How to Write Humor
by Jim Foreman




Writing gags for cartoonists is a whole different bucket of worms than writing humor for publication. First of all, you will have to come up with ideas which will not only appeal to the ultimate cartoon editor, but ones which will also excite the interest of the artist sufficiently enough for him to invest his time and effort to draw them. After all, it usually takes the cartoonist a lot longer to draw the cartoon than it did for you to think of it and then he has to find a market for it.

There are two ways to go at this rather offbeat part of the business of writing humor. By far the best way is to work directly with a cartoonist in face to face gag sessions in which the two of you will kick around ideas until you come up with something which he feels that he can successfully draw and sell. Unfortunately, few of us live near Laguna Beach, California where the most of today's top selling cartoonists happen to reside. Jot down the names of the artists whose cartoons appear in most of the major publications and you will likely find about half a dozen of them having breakfast together each Saturday morning in a nondescript little restaurant just around the corner off the beach highway. Not only do they use those Saturday morning meetings to exchange ideas and recharge their creative batteries, but it is also the place where they held a raucous wake for the famous Virgil Partch after he was killed in an automobile accident.

The most common method of working with cartoonists is by mail, but that is rather impersonal. I've written gags for a couple cartoonists for the past fifteen years but have never met either of them. In fact, I have spoken only once on the phone with one of them and that was when we were trying to chase down some gags which had been lost in the mail. We never found them which is a good reason why one should never mail the only copy that he has of something.

The accepted standard for mail correspondence with a cartoonist is via 3 X 5 file cards. Another standard is the number of gags sent in a batch is always 10. Most likely the reason for this is because that is the maximum number of cards which can be mailed with a single stamp. Ten is also about all the gags which the cartoonist can give consideration to at one time. The form used for gags is simple and straight forward. Your name and address go in the upper left corner and you can include an identifying number for the gag in the upper right corner. The idea for the cartoon is typed in lower case and the caption is all capitals. Nothing else is needed on the card. Naturally, a self-addressed, stamped return envelope is always included if you expect to get them back.

When the cartoonist receives a batch, he will look them over and if any of them look interesting, he will hold those cards and return the rest. He will draw up your ideas, along with others which he might have, and mail them off to magazine cartoon editors where he feels that they might find a home. When the magazine buys a cartoon and sends him a check, he will send you 25% of what he received for the cartoon, along with your original gag card showing the date and name of the magazine which bought it.

There is an almost total separation of church and state when it comes to dealings between cartoonists and gag writers. The gag writer never, never tells the artist how to draw the cartoon! He should never tell the artist what a certain character in the cartoon should look like unless it is absolutely essential to the gag. Finally, the fastest way to get the artist to send your batch back by the same postman who delivered them is to tell him to draw a man with a silly look on his face or a kid with a dumb smile. If such a look or expression is necessary to carry the punchline, then the artist will know how to draw it without being told.

There are two basic types of cartoons. The most popular with the artist is the captionless variety in which the entire story is carried by the cartoon. He likes this type of cartoon because it allows him to use his creative talents and not have to depend on the crutch of a punchline to carry the story. Here are a few examples of gags which are self sustaining and need no captions.

Jim Foreman

Lineman up pole looking down at beaver chewing it off at the base.


Jim Foreman

Man in very low sports car, looking at a very big dog standing beside him and rapidly rolling up his window

The second type of gag is one in which the drawing establishes the situation and the caption or punchline carries the humor. They still have to work together or the whole idea is lost. You have to depend of the talents of the artist to establish the storyline to make the humor work, otherwise one could simply draw stick figures with funny captions. Unfortunately, in some of the magazines which use only bottom of the trash can type cartoons, the captions have to carry the whole load. By trash can cartoons, I mean those which have been out several times and the cartoonist is about ready to toss them in the trash, but decided to send them off to one of those checkout stand rags which pay only there to five bucks for them.

Some people would say that people who write cartoon gags must have a rather warped sense of humor. I suppose that we do but it's a dirty job and someone has to do it. In fact, it is often the most bizarre ideas which bear the fruit. It usually takes a certain amount of really off-the-wall ideas to get the creative juices flowing enough to let you come up with something really worthwhile. In group gag writing, these sessions where we really get silly are referred to as mental enemas because they get the crap out of your mind so you can begin to think productively.

There are two ways to go at getting ideas for gags. A lot of them come to me as I go through my usual daily activities. If you develop the habit of looking at everything in life as a possible cartoon, almost anything might trigger your funny bone. Since I lack a photographic memory, I always carry a notebook with me and jot down ideas as they pop into my mind. In fact, typing that last sentence just gave me an idea for a gag.

