By Suzette Martinez Standring
Past President, NSNC
Can writers learn to be funny? To go from giggles to guffaws, is there a formula? On June 22 in Philadelphia, Dave Barry shared humor writing “secrets” before the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Robert Benchley once wrote, “Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people.” But over 100 people can’t be without a funny bone and who can resist learning at the knee of the master?
These were the Barry Basics:
Incorporate the word, “weasel,” whenever possible.
Perhaps not masterful on its face, but the presentation played exactly to Barry’s strength. Humor writing only looks effortless.
Being funny in print takes toil and focus. In fact, most humor writers aren’t that funny, according to Barry, because they don’t make him laugh. He has read countless samples and many are written in a “humorous tone” or are “amusing,” but few make it to the summit of Laugh Out Loud.
And to reach that mighty mountaintop, one needs jokes.
Self-amusement is not the same as humor and the hard job of doing humor is putting in the jokes, according to Barry who said, “It’s not an inspired process.”
Barry offered a behind-the-scenes look at his own process of creation, and it’s comforting to know that coming up with the seemingly spontaneous can involve hours of struggle.
Barry doesn’t draft an entire humor column at first. He begins with an idea and will spend an hour or two crafting the opening lines, aiming for hilarity.
“Be funny quickly,” he said (even though creating the result might take hours to achieve).
Only when he is satisfied with the lead, will he move on to the rest of the column, always building on the jokes, and Barry spends time drafting and tweaking before moving on to the next section of his piece.
Mediocre humor lacks the element of surprise, and he urged writers to avoid being linear. Create the unexpected.
“The unexpected is better than expected humor,” he said.
He used the example of air travel. Everyone hates long security lines and the stress of navigating through the airport process. Write about travel and most readers expect a piece along the lines of inconvenience and chaos, so surprise the reader.
“Instead of hating it, try writing about how much you love security,” Barry said.
One under-used way of creating humor is actual experience. Go out and find funny situations or create them.
“Do things rather than think things,” said Barry.
He once borrowed a giant Weiner Mobile to pick his son up from school. He later drove it to a used car lot and tried to trade it in for smaller model. Truth is stranger than fiction and makes for funny column fodder.
Barry always engages his readers in his writing. Respect their intelligence and their capacity for humor.
“Don’t see them as crazy or stupid,” he said.
That said don’t be surprised when the humorless take you literally. Barry received waves of hate mail when he suggested Neil Diamond wasn’t the world’s greatest lyricist, and recited a sample verse: I am, I said/To no one there/And no one heard at all/Not even the chair.
But somehow, even through stacks of “you idiot” mail, a good humor columnist makes it through to the end.
And speaking of the end, always remember the punch line should act as both the best and the last part of the piece. Too often, writers don’t know when to stop.
“The funniest part is at the end. Don’t keep going after that,” Barry said.
With moments to spare before leaving for a flight out of Philadelphia, he took a few questions from the audience, and I was the last hand he pointed to. This was my chance for a serious insight into being funny.
“What are your thoughts on humor based on stereotypes?” I asked.
“Leave it to a woman to ask a question like that,” Barry said.
And off he flew.
Suzette Martinez Standring is the author of The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists (Marion Street Press, Inc. Fall 2007). She is the immediate past president of the NSNC. Visit her web site, http://www.readsuzette.com