09 May 2023

A Mash of Mirth

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine kindly carries my story, "The Case of the Kosher Deal." While I am always over the moon to see a story of mine in the pages of Hitchcock, I confess to a bit of surprise to learn that this story would appear in their May/June magazine. 

Kosher Deal is a Hanukkah story.

Someone may need to buy the good people at Hitchcock a calendar, one with the holidays printed in small blue type at the bottom of each day. The end of Ramadan, Earth Day, and Mother's Day all fall within the span of this issue. In no calendar, however, does any Hannukah event occur. 

Can the case of the funny timing be explained? 

First, the story is about corporate gamesmanship. The characters use Hannukah as an excuse for a power grab and a chance to settle scores. That fact likely widened the publication opportunity window outside the November/December issue. 

Second, and more importantly, the magazine's editorial staff thought that the story was funny. 

As written in the editor's note, April/May is the mirthful edition. The current issue leans into the lighter side of crime. "The Case of the Kosher Deal" is one is a series of light-hearted stories. Regardless of the holiday, this humor element helped me wrangle a spot in the current issue. Creating the series has forced me to think about writing funny. 

Two mystery readers walk into a bar...

And from here, the story could go in several different directions. The pair might find a body and set off sleuthing. Alternatively, the familiar trope, "two___ walk into a bar," might unfold inside the saloon. That ambiguity alone could drive the reader into the story. Humor in a mystery can reveal character, hide clues, provide a brief respite from the dark topic of crime, or merely entertain. 

"The Case of the Kosher Deal" is the fifth installment in a series about a private investigator and marketing rep for the Potato Advisory Board. Throughout, the protagonist is known simply as the Spud Stud. 

The challenge with elucidating "The Rules" is that I have very few. But here goes: 

1. Be Yourself (unless yourself is deathly dull, then be someone else.)

I write things that entertain and amuse me and trust that I am close enough to the center of life's bell curve that others will laugh along with me. The Spud Stud grew out of a family joke made while preparing dinner. The idea took hold, a story sold, and a series was born. I hope readers come away thinking he had fun writing this.  I did.

We all laugh. Each of us has things we find funny. Those experiences can be tapped into and twisted. Disguise them, if necessary, to protect the innocent or wring the laughter. If you want to write funny, believe that you have funny potential. 

2. Remember, You're a World Builder

The humorist, David Sedaris, begins his essay "Understanding Owls" with the a priori assumption that we all have too many owls in our lives. He creates an absurd world, and we walk into it. In the Bible, Jonah got swallowed by a whale. He rode around in reasonable comfort until finally belched out onto the land he was initially commanded to visit. And why not? The biblical story teaches through the comic setup. 

The Spud Stud is simultaneously a private eye and a vegetable marketing rep, a position I've never seen posted on LinkedIn. The supporting characters occasionally question his competency, but they never wink. The authenticity of that world is never challenged. 

The writer creates the world for the reader, so she can make it comical if she wishes. She can make the absurd realistic through detail. She must also demonstrate that the characters believe in the sincerity of their world. 

3. But Build the World With Some Restraint

Think about comedy duos. They typically consist of a silly partner and a sounding board, the normal one who reacts to the absurdity produced by the first. Both play essential roles in landing the joke. Humor in a story might come from the main character or one of the surrounding characters. Too many slapstick characters lead to chaos. If that's the goal, then take a seat next to Eugene Ionesco. A narrative thread typically involves a regular character. 

Consider a distinction between humorous and silly. Humor works best when it enriches an already good story. When jokes and silliness serve only to distract the reader's attention, like a magician's props, it's likely time to consider a rewrite. 

4. Short and Specific

Sprinkle the humor throughout the story. Try to avoid a long setup. Think about the stand-up comic performing her monologue. She might spend her entire routine relating one anecdote. When she delivers the punchline at the end, there is the twist. The audience, however, may have already lost interest and gone searching elsewhere on Netflix. So along the way, she sprinkles asides and quick bits of humor to hold them. 

The Spud Stud derives many of these quick bits from specificity. I might say "potato" at the story's beginning to orient the reader. After that, I'll wear out my potato reference manual working in potato types. The specificity adds tiny drops of humor. Among the potato varieties, "Bintje" is reliable when I want a laugh. It sounds funny. 

Forced metaphors are good too. The Spud Stud sees the world through his lens, the tuber industry. His choice of metaphor reflects that--Life is like a Bintje. 

5. Include a Surprise

As mentioned earlier, the twist ending is the punchline of a joke. Like a laugh-worthy clincher, a good twist turns the setup in an unexpected and yet sensical way. Good comedy relies on the surprise. A writer might use the "Rule of Three." Two items in a series establish a pattern. The reader's brain anticipates what comes next and guesses at it. That third item is the punchline or twist. When the last piece breaks from the series, the reader is surprised. The twist might make any Tom, Dick, or Bintje laugh. 

Some people tell jokes better than others. Some writers craft funny stories more quickly than others. The fact that it may not be natural does not mean a writer can't. I invite you to try it. 

Just as soon as you and the other writer walk out of that bar. 

(I'll be away from my computer on the day this posts. Apologies in advance if you comment and I don't reply.)

Until next time. 


  1. Mark, your story was a true Potato Rosti, and I enjoyed every flavorful moment of it!

  2. Good primer on adding humour to your writing, Mark! Melodie

  3. Yikes! The issue arrived, but I've been so busy I haven't cracked it open yet. Off to read…

  4. I always enjoy the Spud Stud. You are very right about his seeing the world through spud-colored spectacles and not seeing the absurdity of it.


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