Mel Brooks said, “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” And Brooks is right, humor is our best defense against pain, suffering, and politics. But humor can also be used to bring people together which is why learning how to be funnier is an important skill for people interested in building closer relationships with others.
Humor is a science and it’s uses vary. Comedy can be used to diffuse a difficult or uncomfortable situation, and laughter can bring people together romantically and socially. There is the link between comedy and depression as well.
But can we learn how to be funny?
Why do I want to learn how to be funnier?
Everyone loves the funny person in their group of friends. But there are also a variety of health and societal benefits to understanding how to be funnier.
Studies show that having a good sense of humor is directly related to having high emotional intelligence. People who are funny are generally empathetic, and are capable of reading the room. Being able to do so requires that high level of emotional intelligence, especially knowing when and where is the appropriate time to tell a joke. Humor can be the great equalizer when improving communication in your relationships.
Plus, couples who laugh together are more likely to have a happier, fulfilled relationship. The more time we spend with our partner laughing, the more cheerful we are. It’s no wonder that men and women cite humor as one of the traits they are most attracted to.
As a social communication strategy, someone with a good sense of humor can use humor “to reduce stress and enhance leadership, group cohesiveness, communication, creativity, and organizational culture.” This particular study suggests engaging in affiliative humor (funny stories, inside jokes, and good-natured practical jokes) as a way to build stronger relationships with coworkers and team members.
Putting it simply: we love to laugh and we love being around people who make us laugh. Not everyone has that skill, but it’s one we can learn to be better at. If you’re interested in learning some tips on how to be funnier, check out some suggestions below.
1. It starts with a joke.
“I can’t listen to any new songs. Because every new song is about how tonight is the night and we only have tonight. That is such 19-year-old horseshit. I want to write songs for people in their 30s called ‘Tonight’s No Good. How About Wednesday? Oh, You’re in Dallas Wednesday? Let’s Not See Each Other for Eight Months and It Doesn’t Matter at All.’” – John Mulaney
If you’re looking for an answer to how to be funnier, everything always starts with a joke. Judy Carter’s popular The Comedy Bible breaks a joke down into two parts: the setup and the funny. The setup includes the attitude, topic, and premise while the funny is how you act the joke out and mix. While I love Carter’s explanation and details, I prefer Iliza Shlesinger’s simple three part equation. For Shlesinger, a good joke needs three things: a premise, set-up and punchline.
We will get to timing and performance a bit later, but for now, let’s decode these three elements by looking at the John Mulaney joke above.
Carter tells readers that the qualities of a good premise are that it is insightful, an original observation, and very specific about exactly is hard, weird, stupid or scary about the topic. So if we look at Mulaney’s joke, the premise is about “new songs.”
Mulaney starts with a simple, yet relatable statement: “I can’t listen to any new songs.” It’s here where the audience first buys into the joke, this needs to be relatable in some way.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual states that, “Establishing a base reality at the outset of a scene is an essential first step in the creation of a successful Long Form scene. Once you have established this reality, you will be able to easily identify the unusual…” While that is directed towards improvisational comedy, the same remains true for any joke. Jokes work best when we have established a clear, relatable idea, location, or observation.
For example, watch this clip from Eric Andre’s Legalize Everything special:
Andre starts with his premise in the first five seconds of the video: “Do you remember the show Cops? Did you ever watch the show Cops growing up?” That’s it. We know exactly where we are, we know what he’s talking about. He didn’t try and just make the joke right away, instead he situated us with a good premise, and now we want to know what he has to say about the show Cops.
Here’s another stand-up joke from one of my favorites, Taylor Tomlinson. The premise is great: “I was so afraid when I was younger that I’d be bad at sex, now that I’m older, it’s so easy to be good at sex.” Again, nothing in that statement is inherently funny, but it’s relatively universal and hooks you in. From there, Tomlinson subverts expectations and delivers a series of killer punchlines.
If you’re wondering how to be funnier, it’s essential that you understand that a good joke must first start with your premise: find something that’s relatable and easily understood.
Once you’ve established your premise, everything until your punchline is set-up. Sometimes this means furthering your premise, or setting up an idea that you’re going to subvert. If you’re planning on a long set-up, then there needs to be some authenticity and honesty to them. In the Mulaney bit at the beginning of this section, the set-up includes “Because every new song is about how tonight is the night and we only have tonight.” Again, it’s not too long, but it furthers the plot of the joke a bit.
