Comedy is hard to write and hard to perform. There are people who are naturally gifted at making jokes, and most of us have blessed times when our timing is perfect and everything that comes out of our mouths just zings. But for most of us, funny is hard work!
So why bother? Simply put: funny sells. It gets people’s attention and keeps it. It makes you more likeable. something like 90% of all women say they’re attracted to a partner who makes them laugh– more than those attracted to a partner who provides for them or is capable of earth-shaking sex.
Think about the people you most like to be around– chances are, you’re attracted to people who make you smile. Beauty and sex appeal eventually fade, but if you have a knack for humor, or you develop your own comedic style, you’ll find it easier to form friendships and close business deals.
Types of Comedy
Humor is a funny thing. No, really. There’s an entire industry dedicated to making us laugh, but no one knows precisely why one joke works and why another fails, or why the same joke told by different comedians make us laugh or don’t.
In general, though, most humor revolves around misunderstanding. You set up a situation and put people into it who don’t entirely understand each other or the situation.
A pun, the lowest and most basic form of humor, is funny because it centers on misunderstanding that there are two meanings for the same word. “That’s a funny goat joke. But I know you were just kidding!”
Slapstick humor, or physical comedy, is focused on a misunderstanding of (and often a blatant disregard for) the laws of physics. Nobody slips and falls on a banana peel– banana peels aren’t even all that slippery. And when the comedian jumps back up, that’s the funny part. He fell down, but because his body doesn’t understand that he’s supposed to be hurt, he hops right back up again.
“Potty” humor centers on a misunderstanding about what is appropriate for “polite” society. It’s somewhat funny to watch a fart joke on Blue Collar TV– TV is a make-believe land where potty humor isn’t supposed to be appropriate. But it’s hilarious if the farter is the Queen of England.
Stereotyping and all the “ist” types of jokes (racist, sexist, blonde-ist) are put-down humor, and they revolve around the object of the humor not understanding that the joke is on them. Although it can be hilarious to tell a joke showing how dumb other people are, it’s also very easy to fall into the trap of telling jokes that are both offensive and unfair. So mix it up, and let the blonde outwit the brunette once in a while.
Situational humor and other more sophisticated jokes come from setting up situations with characters who interact in interesting ways, and who, again, misunderstand the world around them because of the lens of their experience. The TV show Monk is a good example of this: Monk’s funniest moments are when he’s forced to touch something dirty, walk through a sewer, drink a glass of milk– his internal experience is a fundamental misunderstanding of the world as the rest of us see it.
A Joke-Building Example
Start with a basic idea. It’s good to draw this from the real world– jokes grounded in reality give the audience something to latch onto. For our example, I’ll use the fact that, as a child, I sold Girl Scout cookies. Pretty ordinary example, I know.
Now, I have a lot of memories about selling Girl Scout cookies, but one that sticks out in my mind was how hard it was to sell when I became an awkward teenager. Nobody wanted to buy cookies from a geeky kid who wasn’t cute and probably should have outgrown Girl Scouts.
However, I found that in high school, it was easier to sell to my classmates, because they had cash in their wallets and they were always hungry in the afternoons. After school clubs like band and theater were good markets for my cookies.
This story is a little funny, but nobody will laugh if I don’t tell it right. If I want to make it really hilarious, though, I can add two things to the story. First is a persona– the comedian telling the story adopts a persona. In this case, imagine our naive Girl Scout all grown up. She’s still a Girl Scout at heart, though.
Finally, we focus on the misunderstanding. Now imagine the Girl Scout selling her cookies to her classmates…. but the class mates in question are in a perpetual, pungent cloud of smoke and she’s running into them at 4:20 in the afternoon. Bam– now we have a joke in the making:
When I was a kid, I had to sell Girl Scout cookies, and some times it was easier and sometimes it was hard. Especially when I was older, and I wasn’t cute anymore– nobody buys cookies from girls old enough for braces and bras. I was still selling them when I was in high school, but all of a sudden, it was a lot easier to sell them. I don’t know what club let out at 4:20 every day, but I always sold every box!