I’ve overdosed on humor columns.
I’m afraid that I’ve dissected the frog of humor to the point that everything that once was funny is now as lifeless as another article on characterization or copyrights. But in consolation, several typical patterns have emerged, and I offer them to you the next time you need to cough up 600-800 hilarious words.
The basic typology of the humor column mimics most other literary formats. Here are seven basic forms of the humor column along with some examples from my own writing.
1. The List
Magazine feature writing has long relied on the list. Tens ways to improve your marriage, laundry, sex life or breath are still hot copy in the slicks. David Letterman’s “Top Ten List” is this classic in its video incarnation. James Thurber was a master of the form and even developed a list of rules for humor writing. The list evolved from the classic string-of-pearls formula in which one anecdote follows another, only loosely connected by a common topic. Many of the best things ever written follow this formula — the Ten Commandments, The Bill of Rights, the article you’re reading. The following example lists rules for parents to use in assessing their Christmas purchases.
The Quantity Test: Simply are there enough of them? Will the child have a sufficient number of things to unwrap Christmas morning? Experience has taught that 12 to 15 presents is a minimum number for a successful Christmas. Don’t get lazy and start wrapping presents together. While it’s not a good policy to wrap the crayons individually, remember batteries are not included. Save them for the stocking.
The Dollar Amount Test: Secondly, did you pay enough for the presents? This test can be conducted by simply determining if you have reached your credit limit on at least one major credit card. If not, it’s back to the mall. You have obviously not spent enough.
2. The Q&A and the Quiz
The question-and-answer column is a form the humorist can easily exploit using a mock expert to provide snappy answers. Due to the unshakable popularity of Ann and Abby, this form has high recognition value for readers. Second cousin to the Q & A is the quiz. I prefer the multiple-choice format since it provides more opportunities for gags in the distracters. Since we’ve all had to contend with tests, this is a perennial favorite. Psychological tests are especially easy to parody.
Paranoia Self Check-up
A. The FDA has conspired to allow unhealthy food products on the market. (5 points)
B. So far, only my Lucky Charms have been tampered with. (100 points)
A. The CIA and FBI are watching me. (10 points)
B. The CIA and FBI are watching my rear end. (1,000 points)
3. Recent Personal Event
Many humor writers use the personal anecdote to illustrate some broader cultural issue. “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the _____” is the essence of this form. This example uses a graduation.
We’ll Remember Always
I just attended a double graduation and sat through four hours of national anthems, platitudinous advice and the mispronunciation of names. Four hours were only interrupted by a brief foray into the blazing hot sun to take pictures of the sweating graduates. I would rather have attended a double murder.
4. Childhood Event
Nostalgia is big business since Baby Boomers crashed into the gerontology bus. Childhood memories particularly from the 1950s and 1960s are appreciating in value daily. They have high recognition and, when handled appropriately, are a strong hook. The following is such a piece on holidays.
My family always went overboard on holidays — like the Christmas my electrician father installed 200 red and green 100-watt light bulbs around our front porch. He thought it lent that special holiday magic. My mother said it made our house look like a damn tavern…
5. Current Events
Most humorists look for unusual new items for their comic premise. These show up nightly in Jay Leno’s and Letterman’s monologues. Dave Barry even had his readers constantly searching for the unusual. These pieces have a short shelf life, but they also have considerable impact if your timing is right. The following piece relates to the short-lived push for a constitutional amendment on flag burning.
Getting it Etched in Stone
Proposed constitutional amendments proliferate like pimples on a first date. First there was ERA, prayer in public schools and abortion, and then congressional term limits, the balanced budget, flag desecration and, of course, the mandatory purchase of crocks and private health insurance. As someone who had to pass three constitution exams to complete my education (8th grade, 11th grade and college) I’m violently opposed to any additional amendments, especially if they’re going to be on the test.
6. The Interview
From the comedy team of Bob and Ray to Andy Borowitz, the faux interview is a great format for the humor writer. Below is an example of my ersatz radio interview of a conservative child-rearing expert.
Interviewer: Welcome to WNRA. All Right Radio, All the Time. Today’s guest is child-rearing expert and nationally syndicated advice columnist, Cornelius Bottomwacker. Dr. Bottomwacker’s latest book, It’s Time to Take The Carrot off the Stick and Put it to Better Use, has been on the Conservative Gazette’s best-seller list for the last six months. Dr. Bottomwacker, welcome.
Bottomwacker: Thanks, Bob. It’s a pleasure to be here. I should correct you. It’s Mr., not Dr. Bottomwacker. I don’t believe in higher education. I believe that higher education is to blame for most of the problems we currently face. Those snide self-satisfied liberal intellectuals are the ones who have supported legalization of drug abuse, teenage sex, satanic rock-and-roll and arugula. Too much liberal higher education is the bane of our times…
7. The Parody
Television, radio, theater and other writers are grist for the humor mill. Parodies can be formulated as scripts, stories or imitation. One of my favorite old movies led to this piece.
Mr. Netherland’s Masterpiece (as told by those who knew him)
(Miss Crabbyappleton, retired junior high school principal now residing in the State Home for Educators and the Insane): I remember Mr. Netherland’s first day on the job at Al Sharpton Junior High School. This reckless, feckless, ambitious young man with sawdust in his hair wanted more out of life than being a shop teacher. He had taken a temporary teaching job just to quell the incessant nagging of his new wife. He intended to work after school and summers on his masterpiece, the world’s largest faux walnut plywood whatnot shelf. Yes, Mr. Netherland dreamed large. But as the years passed, there never was enough time. What with grading bird feeders and ashtrays, filling out requisitions for nails and crazy glue, and laundering shop towels, his life was rich but somehow unfulfilled.
Power of the Comedic Twist
Familiarity makes the comedic twist in humor writing successful. From experience, readers immediately recognize the legitimacy, which reinforces identification with the content and acceptance of the comedic premise. The twist is provided though the traditional humor techniques of exaggeration, reversal, self-deprecation and the use of metaphors.
Whatever form you ultimately choose, make sure that it is familiar and distracts the reader from your comedic sleight of hand.
— Terry L. Stawar
Terry L. Stawar is president and CEO of LifeSpring Inc., a community behavioral health center serving six counties in south central Indiana. He writes a weekly newspaper column for the Southern Indiana Evening News and Tribune, a blog for Behavioral Healthcare Magazine and the Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast.