How To Be Funny (Pt. 1) | A Non-Comedian’s Guide

man_laughing_with_friendsOkay, okay, you’ve talked me into it.

After all the emails, I’m now going to start to dedicate some of the space on this blog for non-comedians; a place where the ‘everyday’ person can get a dose of insight into how to be funny.

Before we get started with the tips, please be advised that being funny is subjective. What one person thinks is funny may draw, from another person, a blank stare or worse a snarl, or a punch in the throat. (It hasn’t happened to me yet, but there’s still hope!).

Despite the subjectiveness of ‘funny,’ there are certain strategies and techniques that you can apply to your daily conversation that will drastically increase your ability to be recognized as “funny.”

And… it’s not as hard as you might think, because much of learning how to be funny is surprisingly scientific.

It is a scientific fact (proven through scientific case study and scientific process), that a human being laughs when they are surprised.

You should be writing that word down right now. SURPRISE. It’s key. In fact out of the 9 Major Human Laughter Triggers, if you focused on surprise alone, in a short period of time, you could be recognized as the funniest guy in your school, at your work or in your cell block. (I write that, because as it turns out a lot of inmates have been reading my blog).

I guess you can avoid being someone’s bitch if you’re making them laugh!

The problem with surprise is that it also causes us to startle or cry.

So we have to understand how to apply it so it works to help us achieve our goal—and that’s to make someone laugh.

We laugh when we are surprised in a benign way or in a way that doesn’t threaten our safety or our reputation.

So let’s start with owning the fact that the number one trigger for human laughter is surprise.

Actually there are, (at a psychological level), 9 major laugh triggers for the human being.

Since one of those triggers is tickling, there are eight which are applicable to what we are trying to do and that is to make people laugh in every day situations;

  • At work
  • At School
  • In Social situations
  • Dating
  • Giving presentations or speaking engagements
  • Teaching
  • Leadership
  • Job interviews
  • Auditions, etc.

The great thing, is that if you’re NOT a comedian, a LITTLE humor goes a LONG way! You don’t have the same requirements and expectations as a comedian does, so a small surprise in the middle of a talk can be very effective.

If you’re known for being a square or completely ‘un-funny,’ then a small joke can be hysterical because everyone is so used to your normally subdued personality and the wordplay is unexpected which creates crisp surprise and BOOM a laugh.

For example Conrad Hilton founder of Hilton Hotels was noted for being a dry and serious human being. When interviewed at a business function in January, he was asked, “What are some of your New Year’s resolutions?”

He replied, “I would just ask that people put the shower curtain INSIDE the tub.

Not incredibly funny by any means, but since Mr. Hilton is rarely ever seen saying anything that is NOT serious, it got a big laugh. It was the SURPRISE that triggered the laugh mechanism.

The eight major laughter triggers for the human being are:

  • Surprise
  • Embarrassment
  • Recognition
  • Incongruity
  • Release
  • Superiority
  • Ambivalence
  • Configurational

Some comedy writing gurus have stated that the last one, ‘configurational’ doesn’t apply to commercially accepted comedy today, but that’s completely wrong.

Configurational jokes are those that make an audience think and solve the punchline. If you think of Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, you know that that kind of comedy is alive and well.

Well Mitch Hedberg is dead, so I guess it’s only half-alive.

Hedberg and Wright still have had such influence, many comedians are emulating their style and becoming very successful.

You can’t watch Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg without starting to think funny or incongruously yourself.

But, after watching you might ask “how’s that help me to be funny?”

I’m glad you asked.

Sometimes just seeing it in action gives you a better understanding of how to apply it.

Understanding surprise as a laughter trigger is just the first step.

The real fun comes when you apply the techniques yourself.

You can be the most boring person in the world but if you engage surprise effectively, you could easily get a laugh.

One of my favorite techniques to get a laugh in everyday situations is to use the double entendre comedy formula. It’s one of techniques I teach in my 12-Steps to How To Be Funny for the every day person.

Double entendre means ‘two meanings.’

If you really take a moment and listen to the English language, you’ll find that we have a ton of words that have multiple meanings. All you have to do is think of the alternate meaning.

If you know someone that turns everything you say into a sexual connotation, then you know someone who uses double entendre to get a laugh.

GUY #1: You gonna be able to get your haircut this weekend?

GUY #2: Yeah, Cara said she could do me, Saturday.

GUY #1: Then, when’s she gonna cut your hair?

All you have to do is think of alternate meanings for common words.

For example, say you’re at the grocery store and the clerk at the counter says, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

Think in steps:

Step #1: What do they mean by that?

