The other night someone sent me an email. They asked me “How do you write humor stuff?” Now, keep in mind that, as people who know me well already understand, I don’t consider myself a humor writer. I just never have. I’m not being modest, or saying that I can’t be funny. Only that I never considered myself a humor writer.
Then I remember that I wrote two books of humor essays (I Slept With Your Imaginary Friend (about pop culture) and NYCWTF (specifically about 100% true, funny New York stories)) and I realize that maybe I should shut the fuck up and own up to the fact that there are days I am a humor writer.
So with that in mind I decided to stop and look at what that meant. How I did that, when I had to. And then lay it all out here. Which, of course, means I am showing you every one of my tricks here and that the next time I use them to write something funny it’ll fall flat because people will be picking apart the “how” instead of enjoying it and oh my god I’m ruined! ruined for good I tell you! I… oh, wait, I don’t care. Right. Moving on…
See here’s the secret of how I personally write funny things: It’s all in how you choose to see the world. Let’s take a concrete example and build it from there:
You’re waiting for an elevator. Maybe you’re in a hotel, or an office building or your apartment building. It doesn’t matter. You have to be somewhere and you are waiting for the elevator. In fact, spoiler alert, the elevator will take long enough that you will have to rush a bit and will end up a bit late for your appointment. Given that, most people when choosing to sum up their day would tell the story like this:
“I had to meet Bob, but first the elevator was late and then I was mad and rushing and I had to wait for traffic too, and it was drizzling and my whole day fucking sucked and fuck the world.”
Which is where you, simply put, lose. Let’s, instead, go back a bit. You’re waiting for an elevator. Look around. Notice things, pay attention.
Everything funny starts with paying attention to the universe around you.
— See that guy with the ugly tie? He keeps taking three steps and hitting the button for the elevator again. Then he takes three steps back. Then he paces in a circle for ninety second before starting the cycle over.
— You remember that moment when you considered just taking the stairs instead of waiting? And when you did, you briefly remembered your friend whose building caught fire last year and how he had to take the stairs down? And did you really just manage to mentally equate feeling like you were gonna be late for an appointment with having to escape a burning building? But back to taking the stairs at all – you have to consider that the second you got half a flight down the elevator would come. But by not taking the stairs the elevator will take longer to get to you. That’s how the universe works, right?
— How many times have you pushed the button? How many more times have you started to but stopped because you know it won’t help? How many times have you wanted to but stopped because you thought the other people waiting would think you were the crazy person?
— Where is the elevator? Is it running? Is it stuck? Did something happen to it? At what point do you give up and declare the elevator gone to the place socks go in the dryer? Would an elevator fit in that place given it is much larger than a sock? Is there a mathematical formula you could use to work that out?
And you build it from there. You pay attention, you learn to train your memory to keep hold of those things (because whipping out a notebook is odd at times, though if you can make it look normal and take notes without looking like you’re taking notes go for it) and tell the story that’s more fun. Because that’s the one you want to stick with you for years, after all.
That’s it. That’s really… it. I… I am an empty shell of a human now, aren’t I? Crap.
As a fairly long aside, I give you one thing to avoid, that I see done a whole lot, is going on about how “only you” do something or find something funny. Why would you say that?
It’s not true. It is never true. You might not know anyone else personally but that doesn’t mean that someone else who is the same way isn’t reading you. Ninety-nine percent of the time people say that sort of thing to make themselves feel unique and special and cool – and it doesn’t work. Everyone knows that’s why you’re saying it and hates you a little for it.
By demanding you are special and unique in how you feel about something you distance yourself from your reader. That distance you create kills the ability of your readers to find you half as funny as they might otherwise. Instead of laughing with you they are now thinking “No, I’m that way too” or having unspecific feelings that you think you’re so special and it’s off-putting.
Remember – though nothing is funny to everyone, and you shouldn’t try to aim humor at the lowest common denominator you also don’t want to go out of your way to alienate readers. It will work against you every single time.