from Writer's Digest
This Funny Business
by Ellis Parker Butler
Just for fun let us admit that I am in the humor-writing business. How did I get there? What happened? What can it suggest to another writer? Is it a good business? Is $13,600 a year a good income?
I began to write humor about 48 years ago, when I was in the Seventh Grade and twelve years old. On the top shelf of the school-room was a swishy raw-hide whip. My chum was a boy of my age and we were both bad little boys in school. The teacher had two favorite punishments for bad little boys -- one was to keep them after school and swish their legs; the other was to make them write 300-word essays and read them before the school the next morning. My chum could not have written a 300-word essay in ten years, and reading it before a class would have been dire agony for him; I hated to have my legs swished -- and never did have them swished.
The first time this teacher caught me in disobedience she happened to fine me a 300-word essay. I wrote one on "Trees" in about six minutes, and it must have been humorous, for when I read it the teacher laughed and I laughed and the class laughed. After that I was punished often and I was considered a funny fellow. My chum continued to be swished. I knew then that humor was a fine business to be in.
In 1883, when I was 13, I sold my first humorous story to Dawn of Day, a boy's paper of Chicago, for fifty cents, which was paid me in one-cent post cards. This was the first money I had ever earned, and full grown men, working ten hours a day in the sawmills, got eighty cents a day, and were laid off all winter. My second story was bought for fifty cents by the same paper, but paid in cash.
From then on my life's work has been writing humor. In my early days I held many jobs as clerk, salesman, editor, but they were only to keep me alive while I wrote humor, and in 1906 I was able to give up all other jobs and be a professional humorist.
From the beginning I read all the humorous publications I could find -- periodicals and books. I did have adaptability, which is a classy form of imitation. Adaptability is a most necessary quality for those who write to sell. Humor is merely the ability to tell a thing in a laughable manner, but it is not to be acquired; it is either born in a man or implanted in him at a very early age. You can't "make" a humorist, but more of us have the undeveloped seed of humor than is commonly supposed.
I saw at once that humor, in order to be readily salable, must be put in the form that is fashionable at the moment; this form is learned by watching the periodicals and the successful books of humor. You certainly do not want to use an Addisonian essay form if you hope to sell to Judge.
The best market is always the largest market, because there are more competitors for your product; I saw that the largest market was for fiction stories of 4,000 to 6,000 words; consequently I did -- and have done -- most of my humor in fiction form and that length.
You will notice, if you study the work of the successful humorists of today, that they fall into two rather distinct classes. In one class -- as to form -- are such admirable men as Robert Benchley, Stephen Leacock, and Will Rogers; in the other the equally admirable Octavus Roy Cohen, Clarence Buddington Kelland, and P. G. Wodehouse. The first write almost no plot fiction; the second put most of their humor into story form. Mark Twain was practically the first American professional humorist to use the story form; before him the professional humorist confined himself to the skit or short essay form almost exclusively. Benchley, Leacock, Rogers, etc., are the offspring of the pre-Twain humorists; Cohen, Kelland, Wodehouse, etc., date from Twain.
Both these forms of humor are legitimate and they have one common basic element, the most important in humor writing after an ability to get laughs is granted. This important thing is the ability to create and develop character, so that from the created character the laughable context is inevitable. Cohen, for example, creates and develops Florian Slappey; Kelland creates Scattergood Baines; Wodehouse creates Jeeves. What Benchley creates as a character we all know? He creates Benchley. Will Rogers creates Will Rogers. Benchley, to those who read him, and Will Rogers, to those who hear or read him, are as much created characters in fiction as are Jeeves or Huck Finn. Midway between these two classes stands, for instance, P. Finley Dunne with his Mr. Dooley. Will Rogers is Will Rogers, but Dunne is Dooley and yet not Dooley, and Wodehouse is not at all Jeeves.
