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!

The Key To Comedy

Key to comedyOne of the most common questions I get as a stand up comedian, writer and now coach is: What is the key to comedy?

And although there are too many variables for me to even suggest that I have all the answers when it comes to comedy, I can give you the key. That’s right I can give you the key to comedy.

The key is SURPRISE.

If we break comedy down; I mean, really break comedy down into parts, then we can start to design solutions. So let’s do that briefly in this blog post.

I guess we can all agree that for comedy to be comedy, we need to get the audience to laugh, right? So that’s our problem. We need to make people laugh.

So let’s find a solution…

Somebody has to be laughing in order for someone to say that something is comedic or humorous. Now that we know that, we need to know what causes people to laugh.

According to several psychologists, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise.

Create surprise and do it well and the audience almost has no choice but to laugh.

Imagine that power as a comedian; to put the audience in the position where they have no choice but to laugh!

Now that we have that psychological element in place we are part of the way through solving our problem. The next question is how to we pull that trigger?

We create surprise in our writing or our dialogue, conversation, speech or script.

There are several ways to create surprise in comedy. I’m going to share with you the simplest and one of the most commonly used strategies to create surprise:

  • Double Entendre
Double Entendre means “two meanings.” Those of us in comedy are blessed that the English language provides us with multiple meanings of words. We can use a word in a sentence to imply one meaning then use the comedic interpretation to create comedy. To look at it in its simplest form: if you have a friend that turns everything into a sexual connotation, then you’ve probably seen the double-entendre formula used in comedy. It could be used in scene writing too.
A basketball coach is at a press conference after his team lost in a blow out;
PRESS: Coach how do you feel about the execution of the offense?
COACH: I’m all for it.
In this example, the coach used the comedic interpretation of the word “execution.” While the journalist meant how do you think the offense played?  The coach went for the surprise meaning of “kill.”
Because the expected of the word execution was so strong in the context in which it was being used, when the coach played the comedic meaning, he created a level of surprise that would lead just about any crowd to a laugh. Couple that with the fact that the losing coach is normally NOT in a good mood. He is not expected to be funny.

Surprise also occurs when something happens that is unexpected, right? So do or say something unexpected and you have an increased possibility of creating a laugh.

Here’s another example of using surprise:

When I was in the grocery store, the check out girl said to me, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” The word “everything” really stood out for me. What did she mean when she said “everything?” Her intended meaning was probably did I find everything I was shopping for.

What is my comedic meaning of everything? The meaning of life, a soul-mate, eternal love, etc.

I went with that interpretation. So, when she asked “Did you find everything you were looking for?” I said, “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.”

That got big laugh with her.

Word play makes up the majority of all comedy out there. But the comedian has to be careful not to overuse it. It’s easy to get “punny” if you use it incorrectly. And you’ll wind up getting groans.

Then that key to comedy will just wind up breaking off in the lock.

Comedy Class | Don’t Use ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

commercial_4Got an email from someone and I thought it would be best addressed in my comedy-blog. Read on:

"I have a question which has been messing with me when writing my premise or setup. i find myself trying to produce material before wednesday which are the best nights in florida for open mics. my issue is not coming up with an idea its just getting it across so before i saw your blogs i went and got a book on comedy " The Comedy Bible" which states when writing your premise you need to have a topic + attitude which i understand that concept but it also states that when starting out a joke or building the premise you never want to use I or me. i saw your blog for the 1-2-3-joke about your poker app and in your premise you start off with I. i just want to know is that a myth as well? should i throw away that idea of when writing my premise not to include I or me?"

Great question! First of all, let me get this straight: there are rarely definitives in life like "never" and "always."

Maybe some exceptions could be

  • "Never perform fire eating tricks after drinking One-Fifty-One."
  • "Never joke about bombs in the security line at the airport and expect to board your flight," or
  • "Never use the "N-word" as a white comedian while performing at a fund-raising benefit for Malcom X."

Those might be a few things that could fit in the "never" category. But when it comes to comedy theory there are few "nevers."

I’ve never heard the rule "never use ‘I’ or ‘me’," however. And I’m glad I haven’t because I do it all the time. My comedy is about my life and it would be hard to discuss my life without using those pronouns. There are no rules to that effect as far as I’m concerned.

