Sadly, you can’t really teach anyone to be funny. You’re either funny, or you’re not. Most people think they’re hilarious because they tell jokes that sometimes cause milk to shoot out of their friends’ and co-workers’ noses, but when it comes time to bring the funny to people who’ve never met them or care anything about them, many fall flat.
A strange fact about comedy of any kind, whether it’s a live performance, a recorded television show or words on a page: If a joke bombs, not only will people not laugh, but they will vehemently resent you for even trying. We’ll forgive the musician for playing the occasional wrong note, but tell a bad joke, and it’s off with your head. I know this because as a comedian and a social content writer I have had the pleasure of bombing live in front of hundreds of unimpressed humans, as well as online in front of thousands of Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon users, who have absolutely no problem indicating how unfunny you are, and who are extremely creative in telling you how you suck. You’ll need to develop a thick skin, and even more importantly you’ll have to learn how to mend the pieces of your shattered soul when the hateful comments come pouring in.
I’m not trying to paint a negative picture here, nor am I here to discourage anybody. Comedy writing is one of my favourite things to do on the planet, and there’s no better feeling than making someone laugh; I just want you to be prepared. So for the brave souls who still want to add the “hee hiddly hoo ha’s” to their blogs and social media content, I’ll try my best to pass on tips I’ve learned from studying the best, as well as a few tricks of my own.
“I don’t know the key to success, but I know the key to failure, and that’s trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby
A quick look at how a joke works
Jokes invoke laughter in a variety of ways: they can shock you; they plant hilarious images in your brain; they expose embarrassing things that you thought only you did; they connect on a nostalgic level by attaching situations and characters from the past to scenarios in the present (Family Guy is particularly famous for this), and the list goes on. Ultimately, a joke’s aim is to surprise you. To take you down one road and then startle you with a sharp left. For this to work as a writer your readers needs to relate to what you’re writing about (set-up) in order to be on board for the sharp turn (punch-line). In an interview with Jerry Seinfeld he compares a joke to jumping off a cliff. The set up defines the cliff you want the audience to jump from. The punch line is the other side. If it’s too far, the crowd falls, you’ve lost your audience, no one laughs. If it’s too close, there’s no excitement, no titillation, no one laughs.
Never publish angry
One of the best things about comedy writing is that humour comes from all of the emotions. The trick is to capture those emotional moments while you’re in them. Any writer will tell you to ALWAYS have a pen and notebook handy. If something pisses you off, write about it, and don’t stop to censor yourself or to correct your spelling. Just let it flow. Then put it away and don’t look at it for 24 hours. When you do get back to it you’ll have those raw emotions on page, but now you’re more relaxed, thinking clearly, and you can start to pull some comedy from the heap of rage. We make our friends laugh because we are relaxed and comfortable around them; this is the frame of mind you need to make strangers laugh.
Some Basic Humour Techniques
Pull Out to Reveal
The term is actually a camera direction that you would find in a film or television script. It refers to when the object in focus’s true context is only exposed when the camera pulls out to reveal its surroundings. Little by little you give readers more information until you present them with the full picture, which is indeed the punchline.
“I once farted so loudly I interrupted a Metallica concert. And I wasn’t even at the concert…I was at home.” – Judah Friedlander
One trick is to start with the full picture in mind. Pick a crazy scenario or image that makes you laugh out loud, then work your way backwards. What series of events would lead to the big picture? Once you’ve got your story, go back and tell it from the beginning.
Not to be confused with the beaten-to-death premise of why women are different from men, this technique generates humour through the combination of two or more ideas, and the existing relationship between them. Comparisons, analogies, similes, all grammatical tools we learnt in English class, all available to make your writing funnier. The set up involves a fact or truth of some sort. The punch line involves re-stating the set up, but through the lens of your secondary idea. The basic formula for this would be:
Fact(set up). That’s like this______ (punchline)
Your brother’s ugly. He looks like something that crawled out of the port-o-let at a troll concert.
One of my favourite sources for online laughs is The Onion.com, where they use this technique of idea relationship on the macro as well as on the micro level. It all starts with their headlines. They take tiny slivers from our mundane everyday lives (set up) and they bold-face caption them as newsworthy headlines (punchline). Then the words in the headlines themselves very cleverly combine two ideas together to get a big laugh: Dog Humiliated In Front Of Entire Park. This combines dogs with human emotions, an effective literary technique known as anthropomorphism. Treating non-humans as human is often funny, so feel free to go back to your articles and anthropomorph the crap out of them.
Often working hand-in-hand with idea relationship humour is exaggeration. “Yo mama so fat…” jokes are juvenile but classic examples of this (Yo mama so fat, we’re actually inside her right now). When you’re describing a scenario in your writing, the universe is the limit as to how far you can stretch an idea to make it funnier. If something is smelly, how smelly was it? If an article of clothing was tight, how tight was it? If you got wasted, how wasted were you?
“I’ve drank ‘till I couldn’t remember my own name, I’ve done cocaine ‘till my nose was bleeding like the fourth week of Lilith Fair.” – Doug Stanhope
All Together Now
My favourite comedy writer of all time hands down is Dave Barry. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over thirty books and internationally-syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald has been an inspiration to me since high school, as he is a master of all the techniques mentioned above, as well as many more. Being funny is all about taking the ordinary, and twisting it into the absurd. Here is an excerpt from his book Dave Barry’s Bad Habits where he discusses how barbecues were invented. Watch how he pulls out to reveal, establishes the relationships between two ideas, and exaggerates the hell out of just about every sentence he writes.
“The barbecue was invented more than eighty-million years ago by Cro-Magnon Man, who was the son of Stephanie Cro and Eric Magnon, a primitive but liberated couple. Cro-Magnon Man used to eat dinosaur meat raw, and it tasted awful, worse than yogurt. One day while Cro-Magnon Man was eating, lightning set a nearby log on fire. Cro-Magnon Man was so surprised he dropped his dinosaur meat onto the fire, where it ignited and gave off a disgusting odour that drove off the insects, which in those days were the size of mature eggplants and extremely vicious. “This is terrific,” said Cro-Magnon man, only nobody understood him because English hadn’t been invented yet.
Burning dinosaurs quickly became a major form of insect control. At large Cro-Magnon lawn parties, the hosts would put whole brontosauruses on the fire, and they would sizzle into the night, keeping the insects away and giving off a stench that lingers to this very day at the northern end of the New Jersey Turnpike.”
I’ll wrap things up with this comedy writing technique, only it’s not so much a technique as it is a state of mind. Just be real, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Millions of people listen to Howard Stern everyday, to the point where he is the highest-paid radio personality in the United States. Whatever people think of him is irrelevant, because the truth of the matter is he’s real. He hides nothing, he makes fun of himself, he openly admits all of his shortcomings and because of this people relate to him. They feel better about their “imperfections” because someone else shares them. The best comedians are the ones that seem to be inside your head, admitting embarrassing things on stage you wouldn’t even tell your closest friend. This is where the HUGE laughs come from. Audiences laugh until tears come out of their eyes because they’ve been there, done that. The same applies to your writing. Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes, to joke about yourself, because as soon as you do you disarm your readers. They can’t call you stupid if you’ve already listed some of the stupid things you’ve done. To be human is to makes mistakes, to f**k up, to fall down. And there’s nothing funnier, than seeing someone else fall down.