Friday, June 26, 2009

Writing Humor Part I – Random Association

Humor is like anything other type of writing, it takes work to perfect your craft, practice, dedication, and realizing that what one person likes another may not.

John Philipp continues with his series on writing humor and satire.

Someone who was not I said, "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince." Humor is no different; you need polish a lot of rocks to uncover a gem. Professional comedians often generate 100 jokes to find ten they think have potential, then tweak those in front of several audiences before they end up with one or two to put in their next routine.

But generating bad jokes is fun, as long as you are the only one who sees them. When writing humor, you don't want to listen to your Inner Editor whose territory covers the gamut from typos and grammar to character development, POV, and thematic imagery.

Listen to your Inner Comic, who delights in anything unexpected and constantly marvels at how clever you are at making unexpected connections between two items.

The House of Humor is built on the foundation of surprise. When two items are put together that you would not expect to find together (what Arthur Koestler in "The Act of Creation" calls a bi-associative event), you have one of two reactions.

If the context is science, the reaction is AHA!

If the context is humor, the reaction is HAHA!

One way to generate surprises is by random association. Here are the steps:

  • Pick a topic. I'll pick football as the Super Bowl is almost upon us.

  • Create categories under your topic. In this case, you want categories under "Super Bowl." Put each category on the top of a separate piece of paper.(Example categories might be: player, coach, team, stadium, ads, cheerleaders, fans, band and Body Part Exposure ... OK, I'm getting ahead of myself.)

  • List items under categories: Under each category make a list in the left-margin of items that might fit underneath the category. Three examples:Under "players" you might have: quarterback, running back, tackle, guard, water boy, etc.Under "stadium" you might have: dome, artificial turf, field, bleachers, name, hot dogs, etc.Under "ads" items might be: funny, expensive, beer, animals, etc.

  • Generate adjectives for each item: list as many adjectives as you can think of that describe each item or a part of the item, such as:Tackle - big, no-neck, stubborn, rock, leg grabber, pushy, grunterField - lined, grassy, long, cleat markedName - past player, city official, corporation, big bucks.

  • Play "mix 'n match" with the groups of words you have generated. Take a word and, in your mind, put it next to each other word looking for a humorous or unexpected connection. A+B? No. A+C? No. A+D? Wait a minute, something's there. Maybe something using corporate names not for stadiums, they already have them, but what about for Olympic events?

Now I have a concept that has a potentially humorous slant. What corporations would sponsor what events and ... exaggerating my paradigm even further, wouldn't corporations create events that suited their products?

This is what often happens with humor. We started with the Super Bowl and ended up with the Olympics but who cares if it's funny?

I said in the beginning that humor is built on the foundation of surprise. Here's one: I didn't end up going with the Olympics this round. I also played with "ads" and came up with: Super Bowl XLII AD Mania.

Sure humor takes time. I didn't say it was easy. Fun, yes. Easy, no.


John Philipp is a weekly humor columnist for four Marin County, California newspapers and has won numerous humor and memoir writing awards. His humor columns are posted at
His wisdom (with Phil Prank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Humor is challenging, especially for those of us not naturally funny. This is an interesting and unique approach!

L. Diane Wolfe

Sheila Deeth said...

I remember my English teacher complaining that my stories always made people cry. She said making people laugh is harder and insisted I had to try.

Sisters-in-Sync said...

Hi Sia,

This is great. I'm so glad I found your site. I can't wait to try it out.

SIS Barb writing as Elle J Rossi

LuAnn said...

Thanks, Sia, for this post. I've always wanted to write humor, but it never sounds funny to me.

~Sia McKye~ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
~Sia McKye~ said...

LuAnn, I think it loses it's funny to us as you perfect it. Kinda like hearing a joke 5 or 6 times. Or hearing a joke and then trying to write it down to send to someone. You no longer see the funny in it but your recipient will. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Sia. John is one of my most favorite reads and it's wonderful to get an inside look at how his mind works and how he puts it all together. He makes it look so easy, and it's reassuring to aspiring writers such as myslef that he has to work at the craft too.

"The genious is not in the writing, it's in the rewriting." ~Ernest Hemmingway

Julie George

Anonymous said...

Julie's Hemingway quote says it all perfectly..."It's in the re-writing!"

Natalie Neal Whitefield

Conda V. Douglas said...

Useful, very! I adore humor even in "serious" fiction work, in fact I think it makes the work better. Or maybe I just love to laugh...

Houston A.W. Knight said...


Hon, how are you and how is hubby doing. I haven't heard from you and I'm a wee bit worried about you.

I would have contacted you sooner but I've been bouncing in emotions sister got married and a friend died...only days apart. As well I cried with a woman at a B-day party who had just lost her's been an odd month!

I love the post...humor...I'm Irish that should say it means my funny bone is warped to say the least.

Hugs Darlin'

John Philipp said...

Hi all,

I apologize for for not being online until now. I was at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual convention and let's just say that trying to get on the Internet to comment was ... well, fodder for a future column.

The frustrating thing was that I could read your comments but not activate any comments/posts of my own.

I take it as an omen. The older I get the more technology I see but can't figure out how to work.

So, just a few words:
Diane, I'm glad you like the approach. I think Sia has more planned for next Friday.

Sheila, Your English teacher was right.

Hi Sisters-in-Synch.

LuAnn, Sia's right. Trust your gut the first few times because after that what you wrote won't seem funny any more.

Julie always could make me *blush*

Glad it was of some help to you, Conda.

and, Hawk, I'd kill for some Irish blood — the natural storytelling kind.

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