29 Excellent Academic Writing Can Be Funny

Catherine Garner

I vividly remember my 5th-grade student government elections, even now, almost a decade later. Why you may ask? One particular campaign brought chaos to our halls for almost two weeks. I vividly remember the halls being lined with posters saying “Vote for Carrot!” Some even had little scribbled drawings and stock photos of carrots. No name. No face. Just Carrot. Students found it hilarious. People would walk down the halls, knowing Carrot was among them. People in the halls whispered, “Who do you think Carrot is?” “Carrot is going to be president!” When our election speeches finally came, Carrot revealed their mysterious identity—a girl with bright red hair. She won the election in a landslide. Her comedic campaign allowed her to harvest a win (get it?) So why, then, is using comedy seen as a pathway to failure in academic spaces? Why is it considered too risky to use in academic writing?

Across our academic careers, the concept of seriously utilizing comedy in academic writing is widely ignored. (Ironic, isn’t it?) If anything, we are taught that comedy “dumbs down” our work. Comedic writing is often considered unprofessional, lazy, and unsophisticated in academic settings. Presently, we as students may feel that writing one or two shaky jokes is the most that we can use comedy in our work. And we’re often too much of a scaredy-cat to write them in the first place. We are driven by this fear of our audience throwing tomatoes at us when they read our work, or hearing the boos when we hand our paper in. But not all hope should be lost.

Teachers aren’t just being meanies when they reject our knock-knock jokes and plays on words—they are simply passing down the anti-comedy baton from the meanies who taught them. The thousand-page college textbook Everything’s An Argument spends a mere six pages on humor. Six! Amongst those pages is one overarching theme, “it’s usually better to steer clear of humor.” This idea sticks with teachers and therefore sticks with the next generation of students. Yikes. But, surprise surprise! Adding comedic elements into our academic writing has a lot of benefits that most educators have yet to explore. First and foremost, introducing comedy in our writing encourages us to explore our writing style. Style is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to learn. Using humor requires us to examine our language choices as closely as we can. One wrong word choice and we’re back to those rotten tomatoes. It also gives us a chance to look at sound and rhythm in our writing. How often do you pay attention to the syllables in your words? Probably less than you pay attention in class (at least I hope). As Michael Theune says, “In comedy, it’s not word choice, but the hunt for the choicest word.” When your writing is comedic, you are setting everything you write up for the punchline that’s going to knock the socks off of your readers. It requires skill, patience, and maybe a few “galaxy brain” moments.

Using humor in our writing can actually make us more creative thinkers in the classroom. This idea that students should explore comedy in their writing is reinforced in other works that focus on teaching humorous writing in an academic setting. And while these texts are directed at current and future teachers—education majors, I’m looking at you—they give us great insight as to why establishing comedy within our academic writing benefits us as students. As Cheryl Nason mentions in “Humor, Learning, and Retention”, “…in a school climate increasingly concerned with convergent thinking and finding the right answer, humor challenges students to think divergently, creatively, and to welcome an array of possibilities.” By welcoming comedy in the classroom, we are opening up to new possibilities and perspectives. Author of Comedy Writing Secrets Mel Helitzer tells his readers to ask the question “What If?” We all know there’s nothing students love more than rhetorical questions. (I mean, really, don’t you just love rhetorical questions?) As he explains, “What if? imagination allows you to realign diverse elements into new and unexpected relationships that surprise.” Comedy gives us the liberty to flip the script and turn the tables. In a place where our writing is practically strangled by rules and codes for academic success, we get to invent the way that we write with comedy. Educators can no longer shape our style like merchandise on a production line when we invent new ways of saying things through humor.

