The Sideways L: How to Use Misdirection
to Make Your Readers Laugh

image of the letter L

Making your readers laugh can be a great way to capture attention, create word of mouth, and develop a terrific relationship with your audience.

A lot of writers may think you can’t teach people how to write humor, but I don’t buy it. In fact, here’s a simple technique you can use to get a few laughs of your own.

It won’t turn you into Mitch Hedberg overnight, but it can go a long way to putting a smile on the face of your readers.

First, you write a capital L on a piece of paper. Make it a big L, with long lines. Now, turn that piece of paper on its side, so it looks like the L is asleep or dead.

This is the Sideways L, and it’s a model you can tap into when you want to write something your readers will laugh at.

A joke relies on a setup and a punchline

Both the setup and punchline are their own separate trains of thought. Now look at the Sideways L.

The horizontal line is the setup, and it can be about any topic — any train of thought. Now, imagine that little train chugging along that line like it’s on a track. Suddenly, when it reaches the vertical line, it springs up on the new track and flies to the moon.

The train ride has suddenly become a lot different, hasn’t it? That’s how jokes work. By directing one idea into another in an unexpected way, you create surprise. In turn, that creates laughter.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a professional comedian to use misdirection in your blog post. There are a few shortcuts you can take to create that surprise.

1. Compare your topic to a current event

Late-night talk show hosts are always referencing current events. For example, Jimmy Fallon used this line to talk about David Letterman’s recent sex scandal:

There’s a new book out called ‘Why Women Have Sex’ that says there are 237 reasons why women have sex. And folks, Letterman knows the top 10.

See how Fallon mentioned a book about sex, then used it to lead into a remark about the scandal? That’s a prime example of misdirection at work. With the right lead-in topic, poking fun at current events is an easy way to create surprise.

2. Exaggerate

Blowing something WAY out of proportion is a technique comedians have been using for years. In a joke about her overweight mother-in-law, Phyllis Diller says:

She’s a nice woman, though. Nicest three acres of flesh I’ve ever met.

Everyone knows how to exaggerate. Think bigger and more creative. Bend the rules of logic — compare your topic to the most ludicrous mental image you can imagine.

3. Act subtle

Take another look at that last joke. Notice how Diller didn’t come right out and say, “my mother-in-law is as huge as a plot of land.” Instead, Diller implied it by saying her mother-in-law was “three acres of flesh”. With just a little detail, the audience had to figure out the comparison, but once they did, the surprise was far more powerful.

Let’s use a joke I wrote a while back in response to Facebook deleting a poll with inappropriate content. (Naturally, I posted my joke on Facebook.) I wrote:

Facebook recently pulled a poll asking whether or not President Obama should be killed, and is working with the Secret Service to find out who set it up. Now if only the Secret Service had a problem with Farmville.

I didn’t say that the Secret Service should get Facebook to remove the annoying Farmville application from their site. I suggested it, but you can still understand my meaning, and get an idea on how I feel about the app.

The trick with acting subtle is that you need to give just enough information for people to make the connection. Too much, and the joke is direct. Too little, and no one will understand it. Either way, no one laughs.

4. Get sarcastic

We all know what sarcasm is, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. While sarcasm works better with a voice and attitude, written sarcasm can still be effective. Exaggeration and subtlety can help make a sarcastic remark really burn the readers.

If you’re sarcastic to begin with, then this is easy — just write like you speak. If you’re not sarcastic, then listen to a sarcastic guy and focus on what words he uses. Since print can’t convey the sound of sarcasm, you’ll have to rely on how it’s structured.

5. Get vulgar

You ever hear someone fire an F-bomb out of left field and you can’t help but snicker? No doubt about it — cussing is funny, especially when you don’t see it coming. The humor is in the shock value.

Just remember . . . one, two, or three swears can be funny. Loads of them are not.

Like all punchlines, constant swearing stops being funny after a while. For maximum effectiveness, save the really big, creative curse words for the right moment. I like seeing them at the end of a long rant, myself — after all the buildup, a wild cuss streak is a huge payoff.

(Of course, use your judgment before dropping profanities. If you’re writing for a squeaky clean blog, keep it that way and use another shortcut. Otherwise, go ahead and open your pottymouth.)

The next time you want to add some unexpected humor to your blog post, try one of these shortcuts. It may take a bit of practice at first, but when you land a great one-liner, your readers will love it . . . and they’ll love you, too. Happy snarking!

About the Author: Matt Willard is a freelance humor writer and blogger. When he’s not trying to solve his problems with lightning, he pokes fun at nostalgic cartoons, video games, and books on his blog, Giant Robot Invasion.

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Reader Comments (65)

  1. says

    I still maintain that profanity makes nearly anything funnier. I managed to prove this to a friend recently at a Mongolian Grill restaurant when the grill chef dropped some broccoli. True story.

