How to Make People Laugh
This is a compact guide to making people laugh in everyday life. This guide is going to teach you how to add real and effective humor to your work meetings, to your presentations, and to your dates with attractive people. Read it and then practice.
Know the anatomy of a joke
Before you can make people laugh, you need to know how jokes work. There are three parts to a joke. The first part is to set context. This might be done completely and explicitly for a given joke, but it’s more often woven into earlier jokes or conversations so that its cost is amortized over several jokes. For example, in a comedy performance about me being an immigrant to the US from England, I said in my English accent, “I was standing in line at the checkout, waiting to buy my Thanksgiving turkey …”
The second part is to setup for the punchline. This involves leading the listener in one direction and priming them to laugh. For example, “… when the assistant said to me, ‘I bet you hate this holiday because this is when we …’” Now the joke is locked and loaded. The context is configured, and the joke is primed for the punchline.
The third and final part of a joke is the punchline itself. This is the statement that signals it’s time to laugh. In the example joke I’m using, the punchline is “… got rid of you guys.”
Time the punchline
A common refrain is that comedy is all about timing. That’s not really true. In comedy, timing is mostly relevant when it comes to the punchline. Once you know what the punchline is, drawing out the time between the setup and the punchline builds tension, which the punchline then releases in a laugh.
The timing trick in comedy is simply to wait long enough, but not too long, before delivering the punchline. It’s not mysterious and it’s not magic. It’s pretty easy to get good at this when you have a lot of punchlines to play with.
Don’t waste words
If your intention is to make someone laugh, then every word you use should serve that intention. Adding unnecessary words only makes the joke harder to understand and increases the amount of time that the person is not laughing. A great example from the comedy performance I mentioned above is the following context-setting, “There’s a form that us visitors have to fill-in before we enter the country…” This is twenty syllables, and is probably as compact as it can be. Now here is a joke setup, “… on that form, there’s a question that asks, ‘have you ever committed …’” That’s sixteen syllables.
A large part of comedy is guiding an audience to expect one thing, and then revealing something completely different. The unexpected surprise and confusion can lead to laughing. The punchline you’re waiting for is, “… genocide.”
This is a very powerful and funny joke and, when delivered well, it produces a very strong laughter response. I think it’s mostly funny simply because nobody expects, “genocide.” It’s tempting to attempt to post-rationalize the laughter. For example, I imagine that it’s almost impossible to commit genocide secretly. I also assume that someone who would commit genocide would not think twice about lying about it on a form. I’m sure that there are complex legal and legislative reasons for the question, but that doesn’t stop it from being comedy gold. By the way, it’s generally not a good idea to analyze a joke to death, like I just did.
Comedy arises not only in surprise, but also in apparent absurdity. Intelligence is the ability to notice when reality doesn’t match what we expect, and to use that dissonance to learn how to better predict reality. By generating increasingly accurate cognitive models of the world, we can predict and control our environment. Comedy signals general understanding and mastery over this whole process, and since intelligence is the most powerful tool in the universe, comedy chops are often hotter than bulging biceps.
By the way, my mom was born in the US, and my grandfather was proud to discover that he (and therefore I) have ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower. I’m only telling you this now as long-term preparation for a joke that’s coming later.
Follow the rule of three
I was talking with a particularly funny friend about his upcoming trip to the UK, when he told me that he was preparing to visit “the land of boots, bonnets, and wankers”. A wanker is technically a person who masturbates (don’t we all?), but the term is used in the UK as a general-purpose pejorative.
Lists of three are often great vehicles for the delivery of comedic value since they are self-contained structures with implicit context: I hear “boots,” and I wonder if we’re talking about things that go on our feet; I hear “bonnets, ” and part of me wonders if we’re talking about clothing, but we’re clearly talking about the parts of a car: trunks and hoods; then “and, …” prepares me for the punchline. This is a list. “What car-part will he list next?” I wonder. Finally, “… wankers” is a perfectly surprising punchline.
There, I did it again. I analyzed something brilliant to death. But hopefully we’re sacrificing these jokes on the altar of understanding. As you begin to see the tricks underlying existing comedy, you will be able to start mining and refining your own comedy gold.
As you build a relationship with an audience in a comedy club, or with some venture capitalists in a boardroom, you will begin to create a history and an archive of past moments to call upon. It’s a powerful move to call back to a previous punchline and purposefully re-cue a positive experience in the person or people your talking with.
After delivering the punchline for the Thanksgiving joke, “[this is when we] … got rid of you guys,” I deepened that joke by telling the audience that I responded to the cashier with, “You’re thinking of Independence day not Thanksgiving, unless you think I’m …” (punchline setup) “… an Indian.” (the punchline). This secondary punchline usually gets some laughs and some groans, but it prepares for another punchline.
By referencing some context that I set earlier, combining that with a previous joke, and then connecting it to the most recent joke, I produce the following. I set the context by saying, “I can imagine my ancestor arriving on the Mayflower:” I then pretend to read a form out loud, “Have you ever committed genocide?” This is the setup for the punchline: I pretend to write, “Not yet.”
By calling back to previous jokes and punchlines, we can amortize all the setup costs, and achieve higher rates of laughing. We can also deepen the experience of laughing and get to those deep, painful belly laughs were the laugher is worried that they’re going to die from laughing too hard.
This happened to me at a Ross Noble performance. He specifically conditioned the phrase “bummed in the face.” Then every time he said “bummed in the face” I laughed even harder. I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe, and I was worried that I would empty my bowels into my pants. I have provided a link to a video of that section of his performance at the end of this article.
How to be funny in real life
Even though the examples that I gave earlier are taken from my standup comedy performances, all of the content comes from real life. I didn’t write the immigration form, I just told people what was written on it. I didn’t confuse Thanksgiving day with Independence day, I just reported what the cashier said.
Life is riddled with seams of comedy gold. When we prepare for comedy performances, we learn how to find and follow those seams, both in ourselves and in the world in which we live. We learn to mine that gold and form it into beautiful jokes. We learn to notice and comment on the surprising and the absurd.
Amateur standup comedians have a tendency to try to make everything into a joke. Like the trainee therapist or coach who is most comfortable in social situations when trying to “help” people, a socially-awkward comic may attempt to feel more comfortable by making those around him laugh.
However, most of the time in real life you’re not setting the context or preparing for the punchlines. Sometimes, if you’re quick, you can throw in a punchline. Being funny in real life requires you to pay close attention to what is happening and to be patient. Don’t ever try to be funny. Trying to be funny is sure to make you very unfunny. Pay attention to the natural comedy structure of the world, and embellish it by highlighting or adding a punchline here or there.
Professional standup comedy has refined the art and science of making people laugh. I have explained some of the approaches and tricks used in professional standup comedy, and explained how to apply them to be more funny in everyday life. If you would like to go deeper into this topic, then checkout my in-depth article below, which also contains a link to a video of me performing some of the jokes I mentioned in this article.
Also, here is a video of Ross Noble conditioning the audience to respond to “bummed in the face” with intense belly laughter. Later in the performance, he calls back with the phrase “bummed in the face” to re-cue the laughing.