Friday, December 18, 2009

Inside the Satire Writer's Studio

Many people have asked me, "Jimmy, how do you go about writing a story for your website?" Ignoring for a moment that these people are all voices in my head, I will take you step-by-step through the patented Jimmy Wellington satire writing process. Please note: Results not typical, individual results may vary.

Here is a link to the story I'm writing about. But Jimmy, isn't it wrong to end a sentence with a preposition? It depends on the way it sounds. Would "Here is a link to the story about which I'm writing?" sound better? I think not, but you can feel free to disagree. One of the great things about America is you can disagree with me and face no penalty for being wrong.

The idea for this story came about, as many of my stories do, through a conversation. In this case, I was chatting with my friend Ben, who writes the now infrequently updated website Random Perspective. We are both fans of the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Ben made a comment about the healing process in that game. He was talking about feeling under the weather and complained that he couldn't just duck behind a rock for a few seconds and heal.

Satire is exposing vice or folly through wit, irony, or sarcasm. In this case, I wanted to comment on the ridiculousness of the health care reform process. It seems that every day the proposed reform is becoming less and less reformy. I wanted to illustrate this by saying they are now proposing something that is completely ridiculous, but acting as if it's going to help people.

I like to write the headline first. A good satire article has a funny headline that amuses the reader and promises further humor if they continue reading. This story is one of the rare cases in which I changed the headline near the end of the writing process. The original headline was "Senate Democrats look to 'Modern Warfare 2 Option' For Health Care Reform." I liked the general idea of the story, but I wasn't very pleased with my first idea of the headline. I trusted I would come up with a better headline as the story progressed.

Some people like to write an outline before they begin writing. My idea of an outline is the headline and maybe two or three jokes that I think of off the top of my head. Everything else comes as I write the story.

I wrote the first paragraph Wednesday night. The bold part was not in the original draft.

After months of rancorous debate, the health care reform process seems destined for failure. Senate Republicans are united in their opposition of any type of reform bill and Senate Democrats regret their decision to reconcile with Senator Joe Lieberman. However, a meeting of top Senate Democrats took place behind closed doors late last night, and, according to an anonymous source, a compromise was reached that may bring affordable health care reform to everyone. Better yet, it's amazingly simple. In short: Single Player Health Care.

This opening paragraph just sets the stage for the rest of the article. I often won't put many jokes in the first paragraph; I'm relying on the headline to propel the reader through the first paragraph.

I didn't think of the Single Payer/Player pun until the next morning, when I wrote the rest of the story. I then went back and added the line to the first paragraph because I wanted to make the reference early in the story, even though it's in the headline. I realized that people might not catch the "Single Player" joke at first glance because it's a single changed letter. You have to be careful, because there's a fine line between over-explanation and under-explanation.

The Senators have decided to incorporate the fast healing technology seen in the popular video game "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2." In the game, as long as the soldier is able to duck behind cover for several seconds, he completely heals. Our source says, "The Senators were so excited when they saw the footage. It didn't matter if it was a gunshot wound or shrapnel from a grenade, fifteen seconds max and they were good as new."

Others are not convinced. "Granted, Modern Warfare 2 is an amazingly realistic replication of current warfare and weaponry, but I don't think the healing mechanism in the game is accurate," says ER doctor Ben Daxon. "Just because we base our financial system on fantasy doesn't mean that will work with all fields."

The second paragraph gives the reader the basic premise of the article. As previously mentioned, the idea of the story is that the Senators are taking increasingly ridiculous ideas and trying to tell the public that it's going to be great. Originally, I included the doctor to provide the realistic perspective, but after writing his first line, the joke in the second line naturally followed.

The debate over the feasibility of basing public policy on video game performance brings to mind President George W. Bush's decision to appoint Michael Brown as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after learning of his proficiency at playing the computer game Sim City.

This followed from the previous paragraph. I was thinking what would happen if we used video game ideas in real life. I remembered Sim City, and how the player has to protect their city from disasters. That made me think of Hurricane Katrina and FEMA's well-documented failings in that instance, which triggered "Helluva job, Brownie," which led to this joke.

Small-scale trials of the "wait fifteen seconds" method of trauma treatment have not yielded positive results. In Kansas City, where the treatment protocol is being implemented, waiting fifteen seconds for full recovery has shown an efficacy of 0%, no matter how many times the treatment is repeated. Even integrating the advanced method of reloading a weapon while waiting to heal has been ineffective.

If this completely ridiculous scenario actually happened, what would it look like? I threw in a little joke for anyone who plays Modern Warfare 2. The word little refers to both its length in words and its comedic value.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans are against the proposal. "I'm not sure what this single-player system is, but I don't like it," says Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. "It sounds suspiciously like single-payer to me, and we all know that's the communist, socialist, fascist way the liberals want to ruin the best health care system in the world. I hear that in Modern Warfare 2, you can call in a supply drop and other players can "share" your hard-earned reward. Excuse me Mr., that's MY sentry gun. I worked hard for it while you camped out in a corner. You pull yourself up by your combat bootstraps and get your own killstreak!"

I set out to make fun of Senate Democrats and somehow ended up making fun of Michele Bachmann. This is one of the problems a modern satirist faces. The actions of people like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are so ridiculous, it's hard to satirize them. Rather than try to make Bachmann sound crazier, I just thought of how she would actually react, because that's crazy enough. The main joke here is that she finally has something substantial to complain about, but she is too blind to see what the glaring problem is with the "proposal," and instead rants on about commie socialism fascism.

When asked for comment, Sarah Palin referred reporters to her Facebook page.

This has become a running joke for me. Is anything MORE presidential than using your Facebook page as the base for your political operation?

I would take you through the revising process if there was one. I thought of the single payer/player pun around paragraph four, changed the title, and added the last sentence of the first paragraph. I revise as I write, so there's usually little to no revising process.

Jimmy, aren't you giving away the shop? Now, won't other people be able to write stories that compete with yours? Good questions.

Anybody could analyze articles and find a basic structure to copy. I don't have any kind of template that I use to write articles, it changes with each story. If you want to learn structure, do what I did and read real news articles and mimic their structure at first. By the way, avoid the word "shocking." Many bad satire articles (including many of my early ones) start with something like "The quiet city of Newton was shocked this morning as..."

The quality that makes successful satire writers unique is their ability to make connections between things that most people wouldn't think of, but seem obvious when pointed out. I don't think this is something that can be taught. I think that you can learn to write articles that more effectively show these connections, but you either make the connections or you don't.

Hopefully, this provided some insight into how one person writes satire. If not, it took up about an hour of my life I will never get back. At the standard rate of $100 per hour, you now owe me $100. Please email me at for information on where to send payment.
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Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coffee. It stains and it won't go away.

The Bitter Cup is a collaborative blog for members of HumorFeed, a collaborative of satire and humor sites that has been making trouble since 2003.