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How to Write a Limerick

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A limerick is a kind of short, light-hearted poem that is typically humorous and traditionally often ribald or lecherous.  The key characteristic is that there is some sort of "punch line" at the end.

Almost anyone can create a poem in the limerick format.  It's much trickier to create one that actually works; that is, one that that has a flawless meter, a free-flowing introduction, and a "surprise" at the end.  

The aim of this article is to provide some practical advice to help you write limericks.  Knowing how to write limericks -- even high-quality limericks -- will not increase your salary, help you meet beautiful women, or improve your golf game.  There is no value whatsoever in knowing how to write good limericks.  So, why are you wasting your time reading this?

First, let's look at the format.   Here's a well-known limerick, probably written in the early 1900s -- very topical at a time all the newspapers were reporting about Einstein's intriguing new Theory:

    There was a young lady named Bright,
    Whose speed was far faster than light.
       She went out one day,
       In a Relative way,
    And returned home the previous night!

Limericks are always exactly five lines with the rhyming scheme of:

   AA BB A

The first two lines rhyme (Bright, light) and they set you up for the final line (night).  The "middle two" (lines 3 and 4) are a bridge to get you from one part to the other.  They rhyme with each other (day, way).

It's all about the meter
One reason I use this as an example is that the meter is perfect.  Judging by the failed limerick attempts I've seen, the hardest thing to get right is the meter.  It absolutely must flow.  To verify the meter, you must read it aloud in a sort of sing-songy voice:

    dum DUM dum dum DUM-dum dum DUM
    dum DUM dum dum DUM-dum dum DUM
       dum dum dum dum DUM
       dum dum dum dum DUM
    dum DUM dum dum DUM-dum-dum DUM


Note the insertion of extra words to make the meter flow.  For instance:

    There was a young lady named Bright,
    Whose speed was far faster than light.

Both "young" and "far" are superfluous to the content.  But the final line is fixed -- every syllable of the punch line is required, and the first lines must match with it.  Let's try it without one of the insertions:

    There was a lady named Bright,
...
    And returned home the previous night!

It's close, but flawed.  Frankly, if you can't hear the difference, if you can't understand why "young" must be inserted, then you are doomed to a lifetime of writing second-class limericks.  I weep for you.

The first, second, and last lines should be longer than the two bridging lines (typically five or six syllables).  I recommend working with 8- or 10-syllable lines -- you need enough media to express the message.  There is some flexibility, as long as the meter is correct.  In any case, the first two lines must be a perfect sing-song setup for the final line.

That Don't Rhyme!
The lyrics of most Country Music make me cringe.  The writer thinks I won't notice minor (and often major) flaws in the rhymes.  I do notice, and it grates on my nerves.

   ...I can't breath?
   ... I wish I could be.

   Dating the boy on the football team
   But I didn't know at fifteen

Can't they tell that two words that only share a particular vowel are not rhymes?  Well... They get away with it because they are singing and they can stress the common sound enough to override the senses.  And anyway Taylor Swift could draw a crowd if she stood on the stage and mumbled Klingon love sonnets.

But in limericks, there is no room for that nonsense.  The lines absolutely, positively must rhyme exactly.  Even some "technical" rhymes are not good enough.  For instance,

   ... Tom would say,
   ... she can stay.

is clearly a rhyme, but a more perfect rhyme is:

   ... Lee would say,
   ... she could stay.

Seek the deeper rhyme, whenever possible.  The best limericks include additional, internal rhymes and alliteration.  The idea is the "tickle" the verbal centers of the brain.  
[step=""]Note: One exception to the rhyming criteria is when the punch line employs an intentional verbal mangling; for instance, if the comic target is regional dialect, "Lloyd" might rhyme with "bird" (Brooklyn) or "head tax" might rhyme with "Red Sox." (Boston).
[/step]
How to Write A Limerick
Now that you know the mechanics and the goal.... what do you do?  Just start putting words together and hope you end up with something funny?  That might work.  But the best technique is to use this little secret:

     Write the last line first.

Once you have a punch line, you have a chance at a winner.  How do you come up with the last line?  Just think of something that you heard or said that was funny.  If it actually elicited a laugh, then there was probably something unexpected about the concept or the phrasing.  It's probably counterproductive to over-analyze, but humor is formulaic.  Some words are funnier than others.  A large insect is not funny, but a "bug the size of a Buick" might be.

The rest of the limerick is all about setting the context and message so that the final line really sings.

     Write to your target audience.

An "in joke" is ideal subject matter for a limerick.  The reason is subtle:  The listener has already formed a context.  The punch line sort of "blooms" in his mind.  He "gets it" because he knows the special things that this group knows.

Star Trek fans will understand "in jokes" about Seven-of-Nine.  Accountants appreciate spreadsheet humor.  Web developers will laugh at stuff having to do with mouse-overs (go figure).  The biggest laugh I ever had from a limerick was specific to the EE Lounge, in particular, the sometimes scatological humor of "baldrick," one of EE's "Lounge Lizards"...

    Lounge points? I like to collect 'em.
    I pick 'em up, touch and inspect 'em.
        I caress their exterior
        against my posterior
    and insert them into my rect...<COUGH>

There are several near-gems in that lounge thread.  My reply was:

    baldrick throws out an apology
    For making me shout Oh! My! golly-Jee!
        But his sermon sure reaches us,
        When he wittily teaches us,
    A lesson on Lounge-style proctology!

What follows are a few original limericks I wrote for this article -- labeled by target audience.  I hope they act as examples for you to use as you waste your company's time on this.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Experts-Exchange
    An Expert at E-E exerts...
    Time and effort for points and for certs.
        And a ladder location,
        Email notification,    
    And a drawer full of E-E TEE-shirts!

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Database programmers
    A database guru or geek will,
    Say: No DBA elsewhere's my equal.
        I can easily handle
        A "Bobby'; DROP TABLE" vandal,
    'cuz I always escape all my SQL!

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Jane Austen Fans
    Gal's love it: Liz Bennett's portrayed,
    As beautiful, smart, unafraid.
        But for guys, the suspense,
        Is just too intense,
    Until Fitzwilliam Darcy gets laid!

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= ????????
    Eve, the prototype female,
    While surfing, heard God's angry yell!    
        Since she swam in the buff,
        His rejoinder was gruff:
    "Now the fishes are stuck with that smell!"

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Author:DanRollins
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