At Ohio University, Mel Helitzer taught the first college credit humor-writing course in 1980. Within three years, “Humor Writing” had become such a smash hit that the twenty allotted seats were assigned a year in advance. Students for the class ranged from fellow faculty members to adults from the community—including lawyers, doctors, accountants, homemakers, and even one mortician. The course was featured in several national publications including Newsweek and the Chicago Tribune. Rolling Stone, dubbed Helitzer as “one of the funniest university professors in the country.”
As the popularity of the course grew, it became apparent that a textbook was needed. However, there was no comprehensive guide to writing humor. So, Helitzer decided to write Comedy Writing Secrets.
“Humor Writing” had the most unique final exam of any university course—a stand-up comedy performance before a live audience. Each student wrote and performed a five-minute stand-up comedy routine, and the audience’s reaction determined their final exam grade. Polite applause earned a “C,” enthusiastic applause merited a “B,” and a standing ovation got an “A.” If the audience threw food, it was an “F.” However, if the food was edible, then the grade was bumped up to a “D.”
One of Helitzer’s students was Dr. Mark Shatz—not the mortician, though some of his material died. Shatz earned an “A” without bribing Helitzer, and eventually became the final exam’s permanent emcee. When Helitzer retired, he passed the proverbial comedic chicken to Shatz, and the course was then offered at the Ohio University campus in Zanesville. Shatz expanded the final exam by hiring a professional comedian to be the headliner, and the show annually attracted audiences of several hundred people.
In 2005, Helitzer and Shatz co-authored the second edition of Comedy Writing Secrets. Shatz continued teaching the course, sharing the secrets of humor writing at national conferences, and pursuing research exploring the benefits of humor in the classroom. The book became the top-selling guide to writing humor with over 150,000 copies sold.
Sadly, in 2009, Mel Helitzer died. Mel’s rich and rewarding life included service in the armed forces, a children’s advertising career that spanned decades, an impressive publication list, and his beloved family. Mel was a comedic Yoda to students, colleagues, writers, and performers. The third edition of Comedy Writing Secrets is dedicated to his memory.