How to Write Satire and Humor
A deep dive into short, humorous pieces in the style of McSweeney's, The New Yorker, and The Onion.
If you are surprised to find that learning how to write satire is tough, you probably would not choose to try and write a satirical retort to an article purporting to teach you how to write satire. The nice thing is that even for crazy people like myself, writing satire can be very satisfying. I’m going to dissect some key principles behind the short, humorous satire piece — the kind you might read in publications which are actually funny, unlike the publications for which you are most likely currently writing which are not. These types of satire and humor pieces are typically around 300–900 words. The author gets in quick, makes a point and makes you laugh, and then we’re done. These pieces are a lot of fun to read and write. Unlike the long form meta-satirical retort, which is even less fun to write (I can attest to that), then it no doubt is to read (gonna be your call on that one).
About my experience here: I’ve been publishing these kinds of pieces in Medium for a couple years. Since I don’t know how to use any of the fancy tools to compile all of my work in a slick publication or email list or have any real skill when it comes to self promotion you will need to take my word for it, or just search my name and eventually you will see what I mean. I’m also a research scientist with a Ph.D. in micro and molecular biology which means I help solve problems to make the world a better place. It’s no editor of Medium’s most-followed humor and satire site, Slackjaw, but it’s something I guess.
Longer satirical works (short stories, books, long form meta-satire, etc.) are great too if you are a glutton for punishment, but I’m focusing here on short pieces by writing a long piece. Get it? Can you clue me in if you do. Anyway , Lets’s dive in! Did you catch how I used an allusion to diving/swimming in the subtitle and then followed it up with a straight up diving reference at the end of section 1? That is called professional writing, get used to it because I am about to take you to school. And I’m not referring to the online “university” UdaCity where I earned my nanodegree in machine learning last year, I’m referring to a legitimate, actual accredited university with real degrees and everything. Strap in, you are about to go for the ride of your life!
1. Choose a Crystal Clear Premise or At the Very Least Choose Your Own Adventure
The number one thing you’ll typically find in a good, short piece of satire or humor is a very clear satirical or comedic premise. Here are some good ways to define “the premise” of a satire or humor piece:
- The main joke or idea of the piece.
- The main thing that is funny or unusual about the piece.
- The main idea being heightened in the piece.
You will no doubt notice that the premise of this particular satirical piece is slightly less then clear and frankly may not even be comedic. It certainly is not very funny so far, but I digress.
Think of the premise as the vehicle: it’s the concept the author is using to drive the comedy or the satire. In the case of this article the premise would be like the 2015 Honda Fit that I have been driving for the past 4 years which was my mom’s since I could not afford my own car which she recently decided to give to me for Christmas as it was clear I was never going to give it back anyway. Also, the premise is not the same as the satirical point that the author is making. (More on that in a minute! Calm down Mr. or Mrs. Excitement! We will get to that point in a minute! Hah! point! Get it!?)
Also worth pointing out (blam! again with the point thing. I am on fire): not every satire piece is hilarious or even intentionally humorous (some are in fact neither as you have surely discovered for yourself if you made it this far) But typically, satire is funny. The satirist uses humor to make a point. I’ll use the phrase “satire and humor,” and lump them together, but keep in mind that this is a simplification, and while humor and satire overlap a lot, they aren’t coextensive. Writers tip: Do not bust out terms from your masters thesis in English when writing satirical, or meta-satirical pieces. Coextensive may sound good to Professor Jones when describing the overlap between the works of William Blake and John Keates, but it really turns off the lower IQ crowd that gravitate toward satire.
Let’s look at a classic satire premise from The Onion:
This premise is very clear: The hipster music review site Pitchfork has rated all music as being rather mediocre and collectively earning a 6.8 / 10 rating. That’s a very funny premise. If you’ve ever read an online music review on pitchfork.com, you know exactly what this piece is about and why it’s funny. It’s a fantastically good, original premise.
Now let’s look at a not so classic premise from yours truly:
This premise is also very clear, at least to a very select subset of the populace, namely the intelligent drug user. It is obvious that club drug users would be pissed about street drug users crowding their raves because the two sets of drug users do not in fact get along all that well. If you have ever used club drugs or street drugs and hung out with the respective crowds that do you will know exactly what I mean, and that is exactly why this is funny to a nanoslice of the American drug using public. It is a fantastically good, original premise for the 3–5 current or former drug users who would get it and also happen to read Medium and also happen to have stumbled across an article by an unknown idiot at random.
But this premise is not the same as the satirical point-of-view — also sometimes called “the subtext” or just “the point being made.” I would say the satirical point-of-view in this article is something like this: drug users can be just as pretentious and ridiculous with their drugs of choice as stupid hipsters are about whatever stupid hipster thing they are into. Of course I never say “hipsters are stupid.” Until just right now. Blam! Professional satire.
