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Four Commandments to Writing Funny

Exciting news! This week we’re cancelling our normal broadcasting to bring you a series about humor writing. I’ve roped some of the funniest writers and bloggers I know into teaching us all how to make people laugh with our writing. It’s going to be awesome!

Today’s lesson comes from Paul Angone, author and blogger at All Groan Up (puns—humor lesson numero uno), where he writes about the joys and miseries of being part of Gen Y. If you want to get to know him better (I do), follow him on Twitter (@PaulAngone) or like All Groan Up on Facebook. Take it away, Paul!

Paul Angone All Groan Up

I can’t force funny. Like trying to trim the nails of an alley cat, every time I try and make funny do exactly as I say, I get clawed.

When I write, my core goal is not to be funny; my goal is to tell the truth in an entertaining way. If that happens by way of funny, then hot damn! Call me a blend of Owen Wilson and Conan O’Brien in blog form. I won’t stop you.

Even though I try not to force funny, when analyzing my writing process, I definitely employ some strategies (daresay, commandments) to allow funny the space to breathe—if it in fact wishes to come to life.

My Four Commandments to Writing Funny

1. Thou Shalt Not Worry About Offending

First and most important, if you’re overly concerned about what others will think, don’t try your hand at funny. Senses of humor are like living room couches: everyone has a different opinion on what should be sitting in the middle of the room.

Sure, stay true to your voice and integrity. Don’t write purely to shock. But you’re going to receive those emails from your classmate in 7th grade, who you haven’t talked to since, writing to tell you that your line about escaping R.E.A.S (Rapidly Expanding Ass Syndrome) was morally offensive. It’s going to happen.

I struggle mightily with this commandment, as I have this nagging issue that I want everyone to like me. But is my commitment to telling truth in an entertaining way or is it to the web-lurkers who only throw grenades, then hide?

2. Thou Shalt Pay Attention to the Mundane

Jerry Seinfield wasn’t funny because he could do impersonations, or was overly animated or creative. He was funny because he told the truth about the mundane. He touched on those taboo simple subjects that we all experience but don’t realize. Tapping into shared experiences is important when writing, but even more so when writing humor. Because you’ll always get a bigger laugh when people are thinking, gosh that’s so freaking true.

3. Thou Shalt Take Clichés to Extremes

My wife suggested to me that I write an article about staying healthy while working in an office. Well, we’ve all read that article a thousand times before. So I decided to take that cliche article and write Eight Creative Ways to Lose Weight in the Cubicle where I encouraged readers to engage in Butt-Clinch Pick-Up-Pens and King of the Cubicle.

Or when there was report after report about the Occupy Movement marching on streets all over the nation, I wrote Occupy Marches on Sesame Street—twentysomething angst taking on the puppets who lied to them first.

Taking cliches to the extreme is the bedrock to satire.

4. Thou Shalt Use Metaphors and Similes Like the Bubonic Plague

(First, see Commandments 1 and 3.)

Metaphors and similes are to funny as Hugh Grant is to romantic comedy.

Instead of writing, “he ran really fast,” why not write, “he ran like a 14-year-old who just walked in on his parents doing the horizontal hula dance”?

Very rarely does a creative simile or metaphor make something less funny.

What other strategies do you use when writing humor?

PRACTICE

Let’s practice the fourth commandment. Take one of these three samples below, turn it into a funny metaphor or simile, and post it into the comments.

She was as sick as…
He was taller than…
She relaxed like…

Funniest one, as voted by the readers, will win 100% legit blog-cred.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://cherionethingivelearned.blogspot.com/ Cheri Gregory

    Hyperbole: It’s THE. BEST. THING. EVER!

    I might have stolen that from a Tshirt.

    But I’m part Armenian, and my father’s family rule is “Never ruin a good story with the facts.”

    Now my mother is full-blooded German, and her family rule is to tell the truth, the whole truth, the documentable-with-photographs-and-videotapes truth, or you’ll end up some place God can not possibly help you. (Besides, according to her grace-filled family wisdom, He only helps those who help themselves until they’re no longer fogging a mirror.)

    Listening to my parents relate an incident was a comedy form all its own:

    Daddy: “Last Thursday…”

    Mother: “HARvey, it was Wednesday…”

    Daddy: “We stopped by Safeway to pick up some corn…”

    Mother: (sighs) “Albertsons…for stewed tomatoes…”

    Daddy: (increases volume and gestures) “When who do you think we ran into?”

    Mother: (rolls eyes) “How are they supposed to know? They weren’t there. And we didn’t run into anyone. Now they’re going to start a rumor that we were in a car accident…”

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      “Never ruin a good story with the facts.” That’s the BEST. PHRASE. EVER!!!! :).

