November 21, 2010

Hank Stuever’s writing is often as entertaining as the television sitcoms he writes about. As a TV critic for The Washington Post and a longtime feature writer before that, Stuever has found ways to incorporate humor into his writing without sounding insensitive or too over-the-top.

That’s not easy to do, in part because humor is so subjective. A lot of writers avoid it for fear of making light of a serious subject or having their jokes fall flat.

“Feature stories have such an air of seriousness,” Stuever said. “That’s not a voice I discourage, because some people do it so well, but I think there’s something to be said for lightheartedness. It invites you to keep reading because it’s no so stoney.”

Stuever, who spoke at Poynter for the American Association of Sunday Feature Editors conference in October, has developed strategies for determining whether humor is appropriate for a given story and whether jokes that may seem funny in person or on TV will translate into writing. I talked with him in person about these strategies and have listed some related tips.

Leave humor for the writing, not the reporting, process.

Stuever said he’s usually the loud one cracking jokes when he’s with family and friends. He’s the guy who waits in one line at the grocery store while his partner waits in the other, not wanting to spend more time than necessary checking out.

When he’s with sources, he slows down and shuts up.

“I don’t tell jokes and I don’t try to make people laugh,” Stuever said. “This isn’t ‘The Hank Show.’ ” Instead, he listens to his sources — or the characters in the shows he reviews — and waits for them to be funny. Sometimes, he said, it’s just a matter of being patient.

When reporting, seek every opportunity to learn what your subject thinks is funny.

Spending time with sources, Stuever said, is the best way to learn what makes them laugh. It’s not so much about getting sources to entertain you as it is getting them to become their funny, looser selves with you.

“To me, it’s about being with them long enough, observing them at length enough, that you begin to see how they make themselves and others laugh,” said Stuever, a two-time Pulitzer finalist. “The most open reporter is open to finding funny the things that others find funny, instead of always waiting or looking for the things that he thinks are funny.”

(See Stuever’s related list of 13 questions to gauge how well you know your sources.)

Incorporate dialogue into your stories and reviews.

If adding humor to your writing doesn’t come naturally, it can help adding dialogue to capture characters and scenes. When reviewing TV shows, Stuever often quotes humorous lines from TV shows.

“Even when quoting shows, I’m finding that the writer has to be in control of the comic timing there, too,” Stuever said. “Not everything that’s funny in a TV show translates to the page. In fact, in some reviews, I’ve typed up the funniest parts of the show only to see immediately that the jokes or moments haven’t translated at all, and they wind up needing a lot of help in the set-up.”

That’s also the case, he said, in reported features. The more funny moments that he sees as a reporter sometimes require so much setup that they fall flat when typed up on the screen. That’s the infinite mystery of timing, he said. Humor works in prose the same way it works on a stage or on screen.

Balance humor with empathy when writing about serious topics.

Humor isn’t right for every story, and there’s no magic formula for whether it’ll work effectively. Stuever has found, though, that If you’re going to try to be funny in a story about a serious subject matter, it helps to also be empathetic.

When writing about the “Stand up to Cancer” global telethon last month, Stuever poked fun at some of the celebrities on the show who made claims that didn’t seem convincing or true. “I kind of feel like it’s my duty to say, ‘cancer’s horrible, but so is conspicuous do-gooderism.’ ” Stuever said.

In his review, he wrote: “Interspersed with songs, testimonials and light comedy (‘The Hangover’s’ Ken Jeong stripping down behind a screen for a skin exam by his comely dermatologist — ‘Isn’t this better than the Jerry Lewis telethon?’ he mugged), it was difficult to get a fix on the medical news. Something about how doctors are now talking to one another about research and findings that they used to hide from one another to protect their funding. (Wait. What?!)”

For as much as he criticized the telethon, though, he also acknowledged throughout the piece that he thinks cancer is a terrible, and hardly laughable, disease. The first line of his review says: “Stipulated: I don’t like cancer and I don’t want anyone to get it.”

Still, Stuever said he got some notes from readers who thought he was insensitive in his review.

Test out the humor on your editors — and yourself.

When he needs a second opinion about whether to poke fun at someone in a piece about a serious topic, Stuever often turns to his editor, Richard Leiby.

Hearing an editor’s reactions, he said, can help you gauge how others might interpret your humor. If your editor wants to edit out the humor, then ask why it doesn’t work and how it could work.

“I think the question is not mother may I; it’s mother, how can I get this done?” said Stuever, who often pushes for humor in his stories. “My work is saturated with humor because that’s how I tell stories. There’s laughter in the newsroom; I’ve never understood why there wasn’t more humor in the paper.”

Most importantly, he said, you have to test the humor out on yourself and be your own best editor. The key question to ask is: Does it make me laugh? If you’re trying too hard to be funny, or trying to appeal to others’ sense of humor, then your writing is more likely to sound forced and, as a result, less funny.

“Until you type it and try it out on yourself, the elusive hunt for humor can’t begin,” Stuever said. “If you laugh while you’re typing, you’re at least halfway there.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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