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On Writing Humor -- A Self-Interview With Phil Truman
by Phil Truman

I arrived for our interview at about 11 p.m. and found Phil in the bathroom brushing his teeth. Bare-chested and footed, he wore a faded pair of blue sweat pants with the silver word "Cowboys" written vertically down the right leg. As he looked back at me from the mirror, I was not surprised to see he had an Adonis-like body. Albeit an Adonis who had made one too many trips to the pizza buffet, yet amazingly fit for a man his age, which I estimate to be in the mid-50 range. He had a roguish smile, despite the toothpaste drool, suggesting a roguish nature and not much roguish hair. He invited me to get on with the interview, as he wanted to go to bed.

WFD: How long have you been writing humor? Did you start in print or on the Net? Do you write for both now?

Whoa, whoa. One question at a time, young fella. I'm no Alex Trebeck.

Let's see, I've been making attempts at written humor ever since I first learned you could put two or more letters together to form words back in the eighth grade. My first really big break as a humor writer came when I was appointed Chairman of the Entertainment Committee for my high school's Junior/Senior Prom. We had a banquet and a revue thing before the serious dancing started. There was an oriental theme that year, so the committee -- me and my buddies Pete and Larry -- came up with a Charlie Chan meets Charlie Chaplin operetta sort of thing. I ran across a copy of it a couple years back, and found that even to this day the humor is perfectly awful; not to mention overflowing with political incorrectness by today's standards. But we thought it was dynamite stuff back in 1962.

No, I didn't start in print on the Net, although that's almost exclusively what I do now. It seems easier. I got started doing columns for "local" (by which I mean "small") newspapers and regional magazines.

WFD: Would you agree that writing comedy is serious business? That it takes a great deal of skill, persistence and marketing?

There seems to be a perception that humor writers aren't "real" writers because they don't do serious stuff, but there's nothing automatic about writing humor. You can rely on your instincts for some of it, but 95% of humor writing is doing a lot of it. It takes practice. It takes doing some of it badly, getting some criticism, then revising, revising, revising. It takes eating a whole package of those Snackwell devil's food cookies at one sitting when you're stuck on a paragraph, a sentence, a word. Writing humor is still writing, and good writing takes a lot of personal commitment and work. Talent is good; skill is better.

WFD: Do you write outside the comedy box?

I've written a fair amount of "serious" fiction and articles. I've enjoyed a modicum of success, even though I've never actually seen a modicum up close. I think developing a sense of humor and taking it into all areas of your writing, where appropriate, serves you well as a writer. Most articles and stories are easier to read when sprinkled with humor. Most editors welcome it.

WFD: Did anyone mentor you when you first began writing humor? Any good humor writing books you can recommend?

I've never had a mentor as such; however, there are certain individuals whose opinions I respect and actively seek. Even though I pout about it sometimes, their candid critiques have proven invaluable in my development as a writer in general and a humor writer in particular. The best "how to" books I've found on humor writing are the works of the master humorists themselves: Mark Twain, Dave Barry, Garrison Keillor, Irma Bombeck, Bill Cosby, Dan Quayle. I read their work over and over, analyzing what makes them funny. Then I try to emulate them, injecting enough of my own personality and style so as not to be a blatant copycat.

WFD: How would you advise an aspiring humor writer? How can they break in? Is the Net an "easy" place for them to start?

The first thing a humor writer must have in his/her bag of tricks is a sense of humor. Now, you're probably saying to yourself, "Well, duh!" However, a sense of humor isn't something with which you're born. It's a learned skill like having a positive mental attitude, or good work habits, or the need to have all your spices alphabetized. And you must work to develop it just like your writing skills. I try to find humor in almost all situations. There's so much in our world that's absolutely not funny, so finding things that are helps us cope. And while I'm trying not to take the world too seriously, I include myself.

"Breaking in" is another matter. It seems under every rock you turn over there's another humor writer, sitting next to a lawyer. We apparently have no natural enemies; hence, our numbers are immense. If one is in it for the money, I wouldn't recommend writing only humor. However, remember what someone once said (I forget who. I think it was either Ted Turner or Moses), "Do what you love, do it to the best of your ability, and all the rest will come."

There's no easy place to start, considering the competition. But the Net currently appears to have a lot of easily accessible opportunity. And turn around time between submission, acceptance, and getting published seems to be much shorter than the "print" market.

WFD: Because humor is so subjective, how do you know when you've got something really on the mark?

The only way you really know if you've hit the "funny" mark is when someone tells you. Even then, it's not going to be 100%, because what's hilarious to one person may be totally not funny to another. I have a friend who likes low-key, subtle humor as opposed to what she calls "loud" humor. Others like the silly stuff. I get flamed and praised for both. It's something for which you have to develop a feel. That comes with experience and observation of how successful humorists work.

I also strongly feel, despite modern trends, clean humor is the best humor. For one thing you appeal to a much broader audience, but more importantly, I don't think anyone is served by crude and vulgar writing. Anyone can write obscenities, but I don't see how that adds to the humor. To me, it's low-class, un-creative, un-inspired, and lazy. My rule of thumb: Never write anything your probation officer wouldn't read.

WFD: Do you think humor writers get the same respect other writers get?

I don't feel any lack of respect as a writer because I write humor. As far as writing goes, that's the kind I enjoy most. It's the area in which I've been most successful, and take the most pride. I guess that translates into writing what people want to read, because very few -- not counting my wife -- have told me not to quit my day job.

On the other hand, we humor writers are an irrepressible lot. I think it's the old class clown syndrome. We just can't seem to help ourselves. Plus, now that we're adults, there's a lot less chance of being sent to detention.

© Copyright 2001, Phil Truman

Phil Truman's website is philtrumanink.com.

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