  2. says

    In response to tip #3, I desperately want to say, “Or you can just come to Canada.” But we’re not known for blatant patriotism, so I won’t say that.

    I am definitely with you on overuse of profanity. I have a friend who’s been in the standup comedy business for over 20 years, and some comics use the old reliable f-bomb like a crutch. It’s no substitute for good material. Personally, I avoid profanity for the most part, because I find it a better challenge to write without it.

    That’s agreat humour how-to, Matthew. I hadn’t thought of Phyllis Diller in years, but she puts me in mind of the Carol Burnett Show. There are some great clips on YouTube – check out the Bustups, Blooopers and Blunders (part 1 is the best of the lot).

  3. says

    @Stacey: The trick is balance. However, if you can carry a strong comic voice that supplements all the cursing, that can be a good angle too. I’ve watched some comedians who have thin jokes, but are still immensely entertaining due to their personalities. While I will always prefer clever material, these kind of guys are still worth watching.

    @InternetHow: Definitely. Practice is key for being consistent. (And even then, you’re bound to write some stinkers :V )

    @Johnny: Your wit is masterful.

  4. says

    @Johnny – Classic.

    I think for blogs, slight sarcasm/exaggeration is actually the easiest to use. Using current events is probably the trickiest because it requires joke writing and creativity.

    While I bartended in college, I had to learn to make people laugh to be successful (who really wants to sit at a bar with a boring bartender?). A little sarcasm in a sharp crowd goes a long way.

  5. says

    @Shane: You’re lucky I’m an anime nerd who understands that particular Japanese nuance :V

    @Blake: Also, there is the fact that current events work best on blogs who report those kind of events, or at least are updated daily. When writing long-term humor, it’s better to stick with topics that have been around for a long time, or people who have been known a long time for a certain thing.

  6. says

    It’s alright Sonia. You should have seen how funny it was(for the Japanese students) for us Westerners in class to try and make the “gnaah” sound. After three years, I still struggled. 😉

  7. says

    Thats quiet true. Having humor in the post not only grabs attention but even makes you more remember-able. Just to remember there’s a very fine line between good humor and bad humor. Though at a smaller group level any absurd abusive might work, at a higher level you have to take very good care.

    Finally the best joke is the one you crack on yourself and make people laugh. Charlie Chaplin was a master in that. In case if you cant do that at least ensure that the one you just cracked a joke upon will too laugh when he reads it!

  8. Sonia Simone says

    @Stacey, did you happen to see the “Blame Canada” post James C did for us last year on Canada Day? It still makes me laugh now.

    @Chanda, I think that’s a good point. If you keep the humor on the quiet side, it’s not nearly as big a problem if you aren’t actually funny. :) But I do think it’s worth a shot. People are afraid of it, but it’s just a communication tool, and it can be a wonderful one.

    @Shane, the French equivalent of that is “u.” Mastering the French “u” is one of my great points of pride. :)

  9. says

    @Chanda: The best part about poking fun at yourself is that, even if the joke doesn’t work well, you still come off with some class. Insulting other targets can easily backfire if you don’t do it right, but poking fun at yourself gets sympathy from readers and audiences.

  10. says

    Hey Matthew,

    What about being a contradiction? That’s not a joke itself, but perhaps it can aid in setting the right mood.

    I’m a Russian that doesn’t drink. I’m white, so that actually makes me a White Russian. That doesn’t drink.

    Thanks for the useful being funny tips, especially the misdirection one, I’ll have to start practicing it,

  11. says

    @Sonia Simone, completely agree to your point. At times its important to just crack the joke rather than holding back.

    That throws me 2 more points.
    1. We need to be confident while cracking jokes at times the content is not hilarious but th scenario, mood, words, and act can make way to add lots of punch.
    2. Also 2nd point is we do need to understand written and verbal humor are 2 diff things a joke you heard and laughed a lot might not crack the same way in written blog posts


  12. says

    @Sonia, you bet I saw the “Blame Canada” post, and I laughed out loud in places.

    Along those lines, there was a great TV show in the mid-90’s called “Due South.” I still wonder if people outside Canada found it nearly as funny as we did (or if they even got the ongoing joke).

    I love our cultural quirkiness.

  13. says

    @Oleg: You know, I don’t see a lot of contradictions, but I’m definitely sure they have their place.

    @Chanda: You’re right – Verbal humor is definitely different from written humor. If you’re doing stand-up, you have to make sure it sounds natural and conversational. When I write I find myself having to eliminate the words I naturally use as filler when speaking. (I usually read out loud to check sentence flow and joke structure.) But in, say, a video, those extra words will help make it flow better. (Though your jokes still need to be to the point.)

