Here is a review of humor writing techniques, gathered from our recent contests, which may be helpful when you’re writing lines for The Unlucky Person contest.
Our past contests were:Blank Book Titles contest: The Ten Best Things to Say to Someone When You Are Angry.A School of Fish contest (names for groups of people): A giggle of girls.
Life Has Taught Me contest: No matter how sexy your spouse is, at some point you’re going to have to talk with each other.
Mergers contest: If Disneyland merged with an organ bank, it would be Disney Gland.
Toasters contest: If financial planners made toasters, the bread would pop up and down but turn out just fine in 5 – 10 years.
It’s a Numbers Game
1. Quality and quantity. The winner of each contest was usually the person who submitted the most lines. In the comedy writing business, even top professional writers aim for quantity. The funniest lines seldom spring from the pen or keyboard while writing the first line. Inspiration comes from deep within the creative process…with the 20th line, the 50th line, the 100th line. When you go to the gym, your success comes not from the first pushup or curl, but from many repetitions.
2. When you’re stuck, go deeper. When you do creative writing, and you think you’ve run out of ideas, write ten more. The deeper you go, the more likely you’ll uncover that great line. Are your chances of winning the lottery better with one ticket or 188 tickets? Sometimes someone who buys only one ticket wins, but not normally. It’s a numbers game.
The Philosophy of Competing
3. Remember, the contest is about growth. It’s not about winning. Trite as that may sound, it’s true.
4. Subjectivity of humor. As usual, the taste of the judges varied from person to person. You might disagree with the selection of the judges. When I provide a suggested rewrite to improve a joke, you may feel that the original version is better! So remember than if you don’t win, it doesn’t mean that your lines weren’t great.
5. Funny ideas seem to have no limits. Of 650 entries in the School of Fish contest, amazingly there were only five duplicate entries. As a group, we could come up with over 10,000 different lines. I’m sure of it. Your personal capabilities for creativity are also unlimited.
The Truth is Funny
6. Life philosophy. Often the submitted lines had a philosophical message with a humorous touch. One of the guiding principles of humor is that the Truth is funny. Looking at personal experiences, likes, and dislikes strikes a humorous chord.
7. Target audience. Often times the quality of a joke is judged by whether it’s presented to the right audience. When a joke is customized for a specific audience, it magnifies the impact of the joke. Lines which you’ll write for a skit to be presented at work will hit the mark, yet when you tell them to your friends at home, they’ll yawn.
8. Superiority theory. One of the theories of humor is that people, your audience, find something funny when they “figure it out for themselves.” It is sometimes referred to as the superiority theory of humor. Don’t give them everything. Give them the clues and they love it when they “get it.”
9. The Set-Up for a joke is as often as important as the punchline. The setup is often the background necessary for the listener to understand the joke.
10. Sometimes the Set-Up is not directly stated. For example: Life has taught me…to run like hell when a chicken sneezes. What is implied is your awareness of the news headlines on the bird flu. Without that awareness (setup) your likely response to the joke would probably be “Huh?” Sometimes it is a choice to imply the set up or clearly spell it out. It’s better if it’s implied, but sometimes it’s essential to clearly state the set up.
Surprise and the Unexpected
11. Remember that the punchword, the humor trigger, should be the last word of the punchline. You want to hide the surprise until the very end.
12. The twist. Often, a good humor line has an unexpected twist.
The teachers always hated me, even when I was the principal.
I once tried reading a book upside down, but I had a hard time keeping my legs up in the air.
Relationships Are the Key
13. Relationships and connections are the key to nearly every joke. When you understand this principle, the humor lines will start to jump out at you.
14. Pay attention to how things and groups are different and how they are the same. This uses the principle of finding relationships.
15. Laying the qualities of one category onto another: If toasters were made by Harley-Davidson, they’d be noisy and only cool people would buy them.
16. Look for both positive and negative relationships. The creation of humor lines could be for praise or satire: A sage of psychics. A scam of psychics.
17. Word relationships and word flow combinations. An interesting technique is to find a group name that blends with the “A” that starts the sentence: A lone of popes. A loof of social climbers.
18. Splitting an Existing Word Pair. Look for names, word pairs and phrases that can be split to create group names.
A karen of carpenters
a huckleberry of Finns
A nit of wits
A forgiveness of sinners
19. The Flip Side. A giggle of girls..might suggest:
A brat of boys
20. Or look for totally opposite meanings within your humor line.
a deity of atheists
Look to Your Life Experiences
21. Tap your life experiences. Explore things that have happened to you that were funny or embarrassing.
22. What in life irritates you? That takes advantage of the principle of The Truth Is Funny.
23. What life experiences taught you lessons? This will lead to funny connections.
24. Look for a problem, then find a funny solution. Dumb solutions are funny.
Ask The Right Questions
25. Asking “What If” questions lead you to funny ideas. For example, looking for a twist with a what-if: If BREAD made toasters, they’d be marketed as portable tanning salons.
26. What if questions can lead you to excellent exaggerations.
Go Beyond the Ordinary
27. Exaggeration is a great humor technique. My wife watches fear factor for the cooking tips.
28. Extrapolation. Taking something a step further. Life has taught me that if you burn garlic toast bad enough, it will catch on fire.
29. Absurdity. Taking exaggeration to an extreme. When I replace my carpet, I’ll look for a pattern that looks like dirt. With my luck…if I bought a life insurance policy, I wouldn’t die.
Playing With Sounds
30. Homonyms and Similar sounds:
Toasters made by a religious group are made for prophet (profit).
A herd of cowboys
A heard of ear doctors
I would combine these two lines to make:
A herd of ear doctors. (and let the connection be implied)
31. A rhyming dictionary is a great creative tool to find fun-sounding connections: A clobber of boxers.
32. Alliteration works well. A cackle of comedians.33. Onomatopoeia. Look for group names that consist of sounds to add an auditory dimension to the humor.A splat of painters
A slammer of spammers (double duty here for the word slammer/prison)
A crash of cymbalists
34. It is said that words with a K sound are funnier: Life has taught me…Never buy a cactus covered couch with a credit card if you can carry cash.
35. Playing with double meaning of words: If toasters were made by accountants, every crumb would COUNT (addition versus significance).
A wave of greeters. While wave relates to greet, it is also a descriptive word for a group (amber waves of grain).
A hail of cabbies. Double word meaning for hail sets up the visual picture of lots of cabbies or “raining cabbies.”
A yank of jerks. Double word meaning of jerk sets up the group name.
36. Use a dictionary and synonym finder to connect word relationships.
37. Tweak the Spelling. Don’t necessarily settle for the first spelling of a group name.
A firmation of Yes Men…could be changed to
A formation of Yes Men. A subtle connection to affirmation when read aloud.
A thong of streetwalkers. A nice twist on throng with the R deleted.
38. Adding a Qualifier. Sometimes you can add an adjective or adverb to give the connections in the line a better link or twist.
A hoy of sailors…could become:
A hoy of Spanish sailors
Watch Current News and Advertising
39. Connecting with common marketing slogans: If toasters were made by Rice Krispies they would Snap Crackle and Pop.
40. Connection with something funny from the past: If toasters were made in cyber space, Al Gore would have claimed to have invented them
Backwards and Forward
41. You can work in more than one direction. In the group name contest (school of fish) you could work from either the group looking for a name:
CARPENTERS. A pound of carpenters. A Karen of Carpenters. Or you could start with a name and then work the other direction, looking for a group to match. GAG. A gag of comics. A gag of jurists.
If you ever feel blocked, explore working on the same idea in a different direction or angle.