Your Guide to Becoming a Humor Writer with an Online Creative Writing Degree

Written by Scott Wilson

humor writer

Everyone likes to laugh. That means there’s always going to be a robust market for writers with a sense of humor.

There aren’t many genres that are more fun to write, or to read, than humor. Humorists find niches in fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, articles, and scriptwriting. There is no corner of the human experience, or the literary world, that doesn’t have a place for humor in it.

Although humor writing gets short shrift in some elevated literary circles, every English writer would do well to remember that Shakespeare made his bones in comedy. A full third of the works in the First Folio are categorized as comedies. While the language may seem arcane to us today, Elizabethan audiences were rolling in the aisles and coming back for more.

Even writers who are best known for other kinds of works benefit from having a finely-tuned ability to turn a comedic phrase or two. There are few works of literature or even non-fiction that don’t benefit from an author who understands how to use humor to make a point or set a tone.

I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.

Comedy writing is actually a serious business. The best humorists are keen observers of culture and human nature. They deconstruct situations and beliefs that are commonplace to see them in a new light, and to draw contrasts and observations that are surprising, shocking, or ambiguous.

A degree in creative writing can’t teach you to be funny, unfortunately. But it can help you understand the mechanics of humor, and, just as importantly, develop the key creative writing skills and techniques it takes to turn your form of funny into readable, laughable, likable stories.

Humor Writers Develop Expertise in the Many Ways of Making People Laugh

father and son laughing while readingWhat makes people laugh has been the subject of serious study since at least the time of Plato.

Theories of comedy and the psychological principles behind the sense of humor have created a lot of categories and concepts, but what makes one person laugh and another cringe remains both an art and a mystery.

Comedy writers can’t get away from the reality that humor isn’t a universal. As a genre of writing, it has many forms and formulas:

Most writers will find that they are naturally funny, or not, in some limited range of the vast comedy panoply. But there is plenty of room out there for whatever type of humor writing you find you are best at.

Being Funny Can Lead to Both Fame and Fortune in Humor Writing

student studying in attic bedroomHumor writing often crosses genre boundaries, with Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy standing as a classic work in the science fiction canon, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 considered a masterpiece of black humor in a war novel.

Even classic American humorists like Mark Twain and Dave Barry have veered over into other genres, with novels like the bildungsroman The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Barry’s crime fiction work Big Trouble.

Humor doesn’t just have a role in comedy writing, however. It’s an important tool in the creative writing repertoire in nearly every genre. Understanding how to lighten or punctuate a scene with a joke in any kind of writing is a key technique for almost every writer. Humor has a place in establishing tone, pacing, and emphasis in all kinds of creative writing, fiction, and non-fiction alike.

Catch 22 points to the way that comedy offers to exam some of the most serious and distressing parts of society and culture. By using absurdist humor, Heller illustrated some of the absurdities of war in ways that have had a lasting impact on American perspectives. Others, like Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson, took comedy into reporting at the forefront of New Journalism, using it to make points about American culture and politics that could be difficult to discuss in traditional formats.

group laughing in theater seatsHumorists are also more likely than other creative writers to drift into writing for stage and film. There are entire categories of comedy that are inherently visual in nature. There is also a huge demand for comedy in those media.

Plenty of comedy writers come to the craft from that direction, as well. You might be working your way up the ladder in a career in television or sketch comedy when you realize that punching up your writing skills can pay dividends. Either way, formal training in creative writing has a lot to offer.

How To Find Your Way as a Humor Writer Through a Degree in Creative Writing

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous.

College can’t make you funny, but it can help you take your comedy chops and put them down on paper in way that reflects your natural sense of humor. Next to poetry, there may be no genre of writing that is more sensitive to word choice, sentence structure, or even elementary formatting than humor.

Even if you can already crack a joke, you will have to learn the particular rhythms and techniques needed to work in the written medium. That’s true even if you are writing for visual or stand-up performances. If anything, putting together a comedy script is even more challenging, with more rules and conventions than traditional humor writing.

When the audience laughs, I make notes. And when the audience coughs, it’s like they’re throwing skulls at you. They’re telling you that if this was on the page, they would be skimming now. At the end of the night I’ll lay my story out on the hotel bed and look at my notes, and I’ll notice the flow of the laughter. I want there to be a rhythm to it. I want it to be like a roller coaster that the audience is strapped into.

Coming Into the Comedy Writing Scene Through Performance

microphone for standup comedianThere are some kinds of comedy that are completely inaccessible to writers who confine themselves to traditional published works. Physical comedy, sketch work, and stand-up humor is uniquely performance-oriented, taking place on stage or video.

But there’s plenty of work to be had for humor writers in each of those venues. Humor writers craft screenplays, hone individual stand-up jokes, and come up with elaborately staged pratfalls, surrealist scenes, and situational comedy that can find a broad audience in all kinds of visual and performing media.

The path to success as a comedy writer in visual media can be very different from those sticking to the traditional publishing world. There’s a whole separate vocabulary and tradition involved in visual comedy, one best learned through studies of film, stage, and television.

But at the end of the day, combining those studies and skills with those found in a creative writing degree can be a real advantage in either medium. Lewis Black, Conan O’Brien, and Ellie Kemper are just a few of the hit comedic writers and actors with degrees in English or literature.

A degree in creative writing is one-stop shopping for developing all of these skills under the watchful eye of professional instructors. Although there are plenty of successful comedic writers who came to the job by other paths, you can save yourself quite a lot of blood, sweat, and tears by getting a formal education in writing.

