Associations as Warmups

A humorist's funnybone is like an athlete's muscles or a singer's vocal cords. They work best when they're warmed up first. (The same can be true of lovers, but that's another book.) Writing teachers insist that students do fifteen to thirty minutes of brain-stretching exercises each morning to clear away the fog.

Robert Orben warms up writing twenty-five one-liners inspired by the morning paper. Then, he gets to work. Others like to imagine funny captions to news photos. Art Gliner, famous Washington, DC disc jockey and humor lecturer, gets his seminars warmed up using an association exercise. He has them write down words that might describe how tired firefighters, police, dog catchers, plumbers, etc. feel when they come home at night. For example:

Firefighter burned up alarming torched fired up plug nickle steaming ladder day saint not too hot made ash of myself



beat flat-footed half-cocked run-down blue shot charged holed up badgered it was a riot that's the ticket dog


muzzled bone-tired bitchy run-down pooped hounded licked dog-tired collared the paws that refreshes dug up seedy all wet rocky hosed potted plowed under bogged down bushed raked over mulched


Gene Perret, humorist and publisher of The Comedy Roundtable newsletter, likes to associate puns on famous names. (For the address of this newsletter, see Appendix B.) First, you find a name with homonym possibilities. Then, write an anecdote to fit.

The Italian-American farmer who erected a tombstone for his beloved wife, Nellie, that read: "Here Liza Minelli."

Before she became Madonna, she was a pre-Madonna.

Take pity. I'm Jung and Freud-ened.

"I just can't Handel the Messiah." "Then you'd better go into Haydn."

"Oh, get off my Bach, or I'll give you a karate Chopin the neck."

A microcomputer that draws geometric patterns on the screen is called a "Micro-Angle-O."

Slogans for famous artists. Seurat: Que Seurat, Seurat. Monet: A lasting impression. Van Gogh: Lend me your ear. Henry Moore: Moore for your money. Warhol: The new Warhol—uncanny. Gauguin: Here we Gauguin. Goya: You can be Jewish and still love a Goya.

—Advertising Age

Humorists take themselves seriously, but no one else. The more you can combine realism and exaggeration, the more humorous it will be. That's why disrespectful association of the rich and famous with book or movie titles is a frequent warm-up for professionals:

Elizabeth Taylor in Once is Not Enough. Ted Turner in Raging Bull. Ronald Reagan in Heaven Can Wait. James Watt in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Claus von Bulow in The Big Sleep. —Maureen Murphy

Associating the last names of two different celebrities is another humor writing exercise in association teaming.

If Isadora Duncan had married Robert Donat, would their child be a Dunkin' Donut?

If Betty White had married Soupy Sales, would they have called her Betty White Sales?

Ohioan Mike Harden writes for the Columbus Dispatch, and in one of my favorite Harden columns he recommends new state mottos.

Arizona: Bring us your sinuses. Colorado: Don't eat yellow snow.

Florida: Ponce DeLeon, the first man to come here without his wife.

Idaho: Baked, mashed, or fried? Indiana: No one stops here on purpose. Kentucky: Buy it here. Drink it somewhere else. Maryland: Birthplace of the Indianapolis Colts. Mississippi: Wake us if you need anything. Nevada: Three to one says you can't. New Hampshire: Don't take us for granite. New Jersey: This looks like a good place to dump it. New York: Watch your wallet or Tipping is a must. North Carolina: Don't believe everything the Surgeon General tells you.

North Dakota: General Custer, the first man to wear an Arrow shirt, was healthy when he left here. Oregon: Visit here. Live somewhere else. Rhode Island: Just don't blink. Texas: Big deal!

West Virginia: Our children live in Ohio. Wisconsin: Eat cheese or die.

If all this is just the first step in humor writing, you're probably reminded of the ancient warning: Watch out for that first step, it's a doozy! But with patience and practice, you'll soon be sliding down the bannisters.

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