What makes me laugh when I read other people's columns is the idea that they're getting paid to write them. No. I like a lot of other people's columns. I mean, I like almost any humor that I did not personally have to produce. When you write, your own humor never seems funny to you when you're done. It seems very depressing, because you spent so much time over everything, and you're not very secure about it. So you generally end a column thinking, "This is really not a humor column, this is something you would use to console a widow with." I read everyone else's humor columns and I almost always laugh at them. Not out loud, 'cause I'm not an out loud laughing kind of guy. But inwardly.
Well, like living humor columnists right now? The guy who made me laugh the most of all is dead. Is Robert Benchley. I always wanted to be like Robert Benchley. Um, not in the sense of being "dead." I'd like to be Robert Benchley, but not dead. Living, there's lot of humor columnists, Roy Blount Jr., I love, Colin McEnroe, James Lilac, P. J. O'Rourke, lotta guys that are writing now, I really like.
Joel Achenbach! I would have mentioned him, but he's a close friend of mine, and I don't want to embarrass him by suggesting I read his columns.
WHAT'S SO FUNNY? PACING AND WORK
You know, I know a technique I use, and from looking at other people's humor writing, what seems to work. But I should preface it by saying that I don't think you can ever tell anybody what's funny. I give up on trying to answer the question why are certain things funny and why aren't they, and why can some people see humor in things that some people can't. Most people have a sense of humor that's good. Not everyone can write, most people have a sense of it. Some people don't. I feel sorry for those people. The humor impaired. I got a lot of letters from them, so I know they're out there. Specifically, there are a couple things I think you need to do. You need to have a real strong sense of pacing. Too many attempts at humor fail because A, either it takes forever to get to what's supposed to be funny and just wanders around before it gets there, doesn't seem to be any purpose. Or once it gets there, it says it over and over and over, it doesn't get out of there, you know, quickly. So, I think it's a lot like stand-up comedy, in a sense, you don't let the reader see it coming, you hit the reader with it, and then you get out of there and go to something else the reader doesn't see coming. And that's probably the most fundamentally important thing. The other thing is, it's work to write humor. I think because when you read it, it should be entertaining, and stimulating. When you read it you tend to think if you haven't ever done it that it should also be easy to write and so I get, people are always sending attempts of humor to me. I don't know why, I don't publish humor, I just send it back. Sometimes it's funny but a lot of times it's just not. Just real sloppy, and there's like a dim concept of the humor, a joke in there, but it would be a lot of work to get it out of there. And sometimes a lot of people don't accept that. That if you're gonna write humor you have to take it just as seriously as if you were gonna write about anything else. You have to really work hard to get it to work. It's writing, it's not sitting and talking to your friends. And you may be very funny sitting and talking to your friends but there's a definite craft involved in taking strangers and getting them through something that you've written in a way that they find it to be amusing.
So, A, keep it moving, and B, spend a lot of time writing it. And C, after you're done, show it to somebody. In my case, I show it to my wife. Who, naturally, because she's my wife, doesn't think anything I've ever done in my life is funny. She's a very tough critic. That's real good. I'm lucky. Again, I get a lot of stuff mailed to me, and I read it, and I know that no one ever read it and thought it was funny. And yet the person who wrote it is convinced it is, and has written many, many things like it, convinced that it was hilarious. But that's the bad news about humor. It's a kind of writing that promises something very specific to readers. You know, if you pick up and read something about NAFTA, nobody's saying you're gonna find this, you're gonna have any specific reaction to it. You get something that's supposed to be funny, and the writer's basically saying, "You will be amused, you will laugh at this." If you don't get that reaction, you have failed! Whatever you think, you failed. If you give your humor piece to somebody and that person isn't amused by it, it wasn't funny. You didn't do it. I mean, one person maybe doesn't have a sense of humor, but if people consistently are not amused by it, you can't just say, "But it's still funny! I'm still a humorist!" Too many people do that. It's a tough world. Humor writing is, not that I would ever want to have a real job, it's a great job. But I would never argue that it's an easy job. I know people with harder jobs, and way more important jobs. But I wouldn't say that they're easier.
My wife, about once every three or four years, laughs out loud when she's reading it to me. She reads every column I write. So she reads hundreds of them. And one she'll laugh and I always have to run out and find out why, because it's very unusual. But I have the same thing. Beth will look at a section that I thought was just killer funny. And she'll just have crossed it all out, say "get rid of it." And I can't believe, here I am, I won a Pulitzer Prize, I'm a professional syndicated humor columnist, how can she tell me it's not funny? But the answer is she can, she's a real reader. I'm not. I'm a writer. And then if I'm really convinced that's it's still funny I'll send it to my editor at the Miami Herald, who will read it eventually anyway, Tom Schorder. And if he agrees with Beth, it doesn't matter. I cannot call myself the expert, even though I've written an awful lot more humor than they have, because, again, I'm trying to make them laugh. If I didn't, then I've failed. It's like if a doctor operates on the wrong leg, he can't claim that because he was a great doctor it's still a successful operation.
I went through a whole column about lawyers that you'd have thought was a natural topic. Sometimes the most natural topics don't...and it was about how lawyers have sex and the idea that there must be a way they reproduce. And no one else would have sex with them that I could imagine. So I'd written this long complicated, you know, "and then the man takes his tort," and like that, the male, it was all in legalese although it was a sex scene. I thought it was just great, I worked on it and worked on it for days. And my wife, no. It was just real belabored, belabored and awful in her opinion. And everyone else said it. I had to conclude they were right. I just got lost in my own conceit there and wrote a very unfunny thing and was convinced that it was funny. I mean all I do is write humor. You would think I would know, but you don't always know.
WHAT IS HUMOR?
Wow, that's the toughest question of all, what's funny. Anything I think is funny. I can't tell you exactly what it is, but I can tell you sort of where I think it comes from. Humor is really closely related to fear and despair. I believe the reason people have a sense of humor is if they didn't, then they would look around, they would realize, with their perfectly rational brains, that we live in an extremely dangerous, scary world, run by all kinds of forces over which we have no control, and we're all gonna get older and sicker and die. That's the way it's gonna work, biologically. It's a scary thing. And if we can't react to that in some way that allows us to release the fear and the anxiety that that realization comes along, we're in deep trouble. So we laugh. Oh, lots of humor about death. Whenever some horrible event happens, instantly your fax starts going, there's jokes, your phones. Jokes about, you know, when the Challenger went down, there were Challenger jokes all over the country. Not 'cause people didn't care, not 'cause people didn't think it was a tragedy, but because people have to react somehow to those unacceptably horrible things that happen all the time. So I think it's that release from anxiety that makes people laugh. I think what good humor writers do is take their readers close to some edge, something that's scary to them, you know--taxes, what the government's doing, nuclear war, the ozone depletion, the fact that your diet is wrong and you might get some disease--all these scary things. And it manages to let you release your anxiety about that by laughing about it. You say, "Well, god, this guy thought about that same thing too, and he manages to still laugh. I can laugh, too, and I'll feel better about that." And I think that's where the heart of humor comes from, that edge. Now, there's other things, like there's just plain zaniness, and wackiness, and just plain weird things are funny. And that's almost indescribable why some people laugh at what they laugh at. But I think most humor comes from, the humorous getting you to an edge that's scary on one side, and there's some humorous release on the other. Just pulling you to the edge and then letting you laugh about it. And you've eased a little tension there.
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