How to Write Funny


This is part of a set of book notes posts for How to Write Funny by Scott Dikkers

Dikkers talks about subtext and its importance in writing jokes. He explains subtext and provides a bunch of examples showing the subtext of different jokes:

Fun Fact: If you stretched out your intestines they would reach all the way to the cabin in the woods you were murdered in.

SUBTEXT: It’s a little unsettling when people point out how long our intestines are.

Throughout the rest of the book he continues pointing out subtext in jokes. With good subtext, you’re in a good spot. You can work from there.

Subtext applies to other creative things. What’s the subtext of this blog? I’m trying to improve creatively but foolishly think I can shortcut my way there.

What’s the subtext what’s the subtext what’s the subtext. That can be my mantra when writing jokes. Or writing anything.

Steven Pressfield wrote about something similar in Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t:

When you as a writer carry over and apply this mode of thinking to other fields, say the writing of novels or movies or nonfiction, the first question you ask yourself at the start of any project is, “What’s the concept?”

He describes it as concept and subtext seems to be concept applied to jokes.

Let me try finding subtext to a joke. I went to a Chuck Klosterman talk today and he re-told a Mitch Hedburg joke. Someone asked if we should still be motivated looking for answers if we’ll probably be very wrong anyway.

You shouldn’t just stop because you know the ending will be bad. It’s like one of Mitch Hedburg’s jokes.

“Why do you drink, Dont you know you’ll get a hangover?”

“Yeah. At the end.”

It’d be like not eating apples because you know there’s a core.

How much can an ending really ruin the rest of the journey? Lost fans might chime in here.

The subtext is that people rarely consider consequences. Well, they do, but it’s hard to have the right perspective in comparing experiences if one is happening right now and the other is later on. Would anyone drink if the cost was having the headache before drinking?

Well, yes. Probably. Bad example.

Maybe the subtext is simply that people love alcohol.

What other jokes come from the consequences subtext? What’s worth doing something horrible for?

It’s the opposite of exercising, where you intentionally feel like garbage to feel better the entire rest of the time.

The Clown vs. The Editor

Scott Dikkers was an original founder of The Onion, which has made me laugh a lot through the years. I’ve read a few comedy books and it’s always better when I have an idea of what the author’s humor is like. I really enjoyed Dikkers’s book, How to Write Funny. Now I need to put the reading into practice. This probably won’t be funny.

Throughout the book, Dikkers refers to The Clown and The Editor. It’s great imagery for remembering the different hats to wear. Or horrible because The Clown really does just make me think of It.

In Clown mode, you churn out ideas without worrying about quality. Quantity is all that matters.

The Clown, being an irresponsible clown, hands this pile of scraps to The Editor and expects him to get to work. It’s better if the scraps have been sitting for a few days. Otherwise The Editor is aware that he’s actually me, except with much less face paint.

I put my Clown hat on this week and tried thinking about anything funny about creativity. Let me get some scraps down.

There’s something funny about wanting to get in flow but never acknowledging it or it’ll knock you out of flow. There’s something funny about all the people inspired by The War of Art who write blog posts (ahem) and books that are worse versions of The War of Art. OH. The War of Art is one letter away from The War of Fart.

The Editor starts every morning wondering if he should light the scraps on fire or use it as kindling to light himself on fire.

“This probably won’t be funny.” — Me, like 40 seconds ago.

Funnier morning pages

Like other creative pursuits, writing a few good jokes starts with writing a bunch of bad jokes. Dikkers lays out a few exercises for generating ideas.

The first exercise is the Morning Pages: Write for a half hour
every day, without stopping, no matter what you’re writing—and no matter how bad you think it is.

I’ve tried Morning Pages in the past in many forms. I tried, doing it longhand the prescribed way, and just typing freely.

Dikkers suggests looking back and reading old morning pages to see if any ideas are still good. This goes against the prescribed method, which would have you burn the pages before re-reading them. The point being that you’ll be deeply honest in the pages knowing nobody will read them—even yourself.

If the goal is to write jokes, you should be honest while actively thinking about what’s amusing in all these things.

I’m writing this first draft on a bus right now. Everyone looks the same. Five people in dark down jackets looking at their phones. What’s amusing about this? What would people be doing fifty years ago? What would an alien think of this? How can I exaggerate this completely?

It reminds me of Infinite Jest in how I find myself truly staring at a phone for an hour at a time, stuck on my couch. Just scrolling and reading news mindlessly.

The only funny thing right now is probably how hard you might be rolling your eyes because I just referenced something in Infinite Jest.

I’ll keep reading so I can learn how to take ideas from the walls of text that Morning Pages generate.

Something about how walls in Magic: The Gathering are the most boring cards. I haven’t seen walls this boring since I played Magic! Okay that’s a bad one. The book never says it’s easy.