Leigh Anne Jasheway is a stress management and humor expert, comedy writer, stand-up comic, and comedy instructor/coach. Her article, “How to Write Better Using Humor,” recently appeared on Writer’s Digest.
As creative writers, we are always looking for ways to improve our craft, and learning from experts in other artistic disciplines—including comedy—is a fantastic way to do so. Writing is about exploring and representing the human experience, and humor is an undeniable part of that experience.
With that said, please welcome Leigh Anne Jasheway!
Thank you, Leigh Anne, for taking the time to share with us and to help us grow as artists.
I’m happy to do this interview with you, so let’s take it away!
Tell us a bit about your background in humor and in writing in general.
Twenty-five years ago, I accidentally discovered my sense of humor when I signed up for a short comedy writing class. I fell so in love with the idea that you can take anything that happens in your life—especially anything that evokes negatives emotions—and turn it into laughter. That seemed like a true superpower to me. To be able to take frustration and confusion and embarrassment and turn them on their heads for a laugh is something I wish every child could be taught in middle school. Imagine how much less stress and drama there would be.
As a result of finding out I loved comedy writing and performance, I quit my job as a wellness director, moved across country to a place I felt inspired by (Eugene, Oregon) and decided I’d give myself a year to “make it” doing anything in the comedy world that would work for me. For the past 22 years, I have been running comedy shows, performing stand-up, working as a humorous motivational speaker (I teach organizations and disorganizations how to use laughter to build teams, reduce employee stress, embrace change, etc.), teaching comedy writing, stand-up and improv, and writing funny stuff. I’ve now written 20 comedy books and 4 books about using laughter to build a better life. I wrote a weekly humor column for The Comic News for 9 years, wrote funny stuff for Family Circle for 8, and am now writing a monthly humor column for my local newspaper (7 years so far). I’ve also hosted two comedy-based radio shows.
You’re a “stress-management expert.” Writers tend to be a stressed-out bunch. How can they use humor in their daily lives?
Writers are often stressed because we spend so much time in our heads making stuff up. That can cause us to make us dramas about our own lives that don’t actually exist. We also live in a world of constant rejection—it’s like being in the 8th grade all over again! Not to mention the stress when others don’t recognize what we do as “work” because you can’t see it being done.
Some of my best humor tips for writers:
- Spend time with funny people every day (not online, in person). Your interactions will not only get you out of your head, but studies show that we catch the mood of the people we spend the most time with, so some of that ability to find the humorous side of life will wear off on you.
- Take regular laughter breaks. At least three times a day, leave your desk and go do something with the intent to laugh. Keep in mind that the majority of things that create laughter aren’t scripted comedy. It’s everyday life that creates the best laughs. If you know the kinds of things that always evoke a giggle or a guffaw (for me, it’s dogs or any animals, really), seek those out.
- Do things you’re lousy at. Sing karaoke, line dance, hula hoop, play tennis. The idea is to challenge your ego and learn to laugh at failure.
- Take an improv class. Not only will you learn more about how to laugh, improv brings us into our bodies and out of our heads. In fact, one of the rules of improv is “Don’t think. Do.” Now isn’t that the exact opposite of the writing life?
- Invest in a book about comedy writing to see how you might be able to add more to your own writing. Not only will it help reduce writing stress, it may also boost readership.
What can humor add to a serious or tragic story?
There are four humor theories that I teach in my academic comedy classes at the School of Journalism and Communication at The University of Oregon: incongruity, social bonding, arousal relief, and superiority. The middle two have a direct connection to your question. When something is very sad or very serious, we as a people need a way to let go of tension and anxiety. One of the main reasons we laugh is for that reason. Think about how often you’ve laughed during the most intense moments of a horror movie, for example. The body naturally sheds fear in many ways and laughter is right there at the top. As a writer, to introduce humor allows you to ramp up the tension even more without driving your readers away.
Social bonding laughter draws us all together in moments of tragedy. On September 14th, 2001, I was in charge of running a community-wide comedy show as part of my city’s annual celebration. After the tragedy on 9/11, I met with the other organizers to discuss whether it was a good or bad thing to try to make people laugh so soon in the face of what had happened. We all agreed that because none of the comedians or improvisers (we had 5 hours of comedy lined up) were focusing on the tragedy and because the only people who would show up would do so because they wanted to laugh, that we would go ahead. We prefaced each hour with a short discussion of the importance of laughter. We were standing room only for all five hours—people needed so badly to laugh together and feel like a part of the community again. How this applies to writers is that we may feel alone as we toil away putting words to paper, but we are building a community among our readers. People want to laugh. They need to laugh. If you can offer that as part of your writing toolkit, you’ll boost your readership. I’ll say that I don’t like crime novels at all, but when I discovered Carl Hiaasen’s insane sense of humor, I was hooked.
In your article, you discuss “subtle humor.” Could you give us a definition?
I judge a lot of comedy writing contests and one of the first things I look for is that group of writers who are clearly working hard to make me laugh and I can see it. Those writers don’t make the cut. I don’t want to see the tricks you’re using (and comedy writing does rely on tricks). In my own writing, I will often take a topic I’ve used in stand-up and create a humor column from it, but it is different in many ways: the jokes are less obvious, the pacing is more conversational, and I’m very aware of mixing up the different joke types I use.