College Studies Help Smarten Up Your Humor

Writing humor is an exercise in psychology. Although some people are born with the sort of gift that can deconstruct and subvert the expectations of readers, most humor writers will benefit from the kind of general liberal arts instruction that gives them broad exposure to fields of knowledge such as:

Some of the most valuable parts of your creative writing degree program might come from classes that don’t have anything specifically to do with writing at all. But the sorts of observations and analysis that you are taught to make can inform your comedy and make your humor writing that much better.

You’ll also find that college offers many electives that can help you with humor specifically, even if not in the written format. Coursework in drama may help you better understand how to write for performers, for example.

Reading Works in All Genres Can Improve Your Style, Knowledge, and Rhythms for Comedy Writing

If you are going to make fun of something, you’re going to have to learn about it a bit first. With styles of humor such as satire and parody, you have to have an intimate level of familiarity with your subject. That means reading everything you can get your hands on.

If you think studying the classics are a waste of time for a career as a humor writer, Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of the Jane Austen-inspired Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, might have a thing or two to say to you.

Creative writing programs will put you through your paces when it comes to reading both classics and more modern works. Professors teach by illustration, so you will be assigned a broad variety of works and be expected to analyze and understand them. Not only will your sensibilities change through this process, but you’ll pick up plenty of good writing techniques to use yourself as well as to send up in the future.

Developing the Discipline Required To Succeed in Humor Gets a Boost From Classes

Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.

For a form of writing that is founded in fun, humor in fact takes a lot of hard work. With exacting standards required to hit that key form of set-up and phrasing that it can take to get a laugh, few writers have to spend as long agonizing and revising as humor writers.

Creative writing degrees make it impossible for you to opt out of that tough work by making you accountable to professors and classmates. You’ll be forced to hit deadlines and word counts. In the process, you’ll develop a kind of discipline that is invaluable in your future career as a comedic writer.

A Degree Will Develop a Portfolio To Help Launch Your Humor Writing Career

career woman in suit standing in loftAll that required writing will serve another purpose in your journey to a career as a comedy writer: it represents the kind of portfolio that you will need to impress editors, producers, or agents who will decide whether or not you are worth working with.

Just as importantly, the writing you will do won’t happen in a vacuum. You will be turning your assignments over to professors who know exactly what they are looking for, and to your cohort in class, who can tell you what works and what doesn’t. You won’t just write; you’ll revise, polish, and revisit your work constantly. By the time you graduate, your portfolio of writing will be some of the finest pieces you have ever turned out.

Online Creative Writing Programs Let You Surf Cat Memes While You Study

The internet isn’t just good for sending around the latest hilarious memes. Today, it’s a great way to pursue a creative writing education, too.

When you think about how writing studies usually work, even on traditional college campuses, it’s clear that they are a perfect fit for online study. Most of your time is spend either reading or writing. Those are both pretty solitary activities. With online programs, you can do both more easily and at less expense from your home rather than a dorm room.

At the same time, all the same networking tools that let people develop insult humor in real time work great for sharing your work in class. You can get the same kind of feedback through virtual videoconferencing and chatrooms as in a regular classroom.

Add in the fact that most online programs are asynchronous, allowing you to work and participate at random times of your choosing rather than on a set schedule, and you can see the full package of advantages.

Of course, even online writing programs aren’t usually entirely online. You can expect the opportunity to participate in in-person workshops, or to meet up for conferences, on a regular basis. You’ll get the same chances to network and build connections for your career, but with a lot more flexibility and freedom.

Finding the Right Degree Program To Start Your Humor Writing Journey

funny comedy writerChoosing a degree program to pursue your comedy writing career will be an intensely personal choice. Every university is different; they come with different perspectives, styles, and reputations. It’s worth your while to check your options out carefully to find the right fit—a program that accommodates your sense of humor can be pretty important.

Another decision you’ll need to make is what level of studies you want to pursue. There are a range of different options:

Certificates in creative writing are fast, inexpensive programs that usually don’t last longer than a few months. They are typically laser-focused on a specific aspect of creative writing, including humor writing. They skip much of the general education involved with regular degrees and deal exclusively with writing.

Associate degrees in creative writing take about two years to complete. They offer a ground-level introduction to grammar, story development, and the basics of good writing, together with a solid general education in math, science, and social studies. They can be used as a transfer degree to some four-year colleges and fulfill the first two years of a bachelor’s program.

Bachelor’s degrees in creative writing are four-year programs that go all-in on the traditional liberal arts education: history, science, the arts, and social and cultural studies designed to foster critical thinking and problem solving skills. And they’ll give you plenty of material for jokes. A bachelor’s program also offers more electives and more in-depth study in reading and writing, often with various concentrations available.

The Master of Fine Arts in creative writing (MFA) are two to three year degrees that are considered the pinnacle of fiction writing studies. These programs focus exclusively on writing, putting you through your paces with intensive assignments that will teach you a variety of styles, techniques, and formats that will put you on elite level.

Doctoral degrees in creative writing sound impressive, but they are typically aimed more at academic and research training instead of dedicated writing skills. At five to seven years, they can be a significant commitment. Generally, only people who plan to teach in the field will go as far as the PhD level.

The kind of degree program you will be angling for will depend a lot on where you are in your life and your career track. If you’re a recent high school graduate just coming into the field, you’ll need both a basic introduction to writing concepts along with a more general education, like you’ll find in associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs. An accomplished author in another genre might want to go back to school for a master’s to punch up their prose generally. And a comedian or script writer might find that the focused, fast training that come with a certificate program is just the thing to punch up dialogue or stage direction they need to write down.

No matter how you put your career as a humor writer together, you won’t go wrong adding more education into the mix.

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