One of the best parts about humor writing is that it's a perfectly acceptable way to make fun of people. When you just call someone a moronic, womanizing jerk, that's mean. When you compare someone's love life to a McDonald's takeout lane, that's witty.
Of course, you have to be careful of whom you mock. Using a joke like that against a celebrity or a politician is fine, since they're acceptable public targets. But busting out the "takeout lane love" routine at a friend's party could land you in a world of hot water. How far should you go?
Let's look at each target and see how to handle them:
1. Public figures: Celebrities, politicians, companies, big websites...comedians mock these all the time, since everyone knows who they are. And since the media tends to report on every blooper they make, you'll find a ton of potential topics to joke about. My only obvious warning here is that you can't make stuff up. Do your homework first, and make sure what you're talking about is true and recognizable by your audience. Other than that, you're home free - how exactly you mock these figures depends on your style.
2. Big events: Approach these like public figures - don't make stuff up and make sure the audience knows what you're talking about. And, of course, if it's too soon, DON'T make a joke about it. Don't even try the most polite joke you can think of. Professional comedians have the experience to walk around huge tragedies, so if you don't, just don't bother. Trust me.
3. Friends and family: You can definitely get away with poking fun at the people you know, but you have to set boundaries. Don't mock any problems they may be struggling with. Stick with the things they already make fun of themselves about. Exaggerate traits they already have or boast about. Poke fun at the stuff that ultimately doesn't matter, and everyone will come out of it with friendships intact.
4. Yourself: Yep, making fun of your own faults is also possible. Comedians do it all the time - it's a great way to build a connection with the audience. The best way to do this, I find, is to discuss a topic that most people are familiar with and occasionally remark about how it affects you. The trick is to come off looking like the fool, and there's no limit to how you can do this. Just make sure it's funny.
Do you have any questions about humor writing that you want me to answer? What would you like to see me cover in future columns? Leave me a comment telling me what you'd like to see!