Funny Business

I cut my writing teeth on humor columns.

It came from years of reading great writers who knew how to make readers smile and laugh, authors such as Patrick McManus (one of the funniest columnists I’ve ever read, who made me laugh out loud and was a surprise when I finally met him, because the guy was dry as a geology professor), Donald E. Westlake (who combined classic whodunits with humor), Max Schulman (author and creator of Dobie Gillis), and Jack Douglas (most of you haven’t heard of him, but he was an outstanding TV writer who became a noted author in the 1960s and 70s), and finally a good friend and author, Joe R. Lansdale, who combines action and dark humor and is still going strong.

They all taught me one thing about being funny. Don’t try so hard to make people smile and most of the time, subtlety is the answer (which is not the column below).

I can go into the sociological aspects of writing humor, but that ain’t one bit funny.

I sat in on a humor writing class once, and came out weeping. The presenter broke down humor with sentences like, “Writing comedically usually requires establishing a setup pattern and then misdirecting the reader by throwing in a punch line. The simplest way is to create a pair of ideas and then add an incongruent statement. I like to list three, because 30 is too many.”

Good lord.

How about misdirection, which can be funny by taking readers someplace they expect to go and suddenly shifting direction.

“I looked down at my five-year-old son who broke the window and lied about it. I was shocked to think he wouldn’t tell the truth, and had to get him to understand what he’d done wrong, so I knelt on one knee, took his small shoulders in my big hands and looked him in the eye. Son, I have something to tell you.”


“Quit picking your nose.”

Most of the things we laugh at in real life are true stories that someone exaggerates for effect. I once wrote a column about running from a bear while wearing a backpack…

“That thing was right on my heels, and I ran like rats across the tundra. My backpack came open and I left a string of equipment behind, my tent, half the food I’d packed, tent stakes, the stove, a laptop computer, two cameras, a chair, the kitchen sink and a VCR along with all my John Wayne videos. Now light as a feather, I left the bear far behind, sniffing the laptop full of newspaper columns and probably wondering what stunk so bad.”

Some other things I’ve learned:

Don’t try to write jokes. Look for something that happened in real life and make a few changes. Here in Texas, every truck has a trailer hitch. We all know they’re right there, but when the guys get together, someone inadvertently barks his shin on the damn thing. While we curse and rub that shin, the rest laugh like loons. What is it that makes us guys giggle like little girls? We’ve all done it. Exaggerated familiarity is funny

Don’t tell your reader something is funny: “Hurts, don’t it,” he joked. Like the old saying goes, if you have to explain it, it ain’t funny.

Avoid sarcasm, except to identify a character.

Surprise your reader.

I’ve judged humor writing contests, and cousin, exclamation points don’t make a story funny!

Use humor sparingly, unless you’re shoving it in someone’s face, like this slightly insane column I wrote some years ago about an Outdoor Detective that somehow caught on with readers. I only produce one of these a year. They’re a lot like fruit cakes, you don’t want too many, but an occasional bite is good.

The Case of the Invisible Case

I’d been puttering around my office all afternoon. After a while I put the putter away, kicked the golf balls into a corner and leaned back in my chair. Putting my feet on the battered desk, I scraped some off on the floor and relaxed.

I had just returned to my job as the Outdoor Detective from a weekend of pheasant hunting in the Texas high plains. We flushed birds for two days. Then I called the plumber and he cleared the drain.

“Don’t flush anymore pheasants,” he ordered.

I joined him and ordered a hamburger and fries as well.

“Try flushing quail, they’re smaller,” he said, then left.

A timid knock at my office door caught my attention. It was noir time. I turned on the background saxophone music to set the mood. “Come in.”

The man who entered looked like he wanted to run. He was sweating. It was his running shoes, headband, and shorts that gave him away. “Where’s that sax music coming from?”

“It’s a mystery ain’t it. That’s what I do. Solve mysteries. What can I do for you?”

“My name is Nobody. I want to hire the Outdoor Detective.”

“That’s me,” I answered.

“I expected more.”

“They always do. What can I do for you?”

“I want to hire you to find my missing hunting guide. His name is Earl. You need to keep your eyes peeled for him.”

“I’d rather not,” I said. “They always dry out when I do that, and those dried peelings crackle under your feet.”

His gaze wandered as I talked. “Is that your dog?” Nobody pointed to the corner.


“What’s his name?”


“Play dead, Neil,” Nobody said. “Good dog.”

“He is dead. Croaked last night.”

