What’s the secret to my modest success as a freelance writer?
• Timing (‘bad timing’ still counts as timing)
• Dreamy eyes
• Writing funny shit
Funny shit is the great equalizer in the world of writing. The ability to write funny shit will often cause editors to forgive many other shortcomings such as grammar, structure, crippling overlong word counts, and frequent references to the contours of one’s bootie in first class airline reviews and the History section in the Moldova guidebook. (Every one of them warranted.)
It was funny shit that got me one of my first magazine gigs. It was, in part, funny shit that swept me into the Lonely Planet author pool. And it’s funny shit that, inevitably, makes some of my least useful blog posts my most popular blog posts. In short, funny shit has facilitated the swift advance of my very late blossoming freelance writing career, despite little experience, zero contacts and no clue.
Writing funny shit is like pretty much any activity. Practice and dedication go a long way, but having natural aptitude provides a huge advantage. Whatever the case, publicly declaring oneself as ‘funny’ is undeniably a risky move, particularly with humor sometimes being precariously subjective. And I’m acutely aware of the dangerous ego required to write an entire blog post tutoring others on how to write funny shit. However, after many years of copious and consistent positive reinforcement, I’ve decided to shoulder the character suicide dual threat of writing this post and giving away some of my favorite funny shit tricks. If I don’t completely screw this up, I expect to receive a Funny Shit Purple Heart, presented, ideally, by Emily Blunt wearing that dress from “The Adjustment Bureau.”
Now I could write an ebook about how to write funny shit, filled with content that any halfwit could find in 60 seconds of Googling, and sell it for $2.99, but all that work for $8.97 seems ridiculous. So, I’m just going to post it here. If you find it useful, you can buy me a taco someday. Here we go.
Step 1. Get a running start and kick a puppy in the face. (Are you fully paying attention now? OK, good.)
Step 2. Get stinking drunk, preferably on a socially unacceptable day for form’s sake, like Tuesday or your boss’ daughter’s 4th birthday.
Step 3. The next day, once you’ve pieced together where all the Chuck E. Cheese’s prize tickets came from, start writing. This precious window – when your brain is only firing at 25% capacity and all your filters for quality, taste, civility, and the resolve to not write about boobies are disabled – is ideal for composing first drafts that will, at minimum, offend/disappoint 70% of your readers. Write every little thing down, no matter how absurd, stupid or pointless. Don’t let the fact that it makes no sense stunt your creativity. I never have. Boobies.
Step 4. Eat an Everything Omelet drowning in Tabasco and sleep it off.
Step 5. With most of your filters reengaged, cut out most of the poor quality, tasteless, uncivil material and boobie references. But not all! The first rule of funny shit is to walk right on the line of offense. Think about it. Who was the last polite, milquetoast comedian that had any success? (Answer: Bob Newhart, circa 1984.) Even if you wanna maintain broad, vaguely edgy, Dane Cook-caliber humor, you’re gonna have to write intimate details about your butthole at least once in a while. If any of this makes you uncomfortable, I think they’re about to hire a new writer for “Garfield,” so you still have options.
Step 6. After all the cutting, what you have left is going to be less funny than what you started out with – funny shit pros call this the “second draft suckification” – but at least now you won’t get piles of hate mail from people who only read at a 3rd grade level. Obviously, you can’t post this unfunny shit. So you go through and surgically transform the unfunny shit into funny shit. Keep tweaking until the material inches back up to a state where it will offend 17% of your regular readers and 92% of readers that found your blog by Googling ‘Leif Pettersen’ looking for the recently deceased Canadian ex-football player of the same name. Some of my favorite tricks for inserting funny shit into existing text include:
• The unexpected twist: The unexpected twist comedic tool was discovered in 7,364 BC when Grog was hit on the head by a falling coconut while walking down the aisle after his wedding vows with his beloved donkey Ook-Ook. The unexpected twist value was particularly strong in this instance as the sound of the coconut hitting Grog’s head was almost precisely the same sound as when you hit a coconut with another coconut. Needless to say, the whole tribe lost their shit. Grog, of course, slaughtered everyone to regain his honor, setting back the advancement of coconut-on-head humor for millennia, but nonetheless the unexpected twist comedic tool had been born. In written form, the unexpected twist can be as simple as changing one word in a sentence, preferably at or near the end, to something absurd and totally out of context while (just barely in some cases) maintaining the meaning of the sentence. Example: “The process of writing effective funny shit is as challenging and erratic as truffle hunting” can be changed to “The process of writing effective funny shit is as challenging and erratic as riding a fart-powered ferris wheel.” Unexpected twist, yet still makes sense. Sorta.
• The callback gag: I use callback gags constantly, mainly because they’re reliable and fairly easy to employ. Essentially, you make a joke, or at least make a reference, and then later in the text you refer (“callback”) to that item to comedic effect. You get extra points if the callback also contains an unexpected twist. Back in the Blogging Bronze Age (2006-08), I employed callback jokes bridging several blog posts that were weeks and even months apart. That’s far less effective now with reduced reader loyalty and attention spans measured in milliseconds, so I mostly stick to callbacks contained within a single post. Can you find the three callback jokes in this piece?
• References to popular culture: Another easy and effective tool, with the added advantage of forming a teensy bond with your reader, is referencing popular culture. It’s akin to a large scale, inside joke since people tend to identify with other people who get the same references. If you want to see this tool routinely used with wild success, just watch a few episodes of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” Though, again, pulling off this form of funny shit is a bit more delicate in written form, even with a judiciously selected Creative Commons picture thrown in for support. The key here is referencing something that most if not all of your readers will get. In this post, I make a Donald Rumsfeld reference in the first paragraph that’s only funny for people who closely follow current events in the US, which, with a global audience and reading habits being what they are, is arguably not a particularly popular choice. It would have probably been more effective if I’d made a reference to, say, masturbation or Snooki.
Step 7. After all the time and energy you put into Steps 1-6, you may feel as if you’ve gone above and beyond the effort that any sane person should put into a blog post that will probably only get four retweets because no one truly appreciates your genius, but I beg to differ. If you’re really dedicated to writing funny shit for your blog, you still have one more critical step: marinating. Put the post away for 24-48 hours then do one final, anal retentive read-through. You do this to assess whether or not your gags are still acceptably funny with semi-fresh eyes. Absorb each gag word for word. Is it funnier if you change the phrasing slightly? (Remember, funny shit is frequently going to have the biggest punch if it appears at or near the end of a sentence.) Is there something funnier that you can put in place of ‘fart-powered ferris wheel’? A bonus benefit to this step is that you get one last chance to catch any lingering typos.
Step 8. Post that mother! Remember, if your funny shit doesn’t get 84 retweets and 237 comments, it’s not necessarily because it wasn’t funny shit. It could be bad timing or too long [cough] or the topic of your post was of too narrow interest. Or your readers are idiots and you should pay them no heed because you’ll probably be celebrated as a groundbreaking humorist after you’re dead.
Or, just possibly, you’re not funny. Does this mean you should give up trying to write funny shit for your blog? Of course not. Well, OK yes, some of you should give up immediately because if everyone had the gas to drive a fart-powered ferris wheel, humor would cease to be an exceptional thing. But as I stated above, to a certain degree, writing effective funny shit can often be achieved through practice, a strong process and reliable tools.
Or, harking back to the very beginning of this post, you could simply focus on being an exceptional writer. But where’s the fun in that?