What makes someone funny?
August 17, 2014 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I've always wanted to know how funny people became funny. What particular attributes, behavior, types of humor makes them so hilarious? Do some of them practice jokes in advance? Do they watch comedians and funny tv shows a lot?

I'm a nervous person and I often get embarrassed while making a joke or funny comment. I totally ruin the intonation, emphasis, facial expression, and basically regret the thing while it's coming out of my mouth, which just results in weird and nonsensical half finished sentences. Suffice to say, I am pretty awkward. While this obviously isn't crippling and doesn't even bother me all that much, I would really like to better understand what makes a person funny and how they got there.

I'm asking because I'm just curious and also because lately I've been thinking a lot about that Oscar Wilde quote, if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you. At this point in my life I'm not overly concerned with telling people the truth, but I am interested in social dynamics. I see that having a solid sense of humor is crucial to navigating confusing and transient relationships with people (romantic and otherwise), making small talk, meeting people, etc. And plus it's a lot of fun! I can only make jokes with my really close friends and that's when I'm happiest. It'd be nice to be able to open up to more people especially since I'm surrounded by strangers these days.
posted by poilkj to Human Relations (28 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I think a lot of humor is about being willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room or to be open about topics that people are normally a little (or a lot) uncomfortable about. It's like often people will be relieved that someone else is willing to say the thing they were secretly thinking, so they laugh.

Like if you do your nervous awkward joke and then after a few moments of silence say, "Man… That came out so much more awkward than how it sounded in my head." Often that's the part that gets the laugh because it touches the subtext of the situation and the reality of what people are thinking. And it's relatable to say something awkward now and then. I think a lot of humor comes down to confidence and your comfort level with your personal foibles and flaws and your willingness to sort of put that out there. Funny people are open about sharing their unique and sometimes messy viewpoint on the world with other people.
posted by mermily at 11:11 AM on August 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

Being funny is not about having a string of pre-baked jokes in your arsenal; rather, it's about acknowledging the absurdity of this life and having the confidence to share that absurdity with others. Are you a fan of Conan? He's so funny because he states the facts at just the right times.

One example:
Conan visits the American doll store

An improv class would give you the tools you're looking for --and probably a few new friends!. If the idea of that freaks you out (and I hope it doesn't, you seriously will not regret it), UCB's Comedy Improvisational Manual does a great job of breaking down why truth is funny.
posted by jessca84 at 11:13 AM on August 17, 2014 [10 favorites]

Funniness is in the eye of the beholder. Lots of people who are considered to be funny are not especially funny to me (case in point: I never thought Robin Williams was very funny). Maybe some of your friends / acquaintances think you're funny, some don't. That's just the way it is. There's probably not a whole lot you can do about it, so I wouldn't sweat it.

"I see that having a solid sense of humor is crucial to navigating confusing and transient relationships with people": I think you're overstating the case. What's crucial is to be polite, considerate, and a good listener. Having a good sense of humor is helpful, but I wouldn't call it crucial.
posted by alex1965 at 11:15 AM on August 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well, comedians who are typically considered funny are the ones who talk about our common experiences. Like let's say they are doing a routine about getting pulled over while driving. They'll say something about how you get that blood-runs-cold feeling when you hear the siren, then that I-want-to-show-the-officer-I'm-being-cooperative attitude by being formal and saying "yes, sir", "no, sir", and then that feeling like we're going to get arrested even though there's no basis for it. And people will laugh not because the words are particularly funny, but because they are remembering themselves in that exact situation. In that sense they are laughing at themselves. When people can laugh at themselves their attitude is much softer and more forgiving towards others.
posted by vignettist at 11:28 AM on August 17, 2014

What's funny changes over time, but a core element of humour anywhere is subverting expectations -- putting two (or more) ideas together in a way that challenges normal ways of thinking. That's what a classic joke is, setting up an expectation and knocking it down. I think that in order to see those "distorted" analogic connections when others don't, it helps to be loose enough that you're not bound so tightly to conventional connections, and also to be actively looking for new relationships between ideas. Naturally funny people, I think, have "fast and loose" brains and sort of do this as a matter of course, but I think anyone can learn to think this way. Improv classes could help with that, sure.