In fact, if you watch Louis C.K., he talks about ‘I’ and ‘me’ quite often. Same with Lewis Black, John Stewart, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby… the list goes on.

I don’t know what Judy Carter was thinking or maybe she meant something different. But remember she named the book The Comedy Bible. It was named after a book that is so filled with distortions, contradictions and falsehoods, even the churches pick and choose what parts of it to believe!

The two things that I think are valuable in that book is that humor should come from an emotional foundation and it’s nice to have a comedy buddy.

In the end think about this: Tom Dreesen, one of the most successful comedians of his time said that comedy is 90 percent surprise. If your material has surprise, incongruity, recognition or benign retaliation, odds are it has the elements to get a laugh.

Finally, in the end, whether or not the joke contains ‘I’ or ‘me’ if the audience laughs, it’s a keeper.

3 Key Mistakes in Writing Jokes

I got an email from a person interested in doing stand up comedy and he saw my How To Write Comedy video online. In the video I take a headline right from Yahoo News and I write 15 jokes in about 30 minutes using what I call the listing technique.

The gentleman understood the concept but was having a hard time when it came time to write the material on his own from scratch. Sound familiar? So he emailed me a few questions including the line he was working with. The line was:

“Hand Sanitizer: The new vodka for teens”

Now that’s a headline!

One definition of a joke is “The convergence of two or more clearly identifiable ideas coming together.” It’s incongruity; comedy 101. You may already know this, but the incongruity comedy structure is probably the most common structure used in commercially accepted comedy today. It basically means you are imposing the characteristics of one thing onto another thing which normally does not possess those characteristics.

That headline does present us with two clearly identifiable ideas that are converging: Hand Sanitizer and drinking teenagers. But the problem with that headline is that it is a headline. It may work as a written piece of material but it doesn’t work for stand up because there is no conversation happening. In other words you would never talk this way so how would you present this to an audience?

Mistake #1:

When working with headlines. You must go beyond the headline to find the statement of fact that clearly defines to the reader or audience what we are talking about. The line must contain all the information we need to convey what is going on to the reader or listener. These are the facts. That’s why it’s called the straight line.

Mistake #2:

The line must be conversational. Many times people are trying to write jokes from the news or the headlines we forget to be conversational. The key to making someone laugh is surprise. If you sound like you are just telling someone a story and they are not expecting a twist that turns into a joke, then the joke is more effective.

Johnny Carson stood on that star on the Tonight Show for 30 years and we knew he was there to do his monologue. But he would start each joke in a conversational tone which made it sound like he was just sharing something he read or heard today. “Oh! I heard this today…” So if we used that concept for this joke premise it might sound like: “Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”

Do you see how that changed the tone of the headline and made it a bit more conversational? Remember it’s still stand up comedy so the structure of having the important word as close to the end of the sentence is still crucial.

So now you have a clear set up with all the information necessary to converge the ideas and get to the comedy and one way to get to the comedy here is to list all the ideas we can think about regarding hand sanitizer, alcohol and teens. This leads me to…

Mistake #3:

Most comedians do not take the time to do the lists so that they can find the jokes.

Because I’ve been doing this so long, I do a lot of the lists in my head, but when I get stuck I will make a thorough list to find the incongruities of the contrasting elements: hand sanitizer and drinking. These jokes came out of the top of my head… Please keep in mind that these are all first draft jokes. They still could use some refining:

“Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”

1. The good news is it has spurned new high school party games like “spin the Purell…” Sure you might still have to kiss the ugly chick, but you can be assured that she’ll be germ-free…

2. Kids are no longer doing shots they’re doing squirts. (or pumps)

3. Experts knew they were on to something when store shelves were stocked with hand sanitizers with names like Absolut, Grey Goose and Smirnoff.

or a version of the ‘spin the Purell joke:

4. Now kids are able to get filthy drunk, yet be completely germ free.

These 3 or 4 jokes rolled out of my head in seconds, just listing in my head. If I actually sat down and listed, I could probably turn out another 10-20 jokes or more.

Using the listing technique take that headline and let me know if you come up with any! Leave a comment below!

