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Nov 15 / Tim Coughlin

Humor: How to bring the funny without embarrassing yourself

When we made the move to stop allowing satire articles on Bleacher Report about a year ago, it felt like a bummer.

I’ve always wanted B/R to be a good home for all kinds of quality sportswriting, including humor. With sites like The Onion and The Brushback, there’s clearly an audience for sports satire, but I quickly learned to embrace this change because it’s clear that satire just needs to be kept separate from “non-fake” journalism.

You really can’t mix it in. It doesn’t look right, and the precedent of doing so invites risk for confusion.

Newspapers don’t do it, and sites like don’t do it. Once you factor that all Bleacher Report articles get treated as news by search engines like Google News, it becomes pretty obvious how out of place satire can be when featured by a publication that isn’t at least primarily devoted to humor writing.

Plus, satire is hard. Few things can fall as epically flat as a weak attempt at any kind of humor.

But we do welcome submissions that rely on or feature humor that doesn’t present fake information as if it were true. We’re not militaristically stiff destroyers of fun. So with that in mind, your boring and no-name Content Standards moderator would like to go over some advice on what works and what reeks more than the Dallas Stars’ locker room when it comes to comedic sportswriting on Bleacher Report.

No satire, please. We just went over this. If you skipped down to the shiny boldfaced sections here, please go back and read my long-winded preamble.

Avoid sensitive topics. Don’t be the jerkface who tries to make jokes about death, serious criminal activity, vulgar acts or drug use in a piece of sports journalism. It may go without saying, but we see writers attempt these sometimes. Shortly after a pair of shootings at a Raiders-49ers preseason game in August, a writer attempted to make light of things with a series of jokes including this: “There’s been talk with the Raiders and Niners of a joint stadium. These people need to chill—sounds like a JOINT stadium is a great idea.” Two puns and two jokes about sensitive topics, jail and drugs, all in one word. Hey, at least it gave me a good example for this blog post. And the writer learned from it, too.

Don’t be cute. One of the reasons that “joint” joke fell flat? Besides being a bit hackneyed, it was forcing the pun. The introduction of “need to chill” is almost done artificially to set up the pun followed by a drum fill. Puns and plays on words are OK once in a while, especially if they’re clever and organic, but they’re generally best left for headlines or rare turns of phrases for rhetorical effect. Don’t aim to make them, and be skeptical about how “worth it” it is if one occurs to you while writing. If a family member might read it and sarcastically say, “You’re such a card,” ditch the Hallmark moment.

Don’t try to “tell jokes.” I have no idea who the heck she is, as I stumbled on her in my attempts to find coherent advice to put before you, but blogger Annie Binns says, succinctly, “The rules of good writing also apply to humor. Show, don’t tell.” Don’t rely on clear punch lines—those often need a proper spoken delivery to work.

Binns also has fantastically simple advice for anyone who’s been met with more negative reaction than positive in comments on humor articles: There’s a good chance “you’re trying too hard,” she says. “Stop that.” (OK, I manipulated that a bit since I think there’s also a chance you’re just being really lazy or inappropriate, but too bad. I still don’t know who the heck she is.)

It’s better to just write about a topic that lends itself to humor and let your own personality flow. If your funny parts are often separated by a few paragraphs, that’s totally fine. Don’t put pressure on yourself. This isn’t a monologue; cramming in jokes can make your humor writing seem desperate. It’s still an article.

One of my favorite humor writers on the site is also one of my copy editors—Ed “The Rattlesnake” Novelo. He does a great job of tackling good topics and just “letting it flow.” Not everything needs to be a “joke” or “surrounded by quotation marks” to be “funny.” One of my all-time favorites is his list of the 20 most spoiled animal mascots in sports. It’s a good theme with creativity that lends itself to keeping a goofy smile on your face as you read.

Swagger Featured Columnist Timothy Rapp is also highly skilled in bringing the funny. And “bringing” is apropos, as he’s a master of curating (and sometimes even creating) viral videos/pictures and/or memes either by featuring them in his articles or linking to them when appropriately relevant amid his own writing, which threads a narrative and claims laughs when it’s natural. It just works.