      Thanks Cheri

      • Marianne Vest

        Agreed! That was funny with the stage directions inside of the parenthesis too.

    • Leejamesmurray

      For the longest time I thought ‘hyperbole’ was pronounced “hyper-bowl.’ I was disappointed to discover that the true meaning had nothing to do with a locally owned chain of mediocre neon-lit bowling alleys throughout the Mahoning valley. Disappointed. 

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        I used to think that too, Lee! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

  • http://www.writingstraight.com/ Holly Michael

    Hilarious! I’m a twitter follower too! Thanks for this inspiring and funny post.

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Thanks Holly! We all need a little kick-in-the-inspiration on a Monday, that’s for sure

  • Robert

    She was as sick as a teetotaller who’s just downed a bottle of the hard stuff.
    He was taller than Goliath’s tall cousin.
    She relaxed like a wet towal thrown down in a heap.

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Ha! Nice work Robert. I like Goliath’s tall cousin. Great instant picture

  • http://lauraplusthevoices.blogspot.com/ Laura W.

    Alliteration = good for humor. :) Case in point: “the horizontal hula.” There’s something about the way words sound that can be inherently funny.

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      So true Laura and “funny” you pointed that line out as I actually had it written differently, but changed it last minute. A simple tweak of one word takes a simple phrase and turns it into word-magic

  • Ashley Fritz

    “He was taller than a cockroach at the bug ball,
    which needless to say, wasn’t very tall at all.”

    Crap I made it rhyme. xD
    And Cheri, I’ve just officially decided, your parents are awesome. ^_^ Three thumbs up.

    • http://cherionethingivelearned.blogspot.com/ Cheri Gregory

      And I’m in awe: a metaphor within a couplet!

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        Agreed. So cool.

    • Yvette Carol

      Ashley, despite its rhyming fruitiness it’s still cute as all out. And I agree with you about Cheri’s parents. What a hoot. I actually did laugh out loud again!

  • http://www.facebook.com/megan.a.atkinson Megan Atkinson

    Alliteration is a favorite of mine, for sure. I also love to use self-deprecating pokes when telling an embarrassing story – i.e. “Adventures of the Kitchen-Illiterate” on Paul’s blog. :) I’m not a humorist by any stretch of the imagination but I am a storyteller by verbal nature – and the rules generally translate across platforms! Stellar post, Paul!

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Thanks Megan. Great point. Anytime personal stories can be used and tied into a collective narrative — that’s good writing, no matter what the angle.

  • http://calebmcnary.com/ Caleb McNary

    Great thoughts, I’ve found that it is extremely difficult to translate wit to the page. Funny turns of phrase are easier verbally than they are written, and it really makes you appreciate people like Twain and C.S. Lewis who could do it almost effortlessly. It is important to realize that it took your whole life to be able to be witty in conversation, so it will take just as long to learn how to do it in writing. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://kristiandbrock.blogspot.com Kristi Boyce

    She was as sick as a mother at a shotgun wedding.

    He was taller than Yao Ming in stilettos.

    She relaxed like a sloth on its off-day.

    ***

    I also thing really BAD similes are funny. In light of that:

    She was as sick as a politician who’d just woken up in his hotel room with a woman in his bed–a woman who wasn’t his wife–only to find that he’d missed his wife’s text from 30 minutes ago saying “Hey, I’m stopping by your hotel room in thirty-one minutes.”

    He was taller than K2, which isn’t the highest mountain in the world, but it’s still up there.

    She relaxed like a bee who’d just stung a small boy and realized it was going to die because it lost its stinger in the boy and with it a part of its digestive tract so in light of imminent death it decided to just lay low for a few hours.

    • Marianne Vest

      That’s really good.

    • http://bikerider.Writing.Com/ Angelo Dalpiaz

      Wouldn’t that be–As sick as a soon-to-be-HUSBAND at a shotgun wedding?

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Haha… Had me LOL-ing a few times there. That’s similes on steroids! Nicely done Kristi.

  • Oddznns

    Hi there Paul, thank you for posting here.

    This is so not my forte … but, hey! its a site for practice. Here goes –

    She was as sick as Charlie had been after he’d come out of surgery after they took out his balls, all woozy and shaky legged with his side vision blinded by that enormous no-scratch collar. But hey, wasn’t this what she always wanted? To be a real girl!

    He was taller than her ten year old brother, that was all; a spunky little bantam spoiling for a fight.

    She relaxed like his noodle deflated after it was done, all her stand up and go gone after she’d spat the truth out at him.

