PHILADELPHIA — Amazing speakers addressed the opening morning of the 31st annual conference of the National Conference of Christians and Columnists, er, National Conference for Columnists and Justice, er, National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Time, and the potential for flagging interest (mine or readers?), prevents a full transcription of today’s notes. So, Dave Barry or Bill O’Reilly? Or a panel discussion of the First Amendment? OK: free speech in action.
O’Reilly — yes, the Fox News / Factor dude — writes a syndicated column published in a couple hundred papers. He spoke the way fans and foes would expect. I was neither, because I’ve never seen the show. I’ll start watching it some because he was entertaining. Also funny, smart, arrogant, and wrong. Is he as influential as his critics contend? The most popular political talker on cable still means he’s no Oprah. Oprah in ratings beats Leno and Letterman, who are network stars, not cable.
Dave Barry skipped his routine campus speech and talked writing mechanics. He apologized for his tips being obvious, but that doesn’t stop them from being ignored from all of the humor writers and would-be humorists and would-be writers who are not Dave Barry.
“There are no rules for humor, but here are mine:”
- It should be funny. “A writer might be amused by something, but he doesn’t use — here’s a technical term — ‘jokes.'” Lots of jokes. “Being self-amused won’t cut it.” Dave has spent a half day on the first paragraph to come up with a joke. He writes sentence by sentence, continually revising, not putting down a whole draft with asterisks to “insert joke here,” then further drafts. He would write a column-length joke, but those are too hard and he’s too insecure so he does lots of smaller jokes. Besides, a long joke reads like the same joke repeated a bunch of times.
- It should be funny quickly.
- The punch line comes at the end. Plus, don’t go on after the punch line. Some comics after the punch line explain the joke afterward and that’s the same mistake.
- So after that joke, another joke, another joke etc.
- “The ending should be — a joke. Or the word ‘weasel.'”
• Unexpected humor is better than expected; avoid being linear. The best examples are the Marx Brothers and Robert Benchley. Saying the opposite of what you feel is one way. Acting the fake and very wrong expert on a subject is another.
• Do things rather than think things. The first is journalism: Do something then write about it. The second is always getting ideas from reading the newspaper.
• Engage the readers. Presume they’re smart. Only the stupid or crazy ones contact you. So use that feedback for another column. If they invite you, say to name a sewer lift station after you in North Dakota, go, then use that for another column.
• Some people have no sense of humor. They’re called editors. Then Dave said, he really means some readers never will get the humor and they, the humor-impaired, often contact you. They want everything true. Dave will tease them. Otherwise you ignore them. “You can’t do anything about them.”
We also heard from Robin Givhan of The Washington Post. She has won a Pulitzer; she is fashion editor. Her writing ties politics and perception to apparel. “Fashion is not solely about clothes,” she said. -30-