If you think poetry has to be serious all of the time—think again! Aristotle wrote about his views on comedic thought in his second book of Poetics (unfortunately, it’s lost) knowing these two art forms were closely related. I found out how close they really were because I needed to steal my own notes.
Around Christmastime I was hired by Wake Tech to teach a comedy writing class in the spring. I’ve been teaching comedy writing for about three years, but it’s only been a one-off thing. Now I had to teach a 7.5 hour class with 1.5 hours of material! OMG! The first class went fine since I mostly used my old handouts, but I was totally stressing the Monday before my Tuesday night class while drinking coffee after coffee at Carolina Café. Then it hit me—I could steal from myself and use my 8-year-old poetry workshop notes for the next two classes. Brilliant!
How poetry and comedy are related:
1. The writing needs to be economically written. Over explaining dilutes the humor and will also kill your poem. Trust me, your readers aren’t stupid and they’ll get what you’re trying to say without you saying it three times. One of my poetry teachers called this habit, “chewing your food for the reader.
2. Create tension through emotion (big pauses), images and word play in writing comedy and poetry (see #6)
I know you want to hear the latest dope from Washington. Well—here I am! —Senator Alan Simpson
Take my wife—please! —Henry Youngman
3. Use the element of surprise—especially at the end of a joke or a poem. Don’t use key words in your punchline or bury it—bring it to the surface and think about the placement of every word.
Man, I got to get my shower in before the bug man comes tomorrow. –Alice
He’s coming at 2 p.m? —Keith
Only in humor is a reader willing to suspend disbelief and skepticism. Like the Predator buying beef at a Super Walmart and no one is paying attention (yes, I wrote a poem about this). John Cleese’s funny walk is so funny because it’s incongruous for a properly dressed English banker. Isn’t Ernie the Giant Chicken from Family Guy super funny?
4. Ban all clichés! Use action verbs, active voice and get strong at using metaphors and similes—which are the engines of poetry. A cliché is lazy writing; it can reassure readers or allow you to express yourself without much challenge such as
Sharp as a tack
Where there’s smoke there’s fire
Clean as a whistle
Dead as a doornail
Sharp as a knife
She studied her reflection
I had one too many
5. A haiku (a three line poem of 17 syllables) and a punch line are structurally similar. In a joke, you have the set-up, the anticipation and the punchline—same as in a haiku. Japanese poets knew what they were doing! Here’s an example of a good punchline using a three line structure:
Bart, a woman is like a beer. They look good, they smell good, and you’d step over your own mother just to get one! –Homer Simpson
6. Play on words and get your verbal irony (words that are opposites of each other) going—poets know the use of opposites is key to making a memorable line, as do humor writers. Examples include, vicious care, ugly beautiful, crazy straight and so on.
7. Use these funnier than normal consonant sounds: F’s,G’s, K’s, Z’s, and Ch’s. Kurt Cobain is funny, as is guacamole. Here are a few more: Fuquay Varina, Twinkie, Cleveland, Frankfurter, Garner, Alka Seltzer, pickle and vodka. Sprinkle these throughout your poem and you’re golden.
Here’s my poem, “Ode to Hamburger Helper” using some of the elements of poetry/comedy I’ve just shared. Enjoy!
Ode to Hamburger Helper
Come to me my enriched pasta and rice,
packaged cheese and red powdered sauce—
I pull out the milk and water for you
on school nights when the kids
are starving for Beef Pasta or Crunchy Taco.
My husband prays for your buck a box special at Food Lion,
a week of dinners—just kidding—but seriously,
I did you three times a week
when we were first married.
Well-meaning friends demand I open
a cookbook once in a while—
there’s way too much salt
and MSG in your gloved Helping Hand boxes,
evoking a certain late pop star.
They tell me to avoid your yellow starches,
cook real pasta and veggies—forego the quick prep.
Run past Aisle 4—“Prepared Foods”—run!
And what the hell are you doing in Food Lion anyway?
They can keep their organic carrots and hand cut pasta;
I’ve got 27 Box Tops to collect for my son’s school.
I blame my mother—oh, I know, but it’s true!
She created all from scratch,
spent hours in the kitchen, and nary a Helper or a Kraft
noodle crossed my lips till I was twenty.
Like skirts, pendulums swing
and I love your Italian, Chicken and Asian Helpers
over browned lean beef.
I promise not to burn you.
Another similarity between comedians and poets is that they will write what everyone is thinking, but is never saying. How inappropriate! But being inappropriate is why you should be drawn to good poetry or comedy.
I know my list isn’t complete—tell me in the comments how else are comedy and poetry related.