Thoughts On How To Be Funny
Humor has got to be one of the hardest things to give advice about, so this article isn't going to be a be-all-and-end-all guide on how to be funny. The best I can do is reflect on my own experiences and try to pull some lessons from them. For the purposes of this article, by 'funny' I mean coming up with spontaneous humor in social situations - being witty basically.
I think I can be a funny enough guy that I'm not completely unjustified in writing about this topic. I'm never going to become a famous comedian, but if I'm hanging around someone who likes my sense of humor I can have them laughing a lot of the time. Of course, some other types of people think my jokes are dumb. I've also lost a few points over the years by joking around at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Basically, I'm fairly funny in a way that a lot of people are.
So here are my thoughts on being funny. One overall theme is that humor can be a double-edged sword. If you use it properly it can help you, but misusing it will set you back. I also focus on the idea that humor, especially spontaneous humor, isn't so much consciously created as it just pops into your head fully formed.
Being funny is good, but you don't have to be funny
Being funny is definitely a good thing. It makes you more fun to be around, and it allows you to inject amusement into otherwise ho-hum situations. Sitting around on a Sunday afternoon watching bad television is pretty boring, but if your hilarious friend is there cracking jokes about the shows the whole time, it's a decent way to pass the time.
But you don't have to be funny. If being funny isn't your thing there are many other ways to give people a reason to want to spend time with you. Everyone's had friends who weren't funny at all, but were still really personable and likable. Also, some people you get along with will tell you it's just hard to make him laugh. Being funny isn't an option with them, so it forces you to be a solid friend to them through other means.
Being around people who are funnier than you often has the result of making your own jokes fall flat in comparison. Usually the right things to do here is to let the other person have their moment and resort to another way of interacting with people.
Trying to be funny all the time isn't a good thing
It's easy to fall into the trap of joking around too much. On paper we can also know that making one good joke an hour is better than making one good joke and ten bad ones in the same amount of time, but again, it's sometimes hard to put this idea into practice. Of course everyone knows there's too much of a good thing. The guy who's always 'on' gets tiresome pretty quickly. People also take you less seriously if all you can seem to do is kid around. But getting a laugh from someone seems like such a positive thing. They're entertained and you get the validation. It's tempting to try to keep that going for as long as you can. You may even pressure yourself to always be a great comedian. No need for that.
Another point is that someone can laugh at something but still not like it overall. You can probably think of a sitcom you don't like but will still laugh at isolated gags if you ever have to watch it. People may laugh at certain antics or corny jokes in spite of themselves, but they'd really prefer not to hear them.
People assume your humor reflects what you're like as a person
I think that someone's sense of humor is at least partially connected to their personality and their worldview. An overly serious, uptight person isn't going to have much of one at all. Someone who's more laid back and sees the absurdity in life will probably be more amusing. A cynical, cerebral person will probably have a more cynical, cerebral sense of humor. A loud, obnoxious guy will probably have a more loud, obnoxious sense of humor. Most people probably understand this instinctively.
You can sometimes improve your sense of humor by adjusting your personality and the way you see things. If you're too pessimistic or anal about the world you may find you become funnier if you lighten up. But all that applies only to a point. Just because you tell a sick or offensive joke doesn't automatically mean you're a budding child molester or KKK member. I think most people understand this as well.
Where you can run into trouble is that people will assume your sense of humor reveals what you're really like on some level. If you have an overly strange style of humor, after a while people will think you really are warped. If you're always making jokes about dark or shocking topics people can't help but wonder about you after a while. The same goes for overly cynical, angry, random, immature, or socially thoughtless jokes. Look at any comedian whose material relies on using an exaggerated persona. You can't help but think they're really like that to some degree.
What gets you a laugh in the short term may be hurting you in the long run if it affects the way people see you for the worse. Maybe when you joke around people laugh at the time, but weeks later they could make a comment like, "Man, you're crazy. I worry about you sometimes..." Be aware of what impression your jokes are making on other people and adjust them accordingly if necessary.
Now to a degree we can't win with every type of person, and shouldn't try to recalibrate our humor to be totally bland and conforming. People with quirky senses of humor naturally attract friends who appreciate their style, and rightfully drive away the overly serious types who aren't a match for them. That's one thing. However, if you think your humor has elements that anyone would agree are a bit much, then you might want to make some changes.
Humor also takes part in the larger realm of conversation and social skills. People will judge your proficiency in these areas by how they show through in your humor. If you consistently make jokes at inappropriate times, or don't consider your audience, or interrupt other people to tell them, then you'll be seen as socially clueless. But as your social skills improve, your humor should get sharper as well.
It's hard to be funny on command
Every time I make a really witty comment it never feels like I consciously crafted it. It's more like they just pop into my head in response to a certain stimulus. Like conversation, humor often just flows out of who you are as a person. If you get the 'humor generator' in satisfactory shape then it will produce good output on its own.
