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If you want world peace, try telling a joke

(Susan Mangiero, who's pursuing an MFA in creative and professional writing, interviews professor Michael Perotta about the power of humor writing.)

Ask his students and they'll tell you Michael Perrota is funny, fun and a communicator extraordinaire. His schtick is no accident. It's a power tool in the hands of a craftsman who is building a better place, one empathy brick at a time.

As Perrota points out, "It's critical for students to be part of a community of colleagues, not just taking up space in the classroom. The easiest way for me to get someone to want to join in is to lighten up, not take things so seriously."

According to this seasoned journalist and debut novelist, humor encourages trust in one another. "It's a lot easier for someone to share his or her perspective, and then really absorb what others think or feel, if there is a bond that promotes meaningful conversation. Humor is the catalyst for risk-taking, the kind that promotes self-esteem, candor and critical reasoning."

[caption id="attachment_14112" align="alignleft" width="250"] Michael Perotta[/caption]

Perrota understands the emotional impact of storytelling with a laugh. As a little boy, he spent hours listening to his larger-than-life Italian father compete with uncles, cousins and friends, all trying to best tell tall tales with a flourish. "In those days, we didn't have much money, but it didn't matter. We gathered on neighborhood porches and at family barbeques. We had loads of fun, entertaining one another with narratives. Sometimes, the stories were even true."

When he wasn't sitting on the front stoop with family, he was watching comedy legends like Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Dan Akroyd, Albert Brooks and Rodney Dangerfield. "My older brother introduced me to stand-up shows on HBO. At five, I didn't always understand the punchlines, but I quickly learned that timing and delivery are everything. It's not just about the words on a piece of paper."

He claims to know why people don't use humor enough in their writing and their lives. "Many people are scared to expose their real selves to others. Comedy isn't always light. It can mask pain and suffering. The funniest person I knew died two years ago of drug addiction. His jokes were his protective armor, until they weren't."

For writers who want to be funny, Perrota is quick to differentiate between wordsmiths and storytellers. "It's rare you can be both knowledgeable about structure and vocabulary and still spin an engrossing yarn." Elmore Leonard and Anne Rice are two of his personal favorites. They combine solid technique with an amazing knowledge of storytelling. Norman MacLean is another exemplar. "His memoir, A River Runs Through It, combines subtle humor with an enjoyable recollection of family and fishing."

Perrota advises writers to know their purpose. Are they writing for an actor, an ensemble of performers or a solo reader? Unlike film or television, books have no visual cues. The author's challenge is to bring words to life for the amusement of others. Utilizing a theme like "a stranger in a strange land" is a common springboard to being funny, as long as the comedy makes clear how visitor versus host perspectives vary. "I loved the Happy Days episode when super cool Fonzie tried to join the U.S. Army. The contrasts between his lifestyle and military discipline were readymade to promote audience laughter."

Humor is the gift that keeps on giving. Perrota urges writers to risk big and try writing comedy, even if it's not their primary genre. "Explore your dark and witty side. You're probably a lot funnier than you think."

- Susan Mangiero

Susan Mangiero is pursuing an MFA in creative and professional writing at Western Connecticut State University, with a focus on writing for two markets - children and family-friendly. With a background in finance, economics and math/statistics, she worked on Wall Street as a trader before leaving to earn a Ph.D. in finance. As a Certified Fraud Examiner with a specialized knowledge of the investment industry, she has testified as an expert many times. Her finance books, chapters and articles are published by leading business outlets. She's also the author of a well-received gift book about kindness, teddy bears and the importance of laughter.

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