Introducing the Three Rs of Humor

You Are About To Learn To Write Funny. You can learn this creative art for your own personal enjoyment or for financial gain. In either case, you'll find your humor has tremendous value.

I call it the three Rs of humor. Skillful use of humor can create respect, cause your words to be remembered, and earn you great rewards.


There are three ways you can attract attention:

1. You can legitimately achieve some outstanding accomplishment.

2. You can criticize somebody.

3. You can be unconventional.

Humor offers all three opportunities, because humor isn't exclusively entertainment. We use humor primarily to call attention to ourselves. Notice how you react when you start to tell a joke to a small group of friends and, just as you get to the end, someone shouts out the punch line. Your glare will probably be the physical limit of your anger at first, but the second time it happens, you'll try to kill the jerk, and no jury will convict you. Humor is a universal speech opener because it immediately gets us respectful attention. It's psychologically impossible to hate someone with whom you've laughed. "When we laugh we temporarily give ourselves over to the person who makes us laugh," says Robert Orben.

Laughter is to the psyche what jogging is to the body. Humor, in live performance, offers more immediate gratification than any other art form. You know your audience is appreciative because you can hear their response, and this jury's decision is impulsive and instantaneous.


When we're successfully humorous—live or in print—people remember. Our best lines are the ones repeated, and retained. An impressive number of the sayings in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations are witticisms.

When learning is fun, everybody benefits. Two recent studies, one at the University of Arkansas and the other at San Diego State, agreed that students who attended a series of lectures which purposely included witticisms and anecdotes achieved higher test scores than students who attended the same lectures where humor was avoided. "When the mouth is open for laughter," wrote Dr. Virginia Tooper, "you may be able to shove in a little food for thought."

All books of quotations have generous portions devoted to witticisms. Jokes are probably our best opportunity for immortality, although Woody Allen once remarked, "I don't want to gain immortality by my humor. I want to gain immortality by not dying."


Humor is important in every facet of entertainment, social life, education, and health. Many political candidates, in fact every president since Franklin Roosevelt, have had in-house humorists on their speech writing teams. Big business executives are increasingly hiring writers able to make them gag on every line (and you can read that line any way you want to).

It's been hard for classical culturists to accept that more money is being earned by the art of comedy than by all other fine arts combined. That's no exaggeration. Take a look at the record.

• Seven of the top-grossing films were comedies.

• Eight of the ten top-rated TV programs were sitcoms.

• Four of the highest-paid newspaper columnists were humorists.

• The fastest-growing category of greeting cards was humor (known as alternative cards).

• Eight of the highest-paid entertainers in show business were comedians.

• There was a twenty-four hour all-comedy cable network.

• There were over 300 comedy clubs in major cities.

Comedy can also be a springboard to more lucrative TV and film roles. Robin Williams, Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, John Candy, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Harry Anderson, Howie Mandel, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Alan King, and Bill Cosby are just a few major film and TV stars who started out as comedians.

The demand for humor writers far exceeds the supply. One reason is that more people want to tell jokes than write them; another is that television is a joke-eating shark. It chews up more humor material in a month than all other forms use in a year. Johnny Carson once remarked that television is the only medium that eats its young, because young writers are the ones most frequently hired to feed the shark day after day and suffer indigestion night after night. While the financial rewards are eye-opening, young writers are only as good as their last joke, and fatigue causes many of them to burn out after a year. A three-year career on any one project ranks them with the true pros of the art.


The two qualities shared by all successful humor writers are consistency and targeted material. This means that (1) the ability to write funny isn't a sometimes thing, and (2) the writer doesn't waste precious time preparing the wrong material for the wrong performer, to be delivered to the wrong audience. This is as true in print and broadcast humor as it is for stand-up.

An acronym sums up this second point rather dramatically. I call it the MAP theory. MAP stands for material, audience, and performer. MAP is a triangular comedic constellation which must always be in phase.



The material must be appropriate to the interests of the audience, and each must also relate to the persona of the performer. Likewise, the audience must complement both the material and the presentation style of the performer. Regardless of where in heaven's name you start, each star in the constellation must relate to both the other stars. The common denominator is character. The character of the material must fit the character of the performer and the character of the audience.


One day Milton Berle and Henny Youngman were listening to Joey Bishop tell a particularly funny gag. "Gee, I wish I said that," Berle whispered. "Don't worry, Milton, you will," said Henny.

There are over a thousand examples of humor in this book. I wrote some of it, but most was written by others. In lectures I always credit authors—except for those jokes that consistently get big laughs.

Credit lines for jokes are a researcher's nightmare. There are many standard jokes, but they have thousands of variations. Just who uttered what can rarely be proven.

Tom Burnam, in his book The Dictionary of Misinformation, points out that such famous lines as Horace Greeley's "Go west, young man," Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake," W.C. Fields's "Any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad," and even his tombstone inscription, "I would rather be here than in Philadelphia," Mark Twain's "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it," John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you," and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," were all previously written by someone else.

If scholars have this problem with historic lines, then proper credit for jokes, anecdotes, and witticisms can be a never-ending dilemma. If Adam came back to the Garden of Eden, the only thing that would be familiar to him would be the jokes.

The best I can offer for identification is to list the name published in someone else's joke collection, but I wouldn't bet on its accuracy. The library of Shakespeare will always be haunted by the ghost of Marlowe— and that's not an original line either.


Acronyms are my favorite mnemonic device, and in this book acronyms proliferate. The first letter of each word in a group is abbreviated into a more easily remembered word. If you can memorize acronyms like THREES, MAP POW, and PAP you'll be able to remember the humor formulas.

While this book is an introduction to humor writing, I don't promise it will instantly transform you into a professional. Learning the fundamen tals of humor is. easy compared with the dedication required. A woman once rushed up to famous violinist Fritz Kreisler after a concert and cried, "I'd give my life to play as beautifully as you do." Kreisler replied, "Well, I did."

Humor can be taught because it has a structure. It has a memorable list of formulas and a wide variety of techniques. This book promises to teach the mechanics of humor—and that's no grease job!

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