  14. says

    Cool topic. I love humor in writing and I agree that all these techniques work to grab my attention (although I’ve never actually thought about them consciously). I also just love a site that has a sense of humor in general. It’s one of the main reasons I’m drawn to this site. There’s a lightness to it that makes even the most technical aspects of this business so palatable they’re actually fun. I think for people who aren’t natural joke-tellers (or writers), just being human and accessible can be as effective at grabbing attention and forming a relationship.

    I also think ultimate jackpot in written humor is when the punch line is in a picture and the picture’s at the top of the text. I’ve seen it done really well a few times here and I think it’s just brilliant. And I imagine really hard to do well. Never tried it, don’t have the balls!

  15. says

    I won’t argue that a person can’t be taught to be funny, but the bar is much higher when trying to get yucks in writing. Without the benefit of vocal inflections, facial expressions and body language our efforts will likely fall flat or offend.

    We’re probably better off thinking in terms of being amusing, entertaining or energizing.

  16. says

    @Chloe: Yeah, those picture captions work great too. In fact, I’ll steal a little Gene Perret here and say that joke writing is a lot like captioning a picture. The picture is the setup, and the caption is a punch that relates to the setup with a different idea.

    @Mike: You’re right – when it’s just words, you have to work harder to create the laugh because you can’t rely on many of the things a stand-up comic uses. You should compare Steve Martin’s writing with his stand-up. They’re two vastly different animals, and they both work because he understands how each format works and how to use it to maximum effect.

    @Tom: Another problem with dealing exclusively with words – it’s difficult to carry across a certain tone. You wouldn’t believe how many statements I’ve seen that people took for true because they couldn’t tell it was sarcasm. Without the TONE, it can be harder for people to realize that.

  17. says

    I too find cursing particularly void of creativity. Its almost like you can’t find anything else intelligent to say so you just fill it in with something stupid. My opinion.

    Sideways R? Anyone who’s watched A Christmas Story would understand that one!

  18. says

    Hi Matt, nice work,
    your point about one or two swears being funny but continuous swearing not, is a good one. Its a fine line and dependent on the audience. I like irony myself and the blacker the humour the funnier. I guess its all subjective. Thanks for the article!

  19. says

    Great examples of some ways to misdirect jokes. I think with time it’s something that could be incorporate in different types of writing. I agree, they definitely make posts and articles more interesting to read, thanks Matthew.

  20. says

    Well I do believe that this is god gifting thing. A little part of humour send from god’s home and rest you develop in this world.

    This is not the cup of tea of all people. Whether you want to accept it or not.

  21. says

    @Walter: I don’t buy too much into “natural talent”. Anyone can learn this stuff with practice. It does get easier if you have a large sense of humor and a witty kind of personality, though.

    @Jimmy: Yep, humor is ultimately subjective. All you can really do is focus on good technique.

  22. says

    I’m sure its practice. The human mind is incredibly fixable. Any skill you don’t have, you just go out and get. Sooner or later, you’ll figure “Funny” out. It helps if you spend a lot of time with funny people… Dang! I wish I had something funny to say right now!

  23. says

    I’m naturally very sarcastic and use a lot of it in my posts. I just have to always remind myself to ensure that it’s very obvious that I’m using sarcasm since it doesn’t always come through in print easily.

  24. says

    @Jack Ruby: F*** no.

    @bob soul: Well, I won’t lie. If you want to do this a lot, you should practice writing jokes. But for an occasional quip, I hope these techniques can help.

    @izzat aziz: Was that sarcasm? See, it’s easy, ain’t it? :V

  25. says

    @bob sometimes what it counts is not to make everybody laugh. That would be hard to do. However, by inluding a simple joke in your writing, it will definitely make it easier to read.. What ever it is.

  26. says

    I love Mitch Hedberg, you had me then.
    Good article I am trying to get my start as a copywriter and blogger and now have an angle to start with. Your post always have such great information. keep up the good work.

  27. says

    Reply to Shane Arthur: You are doing great. That was a great example of the sideways L.
    Reminded me of a time in Perth, W. A. about 40 years ago when we were on the beach, I took out the camera, asked everyone to smile and then went: Crick

  28. says

    Very interesting. I can’t say I ever thought about being trained to write humor. I always thought you either had it or you didn’t. While natural talent helps I guess it is like everything else, it can be developed.

    Thanks for the post.

  29. says

    That’s one of the great things about humor – people pay attention to it, no matter what the subject. Plus it has all the benefits mentioned above.

  30. says

    I like to say that the only reason that Leno got the job when Carson retired was………
    “That I was otherwise occupied at the Time”
    Carson was one of my all time Heros
    I use the sideways L in conversation all the time; it lightens the atmosphere in a group of people when all can share in a good belly laugh.

  31. says

    Great tips!!! Enjoyed reading them… I like the way you’ve used the word “pottymouth” in the line – “… go ahead and open your pottymouth.” :)

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