One way of doing it, I guess, would be by holding your pen between your big toe and long toe. But jokes aside (a promise from a humour writer you should never take at face value), at the risk of incurring the wrath of the other contributors (which, as a writer of humour, is one of my primary goals), let me tell you unequivocally that, in this anthology, my piece was the most difficult one to write. And that includes the essay on writing erotica. In fact, I asked the editor if I could do that piece instead. (But with neither nudge nor wink he said that that opening had already been filled by someone more qualified.) Because I thought I had a better chance of doing a how-to piece on humour taking a route spattered with humours (that’s a synonym for body fluids) than one in which I had to list out the whys and hows of writing comedy.

The point I’m trying to make is that a writer of erotica has a better chance of making a how-to piece sexy (or funny, most certainly) than a writer of humour has of making a similar piece funny, let alone sexy. And that is precisely the crux of humour writing. For a bona fide humour writer, being funny at all times is not just critical but non-negotiable. Being mildly funny or occasionally funny is as shameful to a practitioner of humour as not writing about loss and redemption is to a writer of literary fiction. So pathological is this unhealthy need to be wildly funny at all times that the writer of comedy would feel done out if he couldn’t slip a gag into his mercy petition

So we come to Rule Number Two. (Where’s Rule Number One, you ask? Well, Paragraph One of this piece contains Rule Number One: To be a humour writer, you have to be an inveterate displeaser.) Unless being funny has been a biological requirement from your infancy, a predilection which has got your face into intimate encounters with open palms and blunt instruments and which hasn’t taught you a thing except seeing the world around you, including the funeral of a close relative, especially the funeral of a close relative, as a set-up for a cartoon, limerick, story, essay, novel or script, do not attempt humour

Which brings us to Rule Number Three: do not attempt humour. You can attempt the CA entrance exam, doing the plank, or understanding Sadhguru. And possibly succeed, after having failed a few times. Comedy, on the other hand, is brutally unforgiving. You cannot attempt it. Like you can’t attempt poetry. Or defusing an IED. Because the results can be catastrophic for innocent bystanders. Unfunny comedy is worse than unintentional comedy. So if you must attempt humour, do it privately. Very privately. On the other hand, attempt bomb-dismantling at a poetry session or attempt performance poetry while a bomb is being defused, and you could succeed at humour.

Other rules: if you think PG Wodehouse is funny, don’t write humour. If you think words like “waddle”, “dodder”, “harrumph”, “blather”, “croak”, etc., are funny, desist from writing humour. If you like to forward jokes, give humour writing a miss. If your family thinks you are hilarious, most likely you are not. Also, if you’re a bigot, sexist, misogynist or moneylender, humour may not be your thing.

With the hows out of the way, this essay would be incomplete if we didn’t address the why. Because the why, in a way, is the how. And to get to the why, we need to start with the when. (Swami Nithyananda, please note.)

I think I began valuing being funny above all else while quite young. The obvious reason would have to be Father. He was a professional illustrator and writer of comics before there was such a profession in India. (Today, when we speak of comics, we mean Marvel and DC’s superheroes, blood-curdling Japanese manga and their many demented by-blows. I don’t know how anyone can miss the irony that there is not a thing comic about any of the books which come under the genre called comics today.) Not that Father did humour exclusively. Along with his popular comic creations, Dumbu (a kind of Telugu Dennis the Menace), and an anthropomorphic dog with a mind of its own called Bhairav, he did picture stories belonging to the historical, folklore and crime genres, too. But the funny stuff was what got me.

And for a serious-looking guy who seemed to intimidate house guests without even trying, Father was funny in real life, too, when he chose to be. As was his father, my grandfather, a guy known pre-eminently for being a romantic poet. Mother was funny but in a totally different way. While Dad and Granddad specialised in deflationary humour, Mother played elaborate pranks, utterly oblivious to their consequences, and said completely inappropriate things that women of her time didn’t say in public. Whether she was clueless or having everyone on, it’s hard to say.

But it wasn’t as if anyone at home told me, “Naanna, when you grow up, it’s important you be funny, okay? That’s how you conquer the world.” My folks were many things, not all good, other than funny, both intentionally and unintentionally. But of all the qualities on offer, I picked funny. If I was a Korean child ( I have been “accused” of looking like a mix of several kinds of “Far Eastern” but that’s another story), going through the traditional fortune-telling custom of doljabi on his first birthday, among the calligraphy pen, the book, money and the other items before me, I would have picked up the whoopee cushion

Now that I have somehow managed obliquely though, I must admit to talk about the hows and whens of humour, let’s talk about the whats. There are two principal ingredients to comedy, which are as indispensable to gin and tonic as gin and tonic: truth and the Establishment.

Is your joke based on truth? Because, if it isn’t, it could never be funny. A caricature would be a good example to illustrate the importance of truth in comedy. Would a caricature work if it didn’t, first and foremost, provide a proper likeness of the subject? The base of all caricatures is the person herself. And a clever, not to mention cruel, manipulation of the feature(s) most suited for exaggeration. If one were to do a caricature of Stan Laurel or Aamir Khan, it would be near-impossible not to make the ears extra large. Likewise, caricatures of Angelina Jolie, KCR2 and Jennifer Lopez would be hard to do if they didn’t amplify the mouth, nose and posterior respectively.

Coming to Ingredient Two: the Establishment. For a satirist, the target is always the Establishment. The satirist’s raison d’être is fighting the Establishment. Let’s take a leaf out of our glorious past real or otherwise that infallible ready reckoner for everything today. Can you imagine our homegrown satirists Tenali Rama, Birbal or Gopal Bhand3 siding with the king? These characters existed for the sole purpose of making the megalomaniacal king see the error of his ways.

How terribly unfunny our folklore would be if our jesters mocked the peasant and propped up the king.

In other words, the underdog is the comedian’s principal ally and weapon.

Excerpted with permission from The Moving Finger: Writers on Writing, edited by Hilda David and Francis Jarman, Om Books International.