Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Readers' challenge: Make this column funnier

When I was the judge of a weekly newspaper humor contest in the 1990s, part of my job was to give readers an example of a potentially winning entry for each new competition. You might think that I'd be the best person to come up with jokes that would impress the judge, who was me. But I wasn't. Week after week, the eventual winning entry was better than my example had been.

One week, for instance, the contest was to write a riddle that is answered by a painful pun on someone's name. My example was:

Question: In the world of nudists, who represents Everyman?

Answer: John Q. Pubic.

Not bad. But not as good as the reader-submitted winner:

Q: Who wrote The Hatchback of Notre Dame?

A: Victor Yugo.

This was 1996, but I realize now that, even then, long before the advent of Wikipedia, I was seeing a primitive, proto-Internet phenomenon at work. When an audience of thousands descends as one on a challenge, the Hive Mind goes to work and produces something better than the sum of its parts. Good ideas rise to the top like cream — or in the case of my particular tastes in humor — like bubbles in a septic tank.

Basically, I know that every one of my columns could be made funnier if first submitted for improvement to the Hive. This comes as a ... stinging realization.

Of the roughly 379,502 words I have assembled into 22,712 sentences in 11 years of column writing, I have reluctantly concluded that only a single line — a hyphenated dependent clause published on Dec. 18, 2005 — is so good it cannot possibly be improved upon. It was in a column about a plumber who saved Thanksgiving by abandoning his fancy tools that hadn't worked; he stood over my clogged toilet like a colossus, plunging it madly with all his might, turning himself into a human piston. The plumber, I wrote, was a modern-day John Henry, "a stool-drivin' man."

Other than that line, my oeuvre is pretty much hackwork when compared with the theoretical possibilities of the Hive.

This is dangerous self-awareness for a humor writer. As any standup comic can tell you, humor requires a swagger. If you don't think you are the funniest guy in the room, before you say a word you're already toast. Wry toast.

I deal with this problem the same way I deal with most of my shortcomings: by fearlessly confronting the painful truth, and then denying it flatly. Sometimes, very flatly. For example, I do not have good muscle tone, in the sense that if I were hit in the belly by a line drive, the ball would comfortably nestle in, like a fetus. But in my mind, I'm a stud: My middle is as gutless as a fish fillet — cartoonishly flat, like Dagwood Bumstead's.

In the same vein, I continue to believe I'm the funniest guy in the room. Sure, it's delusional and obnoxious, but, hey, I'm a writer, not a comic. I can't hear you boo, so there's nothing you can do about it.

Or is there? Can you make this column funnier? Submit your revisions by e-mail — only one revised line per e-mail, though you may submit multiple e-mails — to Subject line: Wikicolumn.

I will objectively weigh your humor against mine, and publish a new, improved column online, with all the appropriate substitutions. All published improvements will be credited. The best single change will win a signed copy of The Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of my feature stories.

The joke about Victor Yugo was written by Dave Zarrow of Herndon, Va., the world's funniest office-products dealer.

© 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group

Readers' challenge: Make this column funnier 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Washington Post.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. South Korea military: North Korea fires unidentified projectile


    SEOUL — North Korea launched a ballistic missile early today that flew 280 miles and landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone, the South Korean military and the Japanese government said.

    S. Korean President Moon Jae-in is assessing the launch.
  2. Rays blow lead, rally, blow lead, rally again to beat Twins in 15 (w/video)

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — The Rays sure made it interesting Sunday, taking an early lead, watching their beleaguered bullpen blow it, rallying to tie in the ninth, battling the Twins to take a lead in the 14th then giving it up again.

    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 28: Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates scoring a run against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on May 28, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) 700010990
  3. Marijuana extract sharply cuts seizures in severe form of epilepsy


    An oil derived from the marijuana plant sharply reduces violent seizures in young people suffering from a rare, severe form of epilepsy, according to a study published last week that gives more hope to parents who have been clamoring for access to the medication.

  4. 'I ain't fit to live': Police say Mississippi gunman kills 8


    BROOKHAVEN, Miss. — A man who got into an argument with his estranged wife and her family over his children was arrested Sunday in a house-to-house shooting rampage in rural Mississippi that left eight people dead, including his mother-in-law and a sheriff's deputy.

    People embrace Sunday outside the Bogue Chitto, Miss., house where eight people were killed during a shooting rampage Saturday in Lincoln County, Miss.
  5. Kushner's Russia ties questioned as Trump cites media 'lies'


    WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Sunday demanded to hear directly from top White House adviser Jared Kushner over allegations of proposed secret back-channel communications with Russia, saying the security clearance of President Donald Trump's son-in-law may need to be revoked.