You don’t have to be a comedian to inject a little humor into your writing. And even if you don’t consider yourself a funny person, there are tips and tricks you can use to make humor work for you.
On a recent ProfNet #ConnectChat, we spoke with Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski, an award-winning freelance writer, humorist and standup comedian, about when and how to include a few laughs or cheeky barbs in your stories.
In 2013, Wojo won the Outstanding Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for her humor book, “Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.” She also writes the humor column “Wojo’s World” and covers people in the comedy industry for Parade.com.
She counts Erma Bombeck, Fannie Flagg, E.B. White, James Thurber, and Lewis Grizzard among her influences.
Is there a place for humor in journalism?
Yes, it just depends on the story you’re covering. A serious business piece? No. A light feature? Absolutely! A whole article can be funny, like when I went undercover at a Renaissance festival and discovered my “inner wench.” Or you can start with a funny anecdote, then move into a more straightforward piece.
Are there any topics that are off limits? When is humor not appropriate?
Yes: rape, domestic violence, child abuse. You get the idea. Making a joke way too soon about a recent death or tragedy. People have lost their jobs doing this.
What are some of your favorite humor devices?
I love to use the “rule of 3.” You set something up, then have three funny parts that follow. Like:
I grew up in the city.
We had no wildlife. No critters at all.
Just waterbugs, pigeons, and rats.
You get the idea.
Does the type of humor matter? I would imagine snark, for example, would not be appropriate in most pieces.
It really depends on the publication, its audience, and the story topic. An alternative weekly might love snark, so the type of humor can vary. I keep my Wojo’s World column clean, but it runs in family pubs. Playboy, CollegeHumor, or even The New Yorker can run humor pieces with cursing in them. In other publications, you can’t.
What happens if someone misinterprets your humor? How do you handle it?
On the few times this happened, I explained what I was after. If I was out of line, I apologized. I tend to go over my humor and think it through before I let it be published. And when I said I apologized, I told the person that I’m sorry she was offended. But I didn’t publish an apology. Like you do with stuff in the fridge, if in doubt, throw it out.
I’m not offended by many things, so I usually wind up having someone else read through it just in case.
That’s a good thing to do. I’ve read stuff to my husband and my assistant to make sure I’m not out of line.
Should people avoid contentious areas like politics, religion, or sexuality?
It depends on the situation. I joke about having grown up Catholic. I saw a comic recently who joked about being a lesbian. I think if you can without offending people, great. Or, your brand may be offending people. Some great comics and humorists offend folks all the time because they have different points of view. But with my brand, I’m not mean to people, nor would I say/write something to deliberately hurt them.
You injected a lot of humor into your book on moving. Why was it important to you to do that?
Using humor got me through our move, which was so stressful. I use humor in many stressful situations. If something crazy or stressful happens and I’m with friends, one will usually say, “Great, now this is going to be a column.” And it usually will end up as one.
What should writers never do when it comes to adding humor to their writing?
If you’ve got a brand, don’t go against it. I thought of a funny tweet, but I didn’t post it – it wasn’t my type of humor. For example, you wouldn’t see Ellen [DeGeneres] being cruel to someone. That doesn’t fit her brand or mine.
Where do you seek inspiration for your humor writing?
Everywhere! Life is full of ridiculous experiences — that’s comedy gold. I just pay attention and write them down.
Do you make little notes when you think something’s funny?
All the time! I carry a notebook in my purse, but I’ve been known to scribble on parts of envelopes, napkins, scraps of paper — anything I can write on. I wrote something on my hand once, but it rubbed off before I got home.
Do you have any tips for someone trying to make their humor writing go viral?
Stuff that goes viral appeals to a mass audience, or it’s just weird. See what has gone viral and use that as examples. Viral stuff also ties in with something that is really topical but covers it in a way that no one else has, so be quirky.
In terms of adding bits of humor to a non-comedic piece, what’s your favorite article you’ve written, and why?
That’s easy: “Discovering My Inner Wench.” I had humor throughout it, but I was serious about talking with folks behind-the-scenes at this Renaissance festival. They were really interesting, and the reasons they worked there were so cool. But I got to dress up in authentic garb, sing songs when I served people at Steak on a Stake (“’Tis not just lunch, ’tis a weapon too!”). It was so much fun! But it was a more serious story.