How to write humor. (An actual class for an actual writers conference)

In an effort to learn something beneficial to share with my class in 10 days at the Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa, I’ve been working and reading and thinking and worrying.

Mostly worrying.

Here is what I have figured out so far.

I do not know how to write humor.

But I’m not telling that to Dr. David and Mrs. Joanne Sloan who invited me. I plan to stand up straight and act like I know what I’m doing, and hopefully fool them.  Hey, it has happened before. I pastored six churches for 42 years. I know a lot about sucking it up and acting like I’m capable.

By now you’re wondering why I was invited to teach this class when so many “real” writers with impressive resumes are available.  You’re not alone.  I’m wondering the same thing.

The short answer is that I come cheap. The longer answer is that I come really, really cheap. Like, I’d do it for nothing, you know?

Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald couldn’t come, tied up as they are teaching similar classes on a much higher level. In heaven, actually.

I assume.

I’m betting people laugh a lot in Heaven. After all, they made it.  So, what’s not to be happy about?

But back to our first point:  He (or she or it or they) who would write humor must first know how to write well.  And teaching that will occupy the first 10 weeks of this 12-week course.

The remaining two weeks will be spent on the essentials of writing humor in a religious context, which means basically memorizing the following truism: Religion and humor being polar opposites; it can’t be done hardly at all, none, never. 

So there.  

Oh wait. My class in Tuscaloosa lasts one hour. Yikes.   One hour?  It takes that long for my introduction.

What else?  Okay, I’m glad you asked.  Here are Joe’s ten guidelines (suggestions? commandments? ironclad rules? whatever) for writing humor….

1) Most importantly, you should learn to write really really good.

2) Don’t use “good” when you intend to say “well” or “effectively.”

3) Don’t pile up adverbs like “really, really.”  This is so, like, important, you know.

4) Do not signal to your reader that “I am now going to tell a story.”  Pastors do that all the time in sermons.  They’ll say, “I heard a funny story the other day” or “The story is told of a….”  Just work it into the material and be natural.

5)  Make sure the humor fits and is appropriate.  No racist stuff, no putdowns of blondes or Baptists or mothers-in-law.  No jokes about fat people, rural people, or Democrats.  No jokes about Joel Osteen or Barack Obama. Please.  Make a funny reference to one of these and you will lose half your audience. They will sit there fuming and not hear another word you say.

6) Do not say tell your audience that this story is funny.  They will take that as a challenge, as in “Oh yeah?  I’ll tell you if it’s funny or not!”  You’ve just made your job harder.  Just tell the story.

7) Remember the big difference in writing humor and telling humor:  in print, you can be briefer.  In speaking, you may have to be redundant, repeating some reference to keep everyone with you. But in print, the reader can go over a sentence twice if they miss something the first time.

If you want to see something strange, have someone record you telling a funny story, then transcribe it verbatim.  You threw in a lot of extra words and probably repeated yourself more than once. We all do this in conversation to get our point across and to keep the audience with us.  But not in print.  In writing humor, you tell it once and leave it there.  I said (ahem) you tell it once and leave it there.

8)  The best humor, whether spoken or written, is personal.  It happened to you.  And if it’s self-deprecating, so much the better, since it exposes your vulnerability. So, go ahead and tell about the time you wore socks of two different colors to meet with that important pastor search committee. But go slow in telling of the time your new bride put an egg on to boil one evening, then forgot about it, and when you came in from the revival where you were preaching, it had exploded and was now decorating the ceiling.  It’s her story to tell, not  yours.  (Yep. That happened. I had fun teasing her about not knowing how to boil an egg….until I found out she did not take too well to teasing about her cooking. Thus do young grooms get an education in wife-ology.)

9) The usual rules of writing apply:  When you start, just get the story into a first draft. Then, later, come back and edit it down, strengthening it here and deleting the redundancies there. Let it “set” a while, then reread it before posting.  If possible, read the article to a friend whose judgment you respect.  When in doubt or disagreement with the friend’s counsel, call in another friend or two to give their take on it.

10) Try different ways of writing the same story.  Imagine you are Billy Graham telling the story. Then, your favorite comedian, a favorite teacher. Jay Leno, your father, your child.  Try telling the story as yourself when you are angry, you when you are playful, you on an intellectual level. Play with these until you find the voice that works best for you.

Pastors sometimes get in trouble when they tell funny stories from the pulpit.  Their stories typically involve deacons and angry church members and big-shots who throw their weight around. No pastor with two brain cells wants to incur the wrath of these people.  Some of them keep hit men on retainers.  (And I am not speaking of those little appliances people wear on their teeth.)

That’s why pastors like Bruce McIver saved his best stuff for retirement, then published “Stories I Could Never Tell While I Was a Pastor.”  That book, published over 20 years ago, still reads great.  His decision to hold off with those stories was smart because one contains the word “damn.”  That alone is enough to get the typical Baptist pastor canned.  (Bruce is in Heaven now, but he left his book with us.  Get it at or  You will love it, I promise.)

So, in brief, read a lot, write a lot, and pay attention to the odd things happening around you all the time.  Read everything you can on how to write well.  Learn the difference between it’s and its, when to use who and whom, and why they’re, their, and there should not be used interchangeably.

Oh, and be realistic.  If you expect to hit one out of the park every time you come up to the plate, you’ll eventually give up and go home.  Writers who demand perfection of themselves publish very little since that standard is unattainable for mere mortals.  Do your best each time, keep learning, enjoy your craft, and keep your eyes open.

There are a lot of great stories out there waiting to be told.  You may as well be the one writing them.



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