Writing Funny: With Molly Campbell

Molly for WebWe came across the hilarious Molly Campbell through the wonders of the Twitterverse and asked her to write for us about the challenges of humor writing. Molly is a two-time Erma Bombeck award-winning author who has a wonderful humor blog. And you can follow her at Twitter @mollydcampbell. Her very funny book, Characters in Search of a Novel, is a compilation of stories triggered by her fascination with names. Welcome, Molly!


Asking a humorist how to be funny is akin to asking a ballet dancer how to be graceful. Either you are or you aren’t. Writing well is a gift. Layering hilarity on top of that just makes things a little more complicated.

Since I really have no idea how to teach anyone how to be “funny,” I do, however, have a few guidelines that might be helpful. Maybe.

· Write about yourself. Or a situation that a lot of your readers can identify with. Writing about your spouse is also acceptable. You can make fun of your children, but be very careful that you neither hurt their feelings nor come across as mean spirited. People love to laugh at “themselves,” but only as they see themselves in what you are experiencing. Making fun of other people is dangerous. Leave that to the stand-up comedians.

· Be concise. Get to the point. Comedians have just a few seconds to make an audience laugh. The same is true of humorists. Think of a cartoon. One caption, that is it. A comic writer must do the same. Wordiness isn’t funny. They don’t call it a punch line for nothing.

· Study words. Use unusual ones. Unusual ones are funny. Instead of saying that you want to get the most out of your vacation, say you want to “maximize your itinerary” (I stole that one from my friend, Lesley). It is funnier to “schlepp” your groceries into the house than to carry them.

· What should you never do when writing humor? Don’t be too truthful. I always embellish my columns. The whole truth is never that funny. Exaggeration makes things come alive. I have said this a million times.

· I am not sure if a person who isn’t inherently funny can learn to write funnily. Maybe a good test is to see if you can tell a joke and make your audience laugh. Or sling a few good one liners you have stolen from a funny place on the internet, and see what kind of a reaction you get. My feeling is that people who are funny know that they are. My advice to those people would be to improve your writing skills. You know–punctuation, syntax, and grammar. It is better to be a good writer first, and then a funny one.

· Study every funny writer you can. Read Erma Bombeck. Nora Ephron. David Sedaris. See what you think they do that is hilarious, and try their style on for size. I often do this. It is amazing what you learn from trying to imitate a master.

· Develop your own voice. Are you the “wisecracking mom?” The “funny neighbor?” the “bumbling dad?” Figure out who you are, and then develop it. My gimmick is “View from the Empty Nest.” I write about aging, baby boomers, grandparenting, and being married for hundreds of years. You need some sort of handle.

I hope this helps. It probably doesn’t. I wish there were a magic formula for these things. Because if magic formulas existed, I would order the one for “How to Win the Pulitzer Prize in Ten Easy Steps” immediately.
Molly D. Campbell is a two-time Erma Bombeck Award winning writer. She is the author of “Characters in Search of a Novel” available at Amazon and she writes at www.mollydcampbell.com and monthly at www.momswhoneedwine.com. Molly lives in Dayton, Ohio with her five cats and her husband, who is a professional accordionist. Molly has a soundproof basement.


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4 thoughts on “Writing Funny: With Molly Campbell”

  1. You’re right about all of this. I’d add two things: write simply. Comedy hates verbosity and complicated words, like verbosity. Don’t make anyone stop to check a dictionary! I’d also add that you can’t teach anyone to be funny. You either are or you’re not. People who think they’re funny will have a hard time believing this but after 25+ years as a comedian, I’ve seen plenty of people who can’t for the life of them be funny. Both on stage and the page.

  2. As usual, Molly informs via the virtual chuckle. I am a huge fan and hope that one day I grow up and marry a organist, so our husbands can write the next great polka while we enjoy a cocktail and a good laugh about extraneous hair in unusual places. Great post! Shered everywhere!

  3. Thank you. This was a fun read. As a comedy writer I know all too well the challenges. Comedy is very subjective. Not everyone “gets” those hysterical one liners, but when they do… what a high. I love making people laugh. I find making up words to be a great way to convey humor. And yes, do write about yourself. You’d be surprised how truly funny your life is. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Now I shall go tickle myself… with words. Back to writing. 🙂

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