While support from our current academic superiors may be lacking, we can gain support from our fellow writers—our peers. Comedic writing, by nature, is collaborative. (Think writers room in 30 Rock). But really, working together allows us to bounce ideas off of each other and work through our comedy to gain a sense of confidence. I feel like I’m betraying my age by bringing this up, but think about how social media works. When we post to an audience of people who are interested in what we have to say, it is like having peers look over our work before we hand it in. Paul Sturges wrote an article that was published in Sage Journals that explored this relatively new review of comedy in digital media. In the article, “The Production of Comedy: The Joke in the Age of Social Media”, Sturges explains that “Exposing new jokes via social media has two values—it is both an invaluable testing ground for material and a means of building up a profile with a potential audience.” I’m not saying that we should necessarily go around posting our best material on our Instagram stories to gain a million likes and drop out of school to be an “influencer.” (But if that’s your lifelong dream, I won’t be the one to stop you.) It is simply an example of how collaboration can improve the comedic process. In the same way that posting a joke on Twitter might receive one pity like (it’s happened to all of us), our classmates might have a poor reaction to the comedy in our academic papers. Because of that feedback, we can work on improvements. We can use others to decide if our comedy is effective and humorous. We’ve all told a joke before that we think is hilarious but then no one laughs. Collaboration with other writers in the same boat prevents that from happening in the more “high-stakes” academic setting.

You might still be wondering, “if serious academic writing is the accepted standard, why should we stray away from it?” If you’re anything like me, straying away from a guaranteed “A” is extremely difficult to do. Basically, Mission Impossible. Bev Houge, a professor at Marietta College, answers that looming question with research based on a non-fiction writing class that she taught. Throughout the semester, she examined the work of her students in a class that focused on putting humor in their writing. One of the fears of utilizing comedy in academic writing is that our writing might sound too much like a small-town comedy club routine—stale and uncomfortably casual. However, Houge found that “…the final papers were polished, sophisticated, and often very funny—but still recognizably research papers.” She observed that her students were “coloring outside the lines to create their own new and effective forms of expression.” In her opinion, a select few students “created final papers that approached art.” Could exclusively serious academic writing accomplish the goal of creating “works of art” with words? Students who utilize comedy effectively in their works are successful—despite what we’ve been told.

As with anything, there must be rules to keep our comedy “lively and productive”, as Theune calls it. But that does not mean we should pretend that only a few types of “clean” humor exist. Some “Yo Mama” jokes are very well crafted. All types of humor teach us important lessons. An article published in The English Journal by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen, named “The Straw Man Meets His Match: Six Arguments for Studying Humor in English Classes” provides two major takeaways. One, that “humor is a good tool for teaching about censorship”, and two, that “Humor is a communication tool that can be used for either building or tearing apart.” What we learn can then apply to real-world situations. We’ll be able to call out jokes that are just plain disrespectful and applaud jokes that require a stroke of genius—because we would then understand how much effort it takes to invent a well-written joke.

The best way to learn about how humor works is to write it ourselves. Unfortunately, there is no set way to add comedy into our writing. (Cue boos from the audience). To gain the best results from our comedy, we need to keep our purpose and audience in mind. Who we are writing to should alter what forms of comedy we introduce. As Mel Helizer mentioned before, it’s all about those “relationships that surprise.” It’s about the Ba-Bam! The Pow! But it’s not always that easy, there’s always a catch. As students, we may find ourselves in a situation where our educators believe strongly against the idea of comedic academic writing. Consequently, there may be times where our humorous writing is high quality but unacceptable in academic spaces. The best way to use comedy in our writing is to remain respectful and thoughtful in our comedic choices. (Knock knock! Who’s there? Not knock-knock jokes in a paper!) If a professor is highly against comedic writing in their classroom, we can respectfully encourage them to research the benefits of comedic academic writing, but it isn’t the “end all be all” if they cannot be swayed. Rather than all drop out of school and become stand-up comedians, students can gradually help to change the accepted standards in the classroom by propelling the cause. Well-written comedy has no reason to be rejected because it enhances our writing. If students don’t ever experiment with classy jokes or puns that make our eyes roll, teachers have no reason to believe that comedy benefits creative academic writing.

There’s no doubt about it, comedy is power. We as students are holding ourselves back from a writing style that is detailed, thorough, and just plain funny. Our fear of those darn rotten tomatoes keeps us from even taking the stage. We’ll never know if we’re actually the Jerry Seinfeld of the academic world if we pretend comedy doesn’t exist there. So, as academic writers, our mission is to reintroduce comedy as a positive aspect of our style. For future teachers, your job is to make your classroom inclusive of comedic writing styles. If our teachers don’t let out a muffled chuckle at least once when reading our papers—one solid LOL—then our mission is incomplete. In a time when laughter is truly the best medicine, then perhaps it should be prescribed to cure the ails of academic writing. Be the class clown that we don’t just need, but deserve!

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Good Ideas About Writing by Catherine Garner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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