By: Dick Wolfsie
Last week, I shared with you some of the most common inquiries I have received from readers over the past 25 years about the writing of humor. Here are a few more.
“Are there any taboo subjects in humor?”
A well-known comic named Tig Notaro found out 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? In my mind, 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 once noted that the key to writing about sensitive topics is to make fun of the smoke, not the fire. Example: Stewart himself did a whole 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. Sara 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. Let humorists do their thing. Some old Seinfeld episodes seem extremely politically incorrect now. Would I ban them from TV? Of course not.
“I once heard you say that puns were the lowest form of humor. But you often use them?”
I once considered puns a low form of humor because unlike a classic joke, a pun requires very little intellectual input by the listener or reader. There is really nothing to” get”. And getting a joke is what makes you laugh. A pun takes very little getting.
But I was wrong. In order to understand a (good) pun, you most 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,” said the captain “Either oar.”
“Make me the subject of a joke,” said the king to the court jester. Frightened of getting himself in serious 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.)
By the way, Shakespeare loved puns. He averaged about 80 per play. I manage about two a column, but I’m no Shakespeare.
“How long does it take to write a column?”
Actual writing takes about two hours. But the premise of the column must already be in my head. I have probably spent several days with the idea rattling around in my brain. I never sit down to write without already knowing the basic topic and having some direction. Otherwise, I’d be sitting there all day.
I think it was Mark Twain who 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.
-Dick Wolfsie spent his career sharing his humor, stories and video essays on television, radio and in newspapers. His columns appear weekly in The Paper of Montgomery County. E-mail Dick at Wolfsie@ aol.com.