I itemized a whole series of customer service styles. One of them was "do-it-yourself extortion". Need I say more?

Funny faces and weird sounds

"Oh no, waa-aah ... boom ... ouch! ... bump ... yikes! ... crash." "Bhrhrthrpt." Those are just two of the sound effects I use to describe extreme fatigue. Words or not-quite-in-the-dictionary sounds can paint a pretty funny picture

There are many other well-known humor tools available, such as exaggeration, playing deaf, reversing roles and throwing cream pies. If you figure out how to do that last classic in a humor column, please let me know how.

 

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