On Writing Humor by James Weir
When asked by Jeyran to write a guest editorial, I was a bit confused on exactly what I’d talk about. In looking through the site, I found examples of dozens of great writers, with great opinions, and great insights into the craft of writing.
Then I remembered that great bit of advice to all writers – “write about what you know”. What do I know best? How to be a smart-ass.
With that, the topic hit me – how to write humor (or humour, as I’m Canadian, and we add that extra “u” just to be politely annoying).
Since I was a kid, I’ve always been quick with a comeback. I wield sarcasm like a superpower. When other kids were listening to music, I listened to stand-up comics. I wrote comedy skits. I even co-wrote a musical (“The Sound of Moosic” – my university was an agricultural school – the bar wasn’t very high there).
Where did this all lead? Well, inevitably it led to a brief career as a stand-up comedian. This was actually an accident. After finishing veterinary school, and working for a couple of years, I wound up moving to Saskatchewan, Canada, to pursue grad work. If you’ve never been to Saskatchewan (and, frankly, I’d be surprised if any of you actually has been there), you’d realize that it’s a province made to make fun of. Between the highest rates of STIs, teen pregnancy and drunk-driving, brutally cold winters, and being so flat you can drive off the road and not hit anything, it’s designed to be lampooned.
My lab-mates, getting tired of me mocking the province, dared me to enter a local comedy festival contest to find new talent. Well, that backfired. I came in second place (first place was an 11-year old kid that likely won on cuteness – I’m not bitter though), and from there started to get hired to perform at conventions and fund-raisers, often as the opening act for an improv group made up of a teacher and a morgue attendant.
What did work as a stand-up teach me? For one, it’s a brutal way to make a living. For every Dave Chapelle or Kevin Hart, there are literally thousands upon thousands of people like me. I would work for 2 or 3 weekends a month and earn just enough for gas and a bit of fun money. I even lost money sometimes – $100 bucks to perform, then $107 for a speeding ticket on the way home. As a result, I didn’t pursue it once I left the province.
But what does this have to do with writing humor? If you think about it, stand-up comedy is really no different than being a playwright. Unless you’re a physical comic or doing completely spontaneous material (even improv comedy has a large amount of pre-scripted material), you’re writing. And, if you’re good at it, you’re writing funny stuff.
If you want to write humor, have a go at stand-up comedy. Even if you have no intention of trying to make a living at it, you’ll still learn a hell of a lot about writing humor.Tweet
What else can I suggest? Humor often comes from simply observing the world around you. After 30 years as a practicing veterinarian, you can’t help but see the funny around you. People are strange, and by simply watching and listening, you’ll have plenty of material to write about.
You don’t have to go to veterinary school to do this (I wouldn’t recommend it anyway – if you’re smart enough to go to vet school, go to medical school instead and drive a MUCH better car as a result). Take a job in any service industry (as I’m sure many writers need to do to make ends meet). If you deal with people on a regular basis, the material will come to you in droves.
Hope this all helps.
About the Author
When he’s not busy being a writer (and we use the term writer very loosely here), James Weir is a small animal veterinarian. In addition to clinical practice, he holds graduate degrees in pathology and in public health. He has also worked as a stand-up comedian. He has been published before, but mostly boring science crap. He has written two books of “poetry” (Coronavirus Haiku – Poetry to Help Lighten Your Pandemic Days and Asshole Haiku – ‘Celebrating’ the Assholes in Our Everyday Lives) and is currently writing a humor book based on 30 years of veterinary practice.