Mike Lacher on How to Write a Viral Humor Piece
Mike Lacher has written some of the most widely-shared humor pieces ever, including “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole,” “Client Feedback on The Creation of The Earth,” and many others classic McSweeney’s pieces.
You can learn humor writing from his Skillshare course Humor Writing: Write Funny for the Internet.
Mike also writes and codes things on the Internet. You can see those things here.
Do you have any rules as a writer? A personal code you follow?
I try to only write stuff that I personally enjoy writing. I don’t make a living writing funny stuff, so if I’m going to spend my time on it, I need to enjoy it. It also leads to better stuff. I’ve tried to write shit that I think other people will think is funny. It’s excruciating to write and then it just reads kind of hollow. Also, even if what I write ends up sucking, at least I had fun doing it.
I love that. What made you realize you were trying to please the masses? Were you consciously pursuing a strategy? Or was it subconscious?
I think it was more subconscious. Like: “I’ve seen X on the internet. People really liked it. So I’ll try to write the same thing.” But then I never really stopped to think if I thought X was good in the first place.
What’s a belief that you used to have that held you back? How did you let go of it?
I used to think I had to make the sentence I was on good before moving to the next one. That makes things very slow and very not fun. I realized I just had to get through the parts I think are weak, discover more stuff that I like, then go back and fix the weak stuff.
As gross as it may sound, experience doing advertising jobs helped with that. You develop the skill of just making a bunch of shit as fast as you can, then worrying later about how good it is.
Not gross to me. Copywriting, for example, teaches short, clear writing. Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art, has said that copywriting helped him write better movies and books.
I like the distinction between Clown Brain (fast, fun, sloppy) and Editor Brain (slow, judge-y, perfectionist). When you made the switch from “write each sentence perfectly first” to “write everything fast and sloppy first,” did it change the kind of ideas you were having as you were writing?
Yeah, it made it easier to discover new ideas/territories/jokes that might not be apparent when you’re agonizing over every word while you type. Sometimes when you’re being sloppy you find a better idea than what you set out to right in the first place.
What’s something that you’ve changed your mind about recently regarding your creative process?
I used to only write when I had at least an hour or two available and told myself that any shorter amount of time would be counterproductive. Having a newborn made me deal with the fact that you can accomplish things in twenty minutes chunks, and it’s better to take advantage of those than wait for your perfect moment of peace and creative clarity.
Humorists (and comedians generally) talk a lot about heightening. In your humor writing course, you mention the concept.
But what is heightening? Humor pieces often feel like they heighten in a variety of ways: The piece becomes funnier and funnier; The absurdity increases; The surprise factor increases; The stakes increase (in some sense); The premise is further explored; etc!
Do you think there’s a specific sense of “heightening” that’s shared by most good humor writing? Or are humor writers doing a bunch of more specific things here, and we conveniently slap the vague label “heightening” on all of it?
To me, heightening is expanding your premise in new and surprising ways that still connect coherently to what you’ve set up earlier. It’s walking that balance of finding new territory while not jumping so far ahead that it feels contrived. In terms of humor writing, you usually see this in terms of “the jokes getting funnier.”
But I think that feeling is less about the fact that the author saved the best jokes for last, and rather than they’ve carefully expanded the premise step by step in more surprising ways. That feeling of surprise makes it feel “funnier.”
I think you see this clearly in shows like Seinfeld, where the situation evolves from something pretty normal to something absurd. Starting the show with Newman trying to eat Kramer like a chicken would be too absurd to find funny. But when it comes after a long series of steps where Kramer starts shaving with butter, Newman reads a book about cannibalism, and Kramer spills spices on himself, it’s pretty funny. It’s also true for pretty much anything that’s enjoyable to watch/read, regardless of humor. If Raiders of The Lost Ark went straight to the Nazi’s faces melting, you’d be much less impressed than when it happens after numerous pitfalls and revelations involving the ark.
To me, a well-heightened piece takes the reader on a journey, however brief, and delivers a satisfying exploration of the premise. Maybe that’s all there is to it. How do you know when one of your drafts has heightened all the way, and the piece is done?
For me, it’s feeling like it’s in a place where any further heightening would expand the piece to be longer than I want to deal with. Also just being sort of sick of it is a good sign that it’s time to let go.
Find Mike Lacher’s writing on McSweeney’s.
His pieces include the classics, “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole,” “Client Feedback on The Creation of The Earth,” and “In Which I Fix My Girlfriend’s Grandparents’ WiFi and Am Hailed as a Conquering Hero.”