How to Write Humor
by Jim Foreman




Remember the good old days in the movies when two people of the opposite sex were in bed together, both had to be dressed in pajamas and each had to have one foot on the floor, on opposite sides of the bed. Remember how shocked the audience was when they first heard someone say "virgin" on the screen and how Boston and several other cities banned "Gone With The Wind" because it contained the phrase, "Frankly, I don't give a damn." Remember when Jack Paar quit in a huff after his joke about a water closet was bleeped out by the network censors.

Remember when George Carlin did his famous skit based on the seven dirty words which you can't say on TV on the Johnny Carson show and what ruckus it raised. Well let me tell you that things have changed a lot since then!

They are now showing bedroom scenes on the daytime soaps which a few years ago would have been seen only on closed circuit TV in motels with colorful names like, "The Pink Panther" or "The Blue Fox Inn." I'm beginning to believe that most soaps have only two sets, a bedroom and the kitchen, and from what goes on in both of them, those are totally interchangeable. There are so many hells, damns and other four letter words in the script any more that it won't be long before the famous "F" word will become commonplace. Is it any wonder why the average six year old of today has the vocabulary of a drunken sailor.

I mentioned earlier that the Los Angeles Times STYLEBOOK says that Obscenity, Profanity and Vulgarity are by no means synonymous. According to those editors, "Obscenity refers to words or acts which are offensive to one's feelings or to prevailing notions of modesty. Another definition is simply something disgusting or repulsive." What is offensive, disgusting or repulsive to one person might not be to another. The Supreme Court, with all of its collective legal knowledge, can't seem to agree on what constitutes obscenity.

"Profanity refers to the showing of disrespect or contempt of sacred things: irreverence." Some people see everything as being profane while others consider nothing sacred.

"Vulgarity is the state of being vulgar, crude, coarse, unrefined, boorish, indecent or obscene." This seems to cover all bases not touched by the first two words, including discharges of intestinal gas. But the thing which bothers me is why people will pardon themselves when they belch yet they laugh when they fart?

Clearly there is some overlapping between the words but basically it can be said that most words or phrases with sexual connotation are considered obscene, those with religious connotation are considered profane, and those with an excremental connotation are simply vulgar.

What this all means is that in today's society, if one is so inclined, he can get away with writing just about anything that he can spell. However, I for one, believe that any writer worth publishing should have an adequate way with words which allows him to express his thoughts in much more socially acceptable language. Our craft is built on words and with those words, we should be able to paint mental pictures of what we want to say without having to resort to gutter language.

About the only time when unsavory language may logically be used is when writing dialogue for some character who is so base, so crude and so vulgar that it is not only logical, but it is what one would expect him to be saying. Even then, it is often preferable to simply describe how he talks and what he might be saying rather than putting a lot of four letter words inside quotation marks. A good illustration of this is how I described the language of a six year old. I did it by transferring the reader's mind to people who are famous for swearing instead of actually spelling out what some foul-mouthed kid might be saying.

While vulgarity and obscenity might be running amok in today's writing, we can take some solace in the fact that profanity is still an area which has yet to find favor in print. While there are plenty anti-religious jokes going around, at least they haven't found much of a market in published form. In fact, even the slightest reference to the deity can cause such terror into the hearts of most editors that they often pass up good humor which might otherwise be totally acceptable. The only cartoon that I can remember which poked fun at God was published in Look magazine many years ago. It was a operating room scene with several doctors standing around a patient and two nurses talking. One of the doctors had a glow around him. One nurse saying to the other, "That's God. He thinks that he is a doctor."

I understand that the magazine got a load of hate mail about that cartoon. They tried to placate the upset readers by publishing an apology and firing the cartoon editor who accepted it. I wish that I had thought of that gag, it was a gem.

I've participated in the sport of flying sailplanes for a number of years and in the course of this involvement, am an occasional contributor to their national magazine, SOARING. In addition to general articles on safety, training or glider performance, I would occasionally receive an assignment to cover a national contest or event. I received such an assignment from the editor who asked if I would provide him with an article about the annual Taos Soaring Fiesta, one of the best known social and non-competitive events in the sport.

I was collecting notes in order to write what was going to be just another one of those rather boring articles about Joe flying this far and Sam going so high until one evening when we were gathered around the motel pool for a wine and cheese party. I'm not really sure how it came about, but one of the pilots told a story about soaring with an eagle at 18,000 feet and how the eagle seemed to have a pissed look on his face because he was in his thermal. This seed sprouted and grew into the following article which defies every canon of humor. I knew better but I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me and wrote a humorous article about God. Not only did I involve God in the humor, I also brought him down from his omniscience and gave him human qualities and emotions. As a final stroke of blasphemy, I gave the story a biblical title and form.

