Don’t try too hard to be funny.
Don’t announce that you are now being funny.
Do not force it if this does not come naturally to you.
Find your own way of expressing the humor you feel in life.
Remembering that the best laugh comes from the surprise at the end of a good story, therefore, experiment with the best way to say that.
That’s also how to remember a good joke or story you’ve heard: Remember the punch line. If you remember that exactly right, you can recall the rest of the story by working backward in it. But the greatest single thing about telling a joke is getting the punch line right.
Again, though, surprise your hearers with it.
My granddaughter was six and we were at the swing in her front yard, doing what grandpas and little darlings do. We were singing and laughing and cutting up. At one point she said, “We’re being silly, aren’t we, grandpa.” I said, “Yes, we are. Why do we like to be so silly?”
She said, “It’s a family tradition.”
Complete surprise, totally out of left field. And a perfect story. It’s brief, it’s cute (people love children stories), and it fits any number of situations. I tell it when I’m talking to seniors about their grandchildren, when I’m talking to groups about humor, and when I’m preaching on the family (“That’s a great tradition to have. What is your family tradition?”)
In telling it, however, I must not let myself signal ahead of time that “Okay, cute story coming up” or “Speaking of family traditions….”
Just tell it. The story will do the work.
Last Sunday’s Shreveport newspaper carried a column that caught my eye. Now, I’m sure the financial adviser who wrote it knows his way around stocks and bonds, dividends and accruals. But he leaves a tiny bit to be desired as a humorist.
The caption of his column read: “A funny story with a moral.” There are two no-nos right there. Labeling what you are writing as funny does two things to the reader, both of them undesirable. It raises the bar so that the reader is expecting something hilarious and side-splitting. At the same time, something inside most readers challenges the writer. “Oh yeah? I’ll let you know if it’s funny.”
The writer has almost guaranteed that this is not going to work.
The other mistake is that few people want to read a story “with a moral.” Unless your name is Aesop and you do this for a living, just tell the story and make your application, but don’t signal to us that this great anecdote comes with its own built-in sermon.
What was the “funny” story?
Some years ago, the consultant wrote, his Yankee fiancée flew to New Orleans where he was living, then drove with him to Shreveport (a good five or six hours) to meet his family. He had worked hard all week, he said, and was exhausted when he got off work at 5 o’clock Friday. That’s why his lady-friend volunteered to drive while he napped.
He told her, “Drive west on Interstate 10 to Lafayette, then take Interstate 49 north. That will take us to Shreveport.”
Hours later, when he awakened, they were in Beaumont, Texas. She had missed the turn in Lafayette.
And that, you’ll be surprised to know, is the funny story.
A human interest story, to be sure. One every reader can identify with. And he told it reasonably well.
But funny, it was not.
The moral of that story was “often when we are trying to arrive at a destination, we need outside help to advise us.” That opened the door for his counsel on retirement investing.
Actually, the only thing wrong with that column was the title. The article was reasonably well-written and the story made the point the advisor wanted made. But the title misled the reader to the point that the nice little story amounted to a disappointment.
Titles of articles and books can do wonders for a piece or they can sabotage it.
I have bought books just for the title. The one about screenwriting in Hollywood carried the title, “Hello, he lied.”
I bought a theology book with the title “How The Church Can Minister to the World Without Losing Itself.”
Other great titles which have sold me books include “Eat This Book” (by Eugene Peterson), “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (by Marva Dawn), and “If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat” (by John Ortberg).
Newspapers employ headline writers for this very reason, because they know the few words at the top of an article can determine whether something gets read or not.
Which makes me think I should change the title of this article. “How not to write humor” isn’t very catchy. It’s not funny. But it’s accurate. So, I’ll go with it.
After all, I wasn’t trying to be funny in this piece. Just truthful.