Here are some other short pieces with a fun, clear satire premise, or long pieces with a confusing and strange satiric premise that I do not get, but maybe you will:
- Women’s Hair Now 90% Argan Oil: Latest Research Shows
- Massive Argan Oil Spill off the Coast of Morocco Puts an Entire Marine Ecosystem at Risk
- Carpo States on the Rise as Argan Oil Profits Fueling Conflicts Around the Globe
- Morroco Angers International Chemists By Unilaterally Renaming 18th Element in the Periodic Table
Can you identify the premise and the subtext in each? Hint: It has something to do with argan oil.
Here’s the key: each of these pieces has one clear premise, not two or three or seven. A common mistake in writing short humor and satire is to cram multiple ideas into one piece. Don’t do that. When you write satire, a single, clear premise is essential. In the listed examples argan oil is serves as both the premise and subtext and topic and main point and featured item and introduction, main body, and conclusion. Do you get how funny that is? If not then you probably should just move on to my next tip, which is…..
Oh, I almost forgot, choose to go down the dark passageway to the right.
2. Take a Strong Point-of-View or Just Be an Asshole
A common formula in satire and humor writing is this: pick a point-of-view for your narrator that is the opposite of what you (the author) really believe, then exaggerate this point-of-view. Alternatively you can do what I do which is to just basically be an asshole about something. Take the example below:
- How you can land a coding job with very little experience: Using the Freelance Gig aka The Back Door Approach to Get Hired Now
The subtext of this is clear: you need to be willing to bend over and take it in the ass to land a coding job.
Now I don’t actually believe there are a bunch of people out their running around silicon valley pulling down their pants and bending over to take it in the rear just to land a coding job. That’s absurd. Rather, I am using this exaggerated point to satirize the silicon valley job market and using the negative connotation of male on male homosexual sex and homosexuality in general to emphasize this point with no concern or regard for the feelings of any actual homosexuals who may or may not like anal sex, like a total asshole would do.
The satirical point-of-view answers this question: What is this piece really saying? What’s the subtext? or it can answer the question. Who do I want to piss off today? Either works.
When you write satire, go bold and big, and don’t hold back. But be prepared for some hate mail, it comes with the territory. Most importantly choose your targets wisely. Only pick on the weak or those with no power to fight back. Examples include homos, the poor, editors of humor publications on two bit websites in the backwaters of the internet, the handicapped, mentally ill, etc.
3. Find Unusual, Extreme Specifics or Be Unusually Extreme and Extremely Unusual
Comedic writing thrives on surprise. Nothing kills your satire or humor piece quicker than cliches, familiar jokes, or just a premise that feels too, “already been done before.”
Here’s an example. I published a satire of self help listicles on Medium “20 Habits of People Who’s Shit is All Fucked Up” It was my fifth or sixth humor piece that got more then 15 views which was awesome and gave me the confidence I needed to get me where I am today.
One of the reasons this piece did well, I think, is because, first, people are just fucking sick of listicles and self help articles. They hate being told what to do and how to do it by some pompous a-hole who thinks he knows something just because he got a few lucky breaks, meanwhile here you are toiling away 40 freakin hours a week at Arby’s for 8 God damn months until you finally got that degree in machine learning from UDaCity you thought would be the golden ticket to the good life, but instead isn’t worth the piece of shit paper it is printed on.
But “people feel strongly about this” is not enough. It would have been easy to rant against the world or God or the universe or whatever but people do that shit all the time. I mean just turn on Fox news for 5 seconds a day if that kind of shit gets you off. These things have been said already. They are not revolutionary, or satirical, or comedically interesting.
Instead, I took a shitty self help listicle that had already been published and had been extremely popular and then I imagined myself as an insane person who had to get rid of my clothes and name, wear “colored bubble suits,” eat chicken wings out of pneumatic tubes, and live in an office prison full time. What? That’s right, you read that correctly.
That’s so hyperbolic, weird, and specific, that it was unlikely that anyone had written that specific piece before. So, the formula we have, so far, for how to write satire and humor is this:
Crystal clear premise + Strong POV + Unusual and interesting specifics
Choose your own adventure + Be an asshole + extremely unusual
When you write satire, be crystal clear first of all, but also don’t be afraid to get very weird and hyperbolic and specific. You want to surprise and delight the reader with details that pop off the page and etch a hilarious impression in her mind. Her mind? Come on, we all know chicks don’t dig satire. I mean I get trying to be politically correct and all, but let’s stay in the real world here.
