You don’t have to be a humorist to inject a little humor into your writing. And even if you don’t consider yourself a funny person, there are tips and tricks you can use to make humor work for you.
Yesterday, we hosted a Twitter Q&A with Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski, an award-winning freelance writer and humorist who writes the humor column “Wojo’s World.” Her humor book, “Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box,” won a 2013 Outstanding Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She is a weekly contributor to Parade.com, writing about people in the comedy world.
In addition, her writing has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Family Circle, Boys’ Life, BaltimoreSun.com, Chicago Tribune’s RedEye.com, PT in Motion, Maryland Life, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore’s Child, countless college and university alumni magazines, and many other publications and websites in the stratosphere.
Wojo also writes and performs standup comedy, including at the 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008, and 2006 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshops (she is the only comic to have performed in every Erma Comedy Show), Ryan’s Daughter (in NYC), The Baltimore Comedy Factory, E.M.P. Collective Theater, restaurants, coffee shops, street corners, and other places where she wouldn’t get arrested. In 2013-2014, she wrote, produced, and performed in “Stand Up and Laugh,” a monthly improv and comedy show at Sully’s Comedy Cellar in Baltimore. Most recently, she headlined the all-female comedy showcase, “Funny Like a Fox,” in Washington, D.C.
She has also spoken on humor at the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conferences (including in 2014) and was a faculty member and speaker at the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. She speaks to business groups and has assisted many with her humorous and informative talks covering publicity, marketing, getting over the fear of public speaking, adding humor to your life and business, the role of humor in journalism, and many others.
You can check out her work on her website, WojosWorld.com.
Following is a recap of the conversation:
Is there a place for humor in journalism?
Yes, it just depends on the story you’re covering. A serious business piece? No. A light feature? Absolutely! A whole article can be funny, like when I went undercover at a Renaissance festival and discovered my “inner wench.” Or you can start with a funny anecdote, then move into a more straightforward piece.
Are there any topics that are off limits? When is humor not appropriate?
Yes: rape, domestic violence, child abuse. You get the idea. Making a joke way too soon about a recent death or tragedy. People have lost their jobs doing this.
How do you inject humor into a scary situation, like a war or a fight?
Tread lightly. With these topics, you're in danger of hitting landmines.
What's a good humor- serious ratio?
It depends on the piece. If it's a humor column, a lot of it is funny. If it's for a more straightforward piece, then I mix it up.
What are some of your favorite humor devices?
I love to use the "rule of 3." You set something up, then have three funny parts that follow. Like:
I grew up in the city.
We had no wildlife. No critters at all.
Just waterbugs, pigeons, and rats.
You get the idea.
Does the type of humor matter? I would imagine snark, for example, would not be appropriate in most pieces.
It really depends on the publication, its audience, and the story topic. An alternative weekly might love snark, so the type of humor can vary. I keep my Wojo’s World column clean, but it runs in family pubs. Playboy, CollegeHumor or even The New Yorker can run humor pieces with cursing in them. In other publications, you can’t.
What happens if someone misinterprets your humor? How do you handle it?
On the few times this happened, I explained what I was after. If I was out of line, I apologized. I tend to go over my humor and think it through before I let it be published. And when I said I apologized, I told the person that I'm sorry she was offended. But I didn't publish an apology. Like you do with stuff in the fridge, if in doubt, throw it out.
I’m not a fan of "I'm sorry you were offended" because it puts it on the other person. Do you agree?
Well, sometimes it is on the other person. People interpret humor in all kinds of ways. I let people know that I wasn't trying to hurt them or be mean. But some folks, frankly, are going to be upset no matter what you write -- humor or otherwise. There are other times, though, when I've actually taken something down off Facebook because someone was upset. I was joking about those really loud commercials about catheters that come on in the middle of the night. A woman got really mad about it. I took it down. Life is too short, and it wasn't that important for me to try to make a point that I thought was funny.
I'm not offended by many things, so I usually wind up having someone else read through it just in case.
That's a good thing to do. I've read stuff to my husband and my assistant to make sure I'm not out of line.
Should people avoid contentious areas like politics, religion, or sexuality?
It depends on the situation. I joke about having grown up Catholic. I saw a comic recently who joked about being a lesbian. I think if you can without offending people, great. Or, your brand may be offending people. Some great comics and humorists offend folks all the time because they have different points of view. But with my brand, I'm not mean to people, nor would I say/write something to deliberately hurt them.
You injected a lot of humor into your book on moving. Why was it important to you to do that?
Using humor got me through our move, which was so stressful. I use humor in many stressful situations. If something crazy or stressful happens and I'm with friends, one will usually say, “Great, now this is going to be a column.” And it usually will end up as one.
What should writers never do when it comes to adding humor to their writing?
If you’ve got a brand, don’t go against it. I thought of a funny tweet, but I didn’t post it – it wasn’t my type of humor. For example, you wouldn’t see Ellen [DeGeneres] being cruel to someone. That doesn’t fit her brand or mine.
Where do you find the comedians you interview for Parade magazine?
When I started, I interviewed people I wanted to talk with. Now, I get pitched by PR folks, network people, agents, etc. But I still pick folks I want to know more about.
Where do you seek inspiration for your humor writing?
Everywhere! Life is full of ridiculous experiences -- that’s comedy gold. I just pay attention and write them down.
Do you make little notes when you think something's funny?
All the time! I carry a notebook in my purse, but I've been known to scribble on parts of envelopes, napkins, scraps of paper -- anything I can write on. I wrote something on my hand once, but it rubbed off before I got home.
Do you have any tips for someone trying to make their humor writing go viral?
Stuff that goes viral appeals to a mass audience, or it’s just weird. See what has gone viral and use that as examples. Viral stuff also ties in with something that is really topical but covers it in a way that no one else has, so be quirky.
Who has been your favorite interview?
There are many. I loved talking with Mel Brooks. I actually asked him something he had never been asked before. I also loved talking with Lewis Black, Hal Sparks, John Fugelsang, Judy Gold, Joel Hodgson, Martin Mull. Like Lays potato chips, I can't have just one.
In terms of adding bits of humor to a non-comedic piece, what’s your favorite article you’ve written, and why?
That's easy: "Discovering My Inner Wench." I had humor throughout it, but I was serious about talking with folks behind-the-scenes at this Renaissance festival. They were really interesting, and the reasons they worked there were so cool. But I got to dress up in authentic garb, sing songs when I served people at Steak on a Stake (“’Tis not just lunch, 'tis a weapon too!”). It was so much fun! But it was a more serious story.
Which humor writers influence your work?
Erma Bombeck, Fannie Flagg, E.B. White (he wrote great essays), James Thurber, Lewis Grizzard.
What are you working on next?
I'm interviewing comedy folks for Parade; writing Wojo’s World; writing upcoming talks/keynotes; doing book signings with my humor tome, “Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box”; and finding stuff in life that makes me laugh, because that’s where my new work will come from!