So even though you don’t know who the heck I am, trust me: Effective humor writing in this medium takes good sense, patience and effort, but it’s also not something you want to overthink.

  • Ashley Anderson

    Another great post here guys, you’re doing a great job! I used to have a blog on WordPress that focused on the funny side of stuff, which worked. My strength is my humor and how I incorporate it into my articles.

    Thanks again for the tips.

    Ashley Anderson

  • Ben Rosenthal

    Interesting post, Tim. I definitely agree that the best articles that incorporate humor are the ones where it doesn’t sound forced. Over-punning (if that’s a word) and very deliberate attempts at humor are not nearly as funny as organic, cleverly-timed “bits of tid,” to borrow a phrase from Gabe Z.

  • Chris Mueller

    I am confused as to why Swagger is more acceptable than Satire. Most swagger articles have nothing to do with sports other than the fact that these girls are with the guys who plays sports.

    • Anonymous

      I think Tim explained pretty well at the top of this post why satire is not allowed at Bleacher Report. Search engines treat all B/R stories as “news” stories. So if we allowed satire, there would be a mix of Bleacher Report stories showing up in search results, some of them real and some of them fake. That would be confusing and annoying to readers and would damage Bleacher Report’s credibility. People would quickly learn to just assume anything they see at B/R is satire. And satire is what closes on Saturday night.

      Swagger has none of these issues. We and Swagger’s many happy readers think that “the fact that these girls are with the guys who play sports” is good enough reason to feature them on a sports site. If you disagree, don’t read it. But it has nothing to do with the reason we’ve banned satire.

      • Aaron Dodge

        Is there not an argument to be made for the entire brand of writing that B/R is choosing to no longer include in it’s repertoire? The satire goes, and with it the traffic that all of your satire writers and hit articles could have dragged in, away from those other successful sites hogging all the potential users.

        Was a tagging system ever considered, could that possibly be effective in highlighting clearly when a piece was humorous and when it wasn’t?

        Your recent article submission,
        “Oprah Winfrey Announces Every Team Gets a Peyton Manning (Humor)” has been removed from Bleacher Report because it does not meet our Content Standards.”

        • Anonymous

          Yes, that was considered. Lots of things were considered. We didn’t make the decision to ban satire lightly.

          If we lost some traffic by not having satire—and that is a highly dubious assertion—we’ll live with that. It’s not like we hate satire or Onion-style humor. We just feel that, for Bleacher Report, the negatives outweigh the positives.

          • Aaron Dodge

            Dubious assertion? That was by no means the intent, I’ve personally put up multiple articles over my four year stretch writing for B/R of a satirical nature and they’ve struck a cord with my audience.

            These two were grandfathered in apparently-


            I mean this was back in the day, before I was an FC, before I went through the Writing Internship so the read count wasn’t huge.

            But if you look at the comment sections, I really struck a cord with this type of piece. I just find it disappointing that I’m no longer allowed to do that on this site for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

            109 articles and this is the first one I’ve ever lost.

          • Anonymous

            What I meant is that the assertion that Bleacher Report, overall, is losing or missing out on traffic by not publishing satire is a dubious one. Any given satire piece might get traffic, but so would the piece that’s written instead of that satire piece. And the presence of satire would have all sorts of negative impact on search results, as people would not be able to tell real from “satirical” articles, and would quickly learn to simply distrust B/R completely.

  • Craig Berlin

    I’m still reading to try and determine where the line is. Satire is not, in and of itself, fictional content. Satire can a humorous take on a real event. I think it is very wise of B/R to not allow fictional content; however I’ve gone over this blog and others to try to figure out what is acceptable under the realm of deliberate humor (as opposed to incidental) that is not based on fictional events and I’m still not understanding completely.

    Hopefully we can discuss examples of specific material I’m confused about and determine how it fits or doesn’t fit.