How to write a humour column

People sometimes come up to me and ask, “Excuse me, what’s the price of this cabbage?” to which I reply, “Sorry, I don’t work in the Produce Department; I simply enjoy the refreshing mist when they water the lettuce.” But sometimes they also ask, “How do you write a humour column week after week?”

After I ensure myself that they’re not asking “why” instead of “how,” I explain to them the long and complicated creative process, by which time the store is starting to close and they regret not simply ordering Chinese.

But I see you, reader, have plenty of time on your hands, given that you’ve even made it this far, so let me provide you a peek under my brain-lid where the creativity mice come up with the words, though more often than not just sit around scrolling through their Twitter feeds.

The first ingredient of a humour column is the idea. Ideas can come from anywhere, although most often from Bangladesh where idea labour is cheap. Many people frown on sweat-shop ideas, but remember that if it weren’t for these idea jobs, those people would be forced to work in fields with no ideas at all, like the US film industry.

These ideas are then couriered to me weekly encased in enviro-friendly bubble wrap, given that my ideas tend to be fragile and in some cases really quite flimsy.

For example, I might receive an idea about a superhero whose power is the uncanny ability to find restaurant bathrooms. I’ll take this idea, lay it out on my desk, hook it up to the special Column-Matic I nicked from a cocktail party at Dave Barry’s house, don the protective goggles, flip the switch, set the frequency to “weekly” and step back in the hopes it will come to life, at least for 700 words or so.

If it doesn’t – perhaps due to shoddy craftsmanship, damage during shipping or generally being asinine – then it’s back to the drawing board. But, trust me, drawing is an even less lucrative career than humour writing, so good luck with that.

If the idea does show some potential, then the difficult and time-consuming process of writing begins.

The first step is to let the idea sit for a while. Stewing, marinating, pickling – but enough about my drinking problem, what about the writing?

Once I have my idea and have sobered up a bit, I sit down in a comfortable writing space. Then I get up from my comfortable writing space for a cup of tea. Then I sit down at my comfortable writing space, only to quickly get up from my comfortable writing space to take care of the very important task of checking the water levels in all the toilets. Finally, it’s back to the comfortable writing space, which has been taken over by cats, so it’s on to a less comfortable writing space. Repeat.

Writing humour itself is actually a very technical process. Each joke (or “gag,” as it’s sometimes called by people with weak stomachs) requires a setup, execution and finish. There are several ways to do this. For example, there is something called the Rule of Three. You see this in jokes all the time: “a minister, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…” You start with a normal action or idea. You follow-up with a second re-enforcing action or idea. You follow this with a third handful of Halloween fun-size snacks. Repeat.

Similarly, landing the joke is important. This is easy to do in a format like a humour column with its short paragraphs. The trick is to ensure that each paragraph, like Dave Barry’s cocktail parties, ends with a punch.

Sometimes an idea has only limited potential and the writer has a hard time making his word count. When this occurs, the easiest thing to do is to pad your copy with superfluous wine-tasting twin Doppler albatross swanky pants hoot barges and hope nobody notices.

I’m Virgil, because of course I am.

There is also the possibility that the ideas just don’t come because the delivery service I’ve hired is named Maybe-Maybe-Not Courier. In that case, I see if there’s anything happening in my life that might serve as a topic, such as my appearing in Borderline Players’ Let’s Murder Marsha this Friday to Sunday at the Haskell Opera House, information at, which is not so much a writing technique as a shameless plug.

Finally, the most important element of writing a humour column is the deadline, which I have met.

About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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26 Responses to How to write a humour column

  1. Lex Leclerc says:

    haha, slam US film industry! (but i also agree with this. who is writing these movies and why are they so boring? i only watch British TV shows.)

  2. pinklightsabre says:

    Liquid gold man.

  3. Love reading about your thought/planning process:) Sure wish I was close enough to see the play!

  4. After close reading, some of this almost made sense to me, which is worrisome, right? probably a vitamin deficiency or the inversion off Lake Michigan. The padding, or as we call it here, during muzzle-loader season, wadding, seems full of interest…but light on punctuation. “Doppler albatross” and “swanky pants,” are clearly “avian navigational aid” and “the kind of pants worn by the kind of guys who wear plaid bow ties,” unless it’s “albatross swanky pants,” which sounds like something disreputable I’d rather not hear about. “Hoot barges” we got in spades around here – – the folks who always volunteer to head up committees, right? break a leg

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Any of those names could also be emo bands. (Although Swanky Pants might be a bit more glam.)

      • It reminded me of that Steve Miller song, “Fly Like an Albatross”
        Pants keep on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
        Into the future
        Pants keep on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
        Into the couture
        I want to fly like an albatross,
        To the sea,
        I could fly like an albatross,
        If my swanky pants fit me…

  5. List of X says:

    That sounds incredibly complicated. I thought to write a humour column I’m supposed to take out the numbers.

  6. Very funny.
    Question: Does the Column-Matic you use include an Inception-style sedative that allows you to get three, four, or even five levels deep in literary digression?

  7. jacqueslebec says:

    A funny joke is the hardest to write. My grandkids and I would on occasion begin to form one early in the morning, most went all day with no punch line. We came up with one or two funny ones, but it took a long time. At one time I was funny, but then I started a blog and it all ended.

  8. I had no idea Dave Barry was so violent. Tell us more.

    And good luck, break a leg, yadda yadda yadda Ross. You look rather stunning in bow tie and sweater vest, I must say.

  9. beth says:

    virgil is in this year. and glad you. made the deadline. dead line could also be a description for a bad joke ending the falls flat. poker faced crowd response.

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