This semester the term for the magazine-writing course is only seven weeks long. So, we’re opting the last assignment, which is for a “brite,” a type of journalistic short-short whose main purpose, in the publishing world is to fill space when a feature leaves an empty column inch or two.
By some people’s definitions, the brite is supposed to be humorous. That leaves my students trying to write funny, even when I advise them that they don’t have to: the point of the assignment is to write very, very tight. And their attempts at hilarity usually end in débâcle.
People who can write funny copy on assignment amaze me. It is extremely difficult to write humor on demand — in fact, to my mind it’s hard to write humor at all. Some people are very, very good at it. The rest of us…well, there’s a reason humor is not widely known in journalism.
This glum fact of life came to my attention years ago when, as a young freelance, I was writing for Paul Schatt, an editor at The Arizona Republic. Among his several tasks there, he produced the paper’s now-defunct Sunday magazine, which paid decently and hired me with some regularity.
You couldn’t spend any time around Paul without dissolving into laughter. He had an effervescent sense of humor. The two of us resonated off each other — we thought we were hilarious.
One day we were sitting around his office trying to come up with story ideas. I mentioned to him that through my husband I’d met a guy who was into some newfangled thing called the “Internet.” This gent, an insurance broker with a techie bent, had invited me to his office, where his computer resided, and shown me around the “rooms” and “library” that made up an entity called CompuServe.
He seemed to envision this imaginary architecture as an actual place: bricks and mortar, as we moderns would say. The guy would talk about going into this room and that room as though he were walking down a hall from doorway to doorway.
Well, Schatt and I thought that was the funniest damn thing. He loved it. And I had an assignment: write a hilarious story about this crackpot new phenomenon.
A contract and promise of money secured, I tabled the story until about a week before deadline. Finally, I sat down to — yes — the typewriter, there to crank out…
Oddly, there was nothing funny about the vision of imaginary rooms and libraries floating in the ether.
For the entire week, I strained to come up with something, anything remotely funny about what I’d seen that day with the insurance guy.
Finally came up with a story. It wasn’t very funny and I said so when I handed it across Schatt’s desk. “Let me be the judge of that,” said he.
Well. I doubt that it set him to rolling on the floor. But at least he paid me for it.
Since then, I have never agreed to be funny on deadline!
Occasionally something mildly entertaining will surface at my blog, Funny about Money. My own sense of humor tends to be fairly dark. The other day a reader commented on the wit in a post describing my first venture in public after a double mastectomy. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was especially funny, but apparently she thought it was.
I suppose that writing about things you consider innately absurd or silly must come across, at some level, as humor. Women’s clothing does strike me as pretty silly. So does the human body, a manifestly ridiculous mechanism.
The “funny” in Funny about Money means “odd” or “strange,” not “hilarious” — it refers to a remark made by a friend of mine. When something appears there that’s funny, it’s usually by accident. 😀