“Don’t don’t croak.”

“Oh. Wise guy, huh? Fine. Now we know where we both stand.”

Nobody pointed at the floor. “Of course. You’re there, and I’m here.”

“Now that we’ve established that, I’ll help you look for the guide. You can be my partner.”

“But I don’t know how. Maybe you could show me the ropes around here?”

I produced several ropes of various lengths.

“It looks too complicated,” he decided. “Maybe you’d better do it for me. How much will it cost?”

“That depends. Are you rich?” I asked.

“No, I’ve already said my name’s Nobody, but that sometimes confuses people. You can call me Ken.”

“You don’t look like kin. You must be from dad’s side of the family.”

He nodded. “Will it cost a lot?”

“What’s a lot to you?”

“A big piece of land to scrape clean and cover with concrete buildings.”

“I’m talking about money.”

He produced a wad of bills and I licked his hand gratefully. “All right. What happened to your hunting guide?”

“I’m not sure. We were hunting out near Abilene and communicating by walkie-talkies…”

I took notes as he talked. Mostly B flats.

“…and I was in a deer stand. He was in the coffee shop and we were singing a duet when a huge buck stepped into my view. I described it; a large animal with legs and antlers. I heard him order coffee and then he said “shoot.”

I was almost ready to pull the trigger. I just had to load the rifle and attach the scope, when guns began firing all around me. Then machine guns started chattering and pretty soon I heard artillery thumping in the distance. Soon the mortars kicked in for support. It was awful.”

“The shooting?” I asked, sympathetically.

“No, the coffee he’d ordered. He said it was chicory. Ya gotta help me!” he shouted.

“You’ve gotta stop saying words like ya gotta!” I shouted back. “I don’t know what your guide looks like. Do you have a picture?”

He produced an oil portrait of Picasso.

I didn’t say a word. He has mean eyes, I thought, both on the same side of his head.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Just read the sentences above.” Annoyed, I dummied up.

His eyes narrowed. “I can see the dummy’s mouth move when you talk.”

“It’s supposed to be the other way around,” I answered.

“Good luck.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it.” We shook hands and he left.

I practiced my yodeling and for a while, turned off the music and smiled at Neil. “Good dog,” I said.

I hate it when dogs jump up on people.


And with that, potential humor writers, read the authors who make you laugh and study their technique. They’ve figured it out and it’s something that triggers your giggle-box. Learn to use it in your own way.

Good luck, adios, and adieu.



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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

24 thoughts on “Funny Business

  1. Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving, Rev. Thanks for the laughs. There’s lots of subtlety here, as with the best of humor. My favorite Laurel and Hardy moments are those when Hardy in frustration breaks the fourth wall and looks in frustration at the camera, with that priceless expression of frustration. He doesn’t have to say or do anything else.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Good afternoon, Joe!

      Having a Saturday time slow is wonderful. You know folks are going to get up and take it easy in the morning, maybe to peruse Killzone and spend a little time with what we have to say. However, it’s the worst time for me, because I’m always so busy I have to wedge in a few minutes at a time to respond to all these comments. Thanks so much for always being first with great viewpoints!

      You’re right about the fourth wall. They did it well, as well as a latecomer to that effect, Dean Jones, (Disney), who had a short-lived series in which he would pause to address the audience through comments and expressions. I loved it, and that likely had something to do with how I write.

      Hope you had a great Thanksgiving as well.

    • Honored to bring a smile this morning. I loved the Marx Brothers, especially Grouch. His viaduct routine (“Why a duck?” Chico) and Abbott and Costello (Who’s on First) were all seeds that grew into my work.

      Have a great weekend!

  2. Writing comedy is truly a gift—I have a friend who writes stories about Darlene, a Fifties Marilyn Monroe wannabe that have me rolling on the floor. I can’t even make people laugh when I try to retell some of her stories.

  3. “Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” which is a supposed death bed quote by actor Edmund Gwenn. You certainly make humor look easy, Rev. Reading the writers that make you laugh is excellent advice. And, thanks for all the smiles this morning from reading your post.

    Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    • One of my favorite GHOST WHISPER episodes had a stage comic as the ghost of the week who needed his problems solved so he could move on. His parting line to the medium was that joke. A very nice fit.

    • Good afternoon!

      Glad I could lighten your day. Some folks get that kind of humor, and others just roll their eyes, but that’s fine, we all have our preferences.


  4. My major influences, comedy wise:

    Robert Benchley.
    Mad Magazine.

