How Can You Be Funny On the Spot Without Pre-Written Jokes?


How can you be funny on the spot without pre-written jokes? 

I found the question super intriguing.

Over the last 35 years or so studying comedy I've come to the conclusion that most people develop their "natural" comedic ability through exposure and experience.

When I really started to look into that idea, I realized it was the same for a lot of big name comedians as well.

Jerry Seinfeld, one of my favorite comedians, actually said, "You can't teach comedy... you either got it or you don't." 

Then in the same interview he said that when he was 10 years old or so, his parents bought a new TV and he convinced them to let him keep the old TV and put it in his room. His parents agreed and Jerry said he said he spent as much time as he could watching comedy on that TV. He said he would study the comedians day and night.

That's not "you either got it or your don't" that's a learning process called immersion where you learn from exposure and experience.

How I learned through exposure and experience

When I was in 6 grade, there was this student in my homeroom class. His name was Andy. Every time the teacher would say a word that had a double meaning or sounded like another word, Andy would do a play on that word and comment on it out loud. The teacher and the rest of the class would laugh. 

Later I would find out that Andy immersed himself in comedy at home.

His mother worked for Colombia records and she would bring home albums of musical acts and comedians. Andy would listen to these albums over and over again.

One time I went to his house to hang out. At around 5:30, his mother came home from work. She had a Polish accent so she kind of rolled r's. She said "Andrew, are you hungry, (it sounded like Hungary)." 

Without missing a beat, Andy said, "I thought I was Polish?" 

I thought that was so funny.

To this day, that stupid line is still funny to me. 

And being in sixth grade, I thought it was really funny because I never really saw someone be funny on the fly like that... at least not in person.  

At that moment, I knew that I was going to make Andy my best friend. 

Understanding Wordplay and Double Entendre

Once I figured that out, it was off to the races.

When Andy and I were in class together, I learned to listen for those words and try to beat him to the punch because I wanted to get the laugh too.

The kids in the class loved us.

The teachers hated us.

But they couldn't really hate, hate us because they were kind of laughing too and it's impossible to dislike someone who makes you laugh.

But Andy was always funny and I would listen to other ways he would get laughs.

Learning from George Carlin

I started to hang out at Andy's house after school and we'd spend the few hours before his mother came home listening to comedy albums or music.

When we listened to George Carlin, I heard a lot of the wordplay games that we were already using.

But Carlin would intentionally dig into the meanings of words and the sounds of words and expand on them. Since I was already exposed to the sounds of some words, Carlin's expanded approach made even more sense.  I could now kind of “see” what he was doing.

Carlin Introduces Irony Through Hypocrisies and Inconsistencies

The thing that really struck me about Carlin is how he would look for inconsistencies in things, especially in behaviors.

Like what people said they would do and what they actually did, especially with authority figures or people who were perceived as more powerful than the average guy.

I remember listening to an album of Carlin's where he said, 

"Don't you think it's funny that all these tough-guy boxers are fighting over a purse?"

Then I heard him say...

"I don't understand why prostitution is illegal. Selling is legal, fucking is legal. So, why isn't it legal to sell fucking? Why should it be illegal to sell something that's legal to give away? I can't follow the logic." 

And when Carlin said things like that, it taught me that in a lot of cases, if you listen really closely to what people say, then put it under a spot light and point out their inconsistent beliefs and ideas, you're catching them in a glaring lie, or a profound mistake.

Then you point out to an audience that a perceived authority was making an obvious mistake, that kind of thing makes the regular guy feel superior. And although they might not feel like they can do anything to change it, at least they could laugh about it.

Irony is also contained hypocritical behavior and irony is a laughter trigger, especially when the person, entity or institution committing the mistake or the lie should know better.

In a nutshell, Carlin was pointing out the illogic of their so-called logic.

"Why do we start wars to protect the peace?"

I found this approach super intriguing. So I started looking for my own real-world inconsistencies in things that authority figures said. 

I was still in middle school, so those authority figures were my teachers.

Applying it in a "real-world" Scenario

I remember in my wood shop class, my teacher Mr. Todd said, "In this class you will not wear jewelry, because of the equipment. If you wear a necklace and it gets caught in the lathe, it could chop your head off." 

Mr. Todd said the words, "Chop your head off" in a unique tone of voice like he was trying to scare us.

And that’s when I spotted an inconsistency with his words and behaviors, because Mr. Todd said we couldn't wear necklaces but Mr. Todd was always wearing a necktie. 

The next day I was talking to some of my friends in wood shop. I was like, "I had a dream that Mr. Todd was showing us the lathe and his necktie got caught in it and the spinning lathe (recreating his unique tone of voice) 'chopped his head off.'"

