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


~Sia McKye~ said...

You know John, I got sucked into that sort of thinking once, gee if one will do this then 5 can't be bad, lolol!

Adina said...

I liked the theory about red wine ....Apparently it's an antioxidant and the more you drink the younger and better you get...
The downside though is that you need to drink around 100 bottles a day in order to make the theory valid ! I am working on proving the theory:)
Writing about it might be a little blurry !

~Sia McKye~ said...

*snort* Yah think Adina?

But that was a good example of stretching it.

Vivian A said...

John, why does everything involve stretching? Seriously, this seems to be another scheme to get me to exercise -- well I ain't falling for it.

Die dandelions, DIE!

John Philipp said...

"I got sucked into that sort of thinking once"

Sia, you bring up another good point. If you can seduce the reader into believing your story is true, just for a little while, when they realize it's satire they laugh even harder.

Adina, those are the risks professional writers have to take. Writing about doing the experiment would be a very funny bit.

Hold on, Vivian! This isn't that kind of stretching. This is stretching your brain where there are no fat cells.
OK, I'm making an assumption. :)

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

When I see or hear something odd (or stupid), it's hard not to ask: "What's the worst that could happen?" If it's funny, it makes a great piece. Then people ask, "How do you think of stuff like this?" My response is always, "how can you not?"


John Philipp said...

SUn, I was at a book reading once with Dave Barry and someone said, "How do you think up all that things?"

Dave said, "Do you read the newspaper?"

(There will be more on Dave Barry in one of the upcoming articles here.)

Unknown said...

The best humor is rooted in reality, which can be tragedy. That can be funny but from what I've read of your personal take on humor, John is almost purely ideological. Eye charts at DMV? Big government takeover! Seen it over and again. Spotted owls. Not!It will only work with the like-minded. If your humor doesn't ring true, it isn't funny. The anti-journalism cracks point to your lack of training in the craft. Your so-called published "clips" aren't readily available either. They come in as Gather only. How much did they pay you? I suspect nothing or less. Humor is hard. Published is harder. I don't buy it. I'm a reporter.

John Philipp said...

Hi, Mark. I recognized the chip. :)

Unknown said...

Show us a link to the published clips John. We actual reporters are sticklers for details like that.

John Philipp said...

I've watched you play this game before, Mark, in other venues. You'll have to find someone else.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Mark, cut the aggressive controverial attacks on my guests or don't visit.

This is a humor article; how to find humor, developing a concept, and how to stretch the facts all with humor and satire in mind.

M said...

Now now, they do such a good job of imitating the spiteful old man sitting in his rocker on the porch yelling at everyone because nobody will pay them any of the attention for which they really long. In the process, they become such a caricature they become that which they disdain. The humorous part is they rarely recognize it causing people to laugh all the more. The real danger then is you laugh so hard your tush might fall...oh hell, somebody stop that rear!!! Quick, before it rolls out the door. Now how am I going to explain to the ER doc how my rear fell off?

~Sia McKye~ said...

Ahem, are we talking cars here? That can get nasty, especially when you're driving down the road at 50 plus mph.

M said...

LMAO, no, not cars. Now look at what you caused. I just had my rear reattached dang it.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Gotta keep you laughing Mike. That's my job you see. Um, don't you keep spares? oh wait, that's tires. Never mind.

This is all John's fault. My mind has been running in all kinds of humor directions today, even when I was mowing the yard, scenarios were running through my head of how to use everyday things and make them funny. I even wrote down a few ideas. Hmmm.

Helen Ginger said...

Liked this column. Besides being funny, it was informative. I'll be back for more. I need help in the writing funny department.

Straight From Hel

~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen, that's the great thing about John's articles on humor and satire. The principles transfer to blog writing or books. Writing our blogs can be like writing a news column.

You don't do too bad in the humor department. I'm still cracking up over 'I phone and U dumb.'

~Sia McKye~ said...

John, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this series. We'll see you next Friday!

Safe Journey to your Newspaper Columist Convention!

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Sia. It was fun.