The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, has been running "The Funny Bone," a joke column, in their Sunday magazine for more than thirty years. It uses subscriber joke contributions exclusively. Readers not only like the jokes, but take great pride in seeing their names, and those of their friends, published. Once when the column was possibly going to be dropped because it required too much staff time, readers protested so vigorously that "The Funny Bone" was kept, and continues to be one of the magazine's most popular features.
In articles, humor works best as a leadoff hitter. You can suck the reader into the story faster with a good anecdote. You'll find examples of that every day on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. A humor anecdote also works well as a sign off.
Anecdotes and fillers are used more often by magazines than newspapers. And of all the publications which solicit public contributions, the Reader's Digest is the Super Bowl of humor achievement. It is, by far, the most rewarding market for freelancers. With over fifty million readers, they pay the highest rates for anecdotes, jokes, and humorous quotes. To find the latest fees just turn to page four of the most recent Digest issue.
The term "filler" originated when type was set by hand or linotype. It refers to the one or two line tidbits printers used to quickly fill space at the end of a column or a page. Even though today's computerized typesetting has eliminated that need, fillers still appear in magazines—humorous ones, as leavening.
There is no precise formula for a filler. "A good filler," wrote Betty Johnston, a former Digest editor, "is one that the reader will want to quote or read aloud to a colleague." Because most magazines have four and five month editorial deadlines in advance of publication, fillers need a certain timeliness (or, better, timelessness) and relevance—a quote or anecdote from the past must have some special application for today.
Humor is integral. Regina Hersey of Reader's Digest told The Comedy Roundtable that in the magazine's monthly reader's poll, humor sections are consistently ranked first, and humor articles are a consistently favorite format. This really comes as no big surprise, because Reader's Digest has at least nine different areas for salable humor: "Toward More Picturesque Speech," "Points to Ponder," and "Quotable Quotes" specialize in zany or inventive play-on-words phrasing; "Life in These United States" tries for true, previously unpublished anecdotes; "Laughter, the Best Medicine" is a joke department that includes puns, topical humor, and celebrity quips. Humorous stories are reprinted in special sections: "Personal Glimpses," "All in a Day's Work," "Campus Comedy" and "Humor in Uniform." In addition, at the end of some articles, the magazine still uses miscellaneous anecdotes as old-fashioned fillers.
There are twelve staff editors who do nothing but prepare the humor anecdotes and fillers. Humor is read by two editors before being rejected so that the bad mood of one editor won't automatically eliminate a marginal possibility. Then the magazine submits all material seriously being considered for publication to an "index" department where it's checked for originality. (Beginning writers can ruin their reputations with a magazine by trying to pass off someone else's material as their own.) Finally, a research department checks original sources for verification.
Anecdotes about yourself are acceptable, but anecdotes about fa mous people are particularly desired because names make news (or the other way around).
Many general publications have taboos against bathroom humor, vulgarity, and stories that ridicule the handicapped. Put-down humor is acceptable when the joke is in the cleverness of the response. That's why, if the humor comes close to any of these areas, self-deprecating stories have a much greater chance of publication. Tell the story on yourself, don't make yourself the smart alec. The Digest is not above changing the point of view in these cases, but they'll always check with the writer.
A few magazines, like Reader's Digest, are also interested in reprinting good humor from other publications, and will pay readers handsomely for discovering it. The New Yorker delights in typos and short items with unintentionally weird or double entendre phrasing.
However, humor material in other major publications, like Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, is so thoroughly covered by Digest staff personnel that it's rare freelancers can get credit. Over 800 newspaper columnists regularly send their columns to Reader's Digest in the hope of editorial selection. Therefore, the magazine is looking for reprint material from remote areas like small regional magazines, corporate newsletters, and local radio shows.
The winning combination for acceptability is a good sense of what's funny—and knowing how to present it. That gives the professional humor writer an advantage over the amateur contributor.
Stories must have a punch as well as a punch line. They should be written in less than 300 words, thus they can't require long introductions or lots of background information. The best material has a sense of truthfulness, rather than a contrived setup. People in incongruous situations make the funniest stories because the reader identifies with the "It could have happened" possibility.
A filler, unlike a regular article, is paid for only on publication. Reader's Digest gets thousands of submissions each month, so they won't return material even if you include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). If your piece was intended for publication but omitted because of space, no check! If they like it you'll generally hear within three months. But sometimes they may take up to a year, so everyone's unhappy if you've given up on them and submitted the humor elsewhere. If you have sold the item elsewhere and the magazine's research department calls to verify, never lie. You'll win that game only once, but will be blackballed forever.
Material should be neatly typed, double-spaced, each item on a separate sheet of paper, with your name, address, telephone number, and date of submission clearly identified.
Even if you're just interested in writing a letter to the editor, you've got a better chance of being published if you use humor. The annual peekaboo swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated prompts more letters to "The 19th Hole" than many other issues combined. It gets a lot of subscriptions "re-nude." Here's an example of a letter that got published because of a basic reverse technique:
I was shocked at the display of flesh [that issue] contained: what legs! what chests! Where did you find those Sumo wrestlers?
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