From Chapter 2: The Birth of Mirth


The right one-liner or funny story can help you in so many ways, but it has to be the right one -- tailor made for the occasion. You can buy hundreds or even thousands of joke books without ever finding the one that will make the impression you want to make on the exact person you want to make it on at the exact time you want to make it. That special combination of words is best found inside you.

I remember one professor who started an English Literature lesson with the words “Ladies and gentlemen…”

A student raised her hand.

“Excuse me, Dr. Adler, but all the students in this class are ladies.”

“I have been teaching for more than twenty years,” he replied. “And I can’t get used to saying just ladies, because I know that one day there may actually be a gentleman in one of my classes.”

That was the right one-liner.

I also remember the quip that helped get me a job as an arts and entertainment writer.

The editor looked me up and down and frowned. I was in my mid-thirties, but she was convinced I was much younger, way too young for the position. I don’t know what it was that gave her the impression. Maybe it was my sneakers. Maybe it was the fact that I wore my hair in pigtails. Maybe it was the mouse ears on my head. Actually, I don’t think it was the mouse ears, because none of the articles I’ve read on dressing for success mentioned you shouldn’t wear them. But whatever it was, the way she looked at me made me feel like I was five year old. My feet didn’t reach the floor anymore. I had to swing them under my chair, the theme from “Sesame Street” playing in my head.

She perched her glasses on her nose and glanced at my résumé. Political cartoonist, writer of articles on a variety of topics, comic strip magazine editor and more: I had over twelve years of experience as a professional journalist. I thought something on my résumé would tell her I was qualified. What she focused on surprised me.

“You wrote a humor series about dieting?”

Is that what she wanted to hear about -- my silly thoughts on losing weight? So I gave it a shot.

“Yeah, I wrote about all the funny things people do when they cheat on their diets. You know, like the Indian Weight Loss Dance?” She seemed puzzled, so I continued. “It’s like the Indian Rain Dance some tribes do when they wanted rain to come down. When you’re on a diet, you get on a scale, and you move this way and that. You get on the scale fast and then slow, and then you stand on its sides, and you shift and hop in this sort of dance that you hope will somehow get the numbers to come down.”

As silly as it sounds that was the right thing to say. It made her laugh and helped me get the job.

You might think you can’t create your own humor, but chances are if you have a sense of humor – if you can laugh at things many people find funny – the potential is already inside you.

Many people also think they can’t draw, but in most cases they’re wrong. Pretty much anyone who can see and has a hand good enough to write can be taught how to look at the world with an artist’s eye and communicate what he or she sees with a pencil and a piece of paper. Likewise, pretty much anyone with a sense of humor can be taught how to look at the world with a comic eye and communicate his or her comic vision. 

Do you find that hard to believe? If so, here is a little exercise to prove how a simple change of perspective can have a great impact. Although this is a drawing exercise, you will soon discover that what you learn about yourself through it applies to humor as well. Do it even if you think you can’t draw. In fact, the worse you draw, the more likely you are to learn from it. You should also try to do the cartooning exercises in the book, because what you learn through them can be applied to non-visual forms of humor too.

For this exercise you will need two sheets of paper and a pencil. Look at this black and white photograph and try to draw what you see.

Don’t trace the photo. Look at it and try to recreate the image. Give yourself at least fifteen minutes.

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