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5.1: Excellent Academic Writing Must be Serious

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    Author: Michael Theune, English, Illinois Wesleyan University

    Surely, you can’t be serious! After all, very smart people have been slaying ignorance while slaying audiences by delivering intelligent ideas with comedy’s passion, edge, urgency, and punch for quite some time: Samantha Bee. John Oliver. Key and Peele. Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow. Aaron McGruder. Sarah Silverman. Tina Fey. Bill Maher. Dave Chappelle. Wanda Sykes. Dennis Miller. Roseanne Barr. Richard Pryor. Lenny Bruce. Dorothy Parker. Mark Twain. William Hazlitt. Voltaire. Jonathan Swift. Lear’s fool. Aristophanes. And, if you want to go into the deep past, Stephen Colbert (the real one, the one who hosted The Report). And further still, Jon Stewart. (Too soon?)

    But those who think academic writing must exclude the comedic are serious. (And a writing teacher should NOT call them Shirley. That is, not if that teacher wants to keep her job.) Of course they rarely say so in public. Mostly they keep silent on the topic of teaching humorous yet legitimately academic, persuasive writing, and let the Western tradition’s tendency to privilege tragedy carry the big stick. Sometimes, though, they pass laws and create policies that say nothing overt about comedy in the writing classroom—still, the instructions about how to do well on high-stakes, state-sanctioned writing examinations call for writing that carefully lays its foundations, creates its structure, and establishes its points serious brick by seriouser brick. (And then, in the conclusion, one dutifully retells the story of the turgid grid one’s made.) And should they happen to acknowledge the existence of something like comedy in good writing, they often allow it for momentary purposes, as a way to punch up some otherwise ponderous prose, say, or to show with a touch of ethos that the author indeed is a real person. But that’s it—two or three titters, and your humor limit’s reached. (And those isolated titters will seem so weak and misplaced they likely should be omitted anyway....)

    So just who are these gradgrinds, these crabtrees, these killjoys, these robocops with big sticks up their bums? Alas, unless you’ve taught or supported the teaching of writing using comedy, the kicker is: very likely they is you. And it’s a shame: there’s much to recommend the endorsement and teaching of humorous academic writing, the conveyance of the big schtick.

    In fact, composition theorist Peter Elbow declares that writing pedagogy could be improved by “more honoring of style, playfulness, fun, pleasure, humor,” so clearly it’s time for a right ribbing. Humor demands close attention to language at all levels. Making comedy requires a writer to consider diction, of course, but also to be deliberate about intricacies such as sound and rhythm—after all, it’s often just a matter of a few syllables that enables one to be silly. Humor also is an effective means by which to teach the second-most-difficult thing to teach young writers: style. (The most difficult thing is how to spell ukulele.) Style often is the first element of writing to go when it comes to teaching young writers—in favor of elements such as developing a thesis, supporting that thesis with evidence, and putting a staple in the upper-lefthand corner. But in comedic writing, style is an absolute requirement. In comedy, it’s not word choice, but the hunt for the choicest word. And sentences must be tightly woven to serve as the fuse that carries the spark right to an ending that blows readers away. And maybe even enlightens them. On a much larger scale, humor requires vivid descriptions, dazzling metaphors, splendiferous speech acts, and the skillful interrelation of such elements. Writing comedy entails seeing and creating in content and language those productive occasions and opportunities, requiring the writer’s willingness to capitalize on them, to see everything as potential set up, and then to land the punch. About poetry, William Butler Yeats, in his poem “Adam’s Curse,” states, “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught....” The same holds true for academic writing, especially the kind that also hopes to leave readers in stitches.

    Bruce A. Goebel, a professor at Western Washington University and the author of Humor Writing: Activities for the English Classroom, notes, “[H]umor is nothing less than the careful and effective use of language.” But humor also is so much more. Former president of the Modern Language Association Gerald Graff argues that teachers need to work to connect academic writing courses with “students’ youthful argument culture.” Teaching comedy surely is one strong, energetic way to do so. At the level of concept, of ideas about what to write, humor is always attuned to the new: new possibilities, new perspectives, jazzy combinations. Mel Helitzer, the author of Comedy Writing Secrets, instructs his readers to “[t] rain your mind to constantly ask What if?,” noting that “What if? imagination allows you to realign diverse elements into new and unexpected relationships that surprise.” If you ask, for example, what if the hillbillies in a horror movie became the beset-upon, virtuous characters, while the college kids vacationing at the cabin are cruel and vicious? Well, then you might get as an answer the hilarious Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Such big conceptual shifts can help students think anew about texts they’re considering. What if there’s a counterexample for the case being made in that essay we read for class? What if I tried to argue the exact opposite of what this famous thinker is suggesting? What if I tried to apply here the comedic rule of three, which dictates that a priest, a rabbi, and a Chihuahua is totally freakin’ funny—what kind of hilarious joke might I create?

    In terms of process, it’s industry standard for comedy writing to be collaborative. (My friends had to leave before we finished the last paragraph.) About writing in general, many are convinced of the myth of the lone genius, those gassy know-it-alls, picking off ideas in isolation. But that notion of the writer is so bad there’s an essay on it in this collection! With humor, students will need each other in order to generate and to test out material. And there’s a model for it: the comedy writers’ room. And this model has even made it into pop culture—the writers’ room is visited again and again in the television shows Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock. Sure, the writers’ room in 30 Rock smells, and the writers play pranks on each other, but they get their work done, and seem to have fun doing it. And they eat a lot of pizza. The collaboration humor calls for is not just collaboration with other people—it’s also collaboration with other texts, other sources. It takes a great deal of knowledge to make a joke work. True, a lot of it can be done with oodles of Googling, but who knows? That could be a gateway drug, something to fight the lack of information fluency.

