Comedy teacher, Mark Shatz, provides great advice, such as “never accept third-party checks.”
Teaching humor: An interview with Dr. Mark Shatz Co-author of the second edition of Comedy Writing Secrets, Mark Shatz, Ph.D., is a member of the psychology department at Ohio University. His use of humor in the classroom has gained him national attention. He will return as a faculty member at the 2006 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.
Jeff Faehnle: The 2006 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop will be your second time as a faculty member. What can attendees expect this time around?
Mark Shatz: Attendees will receive tips for maximizing the humor in their writing, strategies for busting “humor block,” and a host of writing exercises. The funniest workshop participant will win an all-expense paid evening at Dayton’s hotspots with chaperone Dave Barry. (Editor’s note: Prize not valid in the state of Ohio.)
JF: You’ve co-authored with Mel Helitzer the second edition of Comedy Writing Secrets, which will be released on October 1. You also teach a course at Ohio University-Zanesville entitled “Humor Writing.” Where and how did you learn to write humor?
MS: Humor is an integral aspect of my instruction and I’ve been writing material for the classroom for the past 22 years. To enhance my humor, I took a course from the “dean” of humor writing instruction, Mel Helitzer. Mel is a great educator with a wealth of comedic advice and experience, and I learned the secrets of humor writing. I should say that Mel taught me everything I know about humor writing, but I don’t want to lose my share of the book royalty payments.
JF: Mel Helitzer seems like a major influence on you. What is one piece of advice about comedy writing he has given you that has had a large impact on your writing?
MS: Never accept third-party checks.
JF: You not only teach the craft of humor writing in Comedy Writing Secrets and your humor writing course, but you also use humor to aid your teaching. What makes humor such an effective tool for teaching?
MS: Humor can be either a social lubricant or an interpersonal irritant. When used appropriately, humor builds classroom rapport, heightens student attention, and helps students view the instructor as “human.” Most importantly, instructional humor reminds students that learning is fun.
My colleague, Frank LoSchiavo, and I recently published the first empirical study concerning the use of humor in an online course. As predicted, humor did not impact performance but students in the humor-enhanced section of a General Psychology course showed greater participation. Although humor is not an instructional panacea, it has the potential to foster a positive learning environment.
JF: What have you learned about humor writing since you started teaching the course?
MS: Humor writing is based on a series of well-defined principles, and almost anyone can write humor. However, the main obstacle to learning how to write humor is the fear of not being funny. I force my students to chant the mantra, “Nothing stinks, nothing does stink.” That is, write without any form of censorship – editing, refining, tweaking occur later.
JF: You are also a member of the psychology department at Ohio University. How has your background in psychology helped you as a humorist?
MS: Besides being a psychology professor, I’m a certified death educator. Both psychology and thanatology are emotionally charged subjects that require instructors to be attuned to students’ attitudes and beliefs. Any effective humorist understands the same basic principle – humor writing does not occur in a vacuum, and it must be tailored for a specific audience.
JF: What is the first comedy piece you ever tried to write? Looking back on it, how do you feel about it?
MS: As a graduate student I wrote skits and stand-up material for various social and educational functions. At the time, I thought I was a comedic savant. Today, I understand how one’s perceptions can be severely distorted by mind-altering substances.
JF: Do you have any new projects you are working on?
MS: I’m continuing my research on humor in the classroom. Pedagogical experts encourage instructors to use humor to create an inviting classroom, yet most educators, especially K-12 teachers, receive no systematic training in the use of humor as an instructional tool. My research and writing will investigate ways to inject humor into mainstream education without jeopardizing instructional standards or forcing teachers to become class clowns.
JF: Who are your favorite humor writers, and what is it about the writing that you find so appealing?
MS: Congress –the Congressional Quarterly is a hoot.
I admire anyone who has to be funny for a living. Comedy writing is a brutal profession and it demands persistence, unbridled creativity, and masochistic tendencies. I’m a huge fan of Jon Stewart and his talented team of writers – to produce quality and poignant humor daily is an amazing comedic feat.
JF: Finally, one of the “Commonly Asked Questions” in the first edition of Comedy Writing Secrets is “What advice do you have for a beginning humor writer?” How do you answer that question today?
MS: First, remember the mantra, “Nothing stinks, nothing does stink” and write, write, write. Second, attend the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Third, the second edition of Comedy Writing Secrets is the ideal holiday gift for friends and family.
Jeff Faehnle is assistant editor of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop newsletter.