book reviews / humor

How to be Funny if You’re Not–II

In Part I of How to be Funny if You’re Not, I discussed a book that provides humorous quips available to be adapted to your story. Today I want to talk about John Vorhaus’ book, Comic Toolbox(Silman-James Press 1994). I bought this book

because I wanted to see if there were guidelines for humor. I like steps, a plan, Rules A, B, C that will insure I achieve the right end result. And the book’s byline–“A funny idea is worthless until you understand the mechanics of its construction and execution. Meet Mr. Goodwrench.”–made it sound like I’d found my blueprint.

Besides being a successful comic writer for most of his life with credits for a variety of sitcoms, Vorhaus taught at a variety of Film-oriented schools including the American Film Institute. What he does in the book is distill his lifetime of comedy writing into a how-to toolkit on creating humor. He starts by analyzing humor, explaining why some lines are funny and others aren’t, with lots of examples. You can’t get bored reading this book because the moment it starts to feel like a textbook, it breaks out into a joke (What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with an agnostic? Someone who rings your doorbell for no apparent reason). Here are some hints that made sense to me in my quest for humor:

  • mix truth with pain (A man falls off a cliff. As he plummets to his death, he’s heard to mutter, ‘So far, so good.’)
  • be willing to risk making yourself look stupid
  • for every ten jokes you tell, nine will be trash
  • the comic premise is the gap between comic reality and real reality (for example, in the comic strip Peanuts, there’s a gap between Snoopy’s ‘real’ reality–he’s a dog–and his ‘comic’ reality–he’s a World War I flying ace
  • humor through exaggeration (Jerry Lewis is the supreme bumbler)–and be bold about it
  • clash of context–a forced union of incompatibles–i.e., lunar golf course, Madonna sings opera
  • the wildly inappropriate response–For example, a backyard barbeque with militant vegetarianism, at a baseball game cheering for the vendors
  • the law of comic opposites
  • tension and release

Each chapter, he not only explains the comedic tool, he encourages the reader to practice the tool. For example, in the chapter, The Comic Premise, readers must write a mundane task (i.e., going to a store) and what would make that out of the ordinary (shopping for Uzis). Here’s one example I liked: a mundane event--the Magna Carta; out of the ordinary rejoinder–written by e.e. cummings.

In a nutshell, Vorhaus breaks comedy down into its bits and pieces. Yes, some people are blessed with the comic gene, a funny bone that turns life into a laugh tape, but the rest of us need help. Since I’m a firm believer that every story goes better with a sense of humor (I get a lot of my funny-isms from my naturally-talented husband), you’ll want to spend a couple hours with this book.

PS–I didn’t steal his subtitle. It probably isn’t the first time two minds came up with the same thought. Admittedly, he was first.


Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and three ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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6 thoughts on “How to be Funny if You’re Not–II

  1. Morning, Jacqui,

    This is excellent advice, and written in your usual accessible style. I love that you do our work for us and present it easy-to-use format.

    I love humor in books. Though most of my work isn’t entirely funny (no, it isn’t funny and stop laughing at me) or meant to be, i tend to include some humor in my work. In fact my new book is about a residence for Alzheimer’s victims, and you know my experiences are personal and plentiful. But I knew going in that I couldn’t write a weepy, doomful tome. It would kill me. So my plan was to write a spoof of the places where these folks often live the last years of their lives. The weird thing is that plenty of the story so far is funny – at least I hope it is. But the sorrow and sadness are creeping in as well. There’s my contrast – Alzheimer’s disease makes a horrible portrait of a person who used to be someone else, and sometimes some of the things they do, and that others around them do, are just plain funny.

    And that’s where I get a lot of my funny ideas. by watching the things other people do and listening to what they say, and knowing how truly funny and how humorously truthful they can be. The folks around me write my lines.

    Case in point: First the set-up: My son often works at night, getting up to go to his job just as his kids are going to bed. Noah works as a computer administrator. Sandy’s frequent work is washing dishes, because with 2 little kids, you wash a lot of dishes.

    My youngest cousin married about 18 months ago and last month had twins, a boy and a girl. The proud parents sent a photo pastiche birth announcement that we showed to our granddaughter Riley, who is 4. My husband started to explain to her that the babies are fraternal twins. (You’re right – he has little sense of appropriate science lessons for 4-year-olds.)

    When Riley’s brother Jacob walked into the room, she informed him that the babies are nocturnal twins.

    And when her mommy asked if Riley knew what nocturnal meant, she stated that it was like her daddy who sleeps all day and works at night, washing dishes.

    The twins’ mommy assured me that the babies are indeed nocturnal, but getting better. They don’t as yet wash dishes.

    • That’s hilarious. Is there any way to fit it into your book? Well, once you get your blog going (hint), it’ll make a wonderful post.

      I think that’s a great mix. Since there’s nothing we can do about Alzheimer’s, to accept it with a sense of humor is all that’s left to us. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  2. Pingback: 4 Tips for Writing Humor | WordDreams...

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