How to Write Humorously (Hint: Put Colonel Sanders on LSD)

The image here is a photo of one of my favorite shirts. If it’s not clear to you, it’s Colonel Sanders with a maniacal look, with the unsubtle graphical suggestion that the good Colonel has had a snootful of LSD. That amuses me on several levels, but the one that’s instructive here is based on a two-step of moving from familiar to farcical. You can employ this comedic trip of incongruity in your writing (though never in your cooking).

Of course, the expression and interpretation of humor is as subjective as declaring that the piccolo is king of wind instruments, hands-down. (Never forget the pan pipe!) What some folks think is funny is just whistling wind to others: Some jokes might have your entire Mongol horde spitting out their teeth, while another of the same caliber might only make your cat laugh. For some it’s poop jokes, for some it’s palindromes, and never the twain shall meet. (Except for this instance, since “poop” is a palindrome.)

So, neatly sidestepping the sheer subjectivity (and the poop) of our subject, I’ll concentrate on a single comedic element that works for me as a writer, and as a consumer of comedy: incongruity. It’s as broad as the princess with the corn stuck in her teeth, or as peculiar as a man in a business suit with briefcase, walking a crocodile, or as off-balance as a garden gnome giving a speech on metaphysics to an assemblage of frogs.

The Setup
Dave Barry is a master of the incongruous in his writing, and a lot of the funny in what he does is structured on a one-two-three of situations or circumstances, where the one and the two are prosaic, but the three is preposterous—but the preposterousness only works because the one and the two are banal enough to lull the reader, and the three puts a moustache on the coffee cup. What’s THAT doing there?

Here’s a Barry quote from an interview that asked him what book changed his life. (Note, Barry has said or written much funnier stuff than this, but this is a good example of the structure of what I’m talking about).

Barry’s reply: “The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. I was supposed to read it my freshman year in college, but it’s 18 million pages long and I could never get past the first 43. Nevertheless I wrote a paper about it, and I got an OK grade, which taught me that I could write convincingly about things I did not remotely understand. This paved the way for my career in journalism.”

Emily Dickinson, Notable Joker
It’s the old ba-da-bing, done twice here by Dave. Straight answer, a bit of elaboration, and then a kicker; rinse and repeat. The incongruity I’m talking about is often a matter of rhythm: you set up the reader by offering some conventional understanding, and then you goose that understanding with a cheeky thrust. Though it’s not always going for the belly laugh; sometimes it’s more a “Huh? Ah, you’re nuts.” But nuts in a winning way. It’s a variant of ol’ Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

So exactly HOW do you do this? Sheesh, I’m no Svengali; when you try to write funny, it often comes out a miserable hairball-like thing, shaggy and sad. It’s more of an attitude or perspective. Check out this article I wrote on the travails of travel a bit back; it has some of what I mean. Sometimes it’s as “simple” as that Jack Benny stare and shrug that coming from another man would only produce indifference, but from Benny it was hysterical. And sometimes you have to go out on a limb: you have to give an avuncular icon dangerous drugs. It’s the Colonel that gets fried, not that chicken of his.

Bonus Colonel Sanders Sighting!
One reason why I probably find the Colonel reeling on chemicals comic is that when I was 11 or 12, I was selling candy bars outside the local liquor store (it had lots of traffic) in my hometown, fundraising for my Catholic grammar school. I was with my best friend, who can verify: we sold a candy bar to Colonel Sanders. I’m not talking about a guy dressed up like Colonel Sanders: this WAS the Colonel, with the white suit and string tie, the man himself. He was alone, and we gawked at him, and I mumbled my “Wanna buy a school candy bar?” pitch to him as he passed into the store, to no effect.

But when he came out, he stopped and chatted for a moment, and he bought a bar, paying five times as much as it cost (and, like most fundraising candy, it cost five times as much as it should to begin with). The Colonel popped it into his bag (which probably held some of the distilled elements of his secret herbs and spices recipe), and went on his merry way. As a kid, it was a crowning moment for me. I now like to think of the Colonel in chicken heaven, dropping acid every day, and musing over his chance encounters with youths in front of liquor stores. Incongruous, but funny. At least to me.

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16 thoughts on “How to Write Humorously (Hint: Put Colonel Sanders on LSD)

  1. Did you know I play the piccolo? Seriously. I’m rehearsing tonight with the Rusty Skippers. I’m also a fan of Dave Barry. Colonel Sanders, not so much. But I love the candy bar story.

    The Colonel always did have a funny twinkle in his eye. Hmmm…

    I’m going to go floss the corn kernels out of my teeth now. Thanks for the incongruous humor!

  2. Sally, I’m really hoping the Rusty Skippers are an all-piccolo band, and that they wear coonskin caps. Please make your CD download available for all of us fans.

    Thanks for stopping by. I will send that bucket of chicken to you FedX.

