Writing Funny: Some Thoughts from Someone Who Was Good at It

By Jack Limpert


After “The Exorcist” movie was released in December 1973, this May 1974 cover tried to ride the supernatural wave.

In a December 8 post, I said I had found only a few writers who were really good at writing light. That kind of talent, I said, was found in maybe one in a hundred writers and is the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball who can throw 95 miles an hour. That drew a response from John Corcoran, one of the Washingtonian writers who consistently could write publishable humor:

Not sure if humor writers were born with that 95-mph heater or had it simmer and grow in that pot of boiled angst stew known as growing up. Many humorists credit being surrounded by storytellers and weird relatives, plus a heavy dollop of guilt and insecurity, as the best atmosphere for humor.

Early on, I learned the five words I most wanted to avoid hearing from you. The phrase was also a great piece of advice for writers who think their sense of humor will do the heavy lifting for them.

I wrote on many topics for which I was not an expert, including airports, teenagers, cats and dogs, and Metrobus woes, and each required a ton of research. The reason was the more material you have to be funny with, the less likelihood you’ll have to strain to make something funny.

That way I avoided hearing the dreaded: “It feels a bit thin.”

A good point: Some humor writers can just sit down at the computer and write funny but in journalism most light writing involves some reporting.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, John wrote often for the Washingtonian. Then he was offered six-figure money in television as a feature reporter and critic and he worked at TV stations in DC, Boston, and Los Angeles. He now lives in LA, writing plays and humor. I asked him:

Do you mostly agree that you can’t learn to write funny by reading something that tries to tell you how to write funny? My theory on the best way to learn to write is to read a lot of good writing. The same for writing funny? Read lots of Dave Barry, Gene Weingarten, and others and try to absorb it?

John’s answer:

Humor writing is never always one thing. But I think the best humor writers have to be born to the manor so to speak. Once the twig is bent, humor writers do tend to read the greats. In my case, I sometimes reached a saturation point where when I read someone of similar style, it would usually cause me to stop, either because they were so damn good I felt I couldn’t keep up or because it inspired me to go out and write something better.

My Dad had a very good sense of humor and he introduced me to the work of the two best writers of humor I’ve ever read. One was Robert Benchley, the man who inspired Dave Barry and so many others. The other was Joseph Heller.

You imagine just how good a writer Heller was when he had my Dad in tears laughing at the very madness that existed in World War Two.

Then after a night’s sleep, John added:

Been thinking about what you said about writing humor. One of the best things that happened with the Washingtonian pieces is the format we used for most of the pieces. There was no attempt to be linear. We found a good subject and I wrote in chunks and the magazine laid it out with lots of boxes.

The first one I did was about Metrobus. This led to similarly-styled pieces where we chose a topic and we went all in. I remember “Strange Happenings in Washington”–a paranormal roundup suggested by the release of “The Exorcist.” Then came “Airports” and “Teenagers” and “Cats & Dogs.”

The good advice you gave me regarding cats and dogs. “Beware of cat owners. They tend to be very sensitive.”

The humor piece that got the most reaction was conceived at a lunch with you, me, and Vic Gold. It resulted in a one-page fake ad I did the copy for that was a parody of then-current public service ads. Only we used Amy Carter as the victim of life in the White House. We got torn to shreds by the humorless crew at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the local papers.

My great experiences trying to write funny at the Washingtonian remind me of what the bloggers of the world don’t have these days: The encouragement and guidance of an editor. In so many of the arts, the producer of a film or television show gets credit along with the other creative troops.

And while editors get listed in the front of the book, only those who’ve worked with one realizes how much they contribute. And for all my years writing for you, I wrote with the confidence that whatever I screwed up or was flummoxed by, I could be confident it would be fixed or improved by an editor.

To that I’d add that, yes, an editor can help a writer by offering encouragement and acting as a sounding board. I always told writers, “When in doubt, put it in—it always can be taken out.”

This is especially true with humor. Write it all and then the editor and writer can go back and forth and decide what works.


  1. Mike Feinsilber says

    That’s funny. I always thought the only thing you had to be to write humor was funny. But now I see it is a serious business. So in order to be funny, you can’t.

  2. Mike Feinsilber says

    That’s funny. I always thought the only thing you had to be to write humor was funny. But now I see it is a serious business. In which case, in order to be funny, you can’t.

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