How to Write Comedy Even If You’re Not Funny With John Vorhaus

How to write comedy

John Vorhaus is the author of one of the best books on comedy writing: The Comic Toolbox. He’s also a scriptwriter, artist, and writing instructor.

In this week’s interview, he explains:

  • How to write comedy if you’re not funny
  • Why comedy is a little like drama
  • How to balance your art with business
  • What he did after facing a bout of writer’s block

And lots more.


The Comic Toolbox

A White Belt in Art

Doctor’s Without Borders

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Bryan: I think we can all agree, it's a nice surprise when an author or writer injects a bit of humor or color into their work. Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. I'm learning how to inject humor or color or how to write comedy. It's something I've been thinking a lot about recently. I've been thinking about it because I've taken a few courses on the likes of masterclass from humorous and colorful writers like David Sedaris and Steve Martin. And I've also read books like, The Comedy Toolbox by John Vorhaus, who's this week's guest. And I've also come to a conclusion that what you read informs what you write. Basically over the last two to three years, I spent a lot of time reading nonfiction business books, reading books about entrepreneurship and so on.

And that's the type of thing I ended up writing, I wrote a lot of articles for publications like Forbes about how to set up a business and how to take it to the next level. And that was fine, but now that I moved on from Forbes, I want to write something that's a little bit more personal and has a little bit more color. It's not necessarily that I want to get into standup comedy or anything like that, but I certainly like to learn how to inject more color and humor into my articles and into my book chapters and explore different topics like parenting. Now, of course, learning how to write humor is much like learning how to write articles about a business. There are rules that you need to follow on rules that you can only break once you're aware of what they are. So wanted to learn a little bit more about them.

And one of the most popular books for anybody who's interested in learning how to write humor our color is, The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. And I recently had the chance to catch up with John and ask him about his book, which was published nearly 20 years ago, and also about his other tips for writers who want to inject color into their work and for anybody who's facing problems like writer's block, which is actually a problem that John had a few years ago. I started by asking John, of course, to explain to listeners who he is and why he thinks The Comic Toolbox has had such an influence on writers over the years. But before we get into the show, I do have an ask. If you enjoy the Become a Writer Today Podcast, please, can you leave a short rating or review or wherever you're listening to the podcast because your review or rating will help more readers and help more listeners find both the podcast and this site. And it'll really helped me take it to the next level. Now on with the interview.

John: Sure. I'd be happy to. I left my last, well my first, last and only straight job in my early 20s. I had been an advertising copywriter, and I was young and Footloose and fancy free and I thought that if I stay in his career much longer, I'm going to get good at it and then I'm going to think it's meaningful. And I'm going to wake up when I'm 40 years old, thinking that it's important to make the world safe for advertising. I didn't want to be in that position. So while I still had the economic freedom, that is to say, not very huge financial needs, I quit that job and became a singer-songwriter, kind of like Bob Dylan. I spent five years on the folk circuit singing and playing guitar, and then I discovered there were two things I couldn't do particularly well, sing or play guitar.

So I pointed the wagons West, I came out to California and took up writing situation comedy. I found a mentor who taught me two very important things for a writer. One he said was, listen to what's being told to you, and the other was pay it forward. And the latter aspect, pay it forward, has really been part of my life since then, as I've made it my mission, not just to be a writer, but to help teach and train writers. So from that point forward, for more than a quarter of a century, I have been aggressively writing and selling scripts, screenplays, novels, nonfiction, and also aggressively and enthusiastically traveling the world teaching and training writers. So I have been a professional writer and a professional teacher of writers in 36 countries on five continents at last count.

Bryan: Wow, that's a prolific career.

John: Thanks, it's a blessing. But the thing that drives it is my understanding that, every time I'm writing, and anytime you're writing, two things are happening. One is the process. We're engaged in writing and the words are coming out. And the other is the attention that we pay to the process and the lessons that we can learn from how we think about writing problems and how we go about solving them and what impact this has on our mental health and our state of mind and motivation, procrastination, all these related issues. So the main takeaway from my approach to creativity, which is a tool driven creativity, is always be in your process, but always