New York Times Columnist Teddy Wayne’s Guide to Humor Writing
5:30 pm, February 5th | by Colette McIntyre
In today’s Read of the Day, New York Times columnist Teddy Wayne, whose writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and The New Yorker, to name a few, “dissects a frog” — that is, he explains how to write a successful short humor piece. If you have long dreamed of being published in the “Shouts & Murmurs” section alongside Jesse Eisenberg, this guide is for you.
The concept, form and narrative constitute the bones of the piece; now we have to fill it in with some humorous flesh. We instinctively employ a number of comedic tricks and techniques all the time in conversation, but it’s useful to identify them. One of the most common is “the rule of three”: list two expected items, then deviate preposterously for the third, as in Jason Roeder’s“Amendments to the Pub Crawl” (McSweeney’s), where a debauched night out gets tamer with each revision from the organizer (every hour’s activities are capitalized): “9:00 p.m. Y’all want this party started, right? Please keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times, because this coaster-of-the-damned is rollin’ on! However, I’m going to have to first head home and GIVE MY PARAKEET HIS EAR MEDICATION.”
The rule of three also ensures another tenet that is a key to any form of humor, but especially prose humor: end the sentences on the punch line (don’t bury it in the middle), and, ideally, make the very last word of the sentence funny. The final sentence above would still work if reversed as “…GIVE EAR MEDICATION TO MY PARAKEET,” but it would substitute a less amusing word (the bland preposition “to”) for one with greater comic value (the possessive “his”; we now know the parakeet is male). Most important, “ear medication” is a bleaker, more specific buzzkill. In addition, the clinical “medication,” with a hard c, is superior to the generic, soft-c “medicine.” By the way, harder sounds are usually funnier; consider a certain English word favored by comedians that ends in “ck.”
The parakeet/ear-medication joke utilizes other comic rhetorical devices Freud wrote about in “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” such as hyperbole (describing this mildest of actions in noisy capital letters) and incongruence (beyond the party/pet discordance, it isn’t even a pet that might be conducive to fun, like a rambunctious Labrador, but a caged, ailing bird), not to mention subverting taboo (in lieu of drunken revelry, responsible pet care). These first two strategies — exaggeration and antithesis — account for most joke constructions, alongside humanity’s enduring fondness for risqué material.
For more tips of the trade, click here.