Whenever I discuss humor writing with anyone—and I mean anyone—people seem immediately intimidated. Some people think that they are not funny enough or don’t have the personality for writing humor. Some might even say they are not familiar with humor but more with things like improv and stand-up.
For those still curious how to write humor and why others write it, read on and I will take you through its history. I will also cover the three essential elements of humor writing and discuss the performative aspect of humor writing today, where the veil between the comedian and the humor writer has become very thin.
There is a record of the world’s oldest joke traced back to 1900 B.C. Sumeria. It is considered by today’s standards to be “toilet humor.” Historically, from the Sumerians to the Egyptians until the Ancient Greeks, humor has existed but was not necessarily recorded.
Much credit is given to the Ancient Greeks for taking a more learned approach to writing humor (komédia) simply by recording it, considering it an artform, and giving it a platform for performance. But in societies both ancient and modern, the idea of humor always existed and was considered essential to both the society’s and the individual’s well-being.
Historically, humor crosses over class. The wealthy hire humor writers (comedians) to entertain them, the less-than-wealthy typically write the jokes, share stories, and weave humor deep into the bones of their prospective culture then shared in public spaces, behind closed doors, etc.
But this way of being that went beyond telling jokes was not necessarily recorded or commodified. I mention this as something to consider when we question the validity of our own humor and whether or not we are funny.
Humor is so deeply ingrained in our heritage as humans, regardless of where we are on the planet. As I said, it was considered a necessity and a form of medicine across many cultures.
Pre-20th Century Humor
Humoral medicine got its start in ancient times, but carried over the idea into the modern era that humor is part of our psychology and personality. Once the “four humors” were established, it was determined that those in the best health (both physically or psychologically) were “friendly, they joke and laugh around.”
As a result, the definition of the word humor evolved, giving a personality and identity to “those in good spirits” and establishing them as desirable company. A “humorous” individual was no longer just healthy but now a likable and entertaining person with a talent for humor.
Essentially, the idea that having a good sense of humor makes an individual pleasant and “sanguine” in times of turmoil or tumult. It can also include those able to see humor within various situations or even channel their righteous anger into humor.
So it would be no surprise that comedy and satire were born out of times of political turmoil, and often had the power to change the course of history as much as other genres of writing. The Middle Ages brought us Geoffrey Chaucer, a writer who used sexual and “scatalogical” humor to unapologetically skewer political and religious corruption of the day.
This kind of humorous take on corruption and political strife created a societal “Awakening” that would carry over centuries to the Revolutionary War era. Benjamin Franklin, while known far and wide as a founding father and a diplomat, might be lesser known for his humorous approach to both art and life. His writing is considered “a uniquely American form of humor filled with clever wit, folksy wisdom, and a generous portion of irreverence.” His most famous publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, gave him the distinction of America’s first humorist. The Almanack itself gained such popularity that many of the phrases transcended humor and became cultural idioms still used to this day.
Both men were no doubt in a position of privilege and power. But they were channeling both the sensibility and unrest of the masses, expressing the humor widely spread from village to village, town to town. Once again, this was still the humor of the commoner that came out of public spaces and was whispered behind closed doors. This is the universal humor that all of us, despite class and cultural differences, share and is not just reserved for the learned and elite.
20th Century Humor
This foundation is where contemporary humor is built and, like many other schools of philosophy and thought, able to branch out in various different directions. A study of humor reveals three distinct characteristics:
- It has universal appeal
- It embodies the distinct personality of the writer
- The ultimate objective isn’t always just to be funny
When writing your own humor, keep these essential elements in mind.
It is important to ensure we do not bury underserved voices who wrote with humor who shared unique experiences. One such humorist is Langston Hughes. Though Hughes was better known as a poet, those well-versed in comedy writing would consider him an early influence on Richard Pryor. Hughes published The Ways of White Folks in 1934. A series of vignettes revealing the “humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks,” it portrayed the lives of the working-class blacks embodying their struggle, joy, laughter, and music. “My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind,” Hughes said. Again, another humorist taking to task the unrest of the masses through his own humorous lens.
Dorothy Parker published a volume of poems called Enough Rope in 1926. This collection sold 47,000 copies and garnered impressive reviews. The Nation described her writing as “caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity.” One New York Times reviewer dismissed her work as “flapper verse,” but this debut writing solidified Parker’s reputation for “sparkling wit.”
Like Hughes, Parker had the capacity for wit, but was drawing from her unique experiences as a woman of her time. She used the darker side of humor and her critiques of poor practices often pushed buttons of powerful people in the industry. Again humor was being used to expose society’s ills rather than just make others laugh.
Other humorists of the 19th and 20th centuries worth noting for their unique takes on the artform include Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Oscar Wile, George S. Kaufman, P.G. Wodehouse, Jean Sheppard, Erma Brombeck, Fran Leibowitz, and Sholom Aleicem.
It’s clear that humor writing is not always one size fits all. Depending on your particular voice, cultural background, and medium of choice, you can develop your own unique approach. Nevertheless, you can look further into the lives and works of these great writers and see which ones might influence you. Learning more about the historical evolution of comedy can also be valuable when looking for influences for your humor writing.
Humor Writing Today
Many comedians who got their start in stand-up go on to become humor writers. To name a few: Will Rogers, Cal Stewart, Garry Moore, Victor Borge, Peter Ustinov, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Hugh Laurie, and Brett Paesel.
Today, the line between comedian and humor writer is very thin. Humor writing has opened itself up to a sort of meta tradition of writing humor for performance or performing humor and then writing it down for publication. Depending on the style of the humorist, it can go either way, making it fluid and sometimes interchangeable with improv and stand-up.
This might be where things get muddied for many humor writers. Writing other genres is often a reclusive act, but in writing humor it can be tough to know an audience’s reaction to determine if you’re doing it right, or if it’s funny “enough.” Thus, many humor writers find their writing most successful when performed in front of an audience.
But today there are also more genres to play with beyond the humor essay, which is often the humor writer’s go-to. Many have moved towards the comic novel which has always been around but has gained recent popularity.
There are also many new ways to fuse humor with other genres, such as science fiction and call it comic fantasy. This genre was popularized by Terry Pratchett best known for his satirical Discworld universe. He is said to have been strongly influenced by Wodehouse and Twain.
Essentially your takeaway should be that if you want to write humor, you should write it. You have a voice in which to channel your experience. Comedy is in your bones, blood, and culture, no matter who you are.
Amy Ayres has three novels in progress and is querying two. When she is not in her office writing about terraformed planets, multiple personalities, and Irish folklore, she is hanging with her awesome tech-savvy hubby, stepson, and RubyCat. Visit amymarieayres.com. You can sign up for her Newsletter where she sends out motivational tips for new writers and her special brand of humor.