Reading about Writing: “Just the Funny Parts”

The only word-related thing I like better than writing is reading—especially reading about writing.

Nell Scovell has written a brilliant, moving, and inspiring book about the writing she’s done, for TV mostly. Just the Funny Parts also offers some advice about writing that happens to agree with things I tell my writers all the time. So don’t take my word for it—listen to Nell Scovell:

“Writing is not what you start. It’s not even what you finish. It’s what you start, finish, and put out there for the world to see.”

“There’s an old saying that ‘a writer writes.’ but that’s just the start. A writer writes…a lot…and then shares that work with others.”

Or, as Austin Kleon says—right in the title another book you should read if you haven’t already—Show Your Work!

As a writer, Scovell also apparently loves reading about writing. She quotes John Irving: “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

Irving writes novels, but that’s true for us in the nonfiction world as well. “Noticing”—which I call going on Story Safari™—enlivens our writing, takes us beyond the spreadsheet the client handed us and opens up the possibility of metaphor.

The final bit of wisdom I’ll share today comes from Barry Kemp, who was Scovell’s boss when she wrote for the sitcom Coach.

“Writing,” Barry said, “is not an act of creation. It’s an act of choice.”

She means that you choose what your characters do and say. And that’s true. But you also choose to sit there and make words come out of your fingers. You choose to create.

Read Nell Scovell’s book. And then write…write a lot…and push your work out of the nest so people can enjoy it.

Anxiety — a catalyst of creativity

Do you get anxious when you create? Maybe not the jittery, can’t-get-anything-done kind of anxiety. But the kind where your mind starts broadcasting a loop of anyone who’s ever said anything unkind about you and your creative endeavors—from the short story you wrote yesterday to the potholder you made on that stupid metal loom when you were five.

Some people allow anxiety to shut them down completely. They use it as an excuse to stop pushing.

But it’s just the lizard brain doing what it’s done for millennia—warning us of danger. You could be thinking, “Oh my God, there’s a theatre critic in the house tonight.” You get scared, because a bad review could kill the play you wrote. But your lizard brain doesn’t know you mean “kill” in a metaphorical sense. Its job is to keep you out of mortal danger, so it triggers the fight-or-flight instinct. In this case, it’s usually mental flight. Anxiety.

Chelsea Handler on Anxiety & Creativity

Chelsea Handler writes about anxiety
Photo by US Dept. of Education – US Department of Education flickr account, Public Domain

The June edition of InStyle magazine features an essay by Chelsea Handler “on the importance of being anxious.”

Importance? Yep, that’s the subtitle of the article—as if being anxious is a good thing. Handler tales us on a brief tour of things that have made her anxious in her life: When she started out in stand-up, she assumed that once she was better known, the anxiety would fade. It didn’t, but instead of being anxious about her abilities (she managed to pick up some self-confidence along the way), now she was anxious that people who had paid a lot of money to see her would have out-sized expectations about how good she would be.

Eventually she stopped waiting for the magical day when anxiety would disappear and, in her words,

“I grew myself up.”

And in the process, she adopted a more nuanced—dare I say mature?—view of anxiety:

“Anxiety doesn’t have to be such a dirty word. It can be there for us to harness and turn into something fierce. I also feel strong when I’m stressed, because I know I have the drive to push through it and come out on the other side. I know I can flip that worry into something powerful.”

Imagine feeling strong and stressed at the same time. Imagine knowing you could use anxiety to create “something powerful.”

Chandler continues:

“I still get anxiety about things I have to do professionally, and I’m pretty sure I always will. Knowing that’s part of the process helps me focus not on the worry itself but on the sense of accomplishment I’ll feel afterward.”

Yes, I added the emphasis. Many people think they have to conquer their anxiety before they can create. And so—guess what?—they never create. That’s one of the causes of that fictional affliction people call writer’s block.

Flip it

Handler reframes anxiety as just another part of the creative process. Create first. Use the anxiety not as a block but as a catalyst. Push past the fear as Handler does, recognizing

“Even if you have something you’re dreading, that feeling will not last forever….And if you push past the fear, you’ve accomplished something and you’re a stud again.”

Not exactly how I would have phrased it. But sure, what the hell. Be a stud. Elbow your way right past the fear and create.

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

May the Fourth Be with You — puns and when to use them

“Puns are the lowest form of humor.”

My parents may have said that to me more often than anything else—more often, even, than “Clean up your room.” And believe me, my room always needed cleaning. But I could never resist a good pun. Or a bad one, for that matter.

