Humor Writing 101

 

Atlantic.com, Molly Jong-Fast:

I’m here to tell you Thanksgiving is terrible, and if you at least spend the time trying to deprogram your niece, you won’t be bored or depressed (though you might be enraged that Fox News or Infowars has convinced her Trump can ‘save America’ from Joe Biden’s radical agenda of giving people hearing aids and free pre-K). Maybe it won’t work. Maybe you’ll leave Thanksgiving dinner as divided as you were when you sat down at the table five hours and 4,000 calories ago. Or maybe you’ll plant the seed, sow just a little doubt about whatever Tucker Carlson is saying now. Maybe you’ll even change a heart or a mind. Maybe you’ll bring the temperature down just a tiny bit. Or maybe you’ll need to report a relative to the FBI! Either way, it’s something to do besides just eat.

Jong-Fast is one of those uninteresting writers who pops up from time to time in an outlet with a solid rep. The New York Times, The Atlantic. I doubt the editors think her work is toppermost of the poppermost when it comes to style or insight, but … it’ll do. Every editor has a stable of names whose work falls into this category. The editor isn’t excited to run the piece, but it’ll do.

MJF was duly dinged for the piece, particularly the FBI remark. People whose humor gland has withered to the size of an ant’s gonad thought she was serious. Whereupon she went on Twitter and said that the piece was intended to be humorous. 

I saw that right away, because it’s a fine example of something that has plagued the “humorous writing” genre for a long time: things that appear to be technically funny but are not funny, at all. Let’s take a look at it, line by line.

I’m here to tell you Thanksgiving is terrible.

Good line, really. Make a brassy assertion that shocks — yes, shocks! — the reader and establishes a persona that’s a truth teller who cares not where the chips fall. A good humorist follows this up with something that instantly subverts the assertion. Something like this: 

“There are only three kinds of pies, the dogs can’t eat the bones, yams are delicious but make me start talking in a Popeye voice, and the smooth, savory gravy reminds you of the Thanksgiving in 1987 when there was a lump in the sauce. It turned out to be a Midol Mom put in the sauce in the hopes it would dissolve and keep her daughter from snapping at everyone.”

Or something like that. You qualify the assertion so the reader knows you really don’t think Thanksgiving is horrible, but you have stories, observations, silly complaints, and so on. Unless, of course, you want your audience to consist entirely of people who agree that Thanksgiving is horrible, in which case you’re writing “humor” for people who spin in a bariatric chamber of personal neuroses.

Let’s just see how this idea builds:

I’m here to tell you Thanksgiving is terrible, and if you at least spend the time trying to deprogram your niece

Of all the people the middle-aged, boxed-wine cat lady is least likely to deprogram, it would be a niece, right? 

I’m here to tell you Thanksgiving is terrible, and if you at least spend the time trying to deprogram your niece, you won’t be bored or depressed 

OK, ha ha, I guess. Also, “and” should be “but.” 

The full sentence:

I’m here to tell you Thanksgiving is terrible, and if you at least spend the time trying to deprogram your niece, you won’t be bored or depressed  (though you might be enraged that Fox News or Infowars has convinced her Trump can ‘save America’ from Joe Biden’s radical agenda of giving people hearing aids and free pre-K).

Somewhere the shade of S.J. Perelman has taken off his wire-rimmed glasses and squinted through the veil that stands between this world and the next, and said, “A link? You ended a punchline with a link? A link to a government program?

It’s not funny, but it’s technically funny. The audience — which has self-selected within 14 words of her piece — knows that Joe Biden is not radical, and anyone who says there’s anything radical at all about the administration is NUTS and also Trump amirite and pre-K is a holy thing right up there with abortion except for the part about a live kid. Stupid niece! 

It has all the contours of something that might be funny, but it is not, in fact, funny. It could be proof of the multiverse: You look at that sentence and think If the multiverse contains every possible iteration of everything, there is a universe of vast dimensions that is identical to ours in every way, except this line is different somehow, in a way that makes it funny. If we put this piece into a particle accelerator and bombard it with neutrons, we may hear someone, somewhere, laughing.

Maybe it won’t work. Maybe you’ll leave Thanksgiving dinner as divided as you were when you sat down at the table five hours and 4,000 calories ago.

Ha ha, people eat a lot at Thanksgiving. Is that the joke? 

No. This is a transitional line that lets the reader breathe between killer jokes but also maintains a state of Elevated Comic Tone, achieved through exaggeration. Five hours, 4,000 calories. But you have to follow it with something that has a quantity of humor detectable by the naked eye, not an electron microscope. Let us continue:

Or maybe you’ll plant the seed, sow just a little doubt about whatever Tucker Carlson is saying now. 