Here’s an example from one of my recent columns from the Register Guard:
While on vacation in Florence (Oregon, not Italy), two girlfriends and I started fantasizing about owning our own beach house. Wouldn’t it be lovely, we asked, to have a place we could use whenever we wanted and when we weren’t there, we could rent it out to other dog-owned, fun-loving middle-aged women who would clean up after themselves and feel guilty if they made too much noise after 9 p.m.? It’s a very specific demographic, but most of them are our Facebook friends, so we wouldn’t lack for paying guests.
My friends are both single moms, one of whom is a middle-school teacher and the other a social worker, meaning they cannot afford the extravagance of a vacation home or even fancy 2-ply toilet paper. So that leaves any investing up to me, the comedian/part-time instructor/wiener dog wrangler. But unless my pooches Penny, Watson, and Murray become part of the Pokemon Go phenomenon and start raking in the big bucks for catching Pikachu, the best I can afford is a gardening shed with a view of Highway 101.
I have this joke I do in stand-up about trying on a body shaper and being slapped by my butt fat because it’s up under my armpits. You don’t want your jokes to slap your readers in the face.
How do you see writers getting this wrong?
I think I may have covered that above, but being too obvious is really the issue. Also, relying too heavily on wordplay is a problem for some. We writers love playing with words so it’s not unusual to see someone’s writing rife with puns, definition jokes, and other forms of wordplay.
Comedy just doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Do you have any exercises for practicing humor writing?
First, I want to say that I was one of those people. My role models in high school were Edgar Alan Poe and Sylvia Plath! I read nothing but heavy Russian novels. Had there been such a category in our yearbook, I would have been voted Most Likely to Depress People. So once you discover your own sense of humor, it is completely doable to expand it and feel more comfortable about it.
One of my favorite exercises is something you can do in traffic (and we’re all there several times a week, right?). It’s called 3-word funny. Pick the first three letters from the license plate in front of you and create complete sentences beginning with each of those letters, with the intent of making yourself laugh (after all, you are your first audience). You’re allowed to add a preposition or article if needed. For example, DIT:
- Don’t irritate turtles.
- David invested (in) trouble.
- Dig inside (the) tortellini.
- Dana isn’t (a) trampoline.
Another fun exercise is to look through your writing and underline all your metaphors and similes. Then, change the second half (what you compared your subject to) to something funnier.
My book, Yoga for Your Funny Bones: Exercises to Strengthen Your Comedy Writing, is chock-full of writing exercises specifically to hone comedy skills.
Which do you see employed most effectively in non-comedic writing—verbal humor or situational humor?
I love situational humor, but our lives may not be filled with it. I won the Erma Bombeck humor writing competition with an essay based upon my first mammogram in which the machine caught on fire. It’s a hysterical story and I have about 20 of those, but I’ve written over 500 humor columns at this point, so verbal humor is a must for me.
If you’re writing non-fiction, you may not have enough situational humor to draw upon, so you may have to rely more heavily on verbal humor. If, on the other hand, you are writing fiction, situational humor should play a stronger role. Make the story funny, make the characters funny but don’t have them telling jokes. Christopher Moore does such a great job of this, as does Janet Evanovich. My latest screenplay, Trouble Supreme, is about a by-the-books legal intern who finds herself with a dead Supreme Court Justice on her hands (literally) on the first day of her new job. The story is funny, so the comedy flows more naturally. Also, the trouble with too much verbal humor is that it becomes obvious.
In genre writing, especially horror, we often find the trope of the “funny character,” whose sole purpose is to lighten the mood. Do you find such a character to be necessary/beneficial?
Yes, because of the arousal relief function those characters serve. But I think it’s important that those characters be more well-rounded so that it’s not obvious to the reader that the only reason they exist is to lighten the mood. And think about how that mood-lightening function can be achieved through story rather than character so that funny characters don’t become a crutch.
Many see comedy as an innate talent. Do you believe humor can be learned?
I absolutely believe that comedy can be learned. Humor is the instinct to see the funny, and that can be improved. Comedy is the skill of making others laugh, and that can definitely be taught and learned. I’ve had students really improve their comedy writing and stand-up comedy skills by taking a class or three (yes, I have a lot of repeat offenders) of mine. Learning to write funny requires understanding the basic tools well enough to integrate them into your own personal style. Kathleen Cremonisi, author of Love in the Elephant Tent, took my comedy writing class to try to make her frequently very sad memoir less so for her readers (and herself as she wrote it). She credits what she learned in class with helping her get the story where she needed to be. Several of my students have gone on to win comedy writing competitions that they had entered previously to no avail.
Comedy writing uses another set of writing tools that most writers have never been exposed to. Any time you can add to your skillset, why wouldn’t you want to?
Should we use different types of humor in different situations?
When I teach my workshops and classes, I talk about laughter coming from three places—head, heart, and stomach. Head laughter looks for incongruity and has to solve comedy like a puzzle. Verbal humor fits here. Heart laughter arouses from situations that make us feel good and happy about the people we’re with. That’s social bonding theory and is the best type of humor to use on author web pages and in person to build a following. Stomach humor is that automatic gut laugh that we may or may not be sorry about later. This is often the root of physical comedy on the page and on the stage.
If our readers only remember one piece of advice about incorporating humor into their writing, what should it be?
Keep your humor true to yourself as a writer and to your story. Never let any writing rules usurp your style and purpose.
Photo by Todd F Niemand