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STUDENTS: Read this handout and bring your questions about it to first day of class. Relax: most of it's fun.

Students: This is a working workshop of work: we start writing and editing jokes as soon as possible. You don't have to know anything before class, but once you get to class, you'll be glad you did the little bit of class preparation.

The more you're ready to use concept-mapping and Statement/Assumption/Reality/Connector before class, the more time you'll have to write and edit your jokes and work on stagecraft. A WinWord reference card of everything you need before class is at If you like, it will fit nicely on two sides of a 4x6 index card. Send questions to or post them at Thanks! --Basil White

Applying Humor to Other Writing Forms -

Or, Bolting a Reverse Gear Onto Your B******t Detector

Abstract: If you can read this, and you can laugh, you can write humor!  Learn to apply the basic psychology of how your brain gets a joke to discover what's "gettable" about your subject matter, real or fictional, for humor writing or other ironic purpose. This class also works as a fun introduction to the fundamentals of workshopping, for those new to the expectations of creative workshops. BEFORE CLASS, read and bring questions to class. Learn how to tighten comedy material and verbalize comedy ideas. Choose words that evoke sensory experience, and find the funny point of view in serious situations and topics. Class preparation at If we have time, we'll get to advanced style topics like word economy, breaking assumptions with prepositional phrases, embedding the imperative tense and imperative sensory verbs.

How the Class Works

This class is about reverse-engineering your ability to laugh into an ability to create a joke. We turn your ability to explain what's funny about other people's jokes into an ability to write jokes, by tricking your brain into explaining what's funny about a joke that doesn't exist yet.

Then we show you how to play this trick all the time so you become a ceaseless audience member of the comedy show called reality, and you view every experience as a punchline for a setup you haven't written yet.

Really. We do this. Every session. If you can laugh, you can write a joke that at least will be funny to you.

Science doesn't know a lot about how comedians write jokes. However, we know a lot more than we used to know about how and why people laugh.

We know people assign expectations to an experience why they're still having the experience. We know that when people become aware of how they assigned the wrong expectation to an experience, the brain gives us a pleasure response that makes us laugh.

We know that laughter conditions us to think about how we chose the wrong expectation, rehearse the experience, share it, seek out more violated expectations in the future, build smarter expectations, survive longer and have more babies. Laughter is the short-term reward for noticing when we get it wrong. The long-term reward is street smarts and grandchildren.

Here's one way to look at how to reverse-engineer your ability to laugh into an ability to create a joke.

Audience Member: topic -> expectation -> unexpected -> logical connection to unexpected -> laughter. You hear a statement about a topic that seems to make sense but actually serves to make the nonsensical statement you hear next make sense. Topic, setup, punchline.

Comedian: topic -> unexpected -> logical connection to unexpected -> expectation -> joke. The comedian chooses a topic and imagines something nonsensical about it, then creates a statement that seems to make sense about the topic but instead rationalizes the nonsensical statement. Topic, punchline, setup.

You can reverse-engineer your ability to laugh into an ability to create a joke by choosing a topic, creating a statement about that topic that bears no logical connection to it, building a logical connection from the unexpected to the topic, and generating an inference that seems to support the expectation but logically connects the unexpected to the topic.

Choose a topic. Write a nonsensical statement about your topic, then write a statement that seems to make sense about your topic but actually makes the nonsensical statement make sense. Topic, punchline, setup. Then switch these statements so the punchline comes last.


The Science of Getting a Joke - Being Funny Is Not A Science, But How And Why People Find Something To Be Funny Is Remarkably Scientific. Let's Exploit That.

The Pleasure Center Of The Brain Has A Problem-Solving Region. This Is Why You Laugh At Your False Assumptions, Make Better Assumptions And Stay Alive, a.k.a. Cavemen Don't Get It

Concept-Mapping: Use the words humor research subjects use to explain why they laugh (Weird Stupid Hard Scary) as questions that generate funny answers

Let's Concept-Map Something Together

Go away and build your own Concept-Map

Everyone builds your Concept-Map together (note to self: bring lots of index cards!)

