Can You Teach Funny?

In an essay examining different answers to the question, Saul Austerlitz cracks open one book that says yes:

Mel Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets (1987; updated 2005) suggests a worldwide conspiracy on the part of successful comedians: “Out of fear that discovery of their superficial tricks will be evaluated rather than laughed at, many famous humorists have sponsored an insupportable fiction that comedians must be born funny … Hogwash!” Helitzer lays out a step-by-step program to sharpening and perfecting comedy routines, from the power of POW (plays on words) to the theory of THREES (target, hostility, realism; exaggeration, emotion, surprise).

Comedy Writing Secrets is a workbook, complete with exercises, suggested routines to complete, and wildly dubious statistics. (Are double entendres really 40 percent of all cliché-related humor? How could this possibly be calculated?) Helitzer’s take on comedy occasionally feels fusty and misguided. Referring to Richard Pryor’s audience as “mostly young black militants” is both odd and entirely wrong. Quoting your own jokes alongside the likes of Steve Martin and Steven Wright seems, shall we say, aspirational. But some of the book provides suitable advice for the up-and-coming comic. Helitzer breaks down a haiku-like Mitch Hedberg joke by offering a series of slightly longer, and distinctly less funny, variations on Hedberg’s “I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it” to illustrate his credo that “less is better.”