  3. I can confirm that we did indeed sell Catholic chocolate to Colonel Sanders at a garden variety liquor store on the most unremarkable intersection deep in the SoCal suburban sprawl. We also sold one to a child star named Jodi Foster, who was our age, riding in a limo with her friends. We did other things in front of that store over the years that shall go unmentioned. I never understood why Tom was supposed to sell chocolate for his school, or what it meant to be Catholic. Still dont.

  4. See, see all you unbelievers! (Of course, this whole Dr. D thing could be a fraud, but I usually design my frauds for more return, like in exchange for an original Honus Wagner baseball card.) Doc, I can’t answer those old puzzles about chocolate Catholicism, but one thing I do remember is that I ate a number of those candy bars; I probably had to steal money from my big brother to make up the deficit. I’m sure I felt appropriately guilty afterward, good Catholic boy that I was.

  5. Hmmmn…. wanted my son (the budding humorist) to read this article but the LSD reference hit too close to home….

  6. I don’t recall this Col. Sanders story at all (except that you ate a lot of candy all the time!) and didn’t you always tell your big sister EVERYTHING??
    But I love the story and the examples on how to write humor – it’s like the same set-up when I write speeches – one, two, then the statement, be it good or bad. Good example, Bro Tom!

  7. You got to sell chocolate?! We had to sell light bulbs or random chotchkes (for Girl Scouts and band). No Col. Sanders either, but I did sell some light bulbs to Chris Connor (she lived down the street).

  8. Yeah, the food pyramid for adolescents doesn’t include a lot of LSD, whose nutritive value is suspect. I wish you well keeping his hand out of that cosmic cookie jar.

  9. Huh. Well, those speeches you used to give me and my big brother didn’t seem all that effective, but perhaps you’ve honed your technique since then. (Note to self: remember to block certain IP addresses when posting about old family events.)

  10. Light bulbs? Light bulbs! That’s a good one; kind of like selling little ideas, eh? I was an honorary Girl Scout for a day once, and I got to glue macaroni letters on clothespins. Clever guy that I am, I put my name on my clothespin. I never earned a badge though…

  11. Based on your guest post on my blog, Tom, I’m quite surprised that you didn’t just eat all the candy bars. You had quite a sugar addiction as a teen. Must have been the nun-fear that kept you from it.

    Actually, not being Catholic, I’ve never understood the bad memories of nuns that some folks seem to have. We see many nuns in our dental practice and they’re all funny, endearing people. One recently told me a joke that, coming from clergy, pretty much defines incongruity for the ages:

    The mother superior comes running into the common room and exclaims, “There’s a case of gonorrhea in this convent!”

    A young, rather naive sister replies, “Oh thanks heavens- I’m getting so tired of Chablis!”

    Incongruity. Love it. So glad that an ironworker didn’t tell me that joke.

  12. Rick, that joke made me laugh out loud, which proves it wasn’t told by an actual nun. Those “nuns” you are seeing are wiring your office for the government, to see if you’re spewing any political heresy (which I encourage you to spew).

    Actually, in my long tenure at Catholic school I had many personable nuns, even ones with a sense of humor. However, the ones I remember most sharply are the ones I feared, because they were fearsome indeed. Particularly when it came to the pointed use of a wooden pointer on student knuckles. I think I probably prayed for unusual situations to happen to these nuns (hoping that they might be picked up hitchhiking by a werewolf), but God in his wisdom never answered me.

  13. Every time I open this particular balloon of chicken, I’m reminded why I eat here in small doses. My tummy hurts now. But so do the laugh lines in my face.

    I’ve always been a big fan of incongruity in my speaking and writing, but I’ve never codified this rule of 3. Neatly done. I will steal it.

    I want a Walter ‘Big Train’ Johnson card. Sidearm pitchers are, as someone said, the bomb.

    D’you think Colleen (lovely Irish name, that) would give me her home phone number? There’s a couple things I wanna ask her about you . . .

  14. Joel, Walter Johnson, Big Train—baseball has the best nicknames. With my sterling svelteness on the basepaths, I’d get “Big Galoot.”

    No, you don’t want to talk to that Colleen chick. She’ll just fill the air with bald-faced lies. I was an angel! (Don’t talk to those nuns either.)

  15. OK OK I give in- just one more nun story.

    We used to see an elderly nun who was just a doll but she was very much afraid of dentists. My antecedents were apparently not, on average, as sensitive to their patients’ comfort as we are now.

    We had purchased two new dental chairs for two of our rooms. They were the first that we ever owned with software instead of ultra-reliable but ancient mercury rocker switches.

    We brought Sister into one of these rooms for treatment, sat her back in the dental chair- and right then and there, for the first of many times, the electronics decided to develop a glitch. The chair started spontaneously going up to the familiar upright position that a patient gets to as it’s time to leave after the visit. Without skipping a beat, Sister said:

    “See? See Doctor? I TOLD you that The Lord didn’t want me in this dental chair today!”

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