A few months ago I had the privilege of teaching an improvisational comedy workshop about building relationships on stage. While the workshop could be considered a success, once it was over my co-instructor said of the participants,
“They did some good work but hey, I guess you can’t teach funny.”
Being funny is not easy. I do not say this because of the ‘sad clown’ myth or the tale of Pagliacci or the fact that participation in any comedy circuit is a largely thankless task. I say it because being funny is, on a fundamental level beyond the professional sphere, the product of hours upon hours of effort.
People say ‘you can’t teach funny’, but to say that is to begin from a false premise. The question the people that say this should be asking is ‘can you learn funny?’ The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes. It is proven by the fact that funny people exist. If we accept that the way a human being acts is the product of all that they have learnt (a stance that any amount of armchair psychology will vindicate), then it stands to reason that a funny person, at some point, learned how to be funny. How? Simple. Whether they noticed they were doing it or not, they paid attention.
If you look through the annals of history, any individual that is extraordinary in a particular field has one thing over those that were less extraordinary: they paid more attention to that field. Ford paid attention to efficiency, da Vinci paid attention to everything, the Dalai Lama paid attention to attention. All that a person who is funny has done is paid more attention to what is funny.
There is a quote about humour, attributed to either E.B. White or Mark Twain (and paraphrased all the way in between), that goes something like this:
“Analysing a joke is like dissecting a frog. You learn a lot, but the frog dies.”
The merits of this quote are obvious to anyone who has attended a bad open mic night. But to extend the analogy further, the entire field of amphibian biology tells us that if you dissect enough frogs you get pretty good at knowing what’s going on inside a frog without having to kill it. You end up with an internal reference sheet of frog anatomy that you can apply to any frog you see. You can spot a sick frog or a healthy frog from a mile off, and you’ll probably know the things you can give that frog to make the frog better if it needs some kind of improvement. In short, the more you think about jokes, the better you will be at making jokes.
In Donald Schön’s ‘Teaching Artistry Through Reflection-in-Action’ — a chapter from 1987’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner — the author makes reference to a friend of his that is a tennis coach. This coach begins courses by having his pupils get to grips with the feeling of “hitting the ball right”. From this baseline of practical knowledge the students can intuit when they are hitting the ball wrong, and make corrections accordingly. So, too, with being funny.
What I am suggesting is essentially a mindfulness practice. What is being funny? It is the practice of making people laugh. I suggest, therefore, that any attempt to be funny begins with the conscious attempt to actively notice moments in which laughter occurs and consider what caused it to occur. Knowing this, you can attempt to replicate the event.
This is hard. This is unintuitive. You will fight the urge to barrel forward and continue inventing things in search of another laugh. You will become introspective at the point at which you should feel most connected. You will ruin an embarrassing number of conversations. You will kill uncountable frogs. But you will learn what funny means.
‘Funny people’ have been doing this, consciously or not, since the moment they first made a parent chuckle. Since then they have listened for the laugh — and not just in others, but in themselves. Like a skilled illustrator who started drawing in preschool and never really stopped, they have accidentally developed a competence they never aimed to gain. They have not sought the laugh, but they have stumbled upon it. Knowing where it is, they have been able to find it again. In connecting to the fertile land they have learned the roads of humour, and this does not mean that you can’t learn them too.
Being funny is not an ephemeral, inborn talent — it is a skill. Get curious, start exploring, and listen.