The Formula for Funny

The Formula for Funny

Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy

Picture it: 1999, an eager freelance writer sells an article to a national magazine about women having clothing custom tailored. She is euphoric when the editor asks for a sidebar piece on women having bras custom fitted. “Of course,” the writer says. “No problem.”vintage-1823596_640

I was that writer, and I was soon to learn an important—and funny—lesson about the writing life.

Now folks, this was before the Internet and search engines were running full steam. We still dialed 411 for information or thumbed through cumbersome phone books with Yellow Pages sections. And remember, for a national magazine, a writer has to do national research. Finding resources in Toronto was no problem back then, but the rest of the country…well, the challenge was set.

A funny thing happened on the way to research

purchasing-1673734_640Through one of my bespoke clothing connections, I found out about a store in Montreal that did custom fitting of bras. So, I called and asked for the store manager, whose name was Savine. I expected someone with a francophone accent, but in fact, Savine sounded like Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. So, read her comments with a Russian accent, okay?

Here’s how the conversation went:

ME:    Savine, I’m researching an article on women having bras custom fitted.

SAVINE:      OH, you are going to write about women having the bras custom fitted. That is wonderful, because YOU KNOW, 80 percent of the women in Canada, they wearing the wrong size bra!

(NOTE: I have to interject here what went through my mind at that moment, which was—where did she get that statistic? And did people from StatsCan go around the country measuring women’s boobs and comparing them to their bra sizes? But I digress.)

ME:         Savine, are you telling me that 80 percent of women in Canada are wearing the wrong size bra?

SAVINE:        YES, 80 percent of the women in Canada, they wearing the wrong size bra. YOU, for example. YOU wearing the wrong size bra.

I looked down at my chest and was amazed that she was likely right.

So why am I telling you this story? Because I think, or at least I hope, you laughed at Savine’s comment. This little story contains the TWO things something must have to be considered funny: a basis in reality and surprise.


human-773712_640Although that’s a simplistic formula, it’s also true. Think about anything you have found funny in the past, and note the presence of both of these elements. The basis of reality in my Savine story is the fact that few women know how to choose the right size bra, and most of us have histories of buying too-small or too-large garments that remain at the bottom of our lingerie drawers for years. The surprise is when Savine makes that call on my bra over the phone.

When I teach humour writing, I tell my students that you can’t make up stuff that’s funnier than real life. Some comics make a living by simply pointing out reality. Take George Carlin’s rant about being asked if he was ready to get “on” the plane, when he preferred to get “in” it … Or Stephen Wright’s claim that he has an extensive seashell collection he keeps on beaches around the world. Canadian-born actress, writer and comedian Catherine O’Hara of Second City and “Schitt’s Creek” fame says she believes her success comes from being truthful.

Keep in mind, too, that everything is funnier in threes. Think of the jokes you know, and you’ll realize that many punch lines come after two set-up lines. An example is Lily Tomlin’s leap from pointing out that olive oil comes from olives and corn oil comes from corn, to asking where baby oil comes from.

The Power of Cliché

I always say that all writing helps other writing. For example, did you know that ad writers and humour writers use some of the same techniques? A major challenge for ad writers is to get people’s attention with an ad headline. One common technique they and humour-writers share is reforming clichés. People EXPECT the cliché to be the same, but by changing it or reforming it in some way, the phrase can become funny.radiator-mascot-171428_640

Consider the double entendre. A sign on a radiator repair shop reads: “A good place to take a leak.”

colorful-1836348_640Or think about taking a cliché literally. A major big-box store did an ad for picture frames with the headline “Hang around the house.”

lee-jung-min-decoration-1090766_640There are also funny take-offs on clichés. I once wrote humorous fortune cookies for a women entrepreneur group. One fortune I came up with was “Let a smile be your umbrella, and you’ll be toothless by retirement.”

Recipes for funny

It may seem strange to think of comedy writers using formulas, but we do from time to time, to get those creative juices flowing. Do some research and you’ll discover more techniques for injecting humour into your writing. Check out Writers Digest‘s website for several articles on humour writing. I also recommend any of Emmy award-winning Gene Perret’s books But remember that above all, a basis in reality and the element of surprise are necessary to make something funny.

Now I have to go, because my bra is pinching at the sides.

Read more from Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy, at

Did you know

Dorothea and Ruth Walker designed Write to Win, a full-day immersion in the art and skill of entering writing contests. And yes, humour often plays a part in their tag-team teaching style but they are deadly serious about helping writers get to First Place. Look for this workshop spring 2017.

Check out Writescape’s catalogue for all our workshops and programs.

Find Your Way to First Place

Find Your Way to First Place

Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy.

Writescape shares sage advice from award-winning humour writer and writing contest judge and administrator, Dorothea Helms, on entering and winning writing contests. Dorothea offers her special branch of magic and insider insights in The Top Drawer.

Winning writing contests is one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced during my career. In addition to validation for my writing from an objective source, the wins have brought money, publication, plaques, prizes and prestige. Oh, and surprise. I once came in third place in a poetry contest with a submission that didn’t begin “There once was a …” Contest wins listed on my writer’s CV have also added credibility.

I don’t know of a magic formula for winning (even though I’m The Writing Fairy), but I do have some tips I’d like to share on how to increase your chances.

  1. Be creative in your approach to the contest topic
  2. Follow the rules
  3. Write with abandon, but polish your writing with care
  4. Follow the rules
  5. Enter
  6. Follow the rules

Sound simplistic? For years, I have served as a writing contest judge from local to national levels, and I have run several contests myself. I’m always astounded at the number of entrants who ignore the rules. To be fair to all competitors, contest judges must eliminate those who don’t follow the rules.

Here are some reminders:

Word Count Maximumsnumbers

If the maximum word count is 2,500 and your entry is 2,501, it will be eliminated before it’s even read. I’ve had to axe entries for this mistake many times. What a shame; often, they are brilliant submissions.


Published versus Unpublished

If the rules stipulate that the piece has to be original and unpublished, make sure it is. It’s easy for contest administrators to do a Google search for a sentence and find out if it’s on a website somewhere. I’ve done that and found published work that has been entered as unpublished.

Entry Fee

coins-948603_640Many respected writing contests include entry fees. It costs money to run a contest, even when there are volunteers involved. Some journals give you a year’s subscription to their magazine as part of your entry fee. Some give you feedback on your entry. If you choose to submit to a contest with an entry fee, remember to include your payment. This is part of the rules you need to read.


Read, Read, Read Those Rules

referee-1149014_640The best way to start following the rules is to read them. In one of my Writing Fairy contests, after I published the names of the ten finalists, one of them contacted me to say he had just read the rules and that his entry had been previously published in a major US newspaper. I had to eliminate his piece, and it took time and effort to figure out who was next in line to take his spot in the top ten.



When it comes to increasing your chances of winning writing contests, the only thing worse than not following the rules is not entering. If you read winning contest entries and think, I can do better than that, then do better than that and send it in.

Oh, and did I mention—follow the rules?

DorotheaRead more about Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy, at

Want to know more about entering and winning contests? Dorothea Helms teams up with Writescape’s Ruth Walker for Write to Win, a one-day workshop that covers everything from entering, to judging, to winning, to celebrating. Write to Win is a winner of a workshop.