When to Use Humor in Writing

This weekend, I was in Los Angeles for a live show of a podcast I listen to regularly. The podcast, ominously titled We’ll See You in Hell, is a joint project by television writer and showrunner Patrick Walsh and stand-up comedian and writer Joe DeRosa. The two have earned a cult following and have released over 100 episodes (and spawned a short-lived ‘inspired by’ project of my own). Humor is front and center in both of their careers, and it’s also a vehicle for discussion on not-so-funny topics on their show, including #metoo-era Hollywood and present-day politics.

When it comes to writing and communication, are there rules for getting laughs? In her book The Byline Bible, Susan Shapiro advocates for humor in all writing. She advises to bring levity to everything you write: “I attempt to work wit into everything, whether it’s wedding toasts, service pieces, seminar introductions, or book subtitles, like my memoir Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex.”

Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule. Cracking jokes at a state funeral would likely go over like a lead balloon, and your boss may not appreciate a perfectly timed “that’s what she said” in a business meeting. Personally, I like to employ humor in my writing at every opportunity. I’ve found that people quickly forget facts and figures you throw at them, but will often remember lurid details from a personal story.

This phenomenon is also backed up by science: at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Christine O’Connell studies how storytelling can make data more memorable. When communicating technical information with many data points and scientific concepts, how do you get people to care, much less remember what you present? Knowing one’s audience and goals (and harnessing the power of a great story) makes for effective communication—and compelling science.

When do you bring the funny in communication? Early and often. Using empathy and getting personal helps to form a bond between the speaker and the audience (or the author and the reader) and creates a sense of intimacy and personalization. As I’ve learned from years of podcast fandom, vulnerability and humor disarm your audience and endear you to your listeners or readers. Telling personal stories (and being willing to laugh at yourself) actually help to establish credibility—and get the audience on your side.

So tell the joke. Use the story. It may be the only thing that people remember, so make sure they remember you.