I do think another part of "funny" people being funny is that they've been doing it a long time as part of their regular way of interacting with others, because it's rewarding. And actually, I do think many have absorbed and to some degree emulated comedians at some point in the evolution of their humour. But I think if you haven't already done this with some success, it's kind of a bad idea. (The most unfunny thing in the world is when people just quote bits from comedians' stand-up routines or movie scripts. That is agonizing to witness.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:29 AM on August 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

He's so funny because he states the facts at just the right times.

Yes, also I think, having an ear - for timing and rhythm - sensing the pace of interactions, observing an unexpected association, knowing when to jump in and also having the confidence to do it.

An ear helps with mimicry-based forms of humour as well (like impressions, but again if you don't already do this, maybe don't).

Also, observing people and situations, just kind of paying attention.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:41 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Last one I promise: story-telling -- some people are good at regaling others with a big long narrative, but even a single joke is a little story.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:47 AM on August 17, 2014

a core element of humour anywhere is subverting expectations -- putting two (or more) ideas together in a way that challenges normal ways of thinking

Exactly. A funny story is exactly same as a scary story, except that the surprises are nice & weird instead of terrible and weird.
posted by the jam at 11:49 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm laughing at cottonsocks spot on observation about what hell it is when people regurgitate other comedians etc... ugh it hurts.

I once worked with this woman who bought in 'cock soup' (with a pic of a chicken on it) put it by her phone then complained no one had laughed. I told her "you don't need to do stuff like that cos you actually are authentically funny - you sharply observe life" that craps for people who aren't (and agree it is ok not to be funny - there's plenty of things can draw you to a person).

My dad (who used to be very funny) always swore "people laugh when they want to laugh" but I've never figured out if he was right about this.

Small humans are animals are funny.. just trying to figure stuff out with openness.
posted by tanktop at 11:54 AM on August 17, 2014

If you listen to pretty much any comedian, often it's the references that make people laugh. It's fun to recognize stuff, and to make connections between different realms of this crazy world.

Also, the world is crazy, and everything is basically hilarious and sad at the same time, and having that baseline attitude can make you more prone to laugh at stuff.

Sometimes I describe Ask MeFi to other people who don't know about it, and I usually say something about how it's like a message board where confused people ask about how to attain middle-class normality and the answer is always "therapy." That's like, my personal caricature of the site, and it's more fun than a real explanation. So a willingness to be a little liberal with the truth is also part of it.

Somehow it's also about kind of building a personal mythology, or something. That might be part of why you can more easily joke with friends, because you have a framework of Funny Stuff to refer to, and common ground. But with most people you have some context, and the cultural zeitgeist is just a grab bag of semi-mythical phenomena to joke about: Obamacare, North Korea, sports, hipsters, whatever.

There's an article that's semi-famous in the world of object oriented programming, and it's called "Object-relational mapping is the Vietnam war of computer science," which is funny and makes a point very simply and memorably for the same reasons that it's funny: it strikes a chord with cultural context.

Basically I think humor helps us feel at home in the world, even if it's feeling at "home in our homelessness," because the world can be really scary and confusing.

You can also just look funny and make weird deadpan jokes, like Mitch Hedberg.
posted by mbrock at 11:58 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

There was a good article (with video) in the NYT about how Jerry Seinfeld crafts a joke.

The universal experience thing is definitely true. Consider the Bill Cosby routine To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With. While his delivery and storytelling is top notch, the story is universal. I didn't live in the projects, but I can relate to things like the sibling relationship (I was definitely the older brother that would punch my sister because of something that happened three months ago), dad being this ENORMOUS MENACING GRUNTING PRESENCE, the fear of The Belt, the way kids conspire to do things together and lie to their parents, then turn on each other, the way brothers pick on each other. And I put it on in the background and my wife, who also had siblings, is chortling with recognition.

Or consider another Cosby routine, the one about the chocolate cake. It's funny because a lot of the stuff about family relationships is funny, the way he sets himself up against his wife, and the way the story builds. But really, it's a long shaggy dog story setting up to the punchline, which is that he "got in trouble" and got sent to bed, which is where he wanted to be in the first place.

