Note: This never before published piece is about a dozen years old. The advice still holds true but the contact information is outdated and some of the publications have bitten the dust since then. Most of the participants have also moved on to new challenges. Thanks to all the editors who particpated.
Writing academic fare for over twenty years, I realized, after a closer examination of my more profound creations, that I was in fact a humor writer. Over the past fourteen years I’ve submitted short humor pieces to hundreds of magazines, garnering about fifty publications. Humor markets often tend to be hidden or specialized. Although typically Writer’s Digest lists onlya few entries in its humor category, most other publications are looking for amusing pieces with just the right slant. For example after being rejected by my usual humor targets, I sold a piece (Shirtless In Seattle) to a police trade magazine on why criminals don’t wear shirts. Also numerous niche humor magazines aim at specific professions or special interest groups.
Many of the smaller humor publications, have the life span of a fruit fly and when I requested writer guidelines from 60 of them, more than two-thirds failed to respond or indicated they were now out of business.
Except for established comedians and well-known columnists whose work is actively solicited, most humor writers must submit their work on speculation. With the query process largely irrelevant, this leaves you at the mercy of an ever-growing slush pile.
Few things could be more subjective than editing a humor magazine. Even a much-rejected piece may eventually find a friendly home, if your postage only holds out. After a few months of constant rejections, I devised a scheme to get the inside the humor editorial mind and sent out questionnaires to a sample of humor editors, including many who routinely rejected my work. I encouraged their responses by shamelessly flattering them and making vague promises of the international fame that accompanies being featured in a writer’s magazine.
The five humor editors who eventually responded were Larry Logan, editor of the late great magazine Satire; Fran London, editor of the Journal of Nursing Jocularity; Douglas Carroll, editor of idiot wind; Robert Darden, editor of The Door; Glenn C. Ellenbogen, editor of the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. Their many profound insights can be condensed into ten basic commandments that you can use to improve your acceptance average.
Commandment One: Write Laugh out loud humor.
The editors agreed that the main reason for rejecting a piece is that it simply wasn’t funny enough. They are looking for “laugh out loud works” Making an article funny enough may mean adding more gags, but more often it involves polishing the existing jokes and metaphors. Just adding jokes often destroys the unity or clutters up the structure. Try to get at least five alternative punchlines for each gag.
Commandment Two: Read back issues and guidelines and then write specifically for that particular magazine.
Robert Darden says he is particularly put off by “People haven’t read the magazine or writer’s guidelines. Of if they have they don’t think the rules apply to their piece!” his advice is to “…read a year’s worth of the publication before you submit a piece. Get the writer’s guidelines. Then see if you can visualize your piece in our table of contents.” Get a feel for both the style and as well as the content. A piece that is too sophisticated for a small regional publication may still be too parochial for a national market.
Commandment Three: Try out your material on an audience.
Logan advises, “Humor pieces should be tested before submitting… if there appear to be no symptoms of jocularity (laughter, smiles, chuckles, groans, etc.), there is an outside chance that the work is not in the genre of the funny.” Some humor writer’s are very relucant to test their works, but such testing almost always leads to a much better product even if you don’t act on every suggestion. Yes it’s agonizing, but necessary.
Commandment Four: Parodies that evoke common experiences are winners .
For his psychology satire publication, Glenn Ellenbogen says “ …we look for pieces that closely parallel REAL scientific articles in style and quasi-scientific jargon. He advises potential writers to “… read REAL … journals and make fun of them.” The closer the satire comes to echoing recognizable forms the better. Go for that shock of recognition.
Commandment Six: Don’t be too angry offensive, or hostile.
London says the Journal of Nursing Jocularity is “least interested in angry or malevolent humor.” I recently got a rejected piece about teenage drivers back on which the editor had scribbled “Too sarcastic for us.” Hostility can quickly sour the best humor piece. Cynical is fine, bitter is not.
Commandment Seven: When writing on prosaic topics, you must have a unique angle.
Doug Carroll says he’s “least interested in seeing slice of life stories that are so unfunny I’m bored to tears before the end of the first page…”. Arthur Koesler, the late English science writer defined creativity as the “Biosociative Act”—that is a process in which two diverse planes of thought intersect. The more diverse the plan of though the more creative and often the funnier it is. Two example: “Pigs” and “Space” are the two plans of thought that lead to the hilarious “Pigs in Space” skit on the Muppet television show. Yesterday I heard someone mention the phrase “A Toad on the Stove”— that has possibilities.
