by Diya Sood
My Dad has this old joke that goes, "What's the most important thing about humor?" After a short pause, he interjects, "TIMING!"
I've rolled my eyes many a time over this joke.
But here's a new version for writers: "What's the most important thing about writing funny? ...... WORDING!"
Whether you're talking about stand-up comedy or humorous writing, surprise is one of the biggest elements of laughter. (Yes, Dad, I know, "Surprise" is what your little timing-joke is really all about.)
Readers become accustomed to seeing things written a certain way. As a writer, you have a choice: give it to them they way they expect, or surprise them with something different.
Here's an example:
In my article "Does Target Shun Veterans?" I say that Internet Urban Legends are "stories that scare readers into believing such things as rat urine contaminating the tops of their canned peaches, and so forth." I could have just as easily written, "Internet Urban Legends are stories that scare readers into believing the tops of their canned food is dirty." But that wouldn't surprise anyone, and it would have made my piece just another bland "news story."
I also shook up the sentence about Internet Urban Legends by including some humorous exaggerations. Simply writing "canned food" isn't nearly as funny as being super specific and writing, "canned peaches," and being "dirty" is far more typical than having "rat urine" on your lid.
The idea of being very specific is what comedian (and my hero) Jerry Seinfeld has built his entire career on. He doesn't just talk about flying on an airplane, he mentions everything from the really small bag of peanuts to the pilot announcing the flight play-by-play. As an audience, we laugh at these things because it's something we've experienced but never given much thought to.
Who else but Seinfeld could have an entire 30-minute television show about toxic glue on envelopes?
Drawing attention to things that are common to all but seldom discussed makes people chuckle. This is mostly due to their slight embarrassment when they realize "wow, I do that," but it's also because for the first time they are paying attention to something they might not have otherwise.
But aside from timing, exaggerations and calling attention to life's quirks, sentence structure may be the ultimate weapon for writing humor. Just as a lyricist times his verses to a beat, writers need an internal rhythm to make their work conversational and surprising. There is quite a difference between writing a factual news piece and composing a humorous essay, but the biggest difference is sentence structure. Cut-and-dry news pieces need to follow a formula so that the content doesn't get lost. When writing a narrative or essay, however, you can play with pauses (dashes, colons, etc.), italics and words to create a feeling and rhythm.
Follow these hints and your writing will be surprising and funny....AND have great timing.