How to Write Humor
by Jim Foreman




The humor writer is very fortunate in the fact that there are almost no limitations to the subject matter which the editor of a general market publication will consider in the way of humor. The readership of these magazines is usually so widely varied that there will always be some group of people to whom any subject will appeal. But since these publications are usually family oriented, one should stay squeaky-clean when it comes to the use of obscenity, profanity and vulgarity. These three words are not synonymous by any means but they are all taboo in most general interest publications. Even though references to sex are becomming rather common these days, one would be much better off to steer clear of it in these articles.

It would probably not be fruitful to try to sell something which used farmers as the butt of the story to a farm magazine. But by the same token, such a story would probably find easy acceptance in one of the many urban publications where most of their readers already think that farmers are a little on the dense side. If it is a really good story, you could probably turn it around to make the farmer the hero instead of the one who takes the verbal pratfalls. In some special cases, it might be possible to make a joke out of the less than urbane lifestyle of the farmer as long you let him retain his dignity and superiority.

To illustrate how this can be done, here is a story about a salesman who became lost while was driving through the country. As he drove along a country road, he saw a farmer leaning against a fence and decided to stop and ask him for directions. As he approached the farmer, he noticed two boys in the field behind the fence. The larger boy had a rope around the neck of a huge hog and the smaller boy was carrying a basket. The hog would waddle along, sniff the ground and root something up with its snout.

The larger boy would tug on the rope and pull the hog back while the smaller boy grabbed what the hog had turned up and put it into the basket. The salesman watched while this happened two or three times and finally asked the farmer,

"What on earth are those boys doing?"

"Diggin' taters," replied the farmer.

"Doesn't it take a lot of time to do it that way?" asked the salesman.

"What's time to a hog?" replied the farmer.

While some people might say that this story is putdown to both farmers and salesmen by playing on their individual lifestyles, it still allows them to retain their dignity. The story would lose all meaning if either was left as a nebulous character because everyone associates a laid-back lifestyle with farmers and being lost with salesmen. I've sold this same story a number of times, including both farming and marketing magazines, and to my knowledge it has never provoked a hostile letter. You can rest assured that if someone sends the editor a nasty letter about something which you have written, he will see to it that you get a copy. Worse still, he might even put it in the "Letters to the Editor" column of the next issue of the magazine. In the event that an editor should decide to publish a critical letter about something which you have written, it is much better to simply ignore it and not respond through the magazine as that will probably accomplish nothing except shake more nuts out of the trees.

When writing general interest humor, it is best if you can stay completely away from mentioning any particular category of people unless it is absolutely essential to the outcome of the story. It seems that we live in a society where everyone is just waiting for a chance to claim that they have been libeled and sue someone. In addition to the litigious element, there is another cluster of nuts who love to pick apart everything they read so they can object to some part of it. Change that story about the farmer and salesman around to a black man and an Indian and no editor in his right mind would touch it for fear of the flood of mail and lawsuits from both races.

One thing which always impressed me about Indians is that they never seem to get lost, or at least they never admit it. There is the story about the cowboy who was riding across the range when he came upon an Indian standing atop a small hill, shading his eyes and looking off into the distance.

"What's the matter, Chief? Are you lost?" asked the cowboy.

"Me not lost," replied the Indian. "Teepee lost!"

Come to think of it, while Indians certainly have a sense of humor, they aren't a very funny race of people. A cartoonist and I came up with a great idea for a cartoon about Indians. It was a cartoon depicting a doctor looking into an Indian Chief's mouth and telling him, "Say Ugh." It was sold to one of the rather high-scale magazine around in those days and republished as one of their best cartoons of the year.

We thought that it was such a great idea that we decided to use it as the basis for a whole book of cartoons about Indians. I began to research the subject for more ideas but the deeper that I dug, the more convinced I became that Indians aren't basically a funny race of people. Naturally, we could have done a bunch of degrading ethnic cartoons using Indians as the butt of the jokes, but since that was not our intention, we scrapped the whole idea.

In writing for the general markets, one should avoid using any form of inside humor. By this, I mean that there should be no jokes which would be understood only by a particular group of readers. No matter how funny a golfing story might be to golfers, unless it could be appreciated by everyone else, best file that story away for use in an article which you plan to sell to a specific publication, such as Golfing Digest. Many times, I will be writing a general interest article and come up with an idea which will be the basis for a special interest story. By the same token, it is possible to write a general interest piece and find that it has appeal to some special interest group.

I once wrote a story called, "Clyde, The Oil-Sniffing Dog" for one of the in-flight airline magazines. It was about this character from back in the oil-boom days of the Panhandle of Texas who claimed that he had a dog which could sniff the ground and tell if there was oil under it. For a fee, which increased rapidly from a few dollars to several hundred for a sniff job, this man would rent out Clyde's magic nose to sniff a prospective well site so the wildcatters would know whether the well was going to be a dry hole or a gusher. Clyde would sniff around for a bit and if there was oil under the ground, he would begin to bark and run in circles. When he located the best spot to drill, he set down and begin to howl.

The man who owned Clyde soon became far wealthier than did most of the wildcatters who had paid the high fees for Clyde's services, especially when many of the wells failed to produce oil according to Clyde's predictions. Before long, some of the drillers who had paid for a sniff job began to question whether Clyde really knew what he was barking about.

One day one of the wildcatters went by to hire Clyde to do a sniff job for him, only to find that the owner had left town, leaving the old dog asleep under the porch. The man decided that since Clyde's owner was no longer around, he would take the dog to the location to see if he would sniff for him. When they arrived, Clyde sniffed around for a few minutes then headed for a shady spot to go to sleep. The man was about to give up when he happened to take off his hat to wipe perspiration from his brow.

Clyde immediately launched into his act, sniffing the ground and running in circles. When the man replaced his hat, Clyde sat down and began to howl. The man tried the hat trick several more times and Clyde responded the same each time, divulging the fact that they had all been swindled by a trained dog which couldn't tell the difference between crude oil from cow manure.

About a month after the article was published, I received a letter which had been written to me in care of the editor of the airline magazine. It was from the editor of a magazine published by the Independent Oil Producers Association. He stated that he had read my article while riding on the airline and wanted to buy the right to reprint the story in his magazine. Since I had sold only first publication rights to the airline magazine, I was able to sell the story to him. As it turned out, he paid me considerably more for reprinting the story than I had received for it the first time.

One of the best ways to come up with ideas for articles is from reading what others have written and sold. I'm not suggesting that you steal the article and rewrite it under your name, but it is not unusual for me to get an idea of a situation which would have improved the story that I'm reading. I jot it down in my notes for future reference. From time to time, I will go through those notes to see if any of the twigs might bear fruit. Often, those little bits of humor will turn into short pieces for markets like Readers Digest, Esquire and other magazines which use quips or single paragraph articles. Those notes are also a gold mine when I begin to put together ideas for cartoon gags, but that is covered in a separate chapter.

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