    • Marianne Vest

      Those are really great, especially poor Charlie with his no-scratch collar.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Not your forté? I don’t know about that, Audrey. I loved this, “He was taller than her ten year old brother, that was all; a spunky little bantam spoiling for a fight.” The voice, the words, the metaphor. Awesome.

  • Jen Schwab

    She relaxed like Obama’s campaign director after another gaffe from Romney.

    • Jen Schwab

      gah…I thought I hit an erase button.

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        Ha! I thought it was pretty good, Jen. You want me to delete it for you?

  • Jen Schwab

    She relaxed like Obama’s campaign director after another Romney verbal gaffe.

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Ha. Nicely played Jen.

  • Erin

    No, you can’t force funny– and for me, as a pregnancy writer, you REALLY can’t. There’s just nothing funny about pushing a… okay, you get it. Anyway, great post.

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Ha. Thanks Erin. And from a new dad who’s recently experienced the “joys” of childbirth, I really thank you.

  • Yvette Carol

    Thanks for the tips Paul! I did laugh out loud on the metaphor for running fast, you’ll be happy to know.
    My strategies for writing funny? Avoid at all costs! Really. This is why I’m so glad Joe has put up a post like this because I have found comedic moments to be really hard, nigh on impossible, to write. Every time I ‘try’ I fail. I love it when an otherwise serious book has moments that make me laugh. It’s the funny bits that make me fall in love with a book even more. The only times I’ve managed it have been when they’ve happened more or less by accident.
    Anyway thanks for some guidelines….here goes;

    She was as sick as an octopus washed up on the beach

    She relaxed like she was dancing (sitting down) when no one’s watching

    • Yvette Carol

      You see, I still can’t do it!

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Thanks Yvette. Failing repeatedly is definitely key to being funny.

      • Yvette Carol

        Paul…even in your reply you made me LOL! Man, you’ve got it down. I take it you must have failed on an epic scale :-)

        • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

          Ha! For sure. I’ve failed on a few epic scales and then thousands of small ones. But the funniest stories usually involve some of our greatest “failures”

  • Marianne Vest

    This was really hard to do and it didn’t come out very well either.

    he was a sick as Norman Bates and almost as attractive.

    He was taller than twenty skyscrapers piled on on top of another and just as stable.

    She relaxed like the mice will when cats become extinct, which is to say too much, because there are still snakes.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I liked the last one a lot!

      Your similes are as dumb as the IBM computer who beat the grandmaster at chess, which is to say they aren’t.

  • http://bikerider.Writing.Com/ Angelo Dalpiaz

    I think writing comedy is the hardest writing to accomplish. I spent my day trying to come up with a funny simile or metaphor for the practice…as sick as. I couldn’t come up with anything, so now I’m sitting here as sick as…..like I said, I couldn’t come up with anything.

    I know I can’t stand tall if I can’t find anything to write about in this practice, so I’m just going to sit her and relax while I read everyone else’s posts.

  • http://twitter.com/JessVerve Jessica Verve

    “He was taller than a paperclip. There wasn’t much to say about him.”

    *cheesey rim shot* Oh golly. Can I try again?

    “She was taller than a girl in the second row of a Justin Beiber concert.”

    Hey, I tried.

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Haha. Fifth Commandment about Writing Funny — you can’t worry too much about not being funny. Happens to me all the time

      • http://twitter.com/JessVerve Jessica Verve

        Thanks. lol

  • hemsri

    ~ She was sick as a Sea Gull croaking with a fish bone stuck in it’s gullet.
    ~ He was taller in his thoughts and the way he articulated them than all the third rate politicians sitting in the audience.
    ~ She relaxed like a tomcat who had danced all night on a hot tin roof.

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  • http://pearlz.wordpress.com/ Junepaisa99

    I decided to try out your commandments and wrote a blog about the Wet season in North Queensland applying your principles – had an absolute ball writing it.

    She was sick as crocodile with a bad case of indigestion from eating everything on offer on the farm and the veranda

    He was taller in his own mind than the biggest, roundest elephant he had seen on the David Attenborough Documentary last Saturday

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Awesome. I loved the post, June.

      “Have you ever been so wet that your bones need wringing out and you’re sure that you can hear the water wriggling around in there like a case of rather nasty worms, whilst you sleep?”

      No, but I don’t want to be either!

      Brilliant.

  • http://jblearnstowrite.tumblr.com/ JB Lacaden

    Injecting funny to your story is hard (at least for me).

    I agree that you cannot force being funny because it’ll just end up the opposite. I think this is applicable to the other stuff as well whether it be comedy or horror or romance. I think it’s best if it flows naturally because readers will know if something’s forced or not.