Gradually, if you continue to study the humorists, you will see more and more clearly that, whatever the type of humor or the form into which it is put, the development of character is the most important matter for the humorist. The little building of which Chic Sale wrote, is not very funny in itself; it might supply material for a one-minute joke to tell after half a dozen drinks at a club. But Chic Sale created a character and in the little book it is the Specialist who is funny -- he is so serious; he is real; he is a genuine American character. We laugh because he is so confoundedly serious about a matter that is serious to him but laughable to us. Chic Sale's "Specialist" is as veritable a portrait as Rupert Hughes' Washington.
So we find that the real humorist -- the important one -- must concern himself with character creation. Bill Nye creates Bill Nye -- the serious bald-headed jester; George Ade creates Artie and Doc Home; Townsend creates Chimmie Fadden; Bob Benchley creates Bob Benchley -- the mock-serious, mock-eager, mock-erudite. Always it is the character-story or the character-man who is the great humorist.
Humor always creates a picture, and a properly developed character is more easily seen by the mind than one that is poorly and mistily sketched. We "see" Ring Lardner in his plotless skits because he develops a Ring Lardner character as he writes; we delight in Ring Lardner's plotted stories because he develops the characters in his stories so admirably.
You will find that when you think of the successful humorists, you think instantly of some important individual characteristic, in connection with each: Ade -- slang, Benchley -- mock seriousness; Frank Sullivan -- extravagant burlesque; Will Rogers -- philosophy, with a chuckle. The humorist who is not going to write fictional humor stories should develop an individuality of his own, for he is the "character" his audience sees. The humorist who is going to write fiction humor stories should give his greatest effort to perfecting his ability to create character. The best humor in fiction story humor does not lie in the plot; it results from the handling of a clearly-pictured character or two; in other words, the most successful humor is that which arises incidentally during the telling of the story.
When I have deviated from the above rules I have been unsuccessful; when I have stuck to them my writings have sold well. Leaving out motion-picture sales, book royalties, and other side issues, my income from humor was about $9,500 per year from 1906 to 1918. For some unknown reason it took a jump in 1919 and from 1919 to 1929 it has averaged about $13,600 a year. This included a couple of seasons of lecturing, but I found that platform work cut down my writing income just about as much as I took in from lecturing. During this period from 1919 to 1929 my lowest year was $9,300 and the highest $21,000.
I have an idea that if I had devoted my talent, such as it is, to the writing of non-humorous fiction I would have made a great deal more money -- but I wanted to write humor. Humor, I think, loses out in comparison with serious fiction or other serious writing when it comes to book publication. Almost never does a humor book sell greatly; humor, as a rule, does not command a motion-picture sale. But there is the "Specialist" selling a million copies, I hear, and Ade and Rogers and Tarkington have done well with picture contracts. It is a gamble, I suppose.
My advice to one and all would be "If you like to write humor, go ahead and write it, but if you don't feel an eager impulse to make people laugh, don't bother with it." None of the very successful humorists are made; they were born.
Finally, humor is the easiest to test of any sort of writing. If you read a poem to a friend, or a group of friends, they may be doubtful; if you read a serious fiction story to them, they will hem and haw and say one thing and another; but if you read humor to any group and do not get a real laugh from some one, you can be mighty sure you haven't written humor.
Getting the laugh is the one and only test for humor. But not getting a laugh need not discourage you. If you get a grin you have got a sure seller. And anything that doesn't bring actual tears and sobs of woe is worth trying on an editor, poor long-suffering fellow that he is. I've never met an editor yet who did not say he needed more humor than he could get.
Not knowing Mr. Butler personally we can't say whether or not he is an artist. But we somehow got the idea that Mr. Butler wishes in 1906 he had not written "Pigs is Pigs." Although since then he has written literally thousands of items, his "Pigs is Pigs" remains classic, and whenever the name Butler is mentioned, one hears the answering echo "Pigs is Pigs." You will note that he did not mention it in his article. Possibly the man is trying to live it down, and here we are only making things more hard.