New Writers’ Program instructor Ellis Weiner will be teaching Find Your Comic Voice(s)! this spring and he doesn’t care what you have to say, but rather, how you choose to say it. Here, Ellis, author and a former editor of the National Lampoon, sheds some light on the genre of humor writing for us.
Writers’ Program: Writing is a scary endeavor—trying to write funny sounds even scarier. What would you say to potential students to put them at ease before taking your class?
Ellis Weiner: It’s only “scary” if you fear the opinions of others. With humor, the “scariness” of the endeavor diminishes exactly because humor is so subjective. If you fail to make others laugh with your writing, it only means that A) you’re a beginner, and B) you’re attempting the hardest thing in writing that there is. The real test is that at least some of what you write really makes you laugh. Once you can do that, you know that it’s funny and you’re no longer scared. Then the reactions of others becomes something else—usually a source of embittered resentment for the imbecility of humanity and the fools that don’t know a funny thing when they read it. So, bitterness, yes—but no fear!
WP: What do you think is the most common misconception about humor writing?
EW: That it’s relatively trivial compared to “serious” writing. This is the humorist’s eternal complaint.
WP: You mention in your personal instructor statement that you don’t care what people have to say because whatever any of us has to say has already been said, so what matters is how we say it. Has there been a defining moment in your writing career that taught you this lesson?
EW: The defining event that cemented that idea for me was reading Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, where I absorbed his ideas that style and structure were more important and more beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, than theories about life. It made intuitive sense to me that my precious perceptions of reality were not remotely as astute or important as those of other, more perceptive people. So what I had to offer—and what I had been told by others, for years—was that I was funny. It was a kind of skewed subjectivity that brought a special kind of pleasure.
WP: How do you test out your own writing to make sure that it’s actually funny?
EW: That’s easy. If it makes me laugh when I think of it. If I write a whole piece and that doesn’t happen, I can’t kid myself that it’s still pretty good. Whereas if I get only one big laugh out of it, I know I’ve nailed the essential thing and that it’s worth showing to others. But you have to be honest about what’s making you laugh, versus what you’re helping out by forcing a “laugh.”
WP: What do you want students to come away with most from your class?
EW: A heightened ability to talk to themselves—which is how writing begins; a developed ability to talk back to what they just said, which is where humor comes from; and a liberated sense of the ways things can be said, which is how style forms.
WP: Anything else?
EW: You will not be able to write funny if you don’t read. Having life experiences, keeping a journal and breezing through email/chats/texts/tweets all day, won’t do it. There is a lot of funny writing online, most of it by non-professional writers, and I read it while gasping for breath from laughing every day. But I don’t think you can become mentally and physically in the groove for writing funny stuff unless you sit quietly and read.
Mae Respicio is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Onsite).