    • http://twitter.com/PaulAngone Paul Angone

      Great points JB. These “commandments” definitely cross pollinate with other genres.

  • http://bookechoes.com/ Connie B. Dowell

    She was as sic as quoted typo.

    Cheesy and nerdy at the same time!

  • Jean Mishra

    Here goes:

    She was as sick as a 16-year-old the morning after her first keg party with a purse full of vomit she didn’t remembering making.

    He was taller than Rush Limbaugh’s ego was big. In fact he was so tall I was sure the simple act of standing had to give him nosebleeds.

    She relaxed like a coed with a negative pregnancy test.

  • http://twitter.com/ileandrayoung Ileandra Young

    Hehe, I like funny, but I have trouble with it. Though I do try on occasion.
    For example…
    ‘ahem’
    He was taller than a giraffe in a top hat, balanced precariously on the spike of the empire state building.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      A giraffe in a top hat. Great image.

  • Wanda Kiernan

    It is hard to write funny. I can usually pull it off when I’m talking to people, but writing funny is a whole different story. But in the spirit of this blog, I thought I’d give it a try and practice!

    She was as sick as Grand Pappy Joe was after he found out the hamburger he just ate was made with kangaroo meat.

    He was taller than the seven dwarfs stacked one on top of the other.

    She relaxed like a giant tortoise cooling off in the shade.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ew. Kangaroo meat.

  • Michael Pitman

    She was as sick as a cat gagging on its own hairballs.
    He was taller than a father holding his first-born child for the first time.
    She relaxed like a man taking a crap after taking a box of laxatives.

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  • http://amykeeley.wordpress.com/ Amy Keeley

    I love this! My husband is hilarious. It’s next to impossible for him to say or write anything without sticking something funny in it. And when he’s in a crowd, he’s like Bill Murray in the center of the sanitarium in What About Bob.

    Still, I might as well try.

    She was as sick as a mom who’d just tried her kid’s homemade breakfast in bed.
    He was taller than an elf in sequined platform heels dancing on Stonehenge.
    She relaxed like soggy toast.

  • Leejamesmurray

    He was taller than Michael Phelps standing on a podium. In 2008.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Nice.

  • Ernest

    [how'r these???]

    She was as sick as my uncle Ben after having spent 3 hours on the pot.

    He was taller than the Olsen Twins put together.

    She relaxed like a sloth on pills.

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  • nicson tyler

    I have read so many sites and blogs that doesn’t care about these four rules. I’m planning to put up my dental office marketing site and I will surely include and remember these four rules.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jean.percy Jean Surico Percy

    Funny just happens to me at weird times. Probably due to my fluctuating moods. One day I’ll write like E.A. Poe and the next like Douglas Adams.

    She was as sick as a rhinoceros on a roller coaster.

    He was taller than a midget on a unicycle.

    She relaxed like an erection at a circumcision clinic.

  • Nothing’s Too Personal

    She was as sick as the day before her colonoscopy, when her diet consisted of three large doses of oral purgative followed by a rectal suppository nightcap.

  • Bent Twig

    She relaxed like the way a roofie victim does in the back of the slam van.

  • Lila Vaccher

    She was as sick as a baby after a bad burp… He was taller then Gulliver…She was as relaxed as a cat in a bathtub full of water.

  • daneshm

    She was as sick as… a corn kernel in your puke that is itself puking

    He was taller than… a giraffe with weights on his feet that got his head stuck in a spaceship headed to mars

    She relaxed like… the man who almost got caught having sex with a goat

  • Sean

    He was taller then a tale that lacked truth or scale

    • Darren Eller

      Rhymes too!

      • sean

        It’s strange, I can only make it work in my mind if it rhymes! ;)

      • sean

        Aha, I see you already used the “tale” example … Im one step behind as usual

  • Darren Eller

    As sick as a bucket of spew with manflu.

    He’s taller than the tales on a late night infomercial.

    As relaxed as a bottle of Valium after a massage.

  • Sean

    She was sicka den [sic] what aint not a lot

  • Sean

    She relaxed like a burger on a bed of creamy cheese

  • Sean

    I think I can improve that a little: She relaxed like a burger on a bed of creamy cheese, tucked in by her lettuce leaf, dreaming of sesame seed.

  • Javon James

    He was taller than….

    Bruno on cocaine.

  • Blackhorse69

    She was a sick as a woman with a half eaten apple who finds the worm hole on the other side.
    He was taller than a short horse in an apple orchard.
    She relaxed like a school teacher at the end of May.

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