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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
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
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
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
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
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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