My favorite Star Wars pun is not “May the Fourth Be with You.” It’s

Metaphors Be with You

Back in the early ’80s I had a sweatshirt from the National Writers Union with that line on the front. I spent my last $20 on it, but it made me so happy.

punsPuns—the “feeblest species” of humor?

Besides my parents—who, being parents, were wrong about so many things—who else says puns are the lowest form of humor?

Well, British poet John Dryden said it way back in the 17th century. According to this op-ed The New York Times published in 2009, Dryden called puns “the lowest and most groveling kind of wit.” He must have hated Shakespeare. Shakespeare punned with abandon—using them to intensify humor in some scenes, and pathos in others.

Ah, but the author gives old Will a pass:

“Yet [Shakespeare] is guilty less of punning than wordplay, which Elizabethan taste considered more a sign of literary refinement than humor…”

When is a pun not a pun? The answer seems to be “when you’re an Elizabethan…or a law student.” Yes, scroll down to read the author’s bona fides: He was a law student when he wrote this piece. The law depends on words meaning what they say they mean; and while I know many lawyers with fine senses of humor, I can easily imagine a law student losing his after too many long nights in the library.

“Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion.”

Now I’m not a big fan of long-term semantic confusion (see Trump, Donald J.), but a momentary mix-up—I think it’s a sign of a superior intellect, myself. Case in point, Stephen Sondheim, whose lyrics are full of puns. The first one that comes to mind is the lyric from “I’m Still Here,” in which a former Follies girl reflects on her life:

First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.
Then you career from career to career.
I’m almost through my memoirs,
But I’m here.

The switch between “career” as verb and noun—I find it dizzyingly brilliant.

Some say puns are the lowest form of humor; I think people who dislike puns are the lowest form of people. Okay, that may be hyperbole (see Trump, Donald J.).

Perhaps Oscar Levant, one of the signature wits of the early 20th century, said it best:

“A pun is the lowest form of humor—when you don’t think of it first.”

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

How is business humor like broccoli? – Frequent Questions

Q: How is business humor like broccoli?
A: Some people hate it, but it’s really, really good for you.

how is broccoli like business humor?I am not a fan of cruciferous vegetables on my dinner plate. But I am a staunch advocate of humor in business communications.

Humor gets people’s attention. It helps your audience connect with you—and that connection makes them much more receptive to your ideas.

Got a complex or unfamiliar idea to explain? The best way to do it is to tie your idea to something your audience already understands. Draw an analogy. Tell a story. If it’s a funny story, all the better.

Business humor: It’s not stand-up comedy

I understand why some people feel wary of humor in a business context. We’ve all cringed through enough inept instances:

  1. The speaker who’s been told “Always open with a joke” and picks something random out of a cheesy joke book
  2. The speaker whose “joke” uses stereotypes that may have gotten a laugh 30 years ago but only offend now
  3. The speaker who confuses this business opportunity with an audition for Saturday Night Live
  4. The speaker so wooden that even a funny joke sounds a recitation of the balance sheet.

If these were the only associations I had with “business humor,” I’d run away from it too. Screaming.

So what’s wrong with those pictures?

  1. Your humor has to relate to your subject.
  2. The bounds of cultural acceptability shift over time. Before you tell an old story, check it against the current social climate. Does it trade on stereotypes? Does it demean any person or group? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, throw it out and start over again.
  3. Successful standup comedians aim for 4-6 laughs per minute. Fortunately for the business speaker, one or two well-timed jokes in the first minute will suffice. Aim for a laugh as soon as possible in your presentation—but tie the humor to your topic as soon as possible after that. Too many laugh lines could detract from your message or your personal brand.
  4. If don’t feel comfortable telling jokes: Good news—you don’t have to. A humorous story will do just as well. In fact, if you can share a bit about yourself, your life, your observations, in the course of that humorous story, even better.

Not a comedian—a communicator

The purpose of business humor is not to turn you into a comedian. It’s to turn you into a communicator. Dust your ideas with a sprinkling of humor and the audience will listen to them and—according to British neuroscientist Sophie Scott—even understand them better. It’s the neurological equivalent of sneaking broccoli into a chocolate brownie.

Scott wrote a piece for the BBC called “10 things you may not know about laughter.” She calls laughter:

“…a form of communication, not a reaction.

The science of laughter is telling us that laughter is less to do with jokes and more a social behaviour which we use to show people that we like them and that we understand them.”

Sadly, I can’t embed the video of the BBC’s report on Professor Scott. But do click over to the article and watch it for yourself. She reminds us that laughing together unites people.