Since I was writing the article for a very specialized market, it contains a lot of inside humor and soaring terminology which few people other than glider pilots will recognize. In spite of this specialization, I'm sure that any reader will get the basic gist of the humor.

Never Start A Fight With The Boss

By: Jim Foreman

It is written that God created the earth with its mountains and streams. When he was finished, he stepped back to admire his work and found that he had created a tiny valley in northern New Mexico which was so small that it would serve no apparent purpose at all. Since everything which God creates has a purpose, he said, "I will call this place Taos and it will be the home for the Hopi and the Hippie (or something to that effect). I will give the eagle dominion over the valley and provide strong thermal currents so he can soar high in the sky to watch over his domain. I will send people called tourists each summer to provide food and clothing for the Hopi and the Hippie. In the winter, I will cause snow to fall upon the mountains to attract people from the land of the Tejas to come and play." When God found that the Tejas people played foolishly in the snow and broke their bones, he created orthopedic surgeons and Mercedes automobiles.

Time passed and the tourists came each summer and the Tejas people came each winter and the eagle soared high. All was well. Then, at the summer solstice, when the Hopi dance to corn and the Hippie smoke strange plants rolled in Zig-Zag papers, the eagle observed an unusual band of tourists arriving in the valley. Each one was dragging a large white cocoon behind his automobile. The eagle watched in awe as the cocoons went through a metamorphosis and sleek birds with long wings emerged from them. Some of these birds were made of glass from the sands, others were made from metals from the mountains and a few were of wood from the forests. The eagle laughed, "Look at those silly birds with only one foot as they lean on a wing to keep from falling over."

Then to his amazement, one by one, these new birds began to take flight, being towed aloft by clinging to a rope attached to the tail of smaller roaring birds bearing the mark of a young bear. When they would reach a certain height, they would release from the Cub-birds and begin to circle in the eagle's thermal, joining him in soaring flight.

"I will climb so high that they cannot follow," thought the eagle as he beat his wings against the thin air. But up and up climbed the new birds until they were mere specks high in the sky. This was just too much for the eagle to accept, so he called on God to rid the sky of these new birds.

"God, strange new soaring birds have invaded my sky. They are much larger than I, each one carries a tourist in its beak and they can fly as high as the clouds, or at least to 18,000 feet. I might be able to drive one of them away, but there must be 30 of them up there right now. Besides, they have at least 20 points better L/D than what you gave me and they can climb right through me."

God replied, "I can't have something like this happen to my eagle! I will stamp my feet to raise a cloud of dust to blind them, I'll bring down rain to wet their wings so they cannot fly, and I'll blow great winds to destroy the birds and dry the throats of the tourists who brought them to this valley." And did he ever!

The next afternoon, the eagle squawked at God, "They are back! They are back! They are in my sky right now! You didn't do any good at all yesterday! The tourists simply lashed the birds to the ground so they would not blow away, they washed the dust from their bodies in pools of water at the places where tourists stay, and they quenched their thirsts with bottles of Rocky Mountain Spring Water, brewed with your finest barley and hops."

God was really steamed at the eagle's report, so this day he danced even faster, brought down a deluge of rain and blew with all his might, directly across the runway on which the birds would have to alight. But alas, his efforts were of no avail because the strange new birds, with the strong winds in their faces, were able to land across the runway with almost no forward motion at all. As soon as they touched their foot to the ground, a horde of tourists would rush to their aid and keep them from being blown away until they could be lashed to the ground or returned to their cocoons.

The third day came and the eagle screamed at God, "You really blew it again yesterday! Can't you do anything right? Those birds are back in my sky again."

God replied, "Eagle, I've been observing these new birds and they seem to be nice enough. None of them have attacked you, they don't eat your rabbits and they don't pollute the sky; so what's your beef?"

"But," protested the eagle, "they can fly higher and faster than what you made me able to do. I heard that one of them flew ten thousand zeolups (that's eagle talk for about 500 kilometers) around a triangle using Villa Grove and Espanola as turnpoints. It would take me three days to make such a flight and the tourist in its beak had flown only 30 hours in those soaring birds. When I had that little flying time, I did well to keep from falling off my perch when I landed. And, what is even worse, the bird that he made the flight in is called a Zuni, not even a Hopi or Hippie that you created this valley for."

By this time, God was getting rather ticked at the eagle and said, "Eagle, you are always bitching about something. First it was that the rabbits I provided were too small and hard to catch, so I made them grow fatter and run slower; then it was about being bored, so I furnished you with a mate, but you said that she was a nag; and now it is about these new birds. What does it take to keep you happy?"

The eagle whined, "It's just not right. You made me and people with funny names made those other birds. Besides, they are much better at soaring than I am. Am I a factory reject or just another one of your stupid mistakes?"

