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Outdoors Outpost
How to Write Humor
Wednesday, May 14, 2014 • Posted May 15, 2014

Every time someone asks me to speak at a meeting or banquet I’m kind of surprised. I find it odd that people sometimes want to hear anything I have to say, especially at a dinner function, where they’ve just had a meal. But I always say yes, if I can, because you never know when they might offer money, or something.

So when I received an email from the folks putting together the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference this year, asking me to give a speech to a bunch of writers on how to be funny, I was mildly shocked. Speaking about writing to people who actually know how to write, most of whom probably know how to write better than me, is a little bit different from, say, giving a talk at my local Lion’s Club. With a Lion’s Club I can talk about anything I want, and I usually try to pick something they don’t know anything about, so they can’t tell that I don’t know anything about it, either. Then I can just make stuff up, and nobody knows the difference.

Trying to tell writers how to write, I think, is a lot like trying to explain swimming to a fish. They already know how to do it, so if they listen at all they’re liable to be mostly critical, and don’t really expect to learn anything. Which is probably good for me, since I probably can’t teach them anything.

But I agreed to give the talk, largely because the conference is being held this year in McAllen. Or maybe Harlingen. It’s somewhere down there at the bottom of Texas, near Mexico. And I can’t pass up a chance to spend a May weekend sweating like a Yankee on a Galveston beach. Plus you can get good chalupas down there.

The thing about McAllen, or maybe Harlingen, is that it’s hard to tell you’re not actually in Mexico, so going down there is similar to a trip out of the country. Most of the people there speak Spanish better than they do English, so it helps to be understood if you talk loud and adopt a Spanish accent. If you need to answer the call of nature, for example, you should walk up to a random person and shout, “El whereo esta is la bano, senor, por favor?” They LOVE it when you do that. Be sure to smile, too.

The only problem is that I’m going to have to figure out how to write humor before I go, so I’ll be able to explain it to the OWAA folks. I’ve given the subject a lot of thought, upwards of ten minutes, and I’ve come up with some points that I consider essential in outdoor humor writing. At least, I’m hoping they sound essential. Or at least pointy.

The first thing I’m going to tell them is what Mark Twain said. He said, “The secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow.” Mark Twain was abnormally astute, in that he realized that no matter how miserable, or painful, or embarrassing an event is to those experiencing it, someone watching is liable to be laughing so hard they’re bending over, drooling on their shoes, holding their sides and trying to breathe. This is just human nature, and stems from the fact that humans hate one another. Or something.

Another key humor writing fact comes from a quote by (note to editor: I plan to find out who said this and insert the name here), who said, “The secret to humor is surprise.” This can be confusing, though, and requires explanation, because not all surprises are humorous.

For instance, if my wife and I are on a road trip and she’s driving, and I shout and throw a rubber snake in her lap, she will definitely be surprised, but it’s unlikely she will be amused. She’s liable to wreck us, and then I won’t be amused, either. Others may stop and laugh at us, but since making those people laugh was probably not my original intent, the effect is lost. Not good.

The right kind of surprise in humor writing is portrayed by a gift I bought my wife once for her anniversary. I’d been getting tired of her mood swings, so I gave her one of those ‘mood rings,’ that changes color according to the disposition of the wearer. It worked very well. When she was happy or content it assumed a soft, greenish color. When she was angry or upset it left a bright red mark in the middle of my forehead.

I hope the OWAA folks are happy with these tips, since they’re about all I’ve come up with so far. But then, I doubt I was asked to speak just because I’ve won the humor division in the annual OWAA writing contest, or that I won a Professional Outdoor Media Assn. Pinnacle Award a few years ago for a humor column. I imagine they asked me to speak because no one else wants to travel all the way to McAllen, or maybe Harlingen, where they might accidentally wander into Mexico and get shot full of holes.

That probably wouldn’t be funny to the shootee, but no doubt others would find it amusing . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who enjoys traveling in Mexico, when war is not in session. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or

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