    Humor not only can help teach the elements of writing and thinking while emphasizing collaboration, but it also powerfully makes the case for writing. For so many students an explicit argument needs to be made for writing because they are always asking themselves this: Why write when I can speak it into my phone and the phone will dutifully transcribe my thoughts? (And the NSA will keep a back-up file!) Humor makes the writing process matter. In this process, invention is true invention: You’re creating something never thought of before. (Unless your essay is about airplane peanuts. In which case, change your topic because you’re writing a Seinfeld rerun.) Comedy helps authors barnstorm brainstorming. It makes the drafting and revising process more multifaceted, open, searching, continuous—it moves from dafting and reviling to drifting and revving, to riffing and devising, through drafting and revising to afterdrafting and revisinging (it’s not unusual for performance to be a part of the creation of comedy, which must have voice... even if it’s Gilbert Gottfried’s). Authors who try to create comedy at the spur of the moment most often find out it simply can’t be done—it’s just too demanding. It’s like... It’s really hard!

    In Everything’s an Argument, a 1,000+ page college writing textbook, the authors—who spend a total of six pages discussing humor, not one of which offers any insight into how to create humor—note that “it’s usually better to steer clear of humor.” With colleagues like that, who needs nuns with rulers? The good news is that anyone who wants to try to teach comedic academic writing can: Other resources are available. There’s Mel Helitzer’s great Comedy Writing Secrets, the book that taught me about most of the techniques I’ve used in this essay. (My apologies to Mr. Helitzer and all his descendants.) There’s also Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, which offers great techniques—“megaphors,” anyone?—for making edgy, brave, often funny, certainly engaging writing. Even better, Spunk & Bite’s first chapter takes on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, arguing that it’s a guidebook for “millions of struggling language users” who are “seeking a quick authoritarian fix for shaky writing skills.” Additionally, the growing body of pedagogical research and reflection by teachers who have their students write using the techniques and processes of comedy contains a number of great assignments. These adventurous instructors are trying hard to be respected and loved—just like the comedians and humorists who inspire them.

    Those who have used comedy to teach writing have begun to share the results of their labor, and initial reports—while not exactly unbiased—are promising. Assessing the quality of the work she received from students who took a creative nonfiction course that focused on humor writing, Marietta College professor Bev Hogue notes that the baseline was really good: “Some of these papers were structured very much like the typical research paper produced by a competent freshman composition student, but with this important difference: These students had spent the entire semester paying close attention to the elements of style while playing games with language, form, and content, so the final papers were polished, sophisticated, and often very funny—but still recognizably research papers.” And that was just the baseline. Above this, the writing sang: “Other students were more adventurous, taking the sorts of risks they had observed in other authors, coloring outside the lines to create their own new and effective forms of expression. And a few—a very few—created final papers that approached art.”

    Of course, just as in any writing class, in a writing class that focuses on comedic technique and process, some communal rules very likely should be established. Is there anything that can’t be included in a humorous piece? How do we work together to make the classroom respectful but also lively and productive? Is it really okay to admit that Carrot Top is occasionally funny? It certainly is the case that, as founding members of the International Society for Humor Studies, Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen, note, “humor is a good tool for teaching about censorship”; however, it also must be recognized that humor simply tends toward the irreverent, and that this is, frankly, ideal. Thus, empowered, young writers—who can feed off of transgression, off of calling power into question—are more likely to tip over and crack up some sacred cows. How much better than to have students be scared cowards! Studying comedic techniques, students also become better, more perspicacious (look it up!) readers—they know how humor works, and so might be less apt to fall for it when some pernicious politician or idiot ideologue trumpets venom cut with a little laughter. Armed to the teeth, they’re also better able to bite back.

    There are three theories of humor: incongruity (putting together what doesn’t fit leads to fits of laughter), superiority (seeing others slip on bananas is appealing), and relief (comedy as the jocular discharge of subconscious energies). So, clearly, though initially it may seem incongruous to teach humor while teaching academic writing, such writing—edgy, engaged, careful and powerful—will be superior to so much of what’s come before it. And what a relief that will be!

    Further Reading

    In addition to the works by Bruce Goebel, Bev Hogue, and the Nilsens noted above, for more about how and why to use comedy in high school and college writing classes, see John Bryant’s “Comedy and Argument: A Humanistic Approach to Composition,” Paul Lewis’s “How Many Students Does it Take to Write a Joke?: Humor Writing in Composition Courses,” and Nina Murakami’s “Not Just a Humorous Text: Humor as Text in the Writing Class.”

    In addition to the works by Mel Helitzer and Arthur Plotnik noted above, another great resource for use in the composition-and-comedy classroom is Kathleen Volk Miller and Marion Wrenn’s Humor: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press—so it’s legit!).

    For more stuff that’ll make you laugh, check out the internetz.


    academic writing, comedy, composition, humor, writing

    Author Bio

    Michael Theune is professor of English and writing program director at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. The many courses he teaches include a first-year writing seminar called S.W.A.T. (Sass, Wit, and Text) and Stand-up Poetry, both of which focus on comedy and writing.