Friday, July 17, 2009

How To Sprinkle Your Articles With Humor

-John Philipp

"There are very few good judges of humor, and they don't agree." Josh Billings

I've posted several articles on writing humor. One thing most everyone will agree with is that writing humor is hard work. You have to spend a lot of time looking for just the right word or phrase or device to put the sizzle in you writing.

Even then, how do you know others will think what you wrote is funny? Maybe your twisted, little mind is the only one laughing. Professional comedians try out their material over and over again, honing every nuance and inflection. The average writer definitely does not have the time or access to do that.

If you're writing an article that is meant to be humorous, these obstacles come with the territory. But, what if you'd like to add a little humor to a regular fiction or nonfiction piece, and you don't have the time, or the inclination, or your comedy muse is on an extended vacation?

My suggestion is Quote the Experts.

You can add humor to any article with a few well-placed quotes from people who get paid to be funny. A few sources:

  • "The Comedy Thesaurus - 3,241 Quips, Quotes and Smartass Remarks" by Judy Brown organizes these funny lines by category. "

  • Milton Berle's Private Joke File" book does the same, claiming to index over 10,000 items. I didn't count them myself, but I'm sure Uncle Miltie wouldn't exaggerate.

  • The Internet is a bottomless pit of guffaws. To mention just a few: Jokes 2 has some funny lists sorted by category and Mike Durett's Guide to Humor has a list of humor categories.

What I do when I need a funny quote is I type in the key words of the topic plus "humor" and hit the Google button. That usually gets me what I want. For example, I recently Googled for a quote about American politics and came up with a line by Ronald Reagan, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

I'll mention three places this can work for you. The first is at the beginning of your piece (as I did in this article) and starts you off on a good note.

A second place is in the middle, particularly using a quote about a key word in your topic such as, "Now I want to talk about computer programming, which, as Ron Heuse once said, "is a lot like sex. One mistake and you could have to support it the rest of your life."

The third place to use humorous quotes is (bet you guessed this) at the end. It can be a good way to summarize your message and leave the reader remembering your piece with a smile. And, so saying, I leave you with James Thurber's line, "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility."

By the way, when you're trolling the Internet for humor, I'd like to point out that Anonymous was a pen name I used to use. I don't need that anymore, so I'd appreciate it, if you use one of my quips, you use my real name.


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

I thought I'd share one of John's Thought~Bytes with you. You can find them on at the link provided above. John publishes them every Wednesday.


~Sia McKye~ said...

John, welcome again to Over Coffee.

I didn't realize there were so many sources for humor quotes. I'm afraid I got lost in reading some of them and giggling madly. Fun stuff.

Anonymous said...

And when you do this, John, you come up with the predictable cliche that says, "Hey, I can say whatever anyone else has ever said. Ain't I great? I can publish on Gather. Not the gold standard my friend. As the most successful comedian will tell you, personal original observations are worth the big bucks. Jerry will verify my observation.

VA said...

John I do agree that we all improve with practice, but humor is little often exercise. I few flat jokes and most of us fold like a cheap table.

That said, I never knew Reagan was so witty. Correction: I knew he had great writers and as an actor he could deliver, but I'd never heard that joke. Definitely snorkworthy!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Mark, You must have been on vacation last week. It would be nice if when you honored us with your presence you'd say something nice. Of course my heart might stop...

John Philipp said...

Anonymous, maybe my point wasn't clear. For regular writers who write regular articles and want to spice them up with a little humor, a pertinent quote is one route to go.

I agree that original observations that are clever and funny would be the best way to go except for two problems:

1) Many haven't honed that talent so it's hard for them to do — and, as they aren't humorists, probably not worth the time.

2) Most important, they have NO way to know if their clever, original observation is really funny or will fall flat on it's face.

A presentation in front of the boss is no place to test that out.

Put another way, Jerry Seinfeld said he drafts maybe 100 funny observations, pick the ten he likes best, drops into a comedy club and tries them out. The ones that feel good and get a good response, he'll hone further and maybe 3 will end up in his act.

So, if Jerry has a success ration of less than 5%, what are the average writer's odds?

Good humor quotes are just another tool for the toolbox. Like a hammer or a semi-colon, you use it when appropriate.

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Vivian. Reagan did pretty well in the humor department ( for a president). I'm sure most weren't his but a number were impromptu or seemed so.

Sheila Deeth said...

I remember my teacher telling me humor was harder than pathos. Enjoyed the article.

Helen Ginger said...

Enjoyed this. I never thought about googling humor. I google just about everything else, so why not.

Straight From Hel

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Sheila.

Helen, it is surprisingly quick and easy to get some right-on-target humor perspectives on almost any topic.

Kat Sheridan said...

I like the idea of googling quotes and studying humor compendiums. It's just another way for a writer to learn, like reading articles on plot development, chararacter creation, or reading articles on how to infuse a work with humor by John Philipp. We turn to the masters to teach us. That said, not everyone can write humor, although apparently just about anyone can spout nonsense on a blog. Taken together with the rest of John's impressive resume, I find him more than qualified as a teacher, and a wonderful humorist!

~Sia McKye~ said...

How right you are Kat which is why I wanted him to do this series. He has the experience and he's taught this as well. Humor is a funny thing (no pun intended) because what one person find hilarious, another finds blah. But that's true with anything we read.

I've learned quite a bit doing this series.

Shiela, I know that to be truth. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen, I never thought of googling humor either and like you, I google everything else. :-) but I did have a hoot with the links John provided and bookmarked them.

John Philipp said...

(I'm so wishing it were manly to blush)

Anonymous said...

"1) Many haven't honed that talent so it's hard for them to do — and, as they aren't humorists, probably not worth the time.

2) Most important, they have NO way to know if their clever, original observation is really funny or will fall flat on it's face.

I couldn't agree more. Either you have it or you don't. Readers know who does and doesn't have it.

Anonymous said...

Well one could say John's work was funny just to be nice, but it isn't. No one tells him. Real editors have no problem with that. Ask John's agent. Oh sorry. Reagan was particularly funny about not knowing what his own government was up to. Pity really. And expensive.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Humor and satire are very subjective. Some people enjoy satire and some don't and that's the same as with humor, what one finds funny another doesn't.

I appreciate the structure and tips John presents in this series. The articles have been well thought out and presented in such a way a person can utilize those tips in everyday writing.

Mark, it's fine if you don't find his work funny. However, it's one thing to have that opinion and quite another thing to go out of your way to target a guest in the manner you have.

But then, even Jerry Seinfeld has hecklers in the crowd.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, dude, you seriously need to get some medication.

Sun Singer said...

Finding quotes as you describe, humorous and otherwise, sure got easier with Google than it was in the pre-Internet days. What a time saver that is.


Anonymous said...

The hecklers may be drunk or actually have a point. It's something those who play in public have to get used to. The medication dude. Gotta love the originality of that comic genius. Illustrates the point to perfection.

Other Lisa said...

Mark, seriously, this fixation you have is odd. If you ever balanced your mean-spirited criticism with, I don't know, praise? Positive thoughts? I'd take you a lot more seriously. But it really feels like you just have an axe to grind here. What's the point? Where does it get you?

~Sia McKye~ said...

John, I want to thank you for being my guest. It's been a true pleasure. :-)

John Philipp said...

My pleasure, Sia. I enjoyed being here.

Have a great week.

Jude said...

Amazing write! Thanks. I just got on board a writing company the requires humor sprinkled all over the article.