What Great Humor Writers Know
It's not about limericks; it's about this eternal equation: Pain+Time=Humor
Posted Aug 14, 2013
Great writers know that the best humor isn’t found in jokes; the best humor is found in stories.
Genuinely great humor is about loss, refusal, and recovery. It’s not about two guys walking into a bar where there’s a twelve-inch pianist or a talking dog; genuinely great humor isn’t about limericks but about life. If you read Aristophanes, Pope, Behn, Thackerey, Austen, Jerome K. Jerome, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Nora Ephron, you'll notice that only a few of what one might call their major pieces rely on the word "Nantucket."
Humor that remains humorous—and memorable--after fifteen minutes (or hundred years) is material that’s slightly dangerous and more than slightly smart.
All great humorists run towards what bothers them, what pains them, what disturbs them, what is, to them, unbearable—and then they deliberately trip over it. Some do a pratfall, some a stumble, some an apoplectic version of St. Vitus dance, some a soft-shoe, but none--and this is the important part--remain on their knees.
Excessive, playful, blasphemous, indulgent, insurgent, and fiercely courageous, great humorists have one crucial thing in common: they know humor is the shortest and most electric line between two--or more--points. They set about connecting the wires so the rest of us could hear the noise inside their heads.
To them, nothing is sacred. Nothing scares them. The only thing they have to fear, perhaps, is the grim, tight-lipped, earnest specter of humorlessness itself.
--adapted from the new edition of They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted (UPNE 2013)