100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 12: The Science of Comedy

By Dave Fox

One of my original humor writing inspirations was syndicated newspaper columnist Dave Barry. I’d read his weekly musings and think, “He gets paid for writing that stuff? I want to do that!”

So I started taking comedy very seriously. I became a humor nerd.

I devoured book after book by Mr. Barry. I started noticing patterns. Similar techniques popped up in unrelated stories. I discovered that, yes, creativity and spontaneity are crucial parts to humor, but there’s another component – a series of techniques you can apply to virtually all things funny.

People sometimes ask me, “Doesn’t that become formulaic? Don’t you lose the creativity if you break humor down to a series of techniques?”


The techniques are your bag of tricks to draw from. You must still use your creativity to mold those techniques into your best jokes. And that is the secret to professional comedy. You learn to spot “premises” – ideas that have the potential to be funny. Then, you try out different techniques, twisting your premises in creative directions, playing with words and ideas, using trial and error until you find the funny part.

Once you’ve found it, you keep playing with it. You test your word choice, your timing, the order in which you present various parts of the story. You tweak your sentences, prune them, massage them, flog them, do whatever it takes to stretch them to their full potential. If something is “kind of funny,” with a little more work, we can usually make it “really funny.”

Just as studying music theory can make you a better composer or musician, studying humor theory will make you a stronger humorist. So find a favorite writer or seven, and read them slowly. Pay attention to what they do. Watch for the techniques they use. Eventually, you’ll start to notice these same techniques in all things funny. They’ll begin to come naturally to you, and your humor writing will soar.


[Reminder: If you are following this post as part of the 100 Hours of Humo(u)r, entries into humor writing contest #1 are due by the end of this hour.]

Published on Saturday, March 2, 2013

Leave a Reply