Commandment Eight: Learn from the best. In addition to classic humorists like Twain, Thurber, and Perlman humor editors especially like Woody Allen, Dave Barry, and P.J. O’Rourke’s. Read and study their work.
Commandment Nine: Strike quickly, make the piece flow, and then stop. Editors don’t like slow moving pieces. Be funny fast. Logan says he won’t finish reading “Works that are sooooo arty, that after two or three pages you are still trying to figure out what the subject might be (most of these come from the academic community).” Check out any of P.J. O’Rourke’s opening paragraphs to see how to get off a running start.
Commandment Ten: Format does counts. Check for typos and never fax stuff unless specifically asked to do so. Among Ellenbogen’s nightmares are ”A manuscript submitted via fax, poorly typed with typos all over the place”. Go for the halo effect and at least appear professional. Successful humor writers are not wacko who submit crayon ravings scrawled on paper backs— they are pros.
Bonus Commandment: Don’t pay too much attention to what editors or anyone else says.
Logan says, “When it comes to humor, it’s really in the mind of the chuckler.”
Darden says, Be funny. Be short. Be timely. Don’t be afraid to fail. Comedy takes chances. Finally Ellenbogen warns, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… humor is a very subjective thing.” No joke!
Larry Logan, Editor of SATIRE: The Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Satire
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: http://www.intrepid.net/~fanfare/satire.htm)
P.O. Box 340, Hancock, MD 21750-0340
When asked about his background Logan, said, “Those of us in witness protection programs must be vague in this area. I’m a post W.W.II baby-boomer who bought into the Ozzie & Harriet American dream, through no fault of my own. Got a couple of college degrees, just barely avoided being drafted for Vietnam, and jumped into the rat-race because that was what was expected.. .. the authorities who operate [the witness relocation program] understand the best way to assure obscurity is to become an author/publisher of a small press quarterly. They assigned me to do SATIRE, and I am doing the best I can to provide a home for the unwanted humor works of the world… satires/parodies/black humors/etc. It’s really like running an orphanage.
Douglas Carroll is the editor of idiot wind: a small wildcat humor publication with strong Internet presence. Carroll publishes this quarterly in the herring capital of the east coast. E-mail: email@example.com. Website: Website: http://www.radix.net/~idiotwind, 310 Poplar Alley, Apt. A, Occoquan, VA 22125.
Carroll says, “I grew up on National Lampoon magazine during the eighties, discovering the older mag of the seventies several years later. The old issues inspired me to produce a magazine that would make people smile and the later mags inspired me to do better than the unfunny swill of that era.”
Fran London, R. N, M.S. is the editor of the popular specialty humor magazine the Journal of Nursing Jocularity (JNJ). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: http://www.jocularity.com JNJ Publishing, Inc. P.O. Box 40416, Mesa AZ 85274
She writes, “I am an editor. [but] more of humor writer than a humorist.”
Robert Darden is the editor of The Door, another specialty magazine that focuses on humor related to religion. The magazine takes its name from the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses launching the Protestant reformation. The Door’s guidelines have 11 theses that you are instructed to memorize and then eat the evidence.
Darden claims to be the author of 25 books and editor of the world’s oldest, largest, and only religious humor and satire magazine.
Glenn C. Ellenbogen, Ph.D. is the editor of The Journal of Polymorphous Perversity (JPP). a twice-per-year publication devoted to showcasing spoofs of psychology, psychiatry, mental health, and human behavior. The Wall Street Journal called the JPP “a social scientist’s answer to Mad magazine. Circulation is approximately 4,000. Unfortunately, JPP rarely pays writers, using the “scientific journal” (or “chintzy”) model of publication. e-mail: email@example.com Website: http://psychhumor.com Wry-Bred Press, Inc. 10 Waterside plaza, Suite 20-B New York, NY 10010
Dr. Ellenbogen’s biography indicates that he has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Hofstra. Before getting his doctorate, he earned two Master’s degrees but was “psychologically unable to cope with having MAMA after his name.”