Opinion: Getting serious about humor


Last week, I shared with you some of the most common inquiries I have received from readers about the writing of humor. Here are a few more:

Are there taboo subjects in humor?

A comic named Tig Notaro learned the day before a performance that she had breast cancer. She then created a monologue for her next stand-up about receiving the bad news. Was that an appropriate topic for comedy? Yes! Keep in mind it was her own diagnosis she was joking about. That gave her some leeway. As Tig has reported, it was those people with cancer who enjoyed her riff the most.

Jon Stewart said the key to writing about sensitive topics is to make fun of the smoke, not the fire. Example: Stewart did a show satirizing the way reporters covered Michael Jackson’s death. Not the fact the legend died, but how it was handled in the press. Mel Brooks skewered Hitler, not the Holocaust.

Comedy is about going right to the edge and sometimes over, which means you risk alienating some. Sarah Silverman is brilliant, but she crosses that line for many. She does make Holocaust jokes. I don’t find them funny, but if I don’t like what I am hearing, I grab the remote. Or walk out of the club. Some old “Seinfeld” episodes seem extremely politically incorrect now. Would I ban them from TV? Of course not.

 You once said puns were the lowest form of humor? Why?

I was wrong. In order to understand a (good) pun, you must hold two very different ideas in your head at the same time. In poems, the words rhyme. With puns, the ideas rhyme. Some puns do require a little thought to see the connection of two separate ideas. The story goes that a rich passenger on a sinking ship asked the captain if he could choose himself to row the lifeboat or not. “Of course,” the captain said, “either oar.”

“Make me the subject of a joke,” the king said to the court jester. In fear of getting himself in trouble, the jokester responded, “I cannot do that, the king is not a subject.” Of course, some puns are groan worthy. For example, I hate puns about sausages They are the wurst. See what I mean?

 How long does it take to write a column?

Actual writing takes about two hours at the keyboard after several days with the idea rattling around in my brain. I never sit down to write without already knowing the topic and having some direction. Otherwise, I’d be sitting there all day.

Mark Twain once said, “Humor is easy.  If something funny occurs to you, just write about it.”  Then he said, “The writing is easy; the hard part is the occurring.”

Next week, I’ll write a real humor column. Hopefully, something will occur to me.


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