God replied, "You are no factory reject and I don't make mistakes."

"How about the size of avocado seed?" snapped the eagle.

"Don't get on my case about the size of avocado seed," roared God. "I get enough static about that from the guacamole people. Besides, I think that they are just the right size."

"If avocados were as big as watermelons!" retorted the eagle.

"That does it!" thundered God, adding a lightning bolt for punctuation. "One more word and you'll spend the rest of your life as a turkey, you arrogant bag of feathers. I don't care if you are a national symbol, go eat a lizard!"

The eagle flew off to the top of Wheeler peak to sulk, God took the rest of the week off and the new birds flew and flew. A great time was had by the tourists, the Hopi and the Hippie prospered and all was well.

I had more fun with that story than any that I had written in years. I fired it off to the editor and less than a week later, received his rather caustic reply.

Dear Jim,

You've got to be kidding! I wouldn't publish that thing for all the tea in China. It's downright sacrilegious. If I ran that story, I'd get a ton of mail and lose my job for sure. Send me something that I can print or else forget it!


As soon as my knuckles stopped smarting, I sat down at my typewriter and made him happy by cranking out the usual six manuscript pages of journalistic pap about Joe flying this far and Sam going so high. It was published in the next issue of the magazine but I doubt that many people read it.

About four years passed and I had all but forgotten about that story until one morning when the phone rang. The person on the other end of the line said that he was the new editor of SOARING Magazine and while going through some old files, had come across something which I had written called "A Parable". He said that it was the funniest story about soaring that he had ever read and asked if he had my permission to have it professionally illustrated and run it. Naturally, I agreed.

After being published in the US, it was reprinted in both the British and Australian gliding magazines, and after being translated, it was published in the German Soaring Magazine. A year later, it received the annual Joseph Lincoln Memorial Award for the best published book or article on soaring.

The former editor proved to be correct to a certain extent in his prediction that it would provoke protest mail. I anticipated a nasty letter of some sort from the Taos Chamber of Commerce about my Hippie reference because they were doing everything possible to disassociate themselves from the rather large hippie community that had sprung up near there, but never heard a word from them. The only negative letter that the magazine forwarded to me was from someone in Kentucky with three first names who signed it with the title of "Reverend." The letter began, "THOU SHALT NOT USE GOD'S NAME IN VAIN!" He even drew three lines under that admonition. His diatribe continued for four single-spaced pages explaining that God was far too serious a subject to be used in humor and that my only hope to escape His wrath was to get down on my knees and beg to be forgiven for my journalistic sins. He ended his sermon with a final warning, "God is almighty and far too serious to think that anything is funny."

I answered the letter from the Reverend with three first names as nicely as possible. I thanked him for taking the time to write about my article but I felt that God must have a sense of humor and enjoyed a good joke, otherwise he would never have created cherry tomatoes.

In the good old days of Black and White TV, announcers weren't even allowed to uncork a bottle of beer on camera, much less take a swig of it. This has also changed.

While good old JR Ewing can swill down one Bourbon and Branch after another and former ball players have shouting matches as to whether a certain beer tastes better or is less filling, the mere mention of booze in a humorous article will often provoke letters of protest. The fellow writer who I mentioned earlier, Andy Anderson, writes a monthly column called Back Roads for MotorHome Magazine. It is without a doubt, one of the more popular articles in the whole magazine.

Andy had written a book a few years back, called The_Two_Ton Albatross, which was a story about retiring from the Air Force and pulling a travel trailer from Washington DC to California via the Canadian Transcontinental Highway. He uses some of the great stories from the book as a basis for some of his monthly articles. Most of the stories began after he had stopped for the night, settled the trailer into a parking spot and was relaxing a bit while waiting for Big Red, his wife, to prepare dinner. He usually referred to having a "Dollop of Scotch" while he wandered about the camp searching out the strange and interesting creatures or characters which he always seemed to be able to find.

After about the third monthly article in which he mentioned having a drink was published, several rather critical letters appeared in the "Letters to the Editor" column about Andy's stories. One of the writers referred to his "unusual preoccupation with drinking hard liquor" while another asked if all retired Air Force Officers were drunkards and the third berated the editor for allowing such unwholesome references to mixing of alcohol and recreational vehicles to be published. Andy's great stories continue to be published each month, but he has dropped all references to drinking.

Unless drinking is a vital part of the plot or situation, a humor writer would probably be better served to simply leave any such reference completely out of the story. If it is an integral part of the story, he should keep the hero stone sober and leave the boozing up to the town drunk. It seems that when it comes to readers, there are far more Blue Nose Zealots than people with a sense of humor, or perhaps they are simply more vocal.

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