Comedy Buddy each other's concept-maps

Preview of Sleight-of-Mouth Patterns a.k.a prove the illogic of other people's stupid opinions

Homework: Go away and build a legible narrative from your Concept-Maps

Challenges and advantages of writing narrative based on a Concept-Map

Stage blocking to edit dialogue aka pivot your body in a unique direction for each voice in your head

Sleight-of-Mouth Patterns: Find assumptions in your narrative and destroy them

Statement/Assumption/Reality/Connector - choose a statement you don't believe, determine the assumption that must be true for the statement to be true, write a statement of reality that refutes the assumption, and write a connector that connects rationally from the statement to the reality that refutes its assumption.

Use Statement/Assumption/Reality/Connector for characters and plots

E-prime: Replace the verb "to be" with a sensory verb

Embedding the imperative case: Sneaking commands into your text to hypnotize your audience to imagine the sensory experiences of the events in your story, a.k.a. let me know if you'd like to FEEL SOMETHING NOW

The Scott Adams Comedy Adjectives: Cruel, Cute, Clever, Naughty, Familiar and Bizarre


For both beginning and experienced fiction and/or creative nonfiction writers. This workshop will focus on individual awareness of a person's own ability to get jokes and how to adapt that ability to other forms, including humor and non-humor writing, fiction, non-fiction, screenwriting and poetry. The workshop will discuss the learning exchanged among the fields of standup comedy, comedy writing, neuroscience, neurolinguistic programming and stagecraft.

Participants will choose a topic and learn how to apply comprehension of their sense of humor to:

  • Reveal the irony of a topic
  • Reveal the topic's assumptions
  • Ask questions about the assumptions that yield irony and humor
  • Use comedy syntax for maximum effect
  • Reframe the act of writing as creating messages of sensory experience
  • Minimize the words necessary to convey sensory experience
  • Embed sensory commands into Applying Humor to Other Writing Formswriting

Participants will also discuss how the methods listed above apply to other writing forms. Participants are invited to bring their own writing goals to class to apply these comedy tools to their current projects, adding the dimension of humor and humor writing tools to their repertoire. The instructor strongly recommends that students who want to get a head start on the course should read the handout in advance at and study the Joke Prospector section of the textbook, Greg Dean's "Step-By-Step to Applying Humor to Other Writing Forms Comedy." This textbook is available at the Writer's Center. This workshop begins promptly on time! Show up ready to work!

Instructor: Basil White performed live comedy for 11 years. His jokes are in several mass-market joke booksApplying Humor to Other Writing Forms. He moonlights as a technology writer and editor, and has published articles and online courses on technical writing, usability and information architecture. He has an M.A. in Science Writing from Johns Hopkins University. His website is

The Problem

Comedy performers use strategies for writing and editing material for jokes. These strategies apply to other writing forms, but comedians have no stake in sharing these strategies with each other or with writers outside the craft.

Who Does The Problem Affect?

Those who would benefit from applying their ability to sense humor into an ability to write humor.

Why Should You Care?

These strategies apply to writing outside of comedy, e.g., word economy, evoking sensory experience, revealing irony, and revealing discrepancies between assumptions and outcomes. All sentences are referential and contain some presupposition. A presupposition is something that must be true for the statement to make sense, that still must be true even if the statement is refuted or disbelieved. For example, "X is Y." You may believe that X is not Y, but X must exist, at least conceptually, for you to accept or refute that X is Y. Exploit these presuppositions.

What is Humor?

Here's my definition.

Humor is a perceived experience of an unexpected deviance from a pattern that causes laughter, especially a pattern that suggests a threat to the perceiver or perceived that is deviated by a non-threatening resolution.

What is a Deviance From a Pattern?

Pattern deviators deviate from social norms, expectations of what belongs together in a set, expectations of the meaning or significance of words and phrases, or expectations of a result.

What Patterns Cause Laughter?

A pattern that causes laughter includes a deviation from the pattern that the audience experiences before they have an opportunity to invent a deviation themselves from the pattern prior to the deviation. Comedians talk about the rule of three, because a set of three elements is the smallest set that can suggest a pattern and deviate from it.

Tools of Applying Humor to Other Writing FormsComedy Writing

Judy Carter's Four Comedy Adjectives (from Judy Carter's "Comedy Bible")