Writing humor: For starters, make it funny.
We interrupt this week of intense personal, political and religious reflection to keep you abreast of comedian Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant going in for a mammogram and having the machine catch on fire.
"This is ridiculous," she thought to herself. "I can't die like this. What would they put in my obituary? Cause of death: Breast entrapment?"
I'm sorry, but beyond working readers into a froth this week, I've also been judging the national Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, which Eugene's own Jasheway-Bryant won in 2003 with her hilarious reflection on an exam ended by a fire extinguisher.
I was interested in Jasheway-Bryant's piece because most of the 50 entries I judged weren't hilarious in the least, which I found surprising for a humor contest.
(Bombeck, for you young'n's, was a humorist whose syndicated columns and books made her a national favorite for decades. She died in 1996.)
``I do some comedy editing for people, and sometimes I hate to tell them but they're not funny,'' says Jasheway-Bryant, who's written 12 books and gives keynote speeches on the value of humor.
So what makes something funny? Or not so funny?
``A good balance between truth and exaggeration," Jasheway-Bryant says. "The audience won't go for the ride if they don't believe you in the beginning - and they won't continue on the ride unless you give them a reason to.''
On most of the Bombeck entries, I wanted off the bus at the first stop.
I didn't think the entry about the graduate whose clog-style shoes made a loud noise as she received her diploma was funny. Or the woman accidentally pressing the garage-door opener/closer while thinking it was the doorbell. Or the woman who found the copperhead snake in front of her house.
I wanted to laugh, but I just couldn't.
"Too often, someone's incident is so universal that you heard the exact story waiting in the cashier's line at Fred Meyer," Jasheway-Bryant says. "There's no personal truth coming through.
``The writer says, `Oh, I'm going to be Dave Barry or Dave Letterman.' ''
Ironically, the entry I thought was funniest had a medical bent to it, like Jasheway-Bryant's.
It was about a woman whose stool sample was rejected by the lab because it had ``expired.''
"If these were any fresher, they could fertilize your lawn," the woman protested. ``It's taken me months to get three consecutive samples! Take them now!''
Somehow, I thought Erma would like this one best of all so I chose it. But it didn't wind up being one of the four winners plucked from the 1,500 entrants. (To read the winners, released Wednesday, see www.wcpl.lib .oh.us/adults/erma2005winners.html.)
Exaggeration makes for great humor, Jasheway-Bryant says.
(Garrison Keillor on turning 60: "Even if you're positive-thinking, hopped up on Viagra, and your face has been lifted and stapled to make you look like a feral woodchuck, nonetheless one day you'll look like something from the lost lagoon and have the sex drive of a smoked salmon.')
Be specific about what emotion you're going through, she says. And don't try too hard.
"In good humor, you don't feel the effort," she says. Bombeck herself had that ability (who can forget the woman who alphabetized her spices?), though my favorite piece of hers was a dead-serious column called "If I Had My Life to Live Over."
Finally, be yourself. Jasheway-Bryant tells a hilarious story of going to Bend to speak to librarians - and having to take a potty break along the way behind a tree.
"There I was, in the buffet line," she says, "when something fell out of my pants in front of everybody. It was a piece of bark."
To read Jasheway-Bryant's 2003 winner on the mammogram, go to: www.accidentalcomic.com/erma.html.