Ask the expert: Writing humour

March 23, 2015

Killing frogs and shovelling sludge

By Cassie Stocks (Originally appeared in M Alumni News -- Spring 2015)

I am slightly dubious about discussing comedy. E. B. White once said, “Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” But here are some rudimentary principles for writing humour which will hopefully destroy neither human nor amphibian.


I think one of the most useful ways to write humour is to work yourself into a lather about something and then freely froth and spume all over the pages. Essayist Dinty Moore says, “Humour has to be honest.” I think that’s true. In order to be funny, you have to care about what you’re writing.

Don’t care

For humour you need to turn off the part of your brain that says, “You idiot sludge, you can’t write that.” Like right now, for instance. I think, What is sludge? Why did I write that? That’s stupid. I look it up. Sludge is a semi-solid slurry produced as sewage from wastewater treatment processes. That’s it in a nutshell, or a bucket, actually. Open the taps. Let the sludge flow onto the page. You can get your editing shovel out later and clean it up as needed.

Yes! And…

In an improvisational comedy class, I learned the “Yes! And…” rule. Agree to what your fellow actor (or in this case, your mind) suggests and then add new information. In the book I’m writing, a group of characters is on a commune. I need a scene where a character reveals something. It could occur at a table over dinner but that would be boring, so I let my mind wander. What if they have sheep on the commune? Yes! And they are shearing the sheep. Yes! And the character gets the sheep (and himself) stoned before the shearing. Yes! And the sheep escape. Yes! And he reveals his information as a herd of stoned, naked sheep make for the hills. Much better.

Hacking and mashing

Play with the language during editing, experiment, switch things around and use words in unexpected ways. Some words or combinations of words are funnier than others. “Hard work” becomes “scabrous drudge” and “very happy” becomes “deeply chirpy.” Hack your work apart and mash it back together. See what happens. (Note: save previous drafts in case you end up with nothing but puréed sludge. It happens.)

Tortured genius

If you try out a piece of humorous writing on someone and they “don’t get it,” you have three options. The first, from the “Tortured Genius School of Writing,” is to assume that they are just too daft to understand your superior sensibilities and change nothing. The second, from the “Tortured Idiot School of Writing,” is to over-explain, plead and say, “Do you get it now? How about now?” and change nothing. The third, from the “Scabrous Drudge School of Writing,” is to try it out on a few more people. If three people “don’t get it,” it’s time to assume that something has gone wrong and either rewrite or cut.

I’ve had readers tell me they laughed out loud while reading my work in cafés, on airplanes and in the gynecologist’s waiting room. If I can make the OB/GYN waiting room a deeply chirpy place, I’ve done my job.

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