Carter says, “When you seem sincere and personally revealing in your setup, it gets the audience to relate to what you’re talking about. Then, when you jump to the funny part, it creates a surprise that makes people laugh. If you start funny, there is no way to build to the laugh.” Think of it like Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight.” Does that drum solo still kick as much ass if we haven’t spend the previous two minutes listening to Collins croon? Probably not. Understanding how important the set-up is for your punchline is an important step in understanding how to be funnier.
In this Hannibal Burress clip, the setup for his first punchline is “Do I want to deal with children’s quirks?” It digs a little deeper into his premise (“Do I want to have kids?”) and furthers the joke until he can get to the punchline.
Another great example to learn from when looking how to be funnier would be Bo Burnham’s musical jokes. For his song “Lower Your Expectations,” the premise is simple: it’s a song about finding love. Then most of the verses are the set-up, something authentic, just relatable enough to grab the audience’s attention. By the time he gets to the chorus, the audience is begging for the big laugh.
Use your set-up to tease the audience. But something I’ve noticed is that some jokes fail because the set-up is just too long. Keep it simple, and most importantly, keep it engaging.
There is no joke is without a punchline and I’m sure most of you clicked on an article about how to be funnier looking specifically about how to make better punchlines. For the last time in this article, let’s look again at Mulaney’s bit. Inside the bit, there are more than one punchline. The first, “That is such 19-year-old horseshit,” lands because it’s making a clear observation, but mostly because of his performance. The second punchline, “I want to write songs for people in their 30s called ‘Tonight’s No Good. How About Wednesday? Oh, You’re in Dallas Wednesday? Let’s Not See Each Other for Eight Months and It Doesn’t Matter at All,’” lands specifically because there is a relatability factor along with the surprise of the line.
I want to go back to Tomlinson’s joke from earlier: her premise was that she thought she’d be bad at sex. Her punchline follows: “Just approach it with the enthusiasm of a child.” If we stop here, a small laugh, but really she is building us up because we want to know how the enthusiasm of a child and sex are connected. And then boom: “Just put everything in your mouth.” It’s just a perfect joke all around, and for the rest of the bit, Tomlinson just builds off of the momentum of that punchline.
Any guide on how to be funnier should say the same thing about your punchlines: brevity is key. Your punchline needs to be short: anywhere from one line to one word. And remember, if you have a long set-up, you better deliver on your punchline.
One way to think about the punchline is that you want to surprise the audience with whatever witty quip or line you come up with. People don’t want to laugh at something they already know is coming, it’s the unknown that gets the laughs.
If you’re wondering how to be funnier, you need to make sure you have strong punchlines. And after you’ve tested those punchlines, don’t be afraid to shorten, edit, or replace words in them. That will be the key to getting all of the laughs you deserve.
There’s also one more element of importance when it comes to punchlines: acting out. Let’s look again at Andre’s joke about Cops. His punchline about reggae and Cops lands, but what really takes the joke to the next level is how he acts out the scene. He uses his full body and takes what is some intense, serious material (police brutality), and overacts it to the point where we find ourselves laughing along with the crowd.
Comedian Red Grant told Backstage Magazine, “You have to be able to help get the message across and using your body is a great way to do this. If you can’t act them out, the audiences can get lost. And you never, ever want a lost audience. That’s the number one rule.” Whether it’s a small crowd of people at a party, or just your partner, you’ll need to learn how to act out your punchline for maximum comedy efficiency. Practice your articulation in front of a mirror, saying the right words in the right tone can mean everything for a punchline.
Performance is equally as important as your punchline, so before trying out new material for the local open mic or your friends at work, make sure you’ve got both put together.
2. Draw from your real experiences.
The best comedy comes from our life experiences. So if you’re wondering how to be funnier, it might be time to start journaling.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia suggests, “Document your life. The good stuff. The bad stuff. But mostly the bad stuff. What’s wrong with you is more interesting than what’s right. I’ve always felt like we go to solo theater to be told secrets.” And Birbiglia is right. We don’t need to come up with outlandish premises or punchlines to make people laugh, we just need to look back at our daily lives. Carry around a notebook with you, or if you want to look less creepy, just type everything out into the notes app on your phone.
Similarly, Chris Gethard talks about his comedy producing style, “All of my jokes are generally storytelling style, which means I usually have to live life and keep my eyes peeled for the weirdness my days throw at me. Then I go on stage and tell the stories in loose formats, keeping my ears open to what crowds respond to and seeing if my angles and opinions on those things strike a chord. Then I refine my viewpoints on them and tighten them up and look for punchlines.” Have you ever sat down to tell a story to your friends, and find those specific pain points where they laugh, and then the next time you tell that story, you almost build a story around that laugh?