Okay, not funny, inasmuch as “Tucker Carlson” is not intrinsically funny as a series of syllables, but it does serve to flatter the audience, and that can pass for the warm feeling people get from actually laughing. 

If she’d realized why the line was mirthless celery and wanted to put in some effort, she might have said, “Or maybe you’ll plant the seed, sow just a little doubt about whether it was wise for Tucker Carlson to crash a COVID ICU dressed as the QAnon shaman, looking for children stashed under beds by Epstein and Hillary.” Turn it up to eleven, use the other side’s crazies, show some familiarity with the situation. But no: “whatever Tucker Carlson is saying now.”

The reader’s face, which cracked a smile upon seeing this was a piece by Mollie Jong-Fast — she’s witty and snarky! — is now slightly frozen and aches a little from holding the smile in an act of comradeship.

Maybe you’ll even change a heart or a mind.

Another placeholder. Here you should switch tactics: “Maybe you could shout ‘Pass the BBB!’ And explain you meant big, buttered biscuits, because who would be against that?”

Maybe you’ll bring the temperature down just a tiny bit.

Mind you, this paragraph doesn’t have anyone saying anything, just presumptive, prophylactic reeducation of the hypothetical niece who hasn’t even said anything.

Or maybe you’ll need to report a relative to the FBI! Either way, it’s something to do besides just eat.

That’s the laff line to which she was building up. Ha ha, awesome, maybe that would be a good thing, there’s always a kernel of truth in good humor! Of course it’s absurd, no one would, and that’s what makes it funny! 

LOL, as they say, when they mean that no one has, in fact, laughed out loud, or laughed at all, but has detected the technical outlines of humor, agrees with the author’s predicates, and has settled in for some breezy affirmations. 

In other words, it’s humorous in form, but not in texture, substance, aroma, or flavor.

Molly Jong-Fast is the vegan turkey of humor. 

Published in General
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There are 40 comments.

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  1. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Vegan turkey is funnier than tofu, but tofu is funny in itself, along with the idea that people actually eat it. It always reminds me of Dave Barry’s line that tofu is a Japanese word meaning “whale snot.”

    Damn militant space Vegans anyway. So smug.

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    When satire is indistinguishable from earnest opinion one cannot complain that people don’t get that it’s a joke. Heck, a really dedicated satirist wants people to think they’re being serious, because fooling people is the joke.  e.g. Jonathan Swift.

    • #2
  3. Hugh Member
    Hugh
    @Hugh

    Yup, “Vegan” is a good word to describe this.  Nice piece.  I enjoyed reading it.  Hope that you and the fam are having a good holiday.

    • #3
  4. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Molly Jong-Fast is one of those people who couldn’t get a job at McDonald’s without her hyphenated last name reminding everyone who her parents are. (Coming soon: The Fear of Frying.)  She’ll be forever down with the class struggle as long as the rest of us remember our place.

    That she has aligned herself with Bill Kristol, the man who put the Con into NeoCon, makes her all the more insufferable. 

    • #4
  5. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I’m stealing “mirthless celery.” 

    • #5
  6. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    She was being serious.  It wasn’t a “humor” piece, it was a “clever” piece (in her mind, anyway).  There is a difference.

     

     

     

    • #6
  7. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    She was being serious. It wasn’t a “humor” piece, it was a “clever” piece (in her mind, anyway). There is a difference.

    I was thinking that too. Very typical of manipulative people to take a swipe at someone and then pretend they didn’t. It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.

    • #7
  8. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Isn’t she the wench Bill Kristol, Johnny Last and that mob sent to CPAC to make fun of the pro-lifers?

    I remember Limbaugh talking once about how a sizable portion of the GOP is embarrassed by those/us backwards pro-lifers. They’re ashamed of us.

    I’m ashamed of them.

    And, to borrow from Norm MacDonald, Molly Jong Fast IS funny, not like a Woody Allen movie, but like a Woody Allen marriage.

    • #8
  9. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    James?  You read the whole thing?  I stopped in the middle of the first sentence.  (But then, I never got the appeal of MJF in the first place.)

    I’m glad you’re a masochist, though, just for us. (:

    • #9
  10. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    There was far more mental energy used and wit engaged to perform this exegesis than there was to produce the article under examination.