Step #2: Is there a word in that statement that I can change the meaning of?

Step#3: What is their intended meaning of that word?

Step#4: What’s my ‘comedic’ interpretation of the word?

CLERK: Did you find everything you were looking for?

YOU: Well, I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn’t find a soul mate. You had Mahi-mahi, but I’m not into twins.

Let’s try another one in a different joke format:

I was on the road with a comic. As he got off the phone with his girlfriend he said to me, “That’s a relief. My girlfriend got a cat to keep her company while I’m on the road.” Then I said, “Bad news is, that cat is a six-foot-two jazz musician.”

With the simple double-entendre formula, you can actually train yourself to recognize the multiple meanings of words and respond to it with a comedic or ‘alternate’ interpretation.

It’s fast. It’s easy and tons of fun… Sounds like my fat ex-girlfriend!

So use double-entendre and you’ll be on your way to learning how to be funny!

George Carlin May Be Dead; But Wordplay is Alive!

George Carlin - Modern Man

Wordplay in comedy is ‘hack!"

If you believed some comedians in this industry, you might think that statement is true.

If someone said that to me today, I would tell them that one of the most memorable comedy bits in all of comedy is George Carlin’s "Seven Words You Can’t Say On T.V."

It’s pure wordplay.

They might counter that with, "Well that was a long time ago."

And I might let them believe that they’re right and let them begin that fall into the abyss of ignorance and arrogance that usually accompanies a comedian who’s been doing comedy for all of four or five years.

But not you. I would never let you fall into that abyss.

The readers of my blog–all three of you–I’ll try to not only guide you but give you supporting evidence from one the the masters…

George Carlin; a master wordsmith in comedy.

Ironic, considering that he left school in 9th grade.

And although the argument that "Seven Words" is from a different era and that it wouldn’t play today might hold some relevance; though I doubt it, I give you "Modern Man," a bit of pure wordplay comedy that Carlin did in his later years.

And I dare you tell me it’s ‘hack.’

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What Is Funny?

comedy_tragedyYou really want to know what’s funny? How ‘bout some obscure blogger, (Me!), trying to write an article entitled “What is Funny?!”

Funny is such a subjective term.

How is anyone going to write about how to be funny? It’s almost like trying to definitively answer, “Who is God?” Or “What is Love?”

As a comedian of 25 years, a comedy writer for Jay Leno and The Tonight Show, comedy instructor and founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic, (a comedy workshop in Los Angeles), the question is posed to me, literally, every single day.

So I thought I’d get serious about it for a minute and try to come up with a possible answer. Please remember, this is just my theory and by no means a definitive answer. So keep the nasty comments to yourself. I’m still searching too!

In other words, shut your conch!

What is “funny?” You could ask that question in many different ways–“What is funny?” “What is funny?” “What is Funny?” Or even “What’s so funny, bitch?!…” and still come up with a blank stare.

I’m not going to proclaim that I know what’s funny to everyone. Funny is very subjective. What is funny to one person is not necessary going to be funny to another.

In a nutshell, we’re just guessing, the audience is the judge.

Here’s what I can do. I can analyze funny. In fact, let’s do it together:

According to the dictionary, the number one definition of “Funny” is “to cause laughter or amusement.” Most people can agree on that. I was going to say “all people can agree on that, ” but people will find any reason not to agree—just watch the U.S. Congress. So, for the purpose of this article, let’s all agree on the definition of “Funny” as it causes laughter or amusement. In this case, since we are looking for laughs, let’s focus on laughter.

Because amusement is even more subjective. To some, the “Tilt-a-Whirl” at a carnival causes amusement. For me, it causes vomit. And here I think we can all agree that—and I’ve done a little research in this area—that vomiting is only amusing…if it’s not you.

Okay, back to what is funny?. How do we find funny? Well since we know that funny equals laughter we can start by looking at the science of laughter. When we do, we discover that according to experts on human behavior, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.

Now, just by answering that, do you have any idea how far we’ve come now solving our initial question?

It’s almost algebraic. It’s almost an “if-then” statement: What is funny is something that causes laughter.

What causes laughter? Surprise, and if A=B and B=C, then A=C.

Then if Laughter = Funny and

Surprise = Laughter, then

Surprise = Funny!

Got it?

Say it with me: SURPRISE EQUALS FUNNY!

Some people say that you can’t teach stand up comedy or for that matter teach somebody how to be funny. And while I do believe you are born with talent and you develop skill, I also know that if you have a reasonable amount of intelligence and a command of the English language you can learn the structures of how to manipulate words to take something seemingly mundane and turn it into something funny.