Look at you, you’re basically a comedian already. A common description for a joke is comedy equals tragedy plus time. I’d love to tell you who said this quote first, but we have no idea. Maybe it was Twain, maybe Steve Allen or Lenny Bruce? The basic idea behind it is that the tragedy and bad days in our lives might not be rife for comedy in the moment, but as time passes, events become less personal and more humorous.
A study performed by the Humor Research Lab found that there is a certain sweet spot for humor. “One study by McGraw and researchers at Texas A&M University found tweets about Hurricane Sandy to be least funny 15 days after it struck, most funny 36 days after the fact, and once again not funny 99 days later.” Obviously that isn’t a catch-all for any kind of jokes, but for most (MOST, not ALL) situations, there is a time and place for some laughs. That’s in part because as the distance between the tragedy and joke increases, the event becomes less threatening.
When learning how to be funnier, you must first look within yourself. Start taking notes on your daily life: observations, stories, or anything that captures your attention. This is all raw material for you. Something that might not be funny now, might be hilarious with some time and fine tuning of your punchlines.
3. Follow the rule of 3.
The Jackson Five were onto something when they released “ABC 123” in 1970. Why’s that? Well they understood the Power of Three. In fact, we’ve already been conditioned to like things in threes: The Three Musketeers, The Star Wars Trilogy, and the Three Little Pigs. But why three?
According to research, “ads, stump speeches and other messages understood to have manipulative intent, three claims will persuade, but four (or more) will trigger skepticism, and reverse an initially positive impression.” Our minds tend to find three more attractive, and four just a bit more confusing. And it makes sense considering we’ve been counting by threes nearly our whole lives. Beginning. Middle. End.
But how does the power of three relate to how to be funnier? Well it’s a powerful tool that allows you to build up to a punchline with a premise and set-up included. Take for example this video from 21 Jump Street. The video’s creator, Michael Davenport, breaks down what happens during the car chase scene: first time sets up expectations, second time reinforces, and third time is the surprise.
Learning how to be funnier requires you to understand why and how tension in comedy works. When building your next joke, or even speech, think about how you can use the power of three to your advantage.
4. Know when the appropriate time to tell jokes.
Timing is everything and it’s especially important when telling jokes. We’ve all had a friend make a joke at an inopportune time that’s made everyone in the room uncomfortable. Learning how to be funnier requires you to understand when to be funnier as well. As stated before, there is a scientifically based timeline for when jokes will be too soon, too late, and just right. Don’t use that as an excuse to ignore empathy though.
Sure, maybe your friend had a parent die 30 days ago, but just because it falls within the scientifically backed timeframe, read the room before delivering your five minute routine on why their parent sucked. The line between being funny and being an asshole is pretty thin. The “it’s just a joke” defense doesn’t really work once you realize a couple of things. Yes, you have the ability to say whatever you want. And yes, people have the right to feel how they want about what you say. Keep that in mind the next time you’re about to make a controversial joke.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a podcast with Mike Birbiglia and John Mulaney where they reference the quote “In my twenties, I used to make jokes about cancer until my friends started dying of cancer.” I love that quote (although we have no idea who to attribute it to officially) because it symbolizes so much of our youth and comedy. When we’re younger, we make jokes about everything but as life hits us, those painful memories hit us and our jokes take on a new perspective.
Learning how to be funnier means you should also learn about empathy. Understand that sometimes a joke can be just that, or that it could mean so much more. Read the room as best you can.
5. Do not punch down.
This one is important to me. Punching down means making a joke at someone’s expense. In the argument around punching up versus punching down, punching down typically refers to jokes about disabled people, minorities, and people who are struggling with life. Can you make someone laugh by making a joke at their expense? Sure. Are you an asshole? Probably.
George Carlin said “Comedy traditionally picked on people in power.” That’s why shows such as The Daily Show have been effective and popular because they are holding the people in charge accountable through comedy.
Simply put, if you’re punching down as a comedian, you’re being a bully. Don’t use your wit to be mean-spirited. You can make jokes about controversial topics, but remember that any joke you make might be normalizing negative behaviors.
Of course, the conversation around punching up and punching down has been raging in comedy clubs and reddit forums for years, and there’s no clear answer. But here’s my thought: if you’re learning how to be funnier, you’re also learning to build connections with people. Don’t be an asshole, don’t go after kids, and don’t go after victims of tragedy.
Learning how to be funnier is something that might take some practice, especially if you’re working on material for the first time. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and take some of that emotional courage you’ve been building up to tell some new stories to your friends.