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How to be funny

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

This post is dedicated to my darling Granny, Elaine Bartley (93) who died this week. Granny introduced me to Toastmasters which ultimately led me to what I’m doing now. Granny was a fantastic speaker and storyteller, and she will be deeply missed by all those that knew her.

Some people are born naturally funny, just like some people are naturally musical or athletic.

As for the rest of us, while we may not consider ourselves comedians, or even “the funny guy/gal” at parties we can, in fact, learn the skills required to be funny.

Comedian and author, David Nihill, used to be petrified of public speaking. To combat his glossophobia, he devoted himself to learning the craft of standup comedy. Now a successful comedian, Nihill says anyone can learn to be funny.

“I truly believe we are all least some of the time...We all have moments in life that make us laugh. How we communicate those moments to often the missing link.”

Aside from the pleasure it brings to social situations, there are several compelling reasons to learn comedy:

1. Comedy teaches you performance Imagine Michael Mackintyre without his wacky gestures, walks, and putty-like facials.

Imagine David Mitchell without his nerdy, indignant, sports-eschewing British-ness. So much of what we find funny in others is dependent on how the “funny” is delivered.

When we get up to speak in front of an audience—be it for comedy, wedding speech, or work presentation—your audience expects more than just information. They expect to be entertained.

I recently attended a black-tie event where I was fortunate to be seated next to Frank. By the end of the evening, I decided that Frank was the funniest person I had ever met. Without warning, he would effortlessly morph between a Russian, South African, Italian, and German. His accent-perfect monologues were be accompanied by mannerisms that brought each character to life. Needless to say, he had the entire table in fits of laughter.

Learning comedy will teach you how to use your voice and body to best effect, and it will teach you timing. After all, what’s the difference between a good joke and a bad joke timing. 2. Comedy teaches you to write As Jerry Seinfeld says, comedy is essentially writing. In his interview with Tim Ferris, Seinfeld says, “I grasped the essential principle of survival in comedy really young. That principle is: you learn to be a writer. It’s really the profession of writing, that’s what standup comedy is.” Despite the illusion of spontaneity, every comedian will tell you that every word in every set has been carefully crafted, scrutinized, and tested. This means, when they come to deliver their material to a paying audience, they’re certain their jokes work.

Pro-comedians are often excellent writers and ruthless editors. Even though the “funny” is found in the detail, any unnecessary information is cut. This can sometimes be painful, especially if the content being cut is good.

As Susan Rabiner says, a sign of good writing is how many high-quality ideas get cut. 3. Comedy teaches you how to be a smooth operator

In a Harvard Communication letter, Martha Craumer writes “People who use humour, particularly in stressful situations...are viewed as being on top of things, being in charge and in control, whether they are in fact or not.” In other words, humour can diffuse a situation, bring people together, and make you more likable both at work and in your personal life.

If you’ve watched a reasonable amount of comedy, you will know that each comedian has a different approach to the craft. Some popular comedic genres include:

Yeah, yeah, Miriam, but how do I become funny? Well, as we know, “funny” comes in a range of shapes and sizes. From rehearsed, comedy sets for a paying audience, to a clever rejoinder made in conversation at a party.

Let’s look at a handful of comedy techniques that you can deploy in day-to-day conversations.

Misreading the situation

If you find yourself in an unfortunate situation, make an optimistic comment about what’s taking place.

Inversely, if you’re in a great situation, make a cynical comment. (Just be careful your comment isn’t insensitive).

For example:

Walking in the rain. “Oh good, I was due for a shower/hair wash.”

Waiting in a traffic jam.

“I love the way a traffic pile-up brings the community together.”

Walking on a beautiful day.

“There’s nothing like a bit melanoma in the morning.”

Another approach is to say something that indicates you’ve misread the situation. A bit like sarcasm. Chandler from Friends often uses this type of humour.

This works best if your comment is blatantly inaccurate/out of place, otherwise, you may cause confusion.

Clever turns of phrase

As Leil Lowndes says in her book, ‘How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships,’ “Neat phrases make powerful weapons...If you want to be notable, dream up a crazy quotable.”

Does inspiration on what to say tend to hit you after the moment has passed?

The good news is that it is possible to deploy clever phrases at the precise moment you want to, it just requires preparation and practice.

Start collecting clever phrases or wordplays from comedians, authors, and broadcasters.

Memorise the phrases and identify situations in which they could be used. Practice saying them out loud so you don’t blunder in the moment.

Here are a few on my list:

Well, that was a long walk down a windy beach to a cafe that was closed. ― Bill Bailey (Could deploy after a pointless activity or a long-winded conversation that went nowhere).

Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes. ― Jack Handey

(Could deploy when discussing empathy).

A speech should be like a mini-skirt. Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting. ― Winston Churchill

(Could deploy when making a speech or when discussing the importance of brevity).

Just note, no matter how good your quip or quote is, if it doesn’t fit the situation, it won’t have the desired effect

Give the opposite answer to what is expected

If people are expecting you to say yes, say no; if people are expecting you to say no, say yes.

For example:

Person A: I’ve disassembled the lawn-mower to figure out what’s going on and I think

I’ve found the problem. Would you like me to put it back together now?

Person B: No. I thinking about repurposing it as a piece of modern art.”

The magic lies in the unexpectedness of your response.