I teach a comedy class in the Los Angeles area and I can teach just that to average, but amazing people and I’ve had tremendous results.

Can You Teach Funny?
How do you teach this, you ask?

All it takes is a little surprise.

Sid Caesar said, “Comedy is a story with a curlicue.”

If you tell me a story and you give it a surprise ending, you have just written your first joke. Tell me something about yourself:

Comedian Tim Bidore used to open with this joke: “I come from a large family…four Moms, five Dads…” He just took something mundane, a cliché of everyday life and really just changed the ending. It’s a curlicue. It’s unexpected. Hence, it’s a surprise. Is it Funny? Let’s go back to the formula

If Laughter=Funny, and

Surprise=Laughter, then

Surprise=Funny.

But we also understand the adage, the audience is the judge and in this case the audience still laughs at that line every time…and what is laughter equal to? FUNNY!

Now we’re starting to get it! Let’s look at it in another way…

How about when you go to the grocery store? When you check out, what does the clerk always say? “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Right? How do you usually respond? By saying, “Yes.” Because even if you didn’t find everything you were looking for, you just don’t want to deal with it.

But if you applied a common comedy formulas called The Double Entendre, you can start to look at a sentence or a question the way a comedian looks at it; by taking the implied meaning of a word and giving it a comedic perspective.

First, look at the question: “Did you find everything you were looking for?” We know what he/she means when they ask that question. What they’re asking is: Did you find everything you were looking for while you were shopping today.

What if we too the implied meaning of “everything” and blew it up a little? What if we took the meaning to the next level? “Did you find everything you’re looking for?” But this time we analyze it with a comedian’s sense; what do most people look for, not at the store, but in life; the meaning of life, or a soul mate, or love?

So what if we took one of those interpretations and responded to the question differently? Does it change? Let’s look:

Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking for?

Me: (Looking at the items on the conveyor) Well, I found some wine and some candlelight, but I couldn’t find my soulmate. You had Mahi-Mahi, but I’m just not into twins.

Now you have something that’s clever and unique. It will get a laugh every time at the grocery store because your interpretation of the intended meaning of “everything” is surprising and since we’ve already established that

Surprise triggers laughter and…

Laughter equals funny, then…

You’re on your way to understanding what is funny!

Comedy Class | Need A Laugh? Tell The Truth!

swear-inHmmm? What’s that you say? Tell the truth? Why do I need to waste my time telling the truth when I’m busy trying to be funny?

One of the best things about comedy is that almost anything goes, especially the truth.

My comedy students ask me: “what do I do when they’re not laughing?” My first response is, “Write better jokes!”  But when the joke or idea is pretty good and they’re still not laughing what do you do to get through the set? Your best bet is honesty… and when I say “honesty,” I mean honesty about exactly how you feel at that moment.

You know what? It almost never fails!

I’ve been teaching this little gem in my comedy classes from the beginning and only the best implement it. But when they do, it works. One of my students was having a trying set at the Comedy Store. He’s a natural so he didn’t think he needed to prepare thoroughly. He thought he could basically get on stage and “riff” it.

After the first couple of jokes didn’t resonate the way he hoped, you could actually see him go right into his head. He started to sweat. Then something snapped and he said to himself, “fuck it.”

He let out a sigh and said to the audience. “Man, this stuff was getting laughs in my head when I rehearsed it.” The audience let out a strong laugh. It was a laugh that came from release. The release of tension of them empathizing for a comedian who was bombing.

Then he said, “The last place I want to be right now is right here on this stage.” The audience laughed harder and then applauded. They applauded out of the fact that someone, anyone in their lives was being purely honest. This comedian, whom they didn’t know, just bared his soul in front of them. They rewarded him with applause.

After that, he was able to recover, get out of his head and finish his set.

Seventeen comedians and two drinks later a couple approached him after the show. They said, “You were our favorite.” He was like, “Why?” They said, “because you were so REAL.”

So the next time you feel the jokes aren’t clicking… Tell the truth!

Busting The Top 3 Comedy Myths

mythbusters2In the 25 years that I’ve been a professional comedian, I’ve faced a lot of so-called myths that have spread around the comedy circles. It’s amazing that no matter how much you work to diffuse those myths or prove those myths wrong, new comedians seem to continue to nurture and spread tired, hugely over-told and wildly understood myths. I’m using this particular post to point them out and bust them. So that they don’t continue to stifle up-and-comers. Here they are:

1. Don’t laugh at your own jokes.

One of my students was performing her act on stage and despite the fact that she’s an attractive girl, she wore this “scowl” throughout her act. It’s wasn’t a result of her point of view or her emotional approach to the joke, it was just a scowl. At the end of her set I said, “You should smile more. It opens up your face and shows you’re having a good time.”