This also means it usually doesn't work out when you try to force humor. I think everyone's had the experience of trying too hard to be funny and coming up with a lame, corny line that ultimately bombs. If a C-list comedian is a guest on a talk show you can often see this in action. They try to make everything that comes out of their mouth funny, but it just comes across as attention-starved and trying way too hard. You can't always be funny. Sometimes there isn't enough 'raw material' to trigger your unconscious into coming up with a hilarious line. It's better to hold back and wait for a moment when you really have something clever to say.
Learn to listen to your instincts
Have you ever been ready to speak a joke and there was a little voice, sometimes just a feeling, in your head that was saying, "Don't say that, it's really not that funny"? When you ignore that voice you usually find that it was right the hard way. Learn to trust your instincts in these situations. You don't always get that faint nagging voice, so if you do hear it, it's there for a reason.
Some other advice your gut may give you are:
- Say your comment quickly, before the moment passes."
- "You've waited too long. If you say the line now it won't get a laugh anymore."
- "Keep quiet. That joke will offend people."
- "Seriously, I admit the joke is witty. But you REALLY shouldn't say it in this company."
Trying to ape someone else's sense of humor usually doesn't work
One time a buddy and I were hanging around some guys we had just met. One of them turned out to be hilarious and had us all laughing for hours straight. He had a unique, sort of absurd sense of humor. Over the next few days my friend tried to copy the guy's way of joking around. Sometimes he would repeat exact jokes. At other times he'd try to come up with his own quirky observations in the same mold. It never really worked out. He was saying certain lines that were only funny in the context they were originally said in. Or he just wasn't as skillful in coming up with those types of jokes on his own. The thing was he was a really entertaining guy on his own. He had no reason to be a poor imitation of someone else.
If someone makes you laugh, or you see them making other people laugh, it can be tempting to try to appropriate their sense of humor for yourself. It usually doesn't pan out. It's forced and unnatural. There are a million ways to be funny, so it's best to stick with your own practiced style.
Humor is important to rapport
Have you ever had the experience of being around someone, maybe on a job, and they joked around with you a lot, but you didn't get their sense of humor at all? They'd make a joke, it would totally go over your head, and you felt like you had nothing to say in response? I mean, what do you say in reply to something that's for all-intents-and-purposes meaningless speech to you? There's something about that situation that really kills rapport between people. It gives you a strong feeling of having nothing in common with the other person, and hence little to say to them. I guess the lesson is that if you're joking around with someone and you see that they aren't getting it, to shift gears and try to connect with them in another way.
The opposite happens when your sense of humor just clicks with someone else's. You skip all the getting to know you stuff and jump straight into being buddy buddy. So it never hurts to try joking around with someone a little at first. If it works, great, but if not then drop it.
Pay attention to the reaction you get
If you're joking around and people aren't laughing, appear annoyed, or seem like they're just humoring you, then put the feedback to good use. Your jokes may not be as funny as you think. If it seems no one ever 'gets' your dry, ironic sense of humor, then maybe you need to go back to the drawing board. If you always seem to offend people then maybe you should show more restraint with your material. Think of people's responses as a way to polish your rough edges.
If you know you made a bad joke you can often recover by making a quick comment about how much it sucked. Sometimes the comment can even be funny. You can also just laugh it off and admit, "Yeah, that one was pretty lame wasn't it?" It's endearing to be self-aware and comfortable with your mini-failure.
The best way to become funnier is to immerse yourself in funny things
Well it's the best way as far as I can figure. Since I believe a lot of humor just pops into your head, the best thing you can do is load up your unconscious with a lot of material to work with. Watch funny movies and TV shows. Read funny sites and books. Watch funny clips on the internet. Listen to funny podcasts. Hang around funny people. Expose yourself to different styles of humor.
Some of it will stick and come out later. Maybe you'll repeat a funny line you heard. Or a certain writer will change the way you look at things. You might pick up a new way of delivering a joke from a comedian. You may learn a novel way to handle a certain dynamic. It'll all be floating around in your head when you'll be in the right situation. Your brain will put the elements together and you'll come up with a killer line.
Stand-up and improv comedy aren't the same as being socially witty
If you want to dance well at a club, learning specific partner dances or complex choreographed routines will help you to a point, but it doesn't directly translate to dancing spontaneously in a crowd. Learning stand-up comedy or improv affects your social wittiness in the same way.
Learning stand-up will improve your understanding of humor and help you craft a joke. But you create all the material ahead of time and then perform it. It's not the same as coming up with a clever and appropriate line on the spot in the middle of a conversation. Some comedians are known for not being funny at all in real life. Not in the sense that their jokes are lame, but that off the stage they have sober, serious personalities and don't kid around much.
Improv will help you think on your feet, but the humor tends to be more physical, hyper, and silly, and focuses on acting out odd scenarios. When you're sitting around with your friends and bantering about work, it's not the same as pretending, uh, you're at the barber shop with your friend, when Batman comes in and asks for a haircut.