100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 91: Humor Writing Tip: %$*[email protected]*#

Humor and Profanity

By Dave Fox

This article, about profanity in humor, contains profanity. If that troubles you, please do not read it. Also, if that troubles you, you probably should not be on the Internet. It’s a festering cesspool of profane goodness.


100hours-logo3Does profanity strengthen our humor? Does it weaken it? Two of my favorite comedians, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy, have butted heads on this one.

Cosby, a storytelling genius, phoned Murphy once to ask him to stop using the word “fuck” on stage. Was Cosby being a prude? If you read this interview with Hour Detroit, you’ll see Cosby can swear with the best of ‘em when he wants to. He says in the interview, however, “Profanity is a security blanket, because you know the audience is going to laugh when they hear profanity.” He sees profanity as a lazy way of drawing laughter – a crutch that enables us to get away with weaker comedy.

Yet sometimes it works. Murphy responded to Cosby’s request with a public snub. “Eddie Murphy: Raw” was a live stand-up show turned into a movie. The 90-minute film contained the word “fuck” 223 times (I did not count. I read this on Wikipedia), breaking the previous record for the most times that word was used in a movie.

When I wrote my first travel humor book, I made a point not to use profanity gratuitously, but there are moments when certain words just work better than anything else. There are also times when you’re quoting someone else. If they said it, and a publication will print it, I say go with what they said, as they said it. It gives readers a hint to the person’s character.

And what about implying a word without actually writing it? As in, “That’s f—ing bulls—,” or “Do you have any idea what the %&[email protected]  she’s talking about?” Personally, I avoid such things, my exception being when I quote someone else directly in a publication that will not print such words. If you’re going to imply the words, people know what you’re saying, so not spelling them out has always struck me as distracting if not juvenile. I do have a few substitute words, however, that have a funny ring to them. In the right context, they can work really freaking well.

As humor writers we must always keep our target audiences in mind. Whether it’s edgylanguage or colorful topics, there are risks in writing certain things – and taking calculated risks with our writing can be good. But we must be prepared for a negative reaction. As you get started in publishing humor, chances are you’ll have an experience or two when you publish something you later regret. Nearly all writers do. Online, you can lessen the blow by changing it. In print, you don’t have that luxury. The experiences can sting, but we get over them and grow from them.

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Published on Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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