How to Make Your Writing Funny
Having grown up in a family full of hilarious people, making jokes always felt like second nature to me. I started my illustrious career of silliness making self-deprecating jokes and teasing my family members. But as I got older and developed my writing skills, it was important to me to infuse some funny into everything I wrote. In college, I created a sketch show for our university TV network and wrote a weird comedy about a psychic misanthrope. In my adult life, that translated into writing for TV comedy for Disney Channel and some of our awesome web series, created by fellow queen of Brain Magic Amanda Steinhoff and our awesome, talented friends.
And along the way, I’ve learned a lot about comedy. I’ve learned how to craft and pitch a joke thanks to working in a fast-paced TV writers room. And I’ve learned how to play around with the wording of a joke to make it as funny as possible. I’ve even learned that no matter how hard you work, sometimes the joke just doesn’t work. And I’ve (sort of) learned to get over that and try a new one. But most of all, I learned that comedy isn’t just an innate ability. Comedy can be learned, and anybody can be funny. We may not all be Samantha Bee or Jessica Williams or Hannah Gadsby, but we can all add a little comedy to our writing to make it funnier and punchier.
What exactly is comedy?
When you hear people talk about jokes and what makes people laugh, the clearest explanation is that comedy is about surprise. We laugh when things are unexpected or uncomfortable, so to create funny moments in your writing, you need to surprise people.
Set-up + punchline = laugh
Jokes in their simplest form are made up of two parts. The set-up creates the situation and “sets up” an expectation. When you create a set-up, you need to make sure that whoever is reading is assuming that you’re going to go one way with your joke. And then, with the punchline, you take them in a totally different direction. It’s easiest to understand with an example, so I’ll demonstrate with a quote from Nanette, the absolutely incredible Netflix special from comedian Hannah Gadsby. Seriously, watch it. This won’t be the only time I say thins.
Here’s a great joke from Nanette that demonstrates a setup and a punchline:
“‘A man in a dress? That’s f***ing weird!’ No it’s not, you know what’s weird? Pink headbands on bald babies.”
The setup is in the first three sentences. She’s talking about people who are judgmental of adults who are gender non-conforming. And the listener’s assumption is that she’s going to keep talking about that. But she doesn’t. Instead, she totally surprises you by bringing up babies. It surprises us, makes us laugh, and then makes us think. A really excellent joke. Seriously, watch Nanette.
But fear not, you don’t have to write an entire comedy special to up the comedy of your writing. Particularly in print, a few pops of funny will bring your work to life without a lot of work. Right now, I’m working on a story about my recent appendix removal situation, so I thought I would use that to help demonstrate what I do to add comedy into my work, so that you can follow along. And hopefully we all end up with funnier writing as a result. Let’s dive in. Here are six tips to help you punch up your writing.
1. Be honest.
We live in a world of deception and dishonesty. That may sound bleak, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s more that we all spend our days trying to make everything about our lives sound as perfect as possible. When we pull back the veil for a second and say something true, it’s both surprising (aka comedic) and helps to connect us to our readers.
After getting my appendix out, I felt extremely uncomfortable.
While this isn’t specifically an untrue statement, it doesn’t fully capture what was occupying my mind.
The most annoying part about the post-surgery process is that you have to digest all kinds of important information while you’re in a very vulnerable state. My doctors and nurses were trying to explain why my surgery was more complicated than they expected, and all I could think about was the fact that I wasn’t wearing any underpants.
2. Write it the way you would say it.
Robots aren’t funny. Well, for the most part. Neither are stuffy college professors. It may seem obvious, but because of the way writing is often taught, too many of us write like robots or stuffy professors, or some other character that is SO not us. But one of the best ways to get humor and personality across in your own writing is by sounding like yourself. Because you’re funny! And we want that to come through. Especially in casual writing, don’t be afraid to use slang or colloquialisms. And the best way to get there is by reading your writing out loud to see where you need to liven things up a bit.
Typically, I prefer my gynecologists to be women. Because I feel as though they better understand my predicament.
Technically, there isn’t anything wrong with this sentence. And yes, I am the type of person who might say predicament in real life. But still, it’s funnier if I add a little sass, as if I was talking to a friend.
Normally, when I go to a gynecologist, I prefer it to be a woman. I would just rather talk vaginas with someone who has more personal experience with one. But maybe that’s just me.
3. Get into the funny details.
We mention this a lot when we talk about writing, but details are SO important. We experience the world through the details, so in order to connect with your readers, you need to dig in. You know when you need details when you feel like this is one of the exciting moments. If you want to build excitement, build up the details! Or, if you want to make something funnier, find a fun, relatable way to describe it.
My pelvis was throbbing with an unusual, persistent pain.
Again, this sentence is totally acceptable. But I really want the reader to understand how confused and unhappy I was with this pain. So I thought back and tried to describe the feeling as best as I could.
My pelvis was throbbing with an unusual, persistent pain. It felt like my ovaries were being repeatedly punched by a tiny demon living inside my stomach.
4. Don’t be afraid to talk about the embarrassing or uncomfortable parts.
This harkens back to my point about honesty. Don’t put a filter over the embarrassing part of your story to make everyone think that your life happens only with the slightly blown out Amaro tint. The embarrassing and uncomfortable parts are funny specifically because they’re embarrassing and uncomfortable. Think about it, whenever anyone says something uncomfortable, we all laugh. It’s our natural reaction. And it helps relax everyone.
I don’t have a great example of what NOT to do, but what you can do is get gross when necessary. Here’s an example from my essay:
After surgery, they left a silicone drain inside me to help clear out some of the fluid created by, well I don’t know what, but I was leaking pretty profusely. There was basically a crazy straw with a pump on the end hanging out of my stomach, attached by a tiny stitch, just daring me to snag it on something and rip it out. And they sent me home with it. A few times a day, we had to empty out the little pump on the end and measure how much had leaked out of me. For four days, I walked around with a small sack of my own fluids dangling from a hole in my lower abdomen. Fun times.
5. Share your opinion or comment on things.
Another great way to inject humor and personality into your writing is by giving us an insight to what you think about things or when you find something bizarre. Pointing out what is ridiculous and absurd about the world is what helps us get through this madness we call life! Don’t go overboard, because opinions can slow down the flow, but here or there it will help to bring your writing to life.
Here’s an example where inserting an opinion or observation can help:
The worst part about staying in a hospital room overnight is that at some point you need to get some sleep. But usually, the hospital disagrees. After a long day for both me and my mom – the jury’s still out on what’s worse, abdominal surgery or flying into LAX – we settled in around 11PM to get some rest.
6. Trust your sense of humor.
Last but definitely not least – TRUST YOURSELF! Believe that what you think is funny will make others laugh. This doesn’t apply to anything that might be offensive or cruel to someone else, but assuming that’s not what you’re going for, then know that what you giggle at is likely to make others giggle. And stop any internal (or external) talk that says you’re not funny. Everyone can be funny. So give it a shot, and we bet we can all have a good laugh when you’re done!
Do you have a funny story brimming up inside of you? Share it below in the comments!
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