Maybe the ultimate shaggy dog story is Norm McDonald's moth joke, which isn't funny so much for the joke as the way he delivers it, commits to the story, keeps plowing on forever, and then delivers a dead simple punchline. It subverts expectations and that contrast makes it funny.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:08 PM on August 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

What makes someone funny? It stems from detachment from the drama. One can't poke fun or make light if one is fraught and weighed down.

You're on to something in sensing a link between humorlessness and nervousness. Humor requires letting go - dramatically lowering one's sense of stakedness in the foible du jour. And that's the exact same move to nix the nervousness.

The time-honored solution is meditation. Any version will do, but FWIW, this is what I practice (simple, stripped-down, very low-ritual/dogma, no joining or paying).
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:00 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

The really funny people are intelligent, and are especially strong at associating ideas. A joke about is, at base, a surprise, and the joke teller uses an association you haven't thought of to surprise you.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:36 PM on August 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

The world is funny and weird. Most things that happen have an element of the bizarre. Funny people tend to notice and enjoy the incongruity of everyday life. 90% of the funny things my friends say are just off hand comments about stuff we see or do, even a facial expression can be hilarious at the right time.

Jokes themselves are all variations on about 5 themes total, adapted for audience. Being able to tell a good joke and being a person who finds the humour in everyday life aren't really the same thing imho. A lot of comedians are famously miserable and unfun to be around in real life.
posted by fshgrl at 1:53 PM on August 17, 2014

a willingness to be a little liberal with the truth is also part of it.

For sure. Some of my friends and I have a long running joke that started when I basically said I didn't believe in a thing that clearly exists, basically just to annoy them because they were always talking about it. 15 years later, there are so many layers of bullshit and lies built up around the topic that I'll never admit the truth. Ever. No matter what lengths they go to.
posted by fshgrl at 2:00 PM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I see that having a solid sense of humor is crucial to navigating confusing and transient relationships with people (romantic and otherwise),

To the degree that this is true, I think it is about laughing about things instead of getting mad and blamey. On a good day, I can be smooth and get told I am funny, but I am truly terrible at telling jokes. What I am good at is empathizing with people and giving them a different perspective to help them feel more okay about difficult situations.

So, like, last Christmas season, I was at Target and there was a long line -- it was terribly crowded and there were lots of long lines -- and I was in line with my favorite cashier. And I guess the person in front of me had been just a jackass to her. And she was telling me she has social anxiety and thanking me for being very understanding...etc. and I was humorously remarking "Yeah, well, we are all crabby because we have been standing in line and OBVIOUSLY, it's your fault!" (which made her laugh) and telling her I don't deal well with crowds either and generally making her feel okay about and helping her laugh about the jackass customer and the fact that she has social anxiety and it was just a shitty situation for everyone and sort of a perfect storm of everything going wrong in exactly the right way to set off this Achilles' Heel type problem she has. I didn't blame her. I didn't blame the people being crabby. I reframed it so it was sympathetic to all parties and framed it humorously.

So I think "good sense of humor" is maybe more like "good attitude" when it comes to those kinds of situations.
posted by Michele in California at 2:03 PM on August 17, 2014

When I was a kid I read Gene Perret's book How to Write and Sell Your Sense of Humor. It's kind of corny, but it's full of good advice about how to write funny stuff and think funnier. One of his tips is that when you are trying to come up with a joke about a subject you should make a little list of things the subject makes you think about, and try to reference something on that list in a kind of roundabout but clear way.

As an example he cites a roast where the guest of honor showed up in an all-white suit. One of the comedians got up to the podium, dug into his pocket and took out a buck, turned to the guy in white and said, "I'll take a vanilla and a couple of Tooty-Frooties."

Now, that's a very corny joke and it depends on a lot of stuff so dated that modern audiences might not get it. (You have to know that the Good Humor Man always wore white, and that Tooty-Frooty was an ice cream brand.) But it killed in 1960-something, because it said "you look like an ice cream man" without just bluntly coming out and saying that. It also goes for the funniest-sounding ice cream flavor and puts it at the end, so it's more of a surprise. A little surprise can really help the funny.

I've sort of trained myself to automatically do that stuff now, for good or ill. When I'm in a situation and there's something joke-worthy going on, I'll do some quick free associating in my head and see if I can come up with a joke that would pass the Perret test.

