Ask Dave: How Did You Become a Humor Writer?

By Dave Fox

“How did you become a humor writer? What advice would you give to someone wanting to develop a humorous style? What have been your influences in becoming a humor writer? Have you ever written in any other genres and on any other topics other than travel?”

— Gay in Whitby, Ontario, Canada

I became a humor writer because I hated math.

Seriously… in high school, I scored high on math aptitude tests, and about average for English. So I was put into super-advanced math classes, which I hated and nearly failed. Meanwhile, I loved writing, so I pursued it, and here I am today. Moral of that story: Do what you love, not what people or test scores say you’re good at.

I began writing humor for fun. I wrote occasional columns in my high school and college newspapers. But in college, I was majoring in journalism, learning how to write news. Professional humor writing wasn’t offered as a viable option.

Fast forward many years: In various jobs, I’d write funny office memos. I realized when I sent out information in a funny way, people actually read and retained it. Then one day, I discovered Dave Barry, and thought, “Hey, people actually make a living writing funny stuff. I want to do that.”

Barry became my “virtual mentor.” I studied him and other humorists – dissecting their jokes and figuring out how they structured them. I took a geeky, methodical approach, paying close attention to anything I thought was funny – books, movies, sketch comedy, improv, even TV commercials. I’d pick them apart and ask myself how the writers created the funny part.

Advice I would give to someone wanting to develop a humorous style?

Save your notepads! You might find yourself referring back to them for inspiration years after you've filled them with ideas.

  • Find your own virtual mentor(s). Read them very slowly, or watch them, and take notes. Understand how they set up their jokes and get to their punchlines.
  • Carry a pocket-sized notebook and write down your funny ideas whenever they strike. Never assume you’ll remember them later.
  • Write whenever you can. The more you do it, the better you get.
  • Know that your rough drafts will often not be very funny. Comedy requires much polishing and finessing before it really sparkles.
  • If you write something and you’re not sure whether it’s funny, it probably isn’t there yet. Keep working on it. Much of the time, comedy is about trial and error.
  • (Ahem… also… I highly recommend my enthralling and life-changing online humor writing classes. Jus’ sayin’.)

My influences? I have tons of them and they have changed over the years. A few of them are Dave Barry, Jon Stewart, J. Maartin Troost, Jack Black, Erma Bombeck, Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Birbiglia, Mike Daisey, Janeane Garofalo, and my travel mascot, Sven Wondermoose, who is funny as hell.

(Mike Daisey has had a lot of bad press lately for a story he did on the radio show, “This American Life” in which he fabricated details and concealed information from producers. I agree with the criticism against Daisey; nevertheless, I still consider him a phenomenal storyteller.)

My non-human humor writing influences? A dysfunctional childhood, a dysfunctional adulthood, lots of foreign travel, a twisted mind, a passion for scuzzy dive bars, a passion for talking to strangers, and occasional contact with stupid people. Anything in life that challenges you and throws you off balance is ripe humor material.

Have I covered other genres and topics? Travel and humor are the two genres I work in most of the time these days, along with articles about writing. But my training was in news. I’ve covered everything from small-town Wisconsin politics to prostates to concert reviews to world economics to exercise equipment. And that just scratches the surface. (I have published one short Kindle e-book of non-travel humor stories: Kinky Chipmunks and Horny Goblins.)

All of the genres I’ve written in have helped me as a humor writer. They have helped me hone my overall skills and given me a wide scope of life experiences. One of the best pieces of advice I got starting out was: If someone wants to hire you to write something, write it, no matter what it is. Write it even if you think you can’t. You will strengthen your skills and become as versatile a writer as possible.


Thanks for your question, Gay!

Check out Gay’s recently launched blog, Focus On Funny, offering advice and inspiration to aspiring humorists!

  • Do you have a question about writing, travel, or absolutely anything else? Send it in via our Ask Dave page, and watch for the answer in a future column!
  • Are you a humor writer? Do you aspire to be one? Who are some of your inspirations? Tell us about your favorite humorists and why you like them in the comment section below!

Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz is the most comprehensive book I know for understanding how humor works. It breaks down a wide range of techniques and humor sub-genres and is packed with fun examples to help you understand them. 
Published on Monday, May 21, 2012

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