She said, “ I don’t want to because a comic friend of mine said I shouldn’t laugh at my own jokes.”

That particular rule of thumb is so misunderstood. There’s a difference between enjoying the material and “laughing at your own jokes.” I think that rule is better applied to those comedians who laugh because the joke doesn’t get laughs. The comedian who laughs to say “hey look at me I’m funny…” is what that rule of thumb is better suited for. But you can laugh and enjoy and giggle and play all you want.

If you want to see someone who blasts that rule to smithereens, watch Craig Ferguson work. He has a great time is always laughing at himself.

Here’s a bit of theater science: “The audience is in whatever state the performer is in.” So if you’re having a good time, the audience has no choice but to have a good time.

2. Prop Comics & Guitar Comics are all hacks.

Gotta put this bitch to bed once an for all. There are a lot of comedians that think that just because they prefer to be monologists, that anyone who uses an instrument or a prop is a hack. That’s NOT necessarily true. Guitar and prop comics are simply adding an additional dynamic to the overall show. Those who waste time calling them “hacks” are either naïve or jealous.

A good guitar comic is probably booking more festivals and New Years’ shows at a substantially higher dollar rate than a monologist, because the music can take the audience to another level of participation.

If you are using props, impressions or a guitar, you better be good and the jokes better be solid and interesting, original and funny. There is a tendency for a prop comic, an impressionist or a guitar comic to use their props or instruments to get easy laughs. If you do this, you’re going to wind up being classified as a “hacky” comic. But then again if you were a strict monologist and your material wasn’t interesting intelligent, original or funny, wouldn’t you be considered “hacky” anyway?

carrot top

People make fun of Carrot Top because he’s a prop comic. Why would any comedian waste time and energy bashing someone who’s doing what he loves and making a living. Bash all you want. Carrot Top has his own theater in Vegas and is one of the highest earning comedians alive today. Instead of bashing Carrot Top, comedians should ask themselves, “What can I learn from his success?”

I might not be a big fan of prop comedy, but I’m a fan of Scott Thompson, (Carrot Top).

3. “I Gotta Follow That?”

I hear a lot of comedians wait to go on stage and someone really good just finishes and they say something like, “You mean, I gotta follow that?!”

Here’s what I learned over the years in this business. The audience wants to enjoy every comedian. They really want to hear a unique and different point of view. I learned a long time ago that you’re not “following” any body. You’re just “next.”

This lesson was taught to me in a very unique way. I was a fiery and fast feature comedian back in the day, hungry to step up to the headliner position. I was writing my ass off and rehearsing and touring 35 weeks a year. I wanted to headline. So when I took the stage I poured it on. I would always give the best shows I could.

I was in Sacramento working at a club called Laughs Unlimited and it was the first night of the week and I was working with the lovely Diane Nichols. Diane had been on The Tonight Show with Johnny and Jay. I wanted to blow the doors off the place to prove that even though she was on network T.V., she couldn’t follow this gun slinger.

I went on stage and right out of the gate I was hitting all my jokes. Everything worked. I was on fire. I wrapped up and she came on stage. In an exhausted forty-something voice she said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman how ‘bout a hand for Jerry Corley…what a ball of energy huh? (Big pause)… I wish I had that kind of energy…”

The audience laughed hard. She didn’t miss a beat. She wasn’t worried about following me… she wasn’t even thinking about me. She was doing her thing and since the audience is in whatever state the performer is in, they were right there with her too.

I learned a BIG LESSON that night.

That came back to me later in my career too. I was headlining at a resort in Nevada and this guitar comic I admire, Huck Flynn, was booked as a feature. I thought the booker must have screwed up because he was rocking rooms as a headliner before I even started in comedy. But here I was having to follow him… did he take it easy on me? No way! He got on stage and blew the doors off the place. The audience loved him.

Now it was my turn. I remembered that lesson I learned from Diane Nichols… I got on stage nice and easy and I said, “Wow, ladies and gentleman, how ‘bout a hand for Huck Flynn…he can really play with that guitar, huh? (Big pause)… I’m not even that good playing with myself…”

They forgot about Huck and they were now with me, because I stayed true to me and my groove… because I wasn’t following anybody, I was just next.