A good, cheap trick is a well-deployed pop cultural reference. Say you're at work, and the AC system is malfunctioning so it sounds like it's breathing gasp-y, mechanical breaths, like a big robot with asthma or something. You turn to somebody and you say, "Luke, I am your father..." You're saying it sounds like Darth Vader, without just coming out and saying that. It'll probably get a cheap laugh. Even if they don't get it, you just say, "It sounds like Darth Vader" and then you'll probably get a cheap laugh.

It's a fun little book. It won't make you a brilliant wit, but it'll enable you to come up with hacky jokes worthy of some roast circa 1965.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:48 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I've always wanted to know how funny people became funny."

There are two traditional routes. Either have an absent parent and a desperate need for acceptance, or often need to defuse tense situations. So, try one of those.
posted by spork at 3:36 PM on August 17, 2014 [12 favorites]

Some of the funniest things I've heard people say did two things at the same time - they pointed out unusual or absurd things, and also made people comfortable enough to laugh at them.

My father is a genius at this; there was once a minor family scandal that came up when one of my cousins abandoned a plan to study abroad in Paris for a year hiking through Tibet. My grandparents were initially Not Pleased, but after some tense discussion between my grandparents and my aunt and uncle, they accepted it was happening; but we were all still a little uneasy when we all gathered that year for Thanksgiving, because it was like this big elephant in the room where we all knew this was a Thing, and we all knew my cousin knew, and my cousin knew we all knew, but we were all trying to be very careful and polite and cautious about it.

When we first all gathered for dinner, after some awkward, tiptoeing-around-each-other small talk, my father finally turned to my cousin and said "so what the hell is there to do in Tibet anyway - sit around campfires and burn yak shit?"

The entire family erupted in laughter for a solid two minutes, and for the rest of the weekend we all made a point of working the phrase "yak shit" into every conversation we had. My cousin even sent my father a postcard from Tibet in which she discussed yak shit in great detail.

I think this worked because:

a) The matter had been pretty much settled - there wasn't any question about whether my cousin would or would not be going to Tibet. If there was still an ongoing argument about whether she should go, this would have backfired.
b) My father didn't imply that my cousin was stupid for going, or that she shouldn't go. He didn't say "why are you going to Tibet", he said "what is there to do in Tibet".
c) There is also something just inherantly funny about the phrase "yak shit".

Comedy isn't necessarily about you laughing at other people. It is about you having enough empathy to understand what other people are feeling about a situation they are in, and then being able to point out funny things about that situation so THEY can laugh about the situation WITH you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:57 PM on August 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's a distinction to be drawn between interpersonal-funny and stage-funny: some people who are hilarious and awesome to talk to at parties just flop onstage. Some people who are geniuses onstage can be fairly plain in real life (Steve Martin, for example).

If interpersonal funny is what you're going for, take an improv class. Being funny around people at parties relies more on thinking on your feet, paying attention to things going on around you and reacting in a way that's supportive and truthful, ie improv basics.

Stage-funny, on the other hand, is where you really need to study performances, listen to other people's stand-up routines, but most importantly just get onstage over and over and over and over again trying out jokes, bits, and routines and seeing what works.
posted by Ndwright at 4:34 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's easy to make jokes with close friends because you're very comfortable with the social dynamic. You know them and their sense of humor. A lot of casual joking around deals with shared history and knowledge.

With strangers it's a lot harder because you don't know what type of humor they enjoy. Or how they really approach the world in general. Humor is a great way of bonding but it can take a little bit of time with new people to reach that point. A lot of awkward half jokes, little feelers to test out what works and what doesn't, to get a sense of just who it is you're interacting with, is normal. Trying to be funny as a way of skipping ahead in social interactions doesn't really work all that well in my opinion. Few things make me more uncomfortable than somebody pushing their yuk-yuks on me when I don't really know or feel comfortable around them.
posted by AtoBtoA at 5:51 PM on August 17, 2014

Hang out with small children. Insist on things that are obviously not true. They will laugh.

After you're out of jail, try it with adults.
posted by musofire at 7:07 PM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

A quick mind and the ability to stand back a little and observe the world with some level of detachment.
posted by chris88 at 8:41 PM on August 17, 2014

What an interesting question.

Primarily, developing a sense of the absurd helps. Then, developing the skill of expressing that absurdity concisely and in a way that is instantly accessible to your audience.

