Humor: A Hard Way to Write an Essay

Unintended humor. Sign reading: No Trespassing. Police Prosecuted.

Jennifer Crystal challenged our Grub Street class to write a 500-1,000 word essay “using humor to make a point.” In speech and writing, I pepper people with puns and jokes. But humor for revelation?

In our assignment from Writing Well, William Zinsser demonstrates comic devices. To question women’s public adornment with hair curlers in the 1960s, Zinsser parodied an advice column. That seems easy enough.

Dear Jennifer,
Using humor to make a point is really hard. For once in my life, I can’t think of anything at which to poke fun.

Dear Kim,
 A couple of minor points: I think you mean “difficult” rather than that humor has a hard surface. And, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition rather than walking around it with “at which.”  

This is just an exercise, an idea to try. You don’t have to come up with anything grand. Remember, in French, “essayer” means “to try.” Try humor!

In a humorous style: I’ll give it a try. How about doggerel?

At Grub an aspiring writer,
was assigned to write something lighter,
with wit she finds ease,
never means to displease,
but how todo ahumorous essay escapes her.

Not viable for 500 words.

Unintended gallows humor. ER sign listing wait times for various tests.

Zinsser suggests using humor to approach subjects an author finds emotionally charged. Cancer and grief are among my hot topics. In conversation, I use humor to deflect idle chatter about my partner’s death. In writing, I’m not sure I have the requisite distance for even ironic humor.

What about the color pink? In my childhood, I disliked pink, though I don’t remember much of it around. Other colors, blue especially, caught my eye. In the late 1980s, my pink disdain blossomed. Routine sonograms rolled back the question, “boy or girl?” by six months. No longer was society satisfied by lovingly plastering hour-old baby girls in pink to mark them: not masculine. Girls grew up in pink rooms, with pink everything. It became their favorite color, perhaps because they knew nothing else, except that blue was to be the focus of their fawning harts: their stags. Pink stands for sexism. Gender bifurcation. I hate pink.


In my normal essay style, I would move naturally from that strident, non-humorous paragraph to how my hatred has grown now that pink also stands for “fight breast cancer,” which is a mission difficult to hate. However, pink money narrows the war to a battle against only one evolution of the scourge. Every high school team has a “pink out” game. Men’s professional sports are all over it: “must save breasts.” Though they’re where we all come from, ovaries (which killed my partner) aren’t so popular.

The preceding may get nearer to the assignment (for the class, not rigid gender assignment, which many continue to transgress, as in this essay I have done to style). Note that the previous sentence rests on free association word play, which is the basis of my generally dry wit and another technique Zinsser discusses.

493 words. I’m outta I am out of here.

Know Your Stats, 14597, from
Ovarian Cancer Facts from Colleen’s Dream Foundation:


  1. You sure packed a lot into 500 (or was it 498?) words – not sure exactly what to count and didn’t want to take on the task , but either way, you’re close enough.

    When I read about the gender-identifying sonograms here, I was reminded of a conversation I overheard at a shower for one of my cousin’s nieces who is in her early 30’s… “Can you believe that there was actually a time when parents didn’t know the sex of their baby until it was born?” Amazing…

    Thanks for the article which among many other things reminded me of Susan (not that I don’t think of her on my own from time to time – trust me, I do), but of the unfair hoopla that breast cancer gets leaving those ovaries on their own so much of the time. I can only attribute that to our breast-obsessed, too male-oriented, culture.

  2. Nice piece. Kinda funny! So meta! I do like the turn at the end towards the funny approach to the seriousness of the ovaries.

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