JAMES SANDEFER: It's harder to write funny than you think - The Explorer: Editorials

JAMES SANDEFER: It's harder to write funny than you think

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Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:04 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Several times each year I receive e-mails from readers asking me to write something really funny. Oftentimes their requests are prompted by an upcoming special occasion or event that occurred in their lives, and maybe just because they need a really good laugh and have a topic of interest that seems perfectly suited for humor.

Whatever the reason, I agree that laughter is great medicine for the soul, but writing humorous material under pressure is a bit more complex than you might expect.

Being funny in an open environment around other people is a relatively uncomplicated, natural task for those with outgoing, unbridled personalities. However, being quietly seated at a desk and staring at a blank screen on the computer monitor while attempting to write humorous material is a challenging endeavor.

Stop and think for a moment about the people you know who can reduce you to gut-splitting tears in a matter of seconds with their instinctive verbal wit, but would freeze tighter than a childproof container lid when challenged to refine their hilarity to words on paper? Not a long list, is it?

Having accepted the label “curmudgeonly satirical newspaper columnist,” I’ve come to enjoy offering people regular doses of humor about anything and everything life has to offer. Hardly a day passes that I don’t observe something funny, or at least stupid, in my unpredictable environment called daily life. The categories of retirement and senior citizenship abound with material, and that’s where I focus my attention and gather material, but don’t assume for a moment that a torrent of humorous thoughts are flowing constantly through my mind; it doesn’t work that way for me.

This leads to a related question that I’m often asked by aspiring writers: What’s the best writing style? From my perspective, it’s a matter of personal comfort; I don’t believe there’s one exclusive style every writer should strive to attain. I know some writers who can only work using outlines, others prepare complete drafts in one sitting, and writers like me who find it easier to sit back and observe my surroundings while subconsciously allowing the material to percolate rather than trying to force the words onto paper at that particular moment. Whenever I see or hear something funny, I often jot a brief note in my personal digital assistant (PDA) or record a voice memo in my digital recorder. Both options allow me to continue focusing on the particular issue or event at hand and gathering information; later, I retrieve the material when my mind is fresh and ready to re-focus and create some written material.

I mentioned the PDA and voice recorder because, like many seniors, my memory isn’t what it used to be. These electronic devices are small, easy to use and my notes are downloadable to my computer. I don’t know how we managed to recall so many things before all of this technology came along. Oh yeah, we were young.

I’ve talked with some writers who use time-tested clichés to help reinforce their material. Personally, I prefer to create my own quips, but sporadically throw in one that may have seen a few decades of use if it supports the flow of my observations and intentions for the column. It’s a personal call.

One rule I won’t break is the introduction of raw profanity in my writing. It’s my contention that if you can’t stimulate laughter with words that are readable and non-offensive to people of all ages and in all venues, then create a different set of words. I also refuse to write foul language into material for my stand-up comedian clients. It takes minimal creativity to be profane; they can do that without my assistance.

As a writer, it’s important for you to develop a style of delivery that you’re comfortable with, and then stick with it. People remember your distinctive approach, but not one in which you constructed someone else’s language into something that sounds retrofitted and sitting under your name. You want to lure readers to your writing by creating a style allowing them to easily relate what you’re saying to their everyday lives. This becomes a firm bond over time as you’ve confirmed with me over the years.

Another strong humor writing technique I employ is making fun of me and leaving innocent bystanders out of it whenever possible. I avoid using a person’s name in my writing unless it’s during an interview. I enjoy having the latitude to wreak havoc on myself on a regular basis and as much as I prefer; I often use me as the stunt man for my scenarios allowing others to join in the laughter as they wish. From the feedback I’ve received over time, I know that although the readers are laughing at me, it often strikes them that what I’m saying also applies to them as well, so they enjoy an even heartier laugh and laugh along with me.

Possibly the most gratifying benefit of writing and reading humor is that it’s always OK to smile and laugh while you’re doing it.

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