Are you good at telling stories, in general? The ability to tell a good story relies on setting a scene, introducing elements/plot points, and wrapping it up neatly (e.g. with a moral) that justifies the listener's investment of time and attention.

"Being funny," in the social/conversation sense is basically just telling a story. The story can be a long, detailed thing, or something more impressionistic (just a few words in combination, that evoke the actual "joke"). I have noticed that many people who aren't very "funny" are also really bad at telling stories. My mom is not funny (i.e. she rarely tells jokes or initiates bouts of shared/interactive humor), and she is also not too great with telling stories efficiently. This isn't to say that she's a bad conversationalist at all; people love talking to her. But her skills lie more in the area of empathetic listening and philosophizing.

Speaking of empathy, another vital aspect of being proactively amusing is to "know your audience." What kind of humor might they respond to? I'm really good with associative humor, the weirder the better. (Did lots of drugs, or so I've heard.) Sometimes I misread the person I'm talking to -- perhaps they just like scatological stuff -- and my perfectly good riff goes to waste. And then there's an awkward silence. Other people will get that sort of thing just fine, but completely blank on my pun-based humor. Just like in regular conversation, it pays to give attention to peoples' physical reactions; a micro-expression can tell you that your audience is following you and ready to be amused, or it can tell you when you are about to cause confusion or offense. If you don't know someone's sense of humor, float a trial balloon. If it bombs, ease off. Like erectile dysfunction, trying too hard/thinking too much can just cascade.

It kind of sounds like this might be what you're experiencing. If so, and if playing around with everyone's excellent suggestions isn't paying off, there's no need to keep forcing yourself to be "funny." It's okay -- nay, valuable -- to be my mom.

(One other thought: The funniest people tend to be those who bring others along/up, rather than cutting them out/down. If you need to be nasty or cynical, punch up. If someone must be the butt of your joke, best to make it you.)
posted by credible hulk at 9:25 PM on August 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

What makes someone not funny?
posted by evil_esto at 2:57 AM on August 18, 2014

- I'm a nervous person and I often get embarrassed while making a joke or funny comment

- I can only make jokes with my really close friends and that's when I'm happiest

I think these two sentences are related. Your jokes will probably fall into place if you work out a way of just being relaxed in any (joke-telling) situation (easier said than done, I know!)
If you're feeling confident/casual/relaxed, the people you're sharing your joke with will feel all of those things too. Don't make the joke such a big deal in your mind; think past it while you work up to it. It's just a molehill in the grounds of a conversation, not a mountain! Superimpose a level of comfort you have with your friends onto your fellow conversation makers, and I reckon you'll find that you're plenty funny to everyone.
posted by SailRos at 5:47 AM on August 18, 2014

I do think that one of the reasons I'm funny is that I watch a lot of comedy. Sitcoms, sketch shows, improvisation shows, stand ups, of a wide variety and style. There are also comics who are willing to discuss why they think they are funny, and what funny is: check out Stewart Lee for that. Practice makes perfect, and you won't always be funny: I often used to try out little observations with close friends or family, and if that made them laugh I might make the same observation with people I knew a little less. You do have to know your audience, and ultimately making strangers laugh is going to be broad:

An example: I rushed to get on the tube the other day and got my head banged by the door as a punishment. A girl already on the train laughed. Her friend shushed her and said "That's not funny!"

I looked at them, smiled and said "Well, it's a little funny"

An example of me crashing and burning: I was hanging out with some cool left wing people who I had only just met at a bar and brought up some material by Jeremy Hardy (a UK left wing comic) along the lines that while killing people is bad, no-one would be super heat broken if the national front were to suddenly die of natural causes over night. Its slightly risky material, and I completely fluffed it, and got some extremely blank looks for my troubles.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 9:59 AM on August 18, 2014

no-one would be super heart broken if the national front were to suddenly die

One of my partners tells jokes pretty well. He's often amusing in his delivery, timing, etc.

But when his jokes are about how women/Arabs/Jews/the French/lawyers/the National Front/whatever ... always do some stupid thing, I'm not going to laugh, because us vs. them, and death, are inherently not funny.

(Inspired by Cannon Fodder's post, but I hope it also adds something relevant to the thread.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:16 PM on August 18, 2014

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