So do you want to get your audience on the same page, and help them understand your idea? Make ’em laugh.

And you don’t nearly have to work as hard as Donald O’Connor.


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Satire or News? When reality becomes absurd

What’s a humorist to do when reality becomes absurd? So absurd that even intelligent, well-read people mistake it for truth?

During the campaign, I saw many articles by The New Yorker‘s resident satirist, Andy Borowitz, shared by people who mistook them for actual journalism. With all the “fake news” [proper translation: propaganda] flying around the interwebs, it’s become increasingly hard to tell humor from hyperbole.

And so The New Yorker has added a banner to its Facebook posts of Borowitz’s columns: “The Borowitz Report, Not the News.”

When reality becomes absurd, you need to clearly identify satire

Click on the link and you’ll find this above the headline:

when reality becomes absurd, label satire prominently

This isn’t a case of readers being unable to tell real news from propaganda, a trend this NPR report rightly calls “dismaying.”

It’s not because we’ve cheapened and corrupted the meaning of words to the point that vast numbers of people no longer believe the giant, undifferentiated enemy they call “the media.”

People can’t tell truth from satire these days because the truth has become so unremittingly absurd. This is not normal. None of what we are living through in the United States right now is even close to normal.

Reality becomes absurd: Trump’s first legacy

When reality induces more spit-takes than comedy, we’ve left our satirists precious little room to ply their trade. I mean, President Trump will serve not just as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces but also as Executive Producer of The Apprentice. Eight weeks ago, that might have been a headline on The Onion. This week it was a news story in Variety.

In the opening sketch on the December 4th Saturday Night Live, the actors broke character several times to remind the audience that the behavior they were skewering was not something their writers had dreamed up in a bourbon-soaked trance. One after another looked straight into the camera and said, “He really did that.” Because—guess what?—he really did.

The question is, what will we do?

It’s not just a matter of saving the Republic. Unless we act soon, our satirists will be put out of business completely. Saturday Night Live will become a news show. Andy Borowitz will turn into a journalist. And then who will amuse us?

One day we may be return to a world in which we can laugh at absurdities rather than fear or elect them. I hope I live to see it. I hope you do, too.

How do I introduce speakers?: Frequent Questions


Q: How do I introduce speakers?

A: One word at a time. [Rimshot]

Have you ever been to a comedy club, or seen a major comedian in concert? They always have warm-up acts, right?

Yes, I know bands have warm-up acts too but the sound is always terrible. I have a conspiracy theory about that, but I think we’ve had enough of conspiracy theories to last about a dozen lifetimes—so let’s stick with comedy.

The warm-up act has a tough job. They have to entertain an audience that, for the most part, has come there to see someone else. They have to be funny, but not so funny that they overshadow the headliner. But they’re called the “warm-up act” because their main job is to remind the audience that they know how to laugh. Laugh at the warm-up act and you’re primed to guffaw when the star comes onstage.

The good news is, you do not have to be a standup comedian to introduce someone at a corporate event. But you do have to get the audience ready for the main speaker. So in some respects your job is the same as the warm-up act’s. And I can sum up your main responsibility in four words:

Thou Shalt Not Bore

So please, please, please do not read the biography of the speaker that’s printed in the program. Unless this is Career Day at the preschool assume your audience can do that by themselves. Yet, according to Deborah Grayson Riegel’s article in Harvard Business Review, some version of that accounts for fully half of the introductions she receives. The other half are equally unhelpful: baseless flattery (“Deborah needs no introduction!”) or extreme transparency (“I’ve never met Deborah but I’m sure she’s great!”).

Introduce speakers to establish the tone of the event

Your job as the introducer is to set the table for the speech. You’ve never met the speaker? Okay, but you have met our mutual friend Google. So learn something about her. Something that’s not in the bio.

Talk to the event organizers. There’s a reason they invited her—find out what it was and talk about that. You might think it’s obvious—she’s an expert on XYZ and the conference is about XYZ. But she’s probably not the only expert in the world. Why did they choose this person?

You might also ask the speaker what points she’d like included in the introduction. You don’t want to give away the content of her speech, but you could tee it up: “She’s going to make some interesting points about XYZ—sure to spark some enthusiastic conversations going forward.”

Really, there’s no formula to introduce speakers. Get the audience’s attention focused on the stage, help them transition from feeding their bodies to feeding their minds. Keep it short. But most of all, keep it interesting.

Thou Shalt Not Bore


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