4. Make Sure Your Satire is Landing by Getting Feedback or Tell All Your Friends Exactly How Wrong They are and That One Day They’ll See
Writing satire or humor is tricky. Not easy, and not impossible, but tricky. And, if your friends are anything like mine, they are bigger assholes then you. They are going to surely tell you that your work sucks. Tell them to stick it where the sun don’t shine and keep on truckin!
Great humor and satire often feel effortless to the reader, like the writer had a super-funny idea or a good point and she just sat down at her laptop and took that point and smashed it right through your screen with a hammer. This is not a recommended course of action for most writers. But, of course, this is false and very, very dangerous. Humor and satire writing is usually kind of hard, the exact opposite of you last night in bed with your girlfriend. Ouch, hurt didn’t it? Cheap shot, right? Exactly what your so called friends are going to do to you if you let them. It takes effort and practice and care and revision.
Here’s the part that trips up newer writers: If your humorous or satirical premise is even a little bit unclear, your reader probably won’t get what you’re trying to say. When readers don’t get what you’re saying they will not stick around like Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. They will be confused and they will stop reading. Then they will go somewhere else and forget about you and your writing. Too bad! Who the fuck is Sherlock Holmes you might be asking yourself. If you are, congratulations you are less then 40 years old.
The more our world becomes internet and smart-phone dominated, the truer this becomes. Attention is a commodity, and it’s in short supply. People don’t have time to be confused. Which is weird because everybody but me is. Confused I mean. Crazy.
To make sure your satire and humor writing is clear and engaging, you must get feedback on it. This is doubly true if you’re a newer humor or satire writer — i.e. you’ve written for fewer than a few years, or you’ve written fewer than 100 pieces. The word ‘few’ is weird, isn’t it? Say it out loud a couple of times. Very weird. Using it more than once in a single sentence is a no no, using it three times in two sentences is a double no no, or something like that. Don’t ever do it.
- A friend who has a good sense of humor and enjoys satire. They don’t have to be a writer. Picking the friend who smokes the most weed is usually a good choice
- Your writing group. If you don’t have one, good for you, you are not a nerd.
- Your peers in a writing class. If you’ve never taken one, congratulations you are like 99.9% of successful writers.
- A writing coach or mentor. Is a thing I can almost guarantee you do not have.
You don’t need twenty people to read your stuff, but getting a couple of friends, or a writing group of a few people, to read and comment on your work is a key step for learning how to write satire. Always remember though that ultimately their opinions are meaningless, and they are assholes. They would steal you wife or husband or girlfriend or boyfriend in the blink of an eye if they could. Or murder you if they could get away with it.
Here are some questions to ask your test readers:
- Was the main idea of my piece clear? Did you understand what I was up to here?
- Was anything in the piece unclear?
- Did you enjoy it? Do you think the piece works overall?
- Were there any parts you particularly enjoyed, or things you liked that you thought I could do more of?
When you get feedback, it’s most helpful to get specific notes, rather than a vague, “yeah, I liked it!” Be sure to find test readers who will give you a pointed but helpful critique. If your test reader isn’t being that helpful, thank them sincerely, then get a different test reader. Again, I cannot emphasize this enough, no matter what the feedback is that you get, ignore it. Your test readers are no smarter then your actual readers, which is not smart at all. They suck, they all suck. You know what you are doing, you are the greatest, you are the man. Go, you!
5. Read a Lot of Humor and Satire! or Read a Lot of Articles About Humor and Satire!
To write good humor and satire, feed your eyeballs a diet of good humor and satire. Unfortunately real quality humor sites don’t exist anymore and we all know it so instead spend your time reading how to write humor and satire articles like this one.
Taste is subjective, and you won’t love everything you read, and that’s fine. Hone in on the how to pieces you do love, read them closely, and analyze them. Pick a few favorite pieces, print them out on physical paper, and take a pen to them — just like an old-fashioned psychopath! This is in contrast to the new fangled psychopath who we all know would never use a pen, but instead would use a colored pencil or marker or maybe cut letters out of magazines to make into words, like serial killers often do.
6. Write a Lot!
Follow Stephen King’s dictum: Read a lot, and write a lot. But do not follow any other of Stephen King’s advice as I have written about previously.
Are you getting tired yet, cause I sure am. This damn thing just keeps going on and on and on though. I think I’m gonna throw in the towel and just end it real sloppy like.
7. Rejection and Persistence in Satire Writing
Is a thing you will have to deal with and we all know that….zzzzzz.zzzz. What the fuck? I think I just fell asleep there for a minute, oh well….
Authors note: For those of you highlighting specific sentences or passages in this piece be aware that a substantial portion of it is attributed to Alex Baia, the author of the original piece upon which this meta-satirical retort is based. You can easily tell because they will be the parts that make sense, have actual wisdom behind them, and are generally smart. Everything else is all me. I cannot and do not want to take credit for his original work which is actually very good. Thank you.