Friday, June 19, 2009


John Philipp will be sharing a five part series of articles on writing humor.

John tends to teach by example, as you will see.

However he does touch on several good points: how to find humor, developing a concept, and how to stretch the facts.

I have to admit that I don't invent most of my column topics. I'm lazy; I use the newspaper. A recent front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle stated, "Consumers cruising the aisles of supermarkets this week will find a new green tea beverage with an astounding claim: Drink it and burn calories. Coca-Cola and Nestlé say consuming three cans a day of their new product, Enviga, will burn 60 to 100 calories." With provocative journalism like this, why bother to invent anything myself?

OK. Armed with the concept that the more you drink the skinnier you get, let your imagination out of its cage, point it at the idea in question and let it run rampant, which is a journalistic term meaning, "Damn the facts! Full Speed ahead!"

All you need to write a humor column is a newspaper, a brain that works slightly better than a sloth's and a couple of tried and trite techniques.

One trick to turn the funny screws on anything is to stretch it to its ultimate limit. So, let's extrapolate — which is different than exfoliate, only in that skin is not involved. In this case, if you can burn 100 calories for every three cans of Enviga you drink, what would happen if you drank more? According to nutritionists (never mind which ones), it takes 3600 calories to make a pound; so drinking 108 cans will burn off another ugly pound of you. Or, in the case of a 180-pound man, drinking 19,440 cans will make him disappear. Those are the boundaries of your column about consumers doing what they do best: consuming. In this case, somewhere between 3 and 19,440 cans of Enviga.

Now, apply your imagination to that scenario. Yes, that very same skill your third-grade teacher told you not to use when doing fractions. Imagine how much 19,440 cans of caffeine-laden soda will speed up our 180-pound man. Maybe the Enviga scenario is a man's ultimate defense against the onslaughts of his wife's PMS. It provides him with everything he needs: the ability to duck quickly and then disappear.

This theory has a few practical downsides, but fortunately for you — the budding columnist humor isn't about downsides. Or practicality.

Another technique you can use is the "side-shuffle." Start with Enviga and imagine how that might be extended to other products. If a soft drink will burn calories, what if I apply that technology to other food groups like fruits, vegetables, nuts, pizza or beer? Why a whole testosterone-infused room of Super Bowl watchers eating Enviga-laced pizza washed down with Envigabeer would disappear before the opening kickoff. The ultimate weapon for football widows.

A question people ask me is, "How do you find time to conduct the extensive background research required for a newspaper column?" Those people are confusing humorism with journalism. A professional humorist might occasionally check a fact on the Internet (especially if the topic has anything to do with pornography), while professional journalists have been known to spend all day and night in a bar to wheedle the true story out of another professional journalist. Each lists the other as a confidential source on their expense account.

I do use Google to check the spelling of proper names. You type the name the way you think it's spelled, like "Gerring," and Google will spit back, "Do you mean Goering?" which, of course, is the proper spelling. This use of the Internet assumes a) I don't already have a funny misspelling of the name and b) that I care.

A final note: Nothing gives a newspaper column the ring of authenticity like an interview with an acknowledged expert. I use an Acme All-Purpose Right-hand Puppet, add a few funny voices I do and type whatever I say with my left hand. Then I Google-up a funny name.

My final advice: write at home. Once I have in mind the pieces of a column, I mull them over while I pace through the rooms of my house. Pacing helps my thinking process and allows me to deduct 87 percent of my house for tax purposes. That and my Chronicle subscription.


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 wisdom (with Phil Frank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes