The F Words: Humor

I’m a person with a sense of humor, and I enjoy humor in writing. Not insulting humor, and I’m not a big fan of slapstick humor. The types of humor I enjoy when I’m reading a book are:

the unexpected happens
witty self-deprecation
situational humor
hyperbole (overstatement/exaggeration)

The use of humor is a literary tool, just as the ability to foreshadow is a literary tool. But few writing teachers talk about or teach how to use humor. I’m guessing this would be difficult to do —  if a person doesn’t have a sense of humor, I’m not sure a workshop session could instill  the sense into  them.

Nevertheless, the use of humor is important for at least two reasons. First, it helps develop characters and it helps readers empathize with characters. It’s easy to empathize with a character who has a sense of [appropriate] humor regarding their situation. Conversely, it’s sometimes difficult to empathize with a character who has no sense of humor whatsoever: a lack of this sense makes a character seem mechanical or robot-like.

Second, humor pleases people. I love it when I run across something funny in a novel, even if that “funny” is merely a witty observation or a good pun. Appropriately sprinkling humor throughout your novels is a good way to make readers happy — and a great way to help them remember the characters and the scene. Think of all the times people mention their favorite scene in a movie: it’s almost always a scene with something humorous going on.

There’s humor in all the books I write, and it’s probably the same kind of humor: the kind that I like. The F Words, though a novel about oppression and fighting back, is full of humor.  (I can’t imagine a novel about teens that doesn’t include humor.) Below are some of the types of humor in The F Words.

Self-deprecation  — This is modesty about oneself, or sometimes criticism of oneself, but in a mocking or humorous way. Here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, where Cole has just met Treva, the new student.

“I want to help,” she says.
“Help?” I manage.
She gives me an impatient look, like I’m a dolt.
I feel like one.
“Help with the fight.”
“Everything. All the things that are wrong. War. Poverty. Racism. Global warming. Everything.”
Part of me is in awe.
Part of me is wondering if Treva is trustworthy.
Most of me is wondering how we’re going to do this.

Understatement — This is reporting something as smaller, less serious, or less important than it really is.

“We fight to help Felipe win the election,” I say, just to make sure we all agree on what we’re fighting for. 
“Totally,” says Treva.
“No bombs,” says Felipe. “No assassinations. Either one could get me in trouble.”

Observational Humor —  Most sitcoms contain observational humor, which is based on commonplace, everyday life and events, observed in a humorous or witty way. I guess that I employ a lot of observational humor, because I’m listing four examples of it from The F Words.

“Your name starts with f,” I tell him, “You probably count as an f word.”
“Si! I’m a capitalized f word.”
I think about that a while, wondering what I can do with a capitalized f word.


Just as Dad is about to say something, the guard on his end steps forward and taps him on the shoulder. Our guard does the same. They must practice synchronized repression.


The nurse takes me into her room. There’s not much she can do for me, she says as she wipes my cut with the sharpest stinging liquid on earth. They must keep it on hand just for students. I try not to wince, but sometimes you can’t always do what you try.


“I’m very disappointed in you, Cole. This is the second time you’ve been in my office this month.”
What she means is, it’s the second time she’s called me into her office. It’s not like I’d come here voluntarily. And I’m thinking it’s the last day of September, and if she had just waited a day, I wouldn’t have been in her office twice in one month.

The Unexpected Happens — The name of this kind of humor speaks for itself. My example is from a scene at one of Cole’s cross country meets where, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Nachman, his English teacher shows up. It’s Nachman who assigned Cole the task of writing two f-word poems a week.

“Right flank, Cole, right flank!”
It’s Mr. Nachman.
I can’t believe it. He came to the track meet?
To shout f words?
Oh. Wait. 
He’s warning me.
I glance toward my right just as a Palatine runner tries to overtake me, hoping to slip into the breach between me and Ricardo.

The humor in The F Words works to develop characters, engage readers, and show the complexity of lives.


The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The Endless Highway: My Life as a Roadie

Perhaps we all have an avocation as well as a vocation. My father, for example, was a steelworker but also a carpenter. My mother was a bartender, then a homemaker, but always a crocheter. I’m a writer. But I’m also a roadie, and have been for more than twenty years. That’s because my husband, Phil Passen, is a musician. In order to be with him and help him out, I am his roadie.



I drive our car to Phil’s gigs. I help load the car as much as he’ll allow: he tends to think that only he knows the right way to load both the sound equipment and the hammered dulcimer, but he grudgingly allows me to push the equipment-laden cart to the performance area, and to push it back to the car when his gig is done.

He relies on me to provide a sound check. Because I hear the dulcimer all day long, I’m attuned to what it sounds like, and it’s my job to listen carefully after the dulcimer is connected to an amplifier, to make certain that the sustain isn’t too great, the bass notes aren’t muddy, the treble notes aren’t tinny. And so on.

Further, it’s my job to listen to the vocal mike to make sure it’s at the proper level for Phil’s speaking and for his singing, and to make certain the vocals and the dulcimer are in a good balance. Sometimes early comers to the performance get in on the act by suggesting more or less volume, but they never offer opinions on balance, treble, or bass. Which is just as well.

As a roadie I also work the CD table. I set it up, display the CDs, answer questions about them, sell them, collect the money, record the sale, and so on. Plus, I answer questions that people ask me. (Some of them approach Phil after the gig and ask him; others come directly to the CD table and ask me.) Questions such as: How long has he been playing? Who built his dulcimer? Did he take lessons? Which CD should they buy?

I love my life as a roadie not only because I love Phil, but also because I know that when I drive he can relax and rehearse before the performance, and decompress after the performance. Plus, it’s a great deal of fun to see and hear Phil in concert and to see how people react to him and his music.

But my life as a roadie has had . . . Dark. Moments.

One of these consisted of a 153-mile drive to Madison, Wisconsin, during which time Phil took along an autoharp to see whether he liked playing it and whether he liked singing while playing it. The song he chose to learn on was “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”

Now, one thing you have to understand about Phil is that he is determined. Some would say compulsive. But no, he denies compulsive and prefers determined. And he likes to get things right. So, in order to learn the autoharp and the song, he kept playing and singing the first two lines.

Over and over. And over. And over.

Go tell Aunt Rhody / Go tell Aunt Rhody / Go tell Aunt Rhody / The old gray goose is dead.

I’m a person who admires simplicity. But there is such a thing as Too. Simple. As in Go tell Aunt Rhody three times over. (And over and over: you get it.) 

PP, Springfield


After maybe 90 miles, Phil felt confident enough to advance to the second verse. It’s a good thing, too, because I was ready to kill the old gray goose and anybody who insisted on singing about her — in a closed vehicle from which there was no escape.

Still, the drive-to-Madison experience was nothing compared to the drive-to-Memphis experience. We’re talking 533 miles. We’re talking Phil learning to sing the John McCutcheon song, “Christmas in the Trenches.” We’re talking the first line over and over.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.

Around mile 75 I had heard this first line enough. More than enough!

But Musician hadn’t. Apparently the first line was his way into the song: the notes, the tempo, the story, the attitude. Everything. And he wasn’t going to advance until he had mastered this line.

Roadie, Mile 150: This is sounding good. What about the next line?
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.

Roadie, Mile 225: Time to stop and walk about a bit. [Pulls into an oasis.]
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.

Roadie, Mile 340: Seriously, Phil, can you stop singing that line over and over?
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
Roadie: [Huge sigh of relief.]

Roadie, Mile 400: Considers asking Musician to drive the car, which he would willingly do. But realizes Musician would not only drive, he would sing while driving. Roadie decides that is worse than current situation. In current situation, she could always open the passenger door and push Musician out. She could not do that if he were driving.

Roadie, Mile 435: [Gnashes teeth. Pounds steering wheel. Considers driving car into the Mississippi River.]
Musician: My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.

Musician, Mile 473: [Stops playing. Stops singing. Packs autoharp into its case.] Well, that’s enough for now.
Roadie: [To herself. “That’s enough for one lifetime.”]

Despite these Very. Dark. Moments., Roadie and Musician have survived. Musician now sings a wonderful version of the entire “Christmas in the Trenches.” Roadie feels tension drain away as soon as musician continues to the third line. And beyond.  Which, so far, has been at every performance. 


Barbara Gregorich includes humor in her folk-music-based mystery novel, Sound Proof — in which not a single character sings a line over and over.


One day, extremely annoyed by sycophants and imitators, I penned this poem.


Fitting In

I long to be
a bobblehead,

my head so huge
it blows my mind,

springing me from
sense and steadiness.

I want to bounce around
in every breeze,

cool as a quarterback
evading a sack,

my connections to a corpus
tenuous or less . . . or less than that.

I fancy bobbing with the boffos,
traveling with the triflers.

I long to be
a bobblehead.


Barbara Gregorich tackles other annoyances in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.