Imagination Is Funny Taking the First Step

The First Step In Humor Conception Is Imagination. It's called "What if?"—the two most important words in creativity and the only stimulant a humor writer needs to get started. "Imagination is intelligence having fun," writes George Scialabba.

Look at a clear glass ashtray. What do you see? If you can see beyond its ordinary function, humor writing may be for you. The humorist sees what is logically illogical, perceiving something in a way no one else (at least in the audience) has considered before. To comedy writer Pat Mc-Cormick it's not an ashtray at all, but a diaphragm for the Statue of Liberty, a bathtub for Dudley Moore, a contact lens for the Jolly Green Giant, or a yarmulke for a bald rabbi trying to get a suntan.

This realignment of diverse elements into new and unexpected relationships surprises the audience and makes them laugh.

What if mother's milk was ever declared a health hazard, where would they put the warning label?

What if you actually saw McNuggets on a chicken?

What if alphabet soup consistently spelled out obscene words?

As a demonstration, let's consider a simple humor exercise. Two Coke bottles are held up—what could they possibly be besides bottles? Scribble down as many exaggerations as possible, without being restrained by practicality. Within five minutes, you should come up with a list like this.

• bowling pins left standing by the first ball

• a pair of binoculars for a U-boat commander

• portable urinals

• Polish cocktail glasses

• ear plugs for elephants

• Siamese twins formerly joined at the lips

• medical device for reshaping the tongue

• nonworking funnels

• fingernail polish protectors

• spin the bottle for schizophrenics

• corn holders for the Jolly Green Giant

• a newfangled breast implant

This humor Rorschach test is more than an exercise. It's the key to comedy's engine, which won't turn over without unbridled imagination. Train your mind to constantly ask "What if?" and brainstorm possibilities. Don't worry if your ideas seem absurd or silly, the idea now is to get your imagination in gear.

Humorists have one cardinal rule: "Don't be inhibited." It's better to take a nihilistic attitude toward all subjects than to pussyfoot around "taboos." When writing, write freely. Make uninhibited assumptions. "Put your brains on tilt," says Frank O'Donnell. Write everything down. Editing and self-censorship are the second and third steps. Never the first!


In observational humor, the humorist focuses a laser beam on a realistic action or logical thought with the sole purpose of trying to destroy it.

I got an A in philosophy because 1 proved that my professor didn't exist. —JudyTenuta

Bob Garfield, in. Advertising Age, described Marty Rackham, a beginning comic, who's constantly writing ideas down and sticking them in his wallet. "The thing is stuffed with miscellaneous business cards, on the back of which he jots random ideas. One says, 'Pulling words from a person who stutters'. Another 'jumper cables'. Right now he's working on a bit about continental hygiene, 'Did you ever smell a European?' The ideas materialize constantly, in varying degrees of hilarity and sophistication."

Although it sounds impossible, the humorist's mind is a wonderful thing to watch. Sometimes you can even see humorists' lips move as they silently try out the sound of different ideas. Meet them during off-hours at a social gathering; every fact reported, every name mentioned, every prediction made is grist for the humorous association. At the end of a party, if you ask how they enjoyed themselves, they might answer positively only if they'd been successful at collecting new material, which they'll write and rewrite all the way home.

Frequently a cliché is used to set the train of thought in motion—so the humorist can derail it. Notice how Larry Miller does this with "you'll never find anybody like me" in the following example:

I just broke up with someone, and the last thing she said to me was, "You'll never find anybody like me again." And I was thinking: I should hope not. Isn't that why we break up with people? If I don't want you, why would I want somebody just like you? Does anybody end a bad relationship and say, "By the way, do you have a twin?"


For years comedy writers have claimed there are only a few basic jokes. What they mean by this is basic construction formulas. But very few agree on just how many formulas there are and how to define them.

I've isolated seven major formulas which can be played like notes of a musical scale—individually or in chords. We'll discuss these formulas later in the book; meanwhile, here they are.

1. Double entendres, the plays on words that include cliché reformations and take-offs

2. Reverses that trick the audience by a switch in point-of-view

3. Triples that build tension and are the framework for an exaggerated finale

4. Incongruity that pairs two logical but unconventional ideas

5. Stupidity that encourages the audience to feel superior to silly thoughts or actions

6. Paired phrases that utilize the rhythms of antonyms, homonyms, and synonyms

7. Physical abuse (slapstick) that caters to our delight at someone else's misfortune

But before we get further into the nitty-gritty of funny lines, let's take a more detailed look at the real reasons people laugh. They may surprise you.

Be a Freelancer from Home

Be a Freelancer from Home

When you think of freelancing, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? You probably think of a writer, novelist or journalist right off hand. That is primarily because for centuries, the only real job you could have as a freelancer had to do with your mastery of the written word.

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