Ten Things I’ve Learned About Writing Humor

Remember back in grade school when the teacher would assign spelling lists and then you had to write a sentence for each word? I spent the entire fifth grade writing about a fictional Catholic nun, Sister Maria Annunciata, who got into adventures that always involved abstruse words like “membrane.”

Sister Maria Annunciata ran her tongue over the membrane lining the roof of her mouth until she located the spot that had been burned by the molten mozzarella cheese from her pizza.

Or “factorization.”

Prior to joining her religious order, Sister Maria Annunciata was perplexed by factorization, so she abandoned her study of mathematics and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience instead.

This of course delighted my public school teacher, Mrs. Cirvillo, who was used to wading through painful sentences like

Factorization is the operation of resolving a quantity into factors.


Insane in the membrane.

(Actually, the Cyprus Hill song would not be released for several more years, but I have no doubt Mrs. Cirvillo saw that sentence starting with her class circa 1993 and for many years thereafter.)

It was customary for Sister Maria Annunciate to eat Cheezits in bed every night.

It was customary for Sister Maria Annunciata to eat Cheezits in bed every night.

So that’s when I started writing humor. And humor has served me well: I’m sure my Sister Maria Annunciata sentences are to blame for what got me into the gifted program in the sixth grade. There I sat next to Marc Goldstein, who offered me the fun-size Three Musketeers bar his mother packed in his lunch. I didn’t like Three Musketeers, so I declined his romantic overture candy, and developed a crush on another boy, James Moynihan, who didn’t even know I was alive. Looking back at the sixth grade gifted program, I really should have done better in my love life, if not my studies, since I was the only girl in the room (there were two other boys in the program, but they came from another school on the other side of town). The odds were never more in my favor until adulthood when I attended a business luncheon at the local Hooters. Even a flat chested woman in a gray wool skirt can attract attention at Hooters, mostly because she’s the only woman in the place who isn’t otherwise engaged in serving up wings and beer.

In high school, I wrote my college essay on my driver’s ed instructor, Mr. Valerio, who famously (and incorrectly, I might add) predicted that I would kill someone behind the wheel of a car. That essay got me admitted to one of those fancy schmancy eastern elite institutions of higher education where I would not write anything funny for four years, mostly due to hangovers and casual sex studying all the time.

After college, I’ve written in fits and starts, and now I’ve returned to the idea for a comic novel I got seven (eight?) years ago. I’ve been working with that idea during National Novel Writing Month. This morning, as I was puzzling over another passage I’d written, wondering Is This Even Funny? yet again, I got to thinking about what I’ve learned about humor in my 33 34 (my birthday is next week. Buy me something expensive, yet tasteful) years.

  1. Passages that I think are funny when I dash them off in the early morning before running out the door are less funny when I return to them hours later, especially after I get called a “bitch” over the phone by someone who doesn’t even know me, yet alone know the levels of bitchery to which I am capable of rising.
  2. Losers are funnier than winners.
  3. The word “humor” does not need an extraneous “u.”
  4. My first grader will laugh at any character who has a funny name. My sixth grader will occasionally and grudgingly admit, “That part is funny.”
  5. My husband stopped finding me amusing years ago.
  6. The household pets (two cats and a guinea pig), who I sometimes bounce ideas off when I’ve been alone writing for too long, prefer scatological humor.
  7. Even if a scene is really funny, it still may need to be cut in the interest of good story telling. This absolutely kills me every time I have to do it.
  8. Specifics are funnier than generalities (Sister Maria Annunciata is funnier than The Nun).
  9. Foreign words are funny (Don’t believe me? Think about the word salchicha. Funny, right? Even it’s English counterpart, sausage, is still pretty good, but only if you have the mentality of a hormonal thirteen year old, which I do).
  10. Comedy is hard.

If you’re out there struggling through NaNoWriMo and want some company, feel free to add me, kayeraye, as a buddy.

I actually find this picture by searching "recycle"

In my opinion, your writing suffers from a lack of fart jokes.

Royalty-free stock photos, including the images in this post, can be found at freeimages.com


25 thoughts on “Ten Things I’ve Learned About Writing Humor

  1. Belladonna Took says:

    Trying to write funny is making me agonisingly aware of how long it is since I last had a good old belly laugh. WTF has happened to my life, never mind my writing? Hating NaNo right now…;(


      • Belladonna Took says:

        I have been procrastinating half a century and finally woke up to the fact that, if I’m ever going to get serious about Being A Writer, the time is NOW. But oh my word yes, it is SO SO SO HARD! I suppose it’s comforting to know that everyone finds it so, and this isn’t just about me not being as good as I always thought I was. But right now I’m reading blogs because the only other thing I have to do today is squeeze out several thousand words in an effort to catch up. Argh!


        • Karen says:

          I screwed around all morning writing this blog post but then just forced myself to put out a few words (mostly because Dylan, the commenter above, shamed me), so I’m hoping you’ll do it, too. I try not to think about “catching up” because I realize there’s defeat in that sort of thinking.


    • Karen says:

      I agree it is cathartic. I’ll have to think more on it to decide if I would compare it to anger.

      The evolutionary biologists have been unable to find out why we, as a species, laugh. It appears to confer absolutely no benefit to our survival. In that way it’s a lot like the female orgasm, which has also confounded them.

      So I guess what I’m saying is that humor = female orgasm (ah, you knew I was going to go there, didn’t you?)


    • Karen says:

      It is hard. I was watching a documentary on Woody Allen (I know. I know. But goddammit, some of his stuff is funny) and he said that he “clean writes” then does a single rewrite immediately after finishing and that’s it. He’s done with it. I think my problem is that I just go over and over these lines. Heck, I edited this post several times (four, I think) after I published it yesterday.

      I might have a sickness. 😉


      • jackfrey says:

        So you mean he (Woody) writes it from start to finish, and then makes some changes to the entire manuscript immediately after the manuscript? That’s impressive. I suppose that’s the difference between humor (which doesn’t have a time factor) and wit (implicitly timely).


  2. Elyse says:

    I got As on all of my essays from 7th Grade on because they were funny. I made sure I’d both my grade and my place in hell, by putting my paper 2/3 down the pile. Sister Maria Annunciatia would have been proud. Hut when I got to real-life writing, any trace of humor with or without a U was stamped out. It took me nearly 20 years to be able to write funny again.

    God luck yo you this month. I’m a sucker; I akways buy blogger books!


    • Karen says:

      Oh, boy–I think you work in the legal field, so this anecdote will make sense to you. When I was a 1L, I wrote my very first brief for my legal research and writing course and I was pretty happy with it, thinking (like all stupid 1Ls) that here I was in school, writing just another paper for a prof. She gave it back to me absolutely LIT up with the word “INAPPROPRIATE” because I had written in my usual cutesy, snarky (what I thought was clever) way that I had written every single paper as an undergrad. Then at the end she wrote something like “The tone and manner in which you’ve written is unprofessional.”

      Anyway, lesson learned. There’s absolutely no room for humor in legal writing.

      Thanks for the well wishes on NaNoWriMo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Elyse says:

        exactly! When I was a paralegal — with a lot of writing to be done in those days, I had a boss just like that. In fact, she wouldn’t crack a smile for half the time I worked for her — I worked for her for 10 years!

        Now I work in medico-legal, and you have to laugh some times. Or cry. We just have to keep it out of the writing …


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