I am really funny. I am a comedy genius. My comedic brain is the lovechild of Steve Martin and Bill Cosby…hold on…my editor’s telling me not to use Cosby. How about Chris Farley? My comedic brain is the lovechild of Steve Martin and Chris Farley.
Or, at least that’s what I tell myself.
Here’s a great example of my comedic talents. It’s a pun from a month ago, so you know it’s good. I was at someone’s party at a pool hall. There was a veggie tray, and my girlfriend and I were eating carrots and pepper slices. That’s not the joke. Just keep waiting. She asked if I was ready to play, and I said no, don’t you know you have to wait 30 minutes after you eat before you can go into the pool?
Comedy gold. Am I a dad now?
Everyone wants to be the funniest person in the room. According to every dating article on the web, it gets you more dates. Being funny makes you more popular. Being funny makes your hair shinier. Being funny solves all of your problems.
Readers of this blog probably signed up for an improv class hoping to learn how to be spontaneously funny, or they were already the funniest person in their friend group and wanted to show off. But we all quickly discovered that improv classes don’t teach you about being funny in your daily life. They teach you how to say yes and, listen, and support your scene partner. Improv classes are kind of a let down, because what does all that junk have to do with making a great joke in the bar when you’re surrounded by models or when you’re at Thanksgiving dinner with your racist uncle?
Being funny off stage follows the same rules as being funny on stage, which means that “jokes” don’t really work. Planned material won’t get you there. If you want to become the funniest person in your friend group, try these eight foolproof tips to being funny instead.
When I tell outsiders that I do improv, they always say, “oh you must be really clever and witty.” I let them believe that, but the truth is, I’ve just been trained to listen better than the average Joe. I pay attention to the weird things people say. I remember references made during the conversation. I look for verbal slips or screw ups. When I’m paying attention, I can make callbacks or heighten a developing pattern, which always leads to laughs.
You cannot be funny in a vacuum unless you’re on stage doing stand up. If you want to be funny in real life, you have to listen. Anything said now can be used for comedy later.
One of improv’s biggest lessons is to play at the top of your intelligence. Dumb isn’t funny. Either try your best and fail at the thing, or just admit you don’t know how to do it and move forward.
In a conversation, it also helps to play at the top of your intelligence. Read widely. Listen to podcasts on topics you know nothing about. Learn something new every day. You’re much funnier when you can talk intelligently (and make comments on) everything from the Revolutionary War to Zoology to pop culture than when you have to stay quiet.
THERE’S NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT S.A.T. WORDS
English is an inefficient language. We have different words that mean the same thing, others that sound alike but have different meanings, and a few with silent K’s. I have no idea how anyone learns English as a second language.
Comedians and punsters can take advantage of this linguistic inefficiency. Learn your homophones—words that sound alike but have different meanings like pool (swimming pool) and pool (billiards) or carrot (orange vegetable) and caret (this symbol ^). The bigger your vocabulary and mastery of grammar, the more you can twist and break the rules of language for comedic effect.
For whatever reason, people find specifics funny.
If you’ve ever seen my girlfriend’s dog, you know it’s weird looking. That statement is more of a fact than funny line. But if I tell you my girlfriend’s dog looks like the product of a dachshund, a pit bull, and a pig orgy, that’s getting closer.
FIND A PATTERN AND HEIGHTEN IT
For whatever reason, people also find patterns funny. It’s why sketch comedy works. For example, Monty Python’s Cheese Shop revolves around the simple pattern of a man asking for every type of cheese in a store that purports to sell cheese, but no matter what, the store is always out.
Conversations also have patterns and games. If you can identify and heighten them, you can exploit them for comedy.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
There are friends who appreciate inappropriate jokes and friends that don’t. If you’re out with a new group, don’t try to be raunchy or dirty to get a laugh or provoke a reaction. At best you’ll get a laugh, and at worst, you’ll make people feel awkward and they won’t want to be around you anymore. Respect who you’re with enough to know when something’s not appropriate.
GET USED TO FAILING
Boring accountants are boring because they don’t take a lot of risks, especially in social settings. They don’t want to tell a joke for fear of looking stupid, so they don’t tell any jokes and stick to what they know—spreadsheets and baseball stats. Dads, on the other hand, have an entire brand of jokes named after them. Bad jokes. But dad jokes can also be the best jokes, because dads don’t care about embarrassing themselves or their kids. They’re just having fun and entertaining themselves rather than worrying about being funny.
Every improviser I know can tell you a story (or fourteen) about a time they bombed on stage. But they keep getting back up and trying again because comedy is all about getting in the reps. The more jokes you make, the more jokes will land. That’s simple statistics. Just ask an accountant! Don’t expect every joke, bit, or comment to be a home run. If you’re batting .333, you’re doing well for yourself.
YOU’RE ALWAYS IN AN IMPROV SCENE (BUT NO ONE ELSE KNOWS IT)
You’ve probably heard someone say that improv mirrors life. But sometimes, it can feel like the opposite. The same rules from the stage apply in any social situation. Scripted or planned material isn’t as funny as what you create with other spontaneous people in the moment. You’re not going to win the room with your “a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar” joke.
You have to treat social situations as improv scenes where the other people just don’t know they’re actors. You have to listen, yes and, find a pattern, heighten, do callbacks, etc. You’re working with the group and staying in the moment to create comedy. That’s why some people seem so naturally and effortlessly funny. They probably don’t think about these seven rules because they’ve internalized them and practice them subconsciously. So throw out the planned stuff and stop worrying about being funny. Think about these tips and start getting comfortable creating something out of nothing.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my book Improv ABC: The A-Z Guide to Becoming an Unstoppable Improviser. It’s “real-talk” guide to improv’s key concepts that can help you nail your show tonight (or in 2 days…Prime shipping…you know how it is).