Warning: Don’t expect this to be a funny post just because it’s about being funny. I’m not about to put myself under that kind of pressure, thank you. That said, I’m glad if you enjoyed the pun in the subtitle. :)
We tend to think of humour as binary: either you’re funny or you’re not.
Well, as someone who evolved from your average unsociable childhood bookworm to a regular with the funnies, I can tell you this for sure:
Humour is a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned.
Sure, some people have more natural aptitude for it, and given the same amount of practice, they’ll always be better than you, and that’s okay. What’s important is you can be funnier than you are now. You’ll be no Kevin Hart or Ali Baba, but you’ll at least be a funnier version of your current self.
This article alone won’t make you funny, of course. You’ll need practice for that. But what I want to share in this article can help you focus that practice by improving your ability to be better at learning exactly what the funny guys out there get right.
Okay, disclaimers done. Let’s get to it.
How does humour work?
Humour works via a “switch.”*
To illustrate that, allow me to contrast it with the flow of logic and intuition.
Logic is basically about going step-by-step from A to B to C to D and then E and so forth. You see each step of the way and how it makes sense. That step-by-step process is the essence of logical thinking.
Intuition is a little different: it’s about jumps. You make a sudden leap from A straight to C. Or even to E. That’s why you can’t exactly teach intuition like you can logic. There’s a logic to intuition, but it’s a logic that tends to show up only in hindsight.
Humour is a different animal altogether. Instead of just a jump, you have something more like a switch. Picture being taken along a track and suddenly find yourself on another track. You might say, you go from A to B to… 7!
Did you see that coming? Humour’s like that.
Once you understand how crucial the switch is, things become clearer.
Puns work based on a switch: a word turning out to have a different meaning from what you were led to expect.
Slapstick humour (of the Mr Bean or Osuofia variety, in which misfortune consistently happens to people) involves a switch: the misfortune is funny because it happens when you least expect or in ways you don’t expect, and when you do expect it, the absurdity of it is a switch in itself.
And everyday humour, what we refer to as “seeing the funny side” of things, typically involves the switch of suddenly seeing another side to something negative.
The humour is in the switch. The unexpectedness.
Which is why explaining a joke kills the joke: it erodes the switch. (Although, if the audience is slow enough, like with kids, or the switch is big enough, like with really extreme jokes, you can sometimes still get some humour.)
I don’t think this can be overstated: the switch makes the joke. And the more unexpected, the more sudden, the more extreme the switch, the funnier the joke.
So humour should be a simple matter of just doing the biggest switch you can, right?
Well… Not exactly. Because, you see, it’s not just about making the switch. You have to carry the audience along. If you make the switch and they can’t follow you… Well, they didn’t “get” the joke.
There’s a delicate balance here that needs to be struck, and the ability to consistently strike it is what makes the best humourists so good (and what makes practice so necessary for you). You don’t want the biggest switch possible, but the biggest that your audience can actually get.
Too far in either direction and you’re toast. If there’s not enough of a switch, then instead of a joke, what you have is logic. Which is not what funny is made of.
On the other hand, if the switch is too much, then your listeners can’t make the connection… And the only thing more irritating than an unfunny joke is a joke people don’t get — it makes people feel like the joke is on them. And who likes that, right?
All that to say: it’s not just the switch that makes humour—it’s the dynamic between the switch and your audience.
This isn’t all there is to it, of course, but it’s a start.
Now you know what to look out for, what to work on.
When anything makes you laugh (and even if it doesn’t), after you’re done laughing, just take a moment to ask yourself: “What’s the switch here? Why did this work so well as humour?” (I implore you, though: before taking it apart, be sure to enjoy the jokes first — at least the good ones!)
The more you do that, the more you will develop a flair for what makes the joke work. And that’s the practice part that will help you learn the art of humour, the part that’s not exactly teachable.
So go forth, and be thou funny.
Or simply ignore all this and just keep enjoying what humour you find in the world. That’s okay, too.
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*I first came across the idea of humour as a switch from Edward de Bono, who coined the term, “lateral thinking.”