    I also got to take Danny Simon’s legendary comedy writing class back in the day. He was Neil’s older brother and Neil and Woody Allen credit him with teaching them to write narrative comedy. And one of the first things he said was, Don’t write joke jokes. As you allude to, you find the humor in real life situations and then exaggerate a bit, stretch things, go to the ad absurdum.

  5. One of my dad’s side gigs was a hunting/fishing column in the local newspaper, and many of his articles that didn’t involve a picture of some local holding a giant fish or dead deer were humor of the Southern Good Ol’ Boy tradition of folk stories. When he and Mom retired, they did a lot of traveling in a motorhome. He sent back dispatches of their adventures to the local newspaper and announced his own business, “We Vacation for You.” Pay him and tell him where you want to go but can’t, and he’ll send back pictures and reports of how much fun you are having. Yes, I inherited his sense of humor, but mine is much, much more sarcastic.

    Comedy is definitely situational in fiction. It’s everything from witty dialog, playing against type, and misunderstanding that the character doesn’t understand but the reader does. And romantic comedy has its own set of tropes, including the ditzy heroine.

    The worst mistake a writer can make is to give a comic series like a cozy mystery a very sad subject in one of the novels because the author must switch between the sadness and the slapstick throughout the book. One I read had the heroine facing the murder of a parental figure. Lots of chuckles in THAT subject so the author turned sections of the novel into slapstick ridiculousness. The book was wince producing.

    • I’ve read a few where the humor was misplaced, usually because the author was trying for the Joking Hero and his buddy in serious situations. It was often too contrived. I’ve used it in my work from time to time, but experience helped place it in the right place, and was usually inserted to momentarily break the tension, or to end a chapter on a somewhat lighter (and maybe sarcastic) note. Hope you have a great week, Marilynn.

    • Yes, that’s bathos. Not recommended, though I’ve done it in a play, edited it out, then had the actor do the original line instead of the revision. Got a big laugh, but it was probably a mood-wrecker, since the three characters involved are about to be sentenced to death. Sort of a Monty Python moment, if you get my drift.

  6. Lovely, Rev!
    Way back in a day of chemical induced haze I strove to be a stand-up comic, but I could never do jokes. Can’t remember them usually, and when I hear them they are seldom funny unless given in specific settings. That said, I loved the fast thinking styles of Monty Python and Peter Sellers as well as off the wall lunacy of the Three Stooges, Robin Williams and Howie Mandel: the 80s edition.
    That said, realizing quickly that a life of late nights making drunks laugh only to be paid in tips plus a free bar tab of mid-shelf booze only, and a nearly unlimited supply of cocaine, and loneliness (comedians never have babes like rockers do) was not truly the life I wished to continue in, I met the love of my life, joined the Marines (who absolutely love comedy) and … my destiny was sealed! I was bound on the path that would lead me down the road to the desk with the computer and the QWERTY keyboard with the proper alphabet to write the most powerful novella ever written in the history of this keyboard and digital display:
    The glorious tale of the awfully brave and incredibly handsome Leprechauns of who live in Mister Basil’s basement and…


    Boffin: Sorry boss, I was just helping you finish it before … uh… before the deadline.

    Basil: I just went to answer the door for the UPS man!

    Boffin: OOPS

    Basil: What oops?

    Boffin: I just clicked SEND…

    • This is the real Basil, sorry folks. Sometimes the boys in the basement intrude. I do apologize, they’re sworn not break the fourth wall, but apparently that analogy has an entirely different meaning in Faerie.

  7. From our bookshelves at home: Thurber, Ogden Nash, H. Allen Smith, Benchley, P.G. Wodehouse, and other humorists of the 30s and 40s. I well remember the Marx Brothers (Harpo, Karl, Groucho, Hart, Schaffner, and Zippo); Lew Lehr, Olsen & Johnson; Laurel & Hardy. On TV, there were Red Skelton, Ed Wynn, Milton Berle, Victor Borge. I enjoy making people laugh–it’s music!

  8. By the by, Mr. Basil has Compleat DVD collections of The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and numerous Monty Python, At Last the 1948 Show, Terry Gilliam, and other shows in his various hiding places, including his most prized possessions, Director’s Compleat Editions of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil, and The Hudson Brother’s Hysterical in High Def BlueRay even though it was filmed in 1982.
    We thought you’d like to know.

    -Sincerely Fillii, Gnillii, Boffin and Berthold.

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