I recently finished reading Scott Dikkers’ (of The Onion) book on writing comedy, called How to Write Funny. I read a lot of writing and creativity related books, and while most are somewhat shrug-able in their value, How to Write Funny actually made me think. A lot. Not only about comedy writing, but also about writing in general, and how the two intersect. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the book, in case somebody out there might like to take a peek at it.
I’m not planning to start a career in stand-up anytime soon (though I enjoy watching it!), but I’ve been interested in learning more about humorous writing as a genre author. There was a time, not too long ago, when apocalyptic fiction was king. Gritty, grimdark, weird fiction, zombie stuff–if it wasn’t darkety-dark dark, it was going to be a bit hard to find a market . I worked for a number of years for a specifically dark fiction magazine, and I read a lot of horrifying (but good!) fiction during that period. As a relatively new writer, it’s especially true that “you are what you read,” which meant I became a dark fiction writer. While I’ve always enjoyed the macabre and weird fiction, most of my early attempts at writing were much gentler, happier things. Not always benign, but my fantasy fiction often bordered on the whimsical and uplifting. Seven years of working in dark fiction pretty much wiped that stuff out of my production, simply because I was much more familiar (and therefore comfortable) with writing dark, sad, and mean.
Fast-forward to today. 2020. Man. What a year. I’ve been in the fiction industry and/or submitting long enough to sense a shift in market interest. It could just be me (it probably is), but more and more, I’m finding fewer and fewer markets asking for specifically dark work. More and more are looking for uplifting, hopeful, and–yes–funny work. Some markets even specifically ask for more humor (and, to be fair, have requested more of it for a while).
I actually really enjoy writing snarky humor–“Any Day but Today…” is evidence of that–and after a few rejections for some of my more traditional pieces stating they were “too intense” or just downright “too dark,” I’ve started thinking about my next phase as a writer. There are absolutely still markets that take dark fiction (Apex is reopening, btw!), and in a couple years the trends may swing back to favoring dark stuff, but it’s made me think about my roots as a not-quite-so-dark fiction writer. Could I revisit my gentler, more fun-loving roots and produce some work that might be more palatable (to write and to read) during these real-life grimdark times?
TL;DR: I wanted to learn more about humor writing.
So I did what I usually do when I want to learn about a new facet of fiction: I did a little poking around on Amazon for books on the subject. How to Write Funny was pretty well reviewed, and Dikkers’ credentials are stellar, so I thought: sure. Let’s give it a try.
It’s not a long book, maybe 120-150 pages, easily manageable even in pandemic procrastination times. It’s not an inherently funny book (it even makes the point that it’s actually a fairly serious look at comedy and how it works), though it did definitely make me laugh in places. But a couple things in particular stuck out to me.
1) The grind of the creative worker.
Almost any writer, artist, musician, etc. will tell you that the life of a working artist is, well, tough. Hollywood loves to portray writers as these neurotic geniuses, locked in a tiny room with one bare bulb and a typewriter, pounding the keys into the wee hours and not eating or sleeping for several days. Truth is, a lot of the day-to-day of being a writer is pretty boring. You fight to motivate yourself to work. You sit down and pound keys–yes–but most of what comes out feels like drivel, and/or you end up in that awful (AWFUL) place of having no idea how to move forward on your project or how to fix it or just plain having no ideas.
This is what Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic calls “the shit sandwich.” Every job has unpleasant elements (filing expense reports, say, or leading training sessions–something you just do. not. enjoy.), but for a job you otherwise love, you’re willing to eat whatever its respective shit sandwich is, because it’s overall worth it. In writing, for me, the shit sandwich is fixing things that don’t work when I don’t know why they don’t work. Sometimes the shit sandwich is feeling like you have no (decent) ideas.
Dikkers makes it clear that comedy writing has its own shit sandwiches, which isn’t surprising, but what did surprise me was that the same brainstorming methods I already use can also be used for generating comedic ideas. He mentions the Morning Pages, for those of you familiar with The Artist’s Way, and methods of scratching through collected notes to find and develop more ideas. (For more on how to generate fiction ideas, check out the Writing Excuses podcast, episode #10.1 .) If you’ve been writing for any period of time, you’ll recognize these methods, but it’s interesting to see how it applies to coming up with comedy.
2) People have their own styles of humor.
This one should be obvious, too, but I’d never thought about breaking down the style of humor I tend to navigate towards (snark, of course, but also satire and parody). It helped me to look at my own inclinations when I’m trying to be funny and understand better why attempts do or don’t work as well as they might.
3) The Funny Filters
A big section of How to Write Funny is dedicated to the so-called Eleven Funny Filters, or methods of taking an idea and twisting it into something humorous. I’d never learned about these before, and it is completely eye-opening. Andy and I have been going through the old seasons of Key & Peele and after reading this section, I could see these things in action and why they worked so well. It gives you a little glimpse behind the curtain. I haven’t yet tried the various exercises myself, yet, but it looks like a fun challenge, and I suspect some of these could easily be applied to short story ideas to lean them away from my default filters of “how do I make this sad, angry, or depressing,” which is what tends to make them dark.
4) Subtext is “Saying Something.”
In fiction, we’re often told that a story can be fine and all, but unless it’s saying something, it’s probably just drivel. I’ve had many panic moments over this advice in the past, because it tends to turn on the doubt machine, whose first question in response is, “What if I have nothing worth saying?” In comedy, according to Dikkers, a joke is most humorous when it has a solid subtext. This, it turns out, is akin to “saying something,” but it doesn’t have to be a world-altering TRUTH. It can just be your opinion: Coin-operated parking meters suck. Kids are basically insane adults. Heat-waves are awful. None of these are “deep” or “ground-shaking” (though of course, the best humor may indeed have “deep” subtext), but they’re good enough to generate jokes from.
It made me start thinking about subtext in a much gentler, clearer way, which I think may actually help a LOT in my other fiction work. It takes the judgement out (no, “but is it worth saying?” The worth is the kicker.), and allows me to be honest about what opinion I’m actually sharing, even if it seems basic (like, we should care about our neighbors). And that may help me a lot in revisions of first drafts, when I need to decide specifically what I’m saying (opinion) in order to direct and clarify my editing moving into the second/third/fourth drafts.
In short: It’s a good intro to comedy.
Now, there’s a ton more in the book, and much more detail about the things I’ve mentioned here, so if you’ve ever had any interest in writing humor, I’d recommend checking out How to Write Funny. It’s a series of books, actually, and I’ve just picked up the second one, How to Write Funnier, which appears to move beyond joke-writing into longer format humor, which is more to my personal interest. But I’m glad I read this one first, because there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about the basics of humor as a genre that this first book helped clarify for me.