Top Ten Tools for Writing Humor

by : David Leonhardt

Ever want to write a funny book or a humor column? Or add spice to your newsletter editor or web page so that people read beyond the typical drivel that sends otherwise eager-to-spend customers into a boredom-induced coma?

Here are my top ten favorite humor tools for you, along with real live examples from my own humor column.

Threading a theme through the text.

Are you into practical jokes? Try sewing a single thread of bright red wool across Uncle Henry's new green golf shirt. Or sew a thread through your text.

My Parenting Pumpkin Cheesecake Recipe is actually a delicious recipe. But I assumed there is a little helper around, and I threaded her through the text, making for sort of a running gag.

OK, time to up-tempo the laughs. Mid-way through, I run a second thread, renaming the cake with each mistake. The thread within a thread multiplies the humor.


Contrast what should be with the obviously deficient reality

I use this technique in Home Of The Year. Most people will agree that a home is more than just a house.

I contrast the reality of my I-survived-the-hurricane home with the Martha Stewart image of how a home should look -- the old little-miss-perfect Martha Stewart image, not the new-and-not-improved, scandal-defying, corporate shark image.

Notice I also use the threading tool in this piece – the drawings on the wall -- and bring it together at the end to reinforce the main point.


Build on a ridiculous notion

Consultants call this thinking outside the box and charge you for it. I call it humor and give it to you for free.

I had a bad hairdresser day. I held my hairdresser accountable for my thinning hair, a ludicrous idea that works.

Let's up-tempo the laughs. Mid-way through, I compound the humor with another ludicrous notion: growth formula making my scalp taller rather than my hair thinner.

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Mock a public figure

This is possibly the easiest humor tool to use. Public figures are just so mockable. They naturally rise to their own level of mockability. I wrote a column mocking Michael Jackson – and the media's over-fascination with his arrest. That was one of my worst columns, so I won't show it to you. Hey, I said it was easy, not funny.

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Act like a clown

I start off my Vulture column, based on a true news story, by playing the fool, saying silly things and displaying a general ignorance. This gives my uncle the opportunity to set me straight. In classic Laurel and Hardy style, the straight man makes the comedian funny.

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By the way, this also allows a humorist to be funny on touchy subjects, without offending.

The heckler

I love to inject a heckler into an already silly situation. I applied a news story about a law suit over cow hormones to my "New York Times best seller". It was actually a bit like mocking a public figure, but what made this column exceptional is how Ruby Red kept interjecting her own slightly out-of-context comments into what was already a silly situation.

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Give human characteristics to non-humans

This is a great tool for laughing at human foibles. It is at the very heart of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons. I offered leadership lessons from six penguins who were helping the other penguins live up to their full "penguinhood". This is also based on a news story, although some of the penguin dialogue had to be contrived.

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Build laughs upon laugh

My favorite column is where I try so hard to be a giver, but everybody makes me out to be a taker. I start with the simple premise that givers sleep better at night.

The whole column is a play on words, but what makes it one of my best is how I react to people calling me a taker. You can feel the desperation, and almost picture me running away in horror. This is the same tool every stand-up comedian uses; as your laughter subsides, a new punch line builds on the previous one.

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Give funny names to things

I itemized a whole series of customer service styles. One of them was "do-it-yourself extortion". Need I say more?

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Funny faces and weird sounds.

"Oh no, waa-aah ... boom ... ouch! ... bump ... yikes! ... crash." "Bhrhrthrpt." Those are just two of the sound effects I use to describe extreme fatigue. Words or not-quite-in-the-dictionary sounds can paint a pretty funny picture.

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There are many other well-known humor tools available, such as exaggeration, playing deaf, reversing roles and throwing cream pies. If you figure out how to do that last classic in a humor column, please let me know how.