Make Your Writing Funny: The Basic Rule of Humor

Each week, Clint and I set out to make you guys laugh. That's a great job in itself. But humor can do way more than just entertain. It can help people learn, it can create a positive environment for debate, it can sell a product...humor is a versatile tool for tons of situations, and if used correctly, it can enhance any kind of freelance writing work.

But if you're going to use humor in your writing, you gotta learn how to write it. GOOD humor, that is. I'm not talking about those terrible anecdotes about work that you see on websites that were built with Geocities, clipart, and possibly Elmer's Glue. We're talking honest-to-God jokes here, the kind that anyone can understand and laugh at. Basically, the kind of jokes a stand up comedian would write.

"But I don't want to be a comedian!" you say. Don't worry - you don't have to be. But learning a few tricks of the comedian trade is vital for understanding how to make your writing funny. And, believe it or not, most of it drills down to understanding one basic rule. Master this rule and you're well on your way to injecting your writing with delicious humor goodness.

Ready? Here's the basic rule of humor: it's all about twisting expectations.

A good joke leads you down one train of thought and then quickly switches gears to another train of thought. (In fact, when I wrote about this in a post on CopyBlogger called The Sideways L, I compared it to a train that jumps tracks right to the moon.) These trains are still connected in a way, but the switch is so unexpected that you think it's funny and laugh.

I prefer examples, so let me show you what I mean. Here's a favorite joke of mine from Steve Martin, delivered in his acceptance speech for the 2005 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. This is how the joke starts:

"I want to thank my family up there in the box, who've made my life so rich..."

What comes to mind when you read this? Steve Martin is thanking his family. People think, "Well, people who win awards usually thank their families". Simple enough.

Now let's look at the second half of the joke:

"...and my secret family in the other box, who knows nothing about the other family."

You see what happened there? When people first hear this joke, they expect that Steve Martin has only one family. They may not verbalize it in their mind, but it's an assumption they automatically make. Then the second part of the joke comes along, implying that Martin actually has TWO families. That's twisting the expectation. That causes laughter.

Humor might come in a variety of formats, but most of these styles are driven by the basic rule of twisting expectations. In the coming weeks, I'll show you how to use this rule for your own writing, but for now, just be aware of it.

YOUR CHALLENGE: Whenever you hear a joke or funny story, try picking it apart. (Yes, this does kill the humor of the joke, but in the name of SCIENCE, it's neccessary.) Try to identify the expectation and how it's twisted to create something funny. The more you see the rule in action, the better equipped you'll be to use it.

Profile image for Matt Willard
Matt Willard's bio begins with witty phrasing that succinctly illustrates his stance as a humorist. It is then followed with a clever sentence that illustrates what he does in his spare time. The bio concludes with a shameless link to his Twitter profile, paired with an off-hand comment that alludes to his success with women. Laughter.

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7 thoughts on “Make Your Writing Funny: The Basic Rule of Humor”

  1. Haha, Good stuff. Might try watching one of my stand up dvds tonight and see if I can deconstruct some of the jokes in that.

    I already do it with films and Tv shows due to studying media, so why not do it with jokes as well, ha =]

    Great article, cant wait to read more.

  2. Interesting. I’ve never thought about humor this way before. Or, rather, the changing lanes unexpectedly approach. Then again, I’ve never tried to be funny in my writing, though I think that’s something I could benefit from. I’m looking forward to reading more tips!

    Great article.



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