Similar to the advice on ‘misreading a situation,’ this works best if there is a strongly expected answer. Otherwise, neither “yes” nor “no” is going to be funny when responding to a question like, “was the supermarket busy?”

Character switch

If someone makes a comment or asks a question that is obviously directed toward someone else, pretend as though the comment/question was directed at you.

For example:

Person A addressing Person B (female): I love your perfume, it’s so floral!

Person C (male): I’m so glad you noticed. I initially wondered if

it was a little feminine…

Person A addressing Person B (foreigner): Your English is excellent. How long have you

been learning?

Person C (English speaker): Thank you, about 35 years.

This works best when it’s absurd to think the comment/question could have been directed to you.

Rule of three

Every writer and speaker knows there’s something magical about things that come in threes. They are complete. They are sticky. They have a natural rhythm. (See what I did there….?)

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen.”

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

“Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

‘The Rule of 3’ becomes a comedy technique when you swap the last part for something unexpected.

For example: “Father, Son, and Holy Toast.”

Next time you get asked what you did on the weekend, consider using the Rule of 3.

“I painted the fence, when for a walk, and met with my secret society to discuss world domination.”

Or, if someone asks you where you went on holiday, try the Rule of 3.

“We saw the best of New Zealand—Milford Sound, Queenstown, and the Huntly public toilets.”

You will note that the first two parts of each example set a pattern, which the third part completely subverts.

Use stories, not jokes

I know someone who likes telling canned jokes. He has a list of jokes on his phone which he refers to in social settings. The 'go-to'?

Sex is genetic. If your parents didn’t have it...neither will you.

While the odd rehearsed joke can work, funny stories are almost always better.

Telling funny, quirky, novel stories (anecdotal comedy) makes for engaging material because, unlike canned jokes, your audience can relate. Not because they experienced the same set of circumstances, but because they could have experienced the same set of circumstances. We’re all human after all.

That time you ripped your pants during your job interview.

That time you lost your car keys at 3:00 am in a deserted car park.

The time you were admitted to hospital after your toddler jammed dried spaghetti in your ear while you were sleeping.

The beauty of using your own stories is that they’re original...unlike that list of canned jokes.

Observational humour

Observational humour pokes fun at everyday life. It may be as simple as making a comment or telling a story about an ‘everyday phenomenon’ that is rarely noticed or discussed, and yet it’s funny because it’s relatable.

It is based on the premise of "Have you ever noticed…?” or “Don’t you hate it when…?”

Here are a few of my observations:

1. When going for a walk, when is it appropriate to greet fellow walkers? When

they’re elderly? When you pass them infrequently enough? When you both have dogs?

2. We can’t trust shop assistants when they say, “you look good!”

3. Pretending you don’t see someone in the street so you don’t have to talk to them.

Strategies include looking down, being on a call, pretending to have an itchy eye.

4. As our consumables become more scarce, we use them more sparingly. E.g. toothpaste,

butter, face cream.

Once you’ve come up with some observations, spend time developing them into ideas that could be used in conversation.

Where to from here?

1. Document funny thoughts

From antiquity through to the nineteenth century, it was common to keep a commonplace book. A commonplace book served as a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations, and information. The purpose of the book was to record written gems that could be used at a later stage.

Start your own commonplace book (either written or digital) to capture:

  • Funny/quirky lived experiences

  • Observations of day-to-day life. What makes you go "huh"?

  • Clever quips from comedians, authors, and broadcasters

Building a bank of ‘funny thoughts’ will mean you can withdraw comedic currency when the opportunity arises.

2. Learn from the best

Watch a range comedians and take note of what makes you laugh.

3. Prepare comebacks

Prepare comebacks when your jokes fall flat. Commit a few to memory.

For example:

  • That joke was designed to get a silent laugh, and it worked.

  • Strange, my mum found that joke funny.

  • Thanks, thank you, I’m here all week.

4. Practice in private

Practice in private and remember delivery is everything.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I vary my body to better communicate this idea?

  • How can I vary my voice to better communicate this idea?

  • Am I smiling to show my audience I’m enjoying myself?

  • How can I use the stage/speaking area more memorably?

  • Who should I make eye contact with during this idea/comment/story?

5. Practice in public

Deploy in the wild. Start practicing in front of family members and friends. Start in low-pressure settings, then work your way up to parties and business meetings. Just like the old adage about the fallen tree in the forest, are you really funny if the only one that hears your jokes is your cat?

6. Know your audience

What may be funny to some, may not be to others. Comedian and actor, Jamie Foxx says in his interview with Tim Ferris:

“You gotta have jokes that are appropriate for your audience. I can go to anyplace...and they get it...Wherever I go, no matter what age, they’ll understand; no matter what gender, no matter what race, they’ll understand. So I had to learn how to use the formula in order to be funny.”

If you know your audience, you will know what they find funny.

Final thoughts

Those that make ‘funny’ look effortless are either in the 0.1% of natural-born comedians, or they’ve worked hard enough at the craft to make it look effortless.

With preparation and practice (and a bit of courage), you too can learn to be funny.

Just be careful. Side effects of effective humour include:

  • Extreme likeability

  • Intense attraction to the opposite sex

  • Professional success

  • Media attention

  • Limitless confidence, and

  • A dazzling aura

Go well, and good luck!

— M

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1 Comment

Chris Hanlon
Chris Hanlon
Sep 04, 2021

Love it! Great tips Miriam. Sorry to hear about your Gran though.❤️

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