Last weekend a French fry got lodged in my sinus cavity.
I suppose it all started when I was 11 years old. Two of my school buddies and I were huddled on the schoolyard, whisper-sharing everything we knew about the mysteries of the human reproductive process. We patched together bits and pieces of what we had heard from our older brothers. This was problematic, because two of our brothers were unreliable, and one was a practical joker. And to be fair, my friends and I were poor listeners.
As I later learned, we got a fairly important part of the reproductive puzzle wrong. I can’t be more specific about our faulty information, at least not in The Wall Street Journal, so instead I will tell you a story about golf. If you choose to draw any parallels, that’s your own fault.
Okay, so this golfer hits a majestic drive, and follows it up with an awesome chip and an improbable putt. The golfer pumps his fist and dances a little jig. He turns to his caddy for a high-five and gets no response. “Wasn’t that some great golfing?” the golfer asks. The caddy says, “Yes…but it was the wrong hole.”
Last weekend, I was visiting my tiny hometown of Windham, N.Y., enjoying dinner out with my parents, my sister, and two 80ish widows who are longtime family friends. One of the ladies mentioned running into an old schoolmate of mine who was part of the misinformed schoolyard troika of way-back-then. When I heard my schoolmate’s name, I flashed back to that day, vividly recalling the key bit of information we got wrong, and I wondered how long it took my buddies to correct their mistaken understandings. I took a bite of my French fry and listened to the rest of the story about how this fellow hadn’t changed much since he was a kid. And then one of the widows added, sort of as an afterthought, “He never had any children.”
Let me tell you that this was a bad time for me to have food in my mouth. The situation demanded a spit-take, but this was a nice restaurant, and I was sitting directly across from the two innocent widows. I clamped my lips shut and hoped for the best. Something sneeze-like exploded inside me. It was an unholy combination of saliva, potato, laughter and compressed air. I squeezed my sphincter shut, closed my eyes, and well, I don’t remember much after that. I think the French fry hit the top of my sinus cavity and caused some sort of concussion.
Anyway, the reason we’re here today is so I can give you valuable writing tips. My specialty is humor, so let’s stick with that slice of the assignment.
The topic is the thing. Eighty percent of successful humor writing is picking a topic that is funny by its very nature. My story above is true, up until the exaggeration about the French fry in the sinus cavity. You probably assumed it was true, and that knowledge made it funnier.
Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy. I picked the French-fry story specifically because it is too risqué for The Wall Street Journal. You can’t read it without wondering if I had an awkward conversation with my editor. You might wonder if the people in my story will appreciate seeing my version of events in The Wall Street Journal. I wonder that too.
In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)
Humor is about people. It’s impossible to write humor about a concept or an object. All humor involves how people think and act. Sometimes you can finesse that limitation by having your characters think and act in selfish, stupid or potentially harmful ways around the concept or object that you want your reader to focus on.
Exaggerate wisely. If you anchor your story in the familiar, your readers will follow you on a humorous exaggeration, especially if you build up to it. My story was true and relatable until the French-fry exaggeration.
Let the reader do some work. Humor works best when the reader has to connect some dots. Early in my story I made you connect the golf story to the playground story. The smarter your audience, the wider you can spread the dots. I used this method again when I said of my aborted spit-take, “I don’t remember much after that.” Your mind might have filled in a little scene in which, perhaps, my eyes bugged out, my cheeks went all chipmunk-like, and I fell out of my chair.
Animals are funny. It’s a cheap trick, but animal analogies are generally funny. It was funnier that I said, “my cheeks went all chipmunk-like” than if I had said my cheeks puffed out.
Use funny words. I referred to my two schoolmates and myself as a troika because the word itself is funny. With humor, you never say “pull” when you can say “yank.” Some words are simply funnier than others, and you know the funny ones when you see them. (Pop Quiz: Which word is funnier, observe or stalk?)
Curiosity. Good writing makes you curious without being too heavy-handed about it. My first sentence in this piece, about the French fry lodged in my sinus cavity, is designed to make you curious. It also sets the tone right away.
Endings. A simple and classic way to end humorous writing is with a call-back. That means making a clever association to something especially humorous and notable from the body of your work. I would give you an example of that now, but I’m still having concentration issues from the French fry.
Scott Adams is the creator of “Dilbert.”
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703843804575534160113096560.html