Jim Foreman

Courtroom scene. Man on witness stand and sexy woman at the defense table. Witness is saying,


Back to what I was saying about collecting ideas as we go through our daily lives. You need to develop a certain cartoon sense which gives you the ability to look at even the most mundane subjects in the light of a cartoon. It can be something as simple as seeing a policeman writing a traffic ticket to a little old lady.

Jim Foreman

Little old lady in car to traffic officer writing ticket.


Everyday jobs can lead the mind of a cartoon thinker down strange pathways. Just think of the possibilities offered in the most commonplace occupations. Then there are those special occupations which lend themselves so easily to cartoons. The ideas for these are endless. Used car salesmen, school teachers, prison wardens and policemen come immediately to mind.

There are also thousands of possibilities in talking animals, especially when endowed with human traits or weaknesses. Everyone knows that animals never talk except in cartoons. It's an easy twist for something which is commonplace with humans to be really funny when applied to animals.

Jim Foreman

Two toads under a bug zapper with dead bug falling toward them.
One toad says to the other,


Or, if you a person with a really sick mind, how about this twist to this gag.

Jim Foreman

Prison warden, priest and prisoner walking into execution chamber. Instead of an electric chair, there is a huge bug zapper.

Second only to talking animals, children can be a limitless source of ideas for cartoons. They are so free and uninhibited that countless ideas will flow from their mouths. They are especially famous for getting well known phrases turned around or for mixing up words.

Jim Foreman

Lady and young girl in car. Sign ahead says, Road closed, barricades ahead. Little girl is saying,


When you run out of inspired ideas, it is time for you to get down to the real job of writing humor by coming up with good gags from scratch. Writing cartoon gags can be approached from either end, that is from the punchline or from the situation.

Working from the punchline is usually a bit more difficult for most people because they are used to seeing the drawing first and then reading the punchline. One good way to work from the punchline is to pick an old saying or trite expression like, "Give me your money or I'll..." I kicked that around for a few minutes and came up with this gag after remembering something which I had seen on the evening news. They were reporting a holdup at a liquor store and in the background was a guy with one of those huge radios on his shoulder.

Jim Foreman

Liquor store. Man with huge radio on his shoulder, to clerk:


The alternate path to a gag is from the situation. I'm sure that all of you have seen those contests where there is a cartoon and you write the punchline. Some of those cartoons are rather obvious while others may be nothing more than two people talking. As an example, let's take the idea of a cartoon of a sailing ship in rough water. This offers many possibilities. Let's try a few.

Sailing ship in rough water. Captain at wheel to passenger who is heaving over the rail.

You can start out by writing all sorts of gag lines and then throw out those which aren't funny. An example,




This is how I'd rate those three punchlines. The first one belongs in the trash. The second might go to a sailing magazine while the last one would probably sell to just about any general interest magazine.

Another way to inspire yourself is to do a bunch of What-If's. What if this was the situation, what if this was happening, what if something was this way. There are also those what-if's for the deep thinkers like, what if a tree fell and there was no one to hear it, would there still be a crash. There are only a few of these deep psychological questions but there must be thousands of wha-if's for the humorist. The possibilities are endless.

What if your yogurt spoiled, how could you tell.

What if your knees bent the other way, what would chairs look like.

What if cats weren't ambidextrous, how would they wash the other side of their face.

What if girls wore both patent leather panties and patent leather shoes, what would you see when you looked at their feet.

What if dogs could talk. What would poodles say about their hair cuts. Would other dogs think that they belonged to some strange religious cult?

Start working on your own list of what if's and pretty soon you will start to come up with some really good cartoon ideas.

One of the best things about gag writing is the fact that you can write something in a minute or two and be finished with it. If you decide that after it has fermented for a few days, it has turned into vinegar instead of fine wine, then you haven't invested or wasted much time on it. Finally, with most of the better markets paying anywhere between two and four hundred dollars for each cartoon that they use, your 25% is pretty good income for the amount of time that is required to come up with most gags.

On the down side, the average gag writer will get a cartoonist to hold and draw only one out of about every ten gags that he sends him. The average cartoonist will sell about half of what he draws up and some of those will finally have been dumped into the $10.00 market after they made the rounds of the big magazines. Other than the commission check, the only thing that the gag writer gets is bragging rights because his name never appears on the finished cartoon.

One of the main reasons why I occasionally resort to gag writing is that, like everyone else, I simply go dry. When this happens, I get out the three by five cards and write a few gags. It gets my creative juices flowing and that is what humor writing is all about. You never know when a cartoon idea will trigger a story or even a book.

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