    Humor is an affirmative response to human foibles, unexpected outcomes, contradictions and ambiguities in language. When there is only a stark choice between The Narrative (Peace Be Upon It) and evil, when there can be no foibles, no ambiguity then there is no space for humor.

    For very similar reasons, there are no Iranian mullahs nicknamed “Shecky” and Comedy Central stopped being funny when John Stewart.

    • #10
  11. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    James Lileks:

    Atlantic.com, Molly Jong-Fast:

    Molly Jong-Fast is the vegan turkey of humor.

    That final line beautifully  made your entire point. It was a literary bullseye. Your “lesson” reminded me of how I like my pork – well done and savory. (I know – you probably saw that coming…)

    Thank you James. 

    • #11
  12. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Max Knots (View Comment):
    Thank you James. 

    You’re welcome! My pleasure.

    • #12
  13. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    James? You read the whole thing? I stopped in the middle of the first sentence. (But then, I never got the appeal of MJF in the first place.)

    I’m glad you’re a masochist, though, just for us. (:

    Agreed! 

    • #13
  14. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    She was being serious. It wasn’t a “humor” piece, it was a “clever” piece (in her mind, anyway). There is a difference.

    I was thinking that too. Very typical of manipulative people to take a swipe at someone and then pretend they didn’t. It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.

    “Clown nose on, clown nose off”

    • #14
  15. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Molly Jong-Fast is one of those people who couldn’t get a job at McDonald’s without her hyphenated last name reminding everyone who her parents are. (Coming soon: The Fear of Frying.) She’ll be forever down with the class struggle as long as the rest of us remember our place.

    That she has aligned herself with Bill Kristol, the man who put the Con into NeoCon, makes her all the more insufferable.

    I don’t know who were parents are (I looked it up once and gather one of them is rich and famous but it was a total shoulder shrug to me). But it’s weird cause the piece isn’t funny. It has some elements of that standard sophomore year of college sarcasm but it’s more passive aggressiveness and less humor.

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    When satire is indistinguishable from earnest opinion one cannot complain that people don’t get that it’s a joke. Heck, a really dedicated satirist wants people to think they’re being serious, because fooling people is the joke. e.g. Jonathan Swift.

    Poe’s Law

    It’s weird cause people are mad at MJF and also Lauren Boebert over things that they’d both claim were jokes. Neither were funny but Lauren’s was actually a joke and you can tell from the way it reaches its crescendo (seriousness then irreverence) and the way she acted it out. We can talk about whether it is appropriate for a member of Congress to tell those jokes about a colleague in semi-public setting but it was a joke. 

    I will leave this here. Obvs, I didn’t come up with it, and I edited it for CConduct reasons, but lets all just avoid this going forward. 

     

    • #15
  16. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Her first sentence chased me away; it’s just so … ugly:

    I’m here to tell you Thanksgiving is terrible, and if you at least spend the time trying to deprogram your niece…

    What is this piece about? I read it again. Mentally diagram the sentence. “If you at least spend the time trying to,” indeed. I have 13 open tabs. Who has the time to weed-whack prepositional phrases?

    Thanksgiving is terrible. Avoid being bored or depressed by deprogramming your niece. (She thinks Trump can ‘save America’ from Joe Biden’s radical agenda. Fox News and Infowars are bad.)

    That’s the gist. The unfunny, uninteresting gist. Listless, this gist.

    Next month, the editor should run pieces by Janie Arendt-McLuhan or Paloma Hefner-Cavett.

    • #16
  17. GlennAmurgis Coolidge
    GlennAmurgis
    @GlennAmurgis

    Just remember, life long “conservative” Bill Kristol had here writing for “The Bulwark” 

    • #17
  18. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    James Lileks:

    Atlantic.com, Molly Jong-Fast:

    Molly Jong-Fast is the vegan turkey of humor.

    That final line beautifully made your entire point. It was a literary bullseye. Your “lesson” reminded me of how I like my pork – well done and savory. (I know – you probably saw that coming…)

    Thank you James.

    And you, James, are the turkey (white and dark, a mix)  smothered in giblet gravy, of humor.  With a little salt.  And pepper.  And poultry spice.  Washed down with a nice Risling, not from California, but from Germany, a Spatlese, with a touch of sweet and a little after bite…

    (I’ll stop; it’s time for a turkey sandwich.)