Treating Your Comedy Like a Science

test-tubeYou ever watch other comedians come to the club or the open-mic time and time again with new material? Are you envious? You ever watch other comedians just seemingly come up with material on the spot that makes you say to yourself “Genius! I wish I thought of that!” You ever wonder how they did it? How they seem to be able to do it time and time again?” You ask yourself how do they learn how to write comedy so well?

Well there are reasons that some comedians are good at this and some are not. In one instance you might say that a particular comedian is a “natural,” or he was “born with a gift.” But odds are he or she wasn’t “born with it” at all. Very few babies pop out of their mother’s womb saying stuff like “You call that a birth canal? It’s more like trying to push an egg through a stir stick!” or “Hey, Mom! Shave that! Haven’t you heard of a ‘Brazillian?’”

In most instances people who seem to be “born with it” actually had early exposure to comedy either through video or audio when they were younger. If you, as a child are exposed on a regular basis to the rhythms of comedy you begin to identify with comedy more readily and apply it in your life.

Your personality definitely has something to do with it. But the comedian then takes the next step and makes a conscious decision to actually apply it in their life. A light switch goes off and they say, “Hey, I can get laughs with this!” They then begin to recognize what they are doing that gets them laughter and they begin to replicate it. Whether they know it or not, they are learning how to write comedy.

A really good comedian will also study other comedians then apply some of the nuances to their material, recognizing patterns that seem to be consistently effective and use those in their approach to comedy. They see a comedian make an observational joke, then they observe something with a similar nuance and apply it to their repertoire.  As they get better at this, they may start writing this stuff down and then actually take the leap, build an act and start pursuing comedy. The more they do comedy the more they readily identify with the patterns and apply them more. 

For example, since I was seven years old, I listened to George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, constantly. They all do a lot of observational material. When I was twelve, I went to the Post Office with my father. There was a sign on the door that said, “NO DOGS ALLOWED, EXCEPT ‘SEEING-EYE DOGS’.” I said, “Dad, what’s a ‘seeing-eye’ dog,” (imagining a dog with one really big ‘seeing’ eye…).

He said, “It’s a dog that helps blind people get around…”

I looked at the sign, looked at him and said, “Then who’s this sign for?”

He thought that was really funny. A few years later, I heard comedian Gary Shandling do that same thing as a joke and get really big laughs. I thought to myself, “Wow, if I just collected a whole bunch of those ideas, I could get laughs too!”

It’s almost like a guitar player. You ask any famous guitar player, they’ll tell you how they learned a riff from another guitar player then developed a variation or multiple variations on that riff, until they had their own brand. The more riffs they learn, the more they developed their own version, soon they are the guitar player everyone is emulating.

What’s my point? The point is that a comedian learns to identify with patterns that get laughs. When those “patterns”—whether they are rhythmical patterns or recognition patterns—are part of what some of us in comedy refer to as “comedy structure” or “comedy formula.”

Some comedians, like Dave Chappelle, for example (one of my absolute favorites) develop an understanding of these rhythms by trial and error and experience. Chappelle has been doing stand up comedy since he was thirteen. He has learned what seems to work by developing and tuning his instinct. Jerry Seinfeld (another favorite of mine) also works almost totally on instinct. And when I say instinct, they apply formulas and patterns—not consciously knowing the formula—but because it ‘feels’ right.

In my twenty-five years as a comedian, comedy writer and diligent student of comedy, I have identified 11 major comedy formulas used in comedy today. I’ve learned to memorize them and put them into practice on a regular basis. Now when I write comedy they almost automatically come out and get applied to my stories. They also are a part of my conversation and thought process. Learning these formulas has helped me become a solid comedy writer, being able to write 60-120 jokes a day or more, because studying the formulas helped me really learn how to write comedy. I use these formulas on a daily basis to write comedy and in one of my other blog posts I demonstrate how I do this to write 15 jokes on one topic in thirty minutes.

Once you learn that comedy does have rhythms and patterns (formulas and structure) that do get consistent laughs and in fact are the reason all comedians trigger laughter from an audience, you will be a better comedian and comedy writer yourself. Learning the formulas early helps you to cut through the learning curve and instead of being a comedian that relies purely on their instinct, you can be the comedian who knows why a joke is funny and how to put it into your comedy whenever you want. Then you’ll be the comedian who knows not only how to be funny, but also, how to write comedy.