Online | Comedy | Workshop

2-Week Nonfiction Workshop: Funny Personal Essays

Why do you laugh when you read? Because you relate? Because you’re surprised? Because life is an absurd farce?

Some more questions: Did you ever do something very weird? Do you have some social observations to share? Did you have a strong reaction to Grease LIVE!?

In this two-week master class dissecting the gender politics of Grease LIVE! (just kidding), we’ll summon Vivian Gornick’s differentiation of the “situation” v. the “story” and discuss the many ways to turn a “funny situation” into a “funny story” that you can publish (I dare you).

To get started, we’ll read humorous personal essays by our favorites to crack the formulas used to write them. We’ll analyze the strengths/weaknesses of the genre; discuss what it takes to make a funny personal essay transcend the personal; and isolate “the unusual thing” in our own situations to carve out our stories.

Specifically we’ll talk about the self-deprecating essay, the “that one time…” essay, the essay-criticism hybrid, the funny op-ed, and how to use popular columns as prompts (like The Cut’s “I Think About This A Lot” column).

In class, students will brainstorm topics to hone a clear, unique angle for a funny personal essay. Students will draft this essay for homework, and we’ll workshop it in week two in a supportive, nurturing environment.

The second week we’ll focus on pitching and answer the following: Which publications want the personal essay? How do I follow up with editors in a non-annoying manner? How do I look good (or at least better) in a headshot?

Writers may bring in a work-in-progress or start from scratch. Please note that Grease LIVE! will not be shown in class.

Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features.


- How to find and form a clear, unique angle

- How to turn a funny anecdote into a publishable funny essay

- How to pitch personal essays and where

- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes

- Ways to make friends as an adult


Students should expect to write one piece between 500 and 1,000 words and workshop it during the second class. Students should read their peers’ essays and be prepared to give written and verbal feedback. There will be readings (to be done before class), in-class brainstorming exercises, and an in-class pitching session.

There will also be after-class homework & specific instruction to draft a cover letter, a bio, and a pitch for 1 to 5 outlets that would be a good home for the student's essay. The instructor will not give feedback on this after-class homework assignment.


Week 1, class day 1: Introductions; lecture on form in which I'll refer to readings (to be read before class); brainstorming exercises; rapid-fire pitching session.

Week 2 (between classes): Draft funny personal essay to workshop. Read and comment on other students’ essays.

Week 2, class day 2: Lecture on pitching and outlets; workshop. 

Elissa Bassist

Elissa Bassist is the editor of the column “Funny Women” on The Rumpus. Her tragicomic essays and humor appear in The New York Times,,, Marie Claire, Longreads, and more, including the best-seller Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, ed. by Roxane Gay.  She teaches writing nationally, and her first book Hysterical: A Memoir will be out from Hachette on September 13th, 2022.


"I’ve heard several breathless, fawning reviews (no joke) and I know the students were thrilled to have you here. Students were particularly happy that the workshop was focused on specific (achievable, publishable) kinds of humor writing (and not like, 'how to land a spot in the writer’s room of THE BIG BANG THEORY')."

Justin Sherwood part-time lecturer/executive secretary at the New School

"Thanks for coming back to the New School to teach us all how to be funny. Besides the valuable advice, I found your words about the business aspect of the writing and submissions helpful. I’ve got a funny novel I’m finishing, and I’ll put your advice to use soon."

former student

“This class taught me so much about humor and also probably made me a better person (for learning how to see the humor in people). Before Elissa’s class I didn't really understand the value of spending time and energy on writing genres that aren't your primary interest. In her class I learned about using humor to write about sad stuff, which I'd never attempted before."

former student

“Had a lot of fun with the class, and for the first time, I feel like I can write funny things (though I've always believed I'm extremely funny, and my friends think so too). Elissa’s enthusiasm and laughter are infectious, would definitely take a class with her again.”

former student

"I have recommended this class to SO MANY PEOPLE. Elissa is an amazing teacher. She creates such an awesome environment where everyone generally wants to improve AND she can explain to you what isn't working without hurting your ego in the slightest. If it weren't weird, I'd take this class ten more times. Makes me think good things about Catapult."

former student

“Elissa is too good for most anybody.”

Bill Murray hijacking her Tinder

"Elissa was extremely knowledgeable, supportive, and funny! I walked away with a stronger grasp of humor writing structure and technique. And thanks to Elissa’s supportive teaching style, I feel more confident as a writer and more comfortable expressing my voice. Elissa also imparted her knowledge of the creative writing process and shared her tools and techniques for generating ideas and tackling first drafts and revisions. These are practices that I’ll continue using after the class."

former student

"Elissa is one of the most supportive and kindest teachers I've had, all while still delivering EXCELLENT critiques. She is a treasure!"

former student

“Love your work on The Rumpus! You really do have quite a special, strong, funny voice. I LOVE YOUR WRITING! Have I not made that clear?”

Joey Soloway