    • #18
  19. Rightfromthestart Coolidge
    Rightfromthestart
    @Rightfromthestart

    What galls me is the off handed assertion that the administration this year has been so perfect in all other respects that the only thing we nutters have to complain about  is free hearing aids and pre-k.  (Although I do because neither is in any way a Federal issue, I’m sure MJF has never heard of the 9th and 10th amendment)

    • #19
  20. JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery Thatcher
    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery
    @JosePluma

    Humor Writing 101

    A class that the writers of most “comedy” specials and late night TeeVee need to take.

    • #20
  21. JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery Thatcher
    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery
    @JosePluma

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Molly Jong-Fast is one of those people who couldn’t get a job at McDonald’s without her hyphenated last name reminding everyone who her parents are. (Coming soon: The Fear of Frying.)

    Now that’s funny.

    • #21
  22. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Jong-Fast is from Schrodinger’s School of comedy. Weather they’re writing a comedy or serious commentary is entirely dependent on reader’s reaction.

    Comedy is funny because it comes from truth. So even writing a comedy, Jong-Fast is writing how she really feels and she should soon be asking the real important question of the day – “Do you want fries with that?”.

    • #22
  23. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    James Lileks:

    Atlantic.com, Molly Jong-Fast:

    Molly Jong-Fast is the vegan turkey of humor.

    That final line beautifully made your entire point. It was a literary bullseye. Your “lesson” reminded me of how I like my pork – well done and savory. (I know – you probably saw that coming…)

    Thank you James.

    And you, James, are the turkey (white and dark, a mix) smothered in giblet gravy, of humor. With a little salt. And pepper. And poultry spice. Washed down with a nice Risling, not from California, but from Germany, a Spatlese, with a touch of sweet and a little after bite…

    (I’ll stop; it’s time for a turkey sandwich.)

    The sandwich was great, BTW, just turkey on a dinner roll with mayo and a little salt and pepper.  MMMmmm good.

    • #23
  24. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I read it earlier last week and never once did I get the sense that she wasn’t dead serious.

    A humor piece? Hmmm. I saw it more as a cry for attention — and help. I tried reading between the lines and what I got out of it was “Please put me in an institution.”

    • #24
  25. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    That piece made me glad that I have been kicked out of my Leftist family.  I would have been on the receiving end of the de-programming attempt.

    Great post, James!  And the comments make it even better.  Thanks to everyone!

    • #25
  26. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Maybe in this new climate I can finally find a publisher for my compendium opus The Warmth & Wit of Heinrich Himmler.

    • #26
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A color TV can make any color out of three primary colors: red, green, and blue. There’s a type of lazy feminist writer who believes she can paint a true picture of any reality using just three primaries: smugness, rage, and self-pity. Seriously: next time you see something written like this, you can tick through the three ingredients and they’re always in the recipe. 

    Usually, the net result is something that a prim, scolding 12 year old would say: “The mixed martial arts are not the arts!” or “Bambi’s mother, in a movie that was, bizarrely, named after her son…” “If men got pregnant, abortion would be a religious sacrament!”

    (Devil’s advocate mode) But righties are not exactly immune from a milder form.

    We rarely exhibit smugness, but there’s a lot of rage and a little too much self pity on our side sometimes. “I suppose, as a white male who is breathing ‘the people’s’ air, I deserve nothing better than death. Of course, as a heterosexual Christian, I am a deserving object of hate. I guess that on Ricochet, I’m not allowed to write one word criticizing the Left, but I should have known better than to expect guts and decency from my so-called friends on the so-called Right. In fact, I….” 

    One difference is, on our side, we don’t pretend our sarcastic bitterness is actually funny. On their side, they act like every little pronouncement from these jokester wokesters is hilarious wit. 

    • #27
  28. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Maybe in this new climate I can finally find a publisher for my compendium opus The Warmth & Wit of Heinrich Himmler.

    Certainly, if you misrepresent them as the words of a Great Progressive Thinker. Did you ever hear about the college leftists who applauded the professor’s recitation of quotations from Mussolini? Until he told them who they were applauding? It would be even easier today because so many don’t even know who Mussolini was.

    • #28
  29. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    So is she serious about trying to convert people politically over dinner or not?  Every member of this site has strong opinions on a number of issues, but in all my years here I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “This Thanksgiving I am going to talk some sense into my relatives on this budget bill!”  Maybe you can also pin them down and sell them some life insurance or Amway while you’re at it.

    • #29
  30. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf (View Comment):

    I read it earlier last week and never once did I get the sense that she wasn’t dead serious.

    A humor piece? Hmmm. I saw it more as a cry for attention — and help. I tried reading between the lines and what I got out of it was “Please put me in an institution.”

    Now that’s funny.

    • #30
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