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Essay: How to Write Political Humor

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Whether you enjoy holiday traditions, or find them stressful, there’s one thing most people can agree upon this time of the year: we could all use some comic relief. Of course, not everyone has it in them to be a stand-up comedian who talks politics. Some of us would be more comfortable being political comedy writers. It’s to those people whom essayist Joel Habush is speaking:

As you know, if you’re a writer, everything’s grist for your mill. And you’re right that politics are gristier than anything else. But if you pile on by stating, “Besides, politics is all the rage right now, (“Politics is…” “Politics are…” work that out for yourself), you’ll find that right now, the only thing that’s all the rage is all the rage. But you don’t know where to start. Take a minute (more than one is recommended) to read, study, dissect, and bisect. Sure, go ahead and trisect, if you want.

Past political humorists include clever folks like:

  • Mark Twain—”The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”
  • Will Rogers— “No nation ought to be allowed to enter into a war until it’s paid for the last one.”
  • H.L. Mencken— “Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule—and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

Today’s top political laugh lines come from all our top stand-up comedians and humor writers for any of the late night talk shows—each one has its own stable of writers working feverishly all day on the latest unstable actions and utterances of the loveable whack jobs who are the political characters du jour.
The work ahead of you might not be as daunting as you possibly feared. Just throw out key words, phrases and people’s names to the right audience and stand back for the derisive belly laughs, agreeing with you: “E-mails,” “Waffling,” and “Build a Wall.”

But beware—The laughs you would get would be cheap ones, and forced at best. And cheap doesn’t always mean bargain. If you say, “Mr. So and So is as dumb as a fence post,” that only insults the fence post.

Now, if you do want to get in a few scorchers without being tagged as too partisan, make statements that cover both parties—it’s easy, e.g., open with, “Congress gets 239 paid vacation days a year.” Then zing them with, “I’ll chip in to give them even more!”

You’ll pick it up: “Did you hear about the honest Senator? Me neither.”

Let’s backtrack a little here and go broader and deeper. Why do you want to be any kind of humor writer? No, I know you want to the good kind, the successful kind, but why humor at all?

The answer has to be either, “All my friends say I’m funny,” or “It looks easy, and I could use the extra cash.” To those who loftily proclaim, “I must answer the call of Thalia, the Muse of Humor,” shut up.

They say that you should read what you want to write.

How well do you know and enjoy humor writing? Here are a few of the great humorists you should read: Robert Benchley; Dorothy Parker; P.G. Wodehouse; Read some of those authors, and more contemporary ones like the late Sir Terry Pratchett; Christopher Moore, Andy Borowitz, David Sedaris, Joel Habush*, Tina Fey, and Dave Barry. Start or continue reading them.

*Notice how seamlessly I slipped that in? But I didn’t get pushy by writing anything like, “His book, ‘Caution, Writer Ahead’ is available on Amazon.”

Here’s a sure fire writing prompt to get you started. “Two politicians walk into a bar…”

Lake Effect essayist Joel Habush is a freelance copywriter who lives in West Allis. He's past president of Working Writers of Wisconsin, and worked for years at ad agencies in Milwaukee and Chicago. His writing has won several awards from the national Humor Press competition.

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