Telling jokes and funny stories is a challenge for most writers. That’s unfortunate because humor is often the best way to make a point. In the real world I often make my point with sarcasm. As an aside, after years of hard work, my family is well-trained in my particular brand of humor. Strip away the visual cues, specifically my facial expressions and hand movements, and my thespian-like voice inflection, however, and my dry charm and incredible wit can get lost on the page. See what I mean?
The ingredients for writing good humor are one part grammar and two parts angle and misdirection. You’ll need all your punctuation tools, especially dashes, colons, semicolons and the proper use of three dots to extend a sentence, signal an interrupted thought or change of direction, to be sure. But the key to good humor is the angle you use to approach the subject and the effective use of misdirection, like an illusionist. Move your audience down a familiar path and then, re-direct them to your conclusion. It sounds hard but it’s not.
I begin with objects and people that my readers already know. Often I will compare or simply mix two dissimilar objects or people together, which is an early signal to my audience that something unusual, something funny, is coming. It’s a variation of the A parrot and a Priest are sitting in a bar…theme. You know what a Priest, a parrot and a bar are but you don’t know what they could possibly have in common. The unusual combination tells you the story is humorous and probably has a larger point, a punchline.
Humor is also fiction and the basic instruction for writing good fiction is to show, don’t tell. I don’t know the original author, but I did some editing to show you what I mean:
The day finally arrived. Forrest Gump dies and goes to Heaven.
He walks up to the Pearly Gates and is met by St. Peter himself. As Forrest approaches he notices the gates are closed.
St. Peter looks up and says, “Well, Forrest, it is certainly good to see you. We have heard a lot of good things about you. I must tell you, though, Heaven is filling up fast so we started administering entrance examinations for everyone who wants to get in. The test is short, but you must pass to get into Heaven. Do you understand?”
Forrest responds, “It sure is good to be here, St. Peter, sir. But nobody ever told me about any entrance exam. I sure hope that the test ain’t too hard. I don’t like exams and life was a big enough test as it was.”
“Yes, I know, Forrest,” said St. Peter. “But the test is only three questions and you must try.”
St. Peter folded his hands and looked poor Forrest right in the eyes. “The first question is, what two days of the week begin with the letter T? After letting that sink in for a moment he continued, “The second question is, how many seconds are there in a year?
Forrest’s head began to bob up and down slowly so St. Peter continued. “And the third and final question is, what is God’s first name?”
Forrest just walked away.
He returns the next day and sees St. Peter, who waves him up and says, “I could from your face that you wanted to think, Forrest. Now that you have had a chance to consider the three questions, please, tell me your answers.”
Forrest replied, “Well, the first one, which two days in the week begins with the letter ‘T’? Shucks, that was hard at first and then it was easy. The answer is Today and Tomorrow.”
The Saint’s eyes opened wide. He paused to consider what Forrest said and in an understanding voice he responded, “Forrest, that is not what I was thinking but you do have a point. I guess I wasn’t specific enough so I will give you credit for correctly answering the first question.”
“How about the next one?” asked St. Peter. “How many seconds in a year?”
“Now that there was a hard one too and it never got easy,” burbled Forrest, “but I thunk and thunk about that and I guess the only answer is twelve.”
Astounded, St. Peter exclaimed,”Twelve? Twelve? Forrest, how in Heaven’s name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?”
“Well,” Forrest drawled, “It’s got to be twelve: January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd… ‘
“Stop right there,” said St. Peter, holding his hand up. “I see where you are going with this, and I see your point, though that was not quite what I had in mind….but once again I will give you credit for a correct answer. Let’s just go on with the third and final question. Can you tell me God’s first name?”
“Sure, that was the only easy one” Forrest replied with a grin, “it’s Andy.”
“Andy?” an exasperated and frustrated St. Peter blurted out. “Andy? Ok, I can understand how you came up with your answers to my first two questions, but just how in the world did you come up with the name Andy as God’s first name?”
“Shucks,” Forrest said. “Just like everyone else, I learnt it from the song.” With that Forrest began to sing, “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own.”
St. Peter bolts up, opens the Pearly Gates and screams at the top of his lungs, “Run, Forrest, Run!”
Well, I thought it was funny.