"And his severed head was sitting on the workbench going, (I moved my thumb and fingers to resemble a mouth moving. ) 'That does not mean you can leave! You still need a pass! Can somebody get me a paper towel?'" 

I thought maybe the story was a little funny, but all the kids at the table were laughing like it was the funniest thing they ever heard.
Then Mr. Todd came in and said, "What's so funny?"  

Eventually I had to repeat the story to him. 

He didn’t laugh.

The next night was open house and the parent-teacher conference and Mr. Todd wanted to talk to my parents alone.

In the car on the way home, my parents told me that Mr. Todd said I make too many jokes in class and I'm becoming a disruptive "pain in the ass."

I thought I was in big trouble.  So I stayed quiet. Then my dad said, "For the sake of the class, son, you should tone it down a bit. But I told Mr. Todd that Jerry might like to tell jokes a little too much sometimes, but there are probably a lot of other ways Jerry could be a pain in the ass that are a lot less pleasant."

This I took as a green light to still joke around.

Learning the Lesson of M.A.P.

So now I had two ways I could make jokes, 1. Listen to what people say and take one of the words that sounds like it could make that sentence have an alternate meaning, then comment on that sentence based on that alternate meaning, 2. Look for inconsistencies in what people say and what they actually do. 

But what I didn't know about was something I learned from Melvin Helitzer in his book Comedy Writing Secrets. It's something he calls M.A.P. Which is an acronym for Material - Audience - Performer. The material has to be right for the audience and right for the performer.

Like one time in Algebra class, the teacher, Mr. Roberts--an ex-Marine--was teaching us about word problems. 

He said, "Word Problems. It's a math problem that's presented in words."

He paused, the corners of his mouth curled up in an awkward smile.

Then it hit me: He was expecting that would get a laugh. 

And then he did the worst thing you can do. He repeated the line. He said, "It's a math problem that's presented in words! Get it?"

So I quickly said, "So if you fail, do you get an 'F' in Math or English?"

The class laughed. 

And Mr. Roberts threw an eraser at my head.

And that's when I learned that you can combine the words with the inconsistencies and if you relate them back to the right words, it could also trigger a laugh. 

I also learned that comedy can be a word problem. 

But importantly, I learned that even if you think something is funny, don't be a pain in the ass. 

Practicing What You Learn

When we're kids we see someone clap their hands and we mimic it and that's how we learn.

We see someone snap their fingers and we mimic it.

We see our brother, uncle or friend drum with their fingers really fast or with a rhythm. It sounds cool, so we start to we start to do it.

Comedy can be the same way. It's a lot like learning to blow a bubble with bubble gum. It doesn't just happen. You practice and practice, until you get good at it.

Reflecting back on those experiences and exposures to comedy, reminds me that when I became aware of certain ways that someone could make people laugh, I could re-use those same techniques repeatedly in different situations to get more laughs.

Once you learn about wordplay and double-entendre and start to apply it, you start to see opportunities to do it everywhere.

The key is, you have to try it. 

If it doesn't work, go back and listen to other examples, then try your own.

Listen to examples and try your own.

Keep doing this.

Sometimes you'll embarrass yourself because it will sound dumb or stupid, but if you keep practicing, it starts to stick.

It's not magic. It doesn't over night, but the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

But these are only a few approaches you can use to get people to laugh in the moment without a script.

I think it's one of the best places to start. 

Here's a secret: Have you ever played the game, "That's What She said?"

That's a simple wordplay game. It's just taking a word that is intended to communicate a certain idea, but it sounds like it could be sexual word or some kind of metaphor for something sexual. Then we play it as a misinterpreted sexual term just by saying that's what she said.

Use These Examples to Practice on Your Own

Here are some examples that you can use play around with on your own. ("Play around with" Ha-ha):
Keep in mind, these are mostly silly or dumb jokes that are just there to get your brain dancing.

"I'm on the no-boyfriend diet. Four out of five doctors say it's the best way to lose a big ass."

"I met a girl who lived in a trailer. It was a double-wide... and so was the trailer."

"I jumped for joy, but Joy jumped out the window."

"I have sex the way George W. Bush goes to war, I don't know when to pull out."

Now Choose the Scenarios Below and Try Some Yourself

  • Your significant other is cutting a piece of cake and says, "Would you like a piece?"
  • You're at the grocery store and an attractive clerk says, "Did you find everything you were looking for?"
  • You come home from work and your significant other says, "I'm having some gas pains."
  • You call your Hair Salon and to book an appointment and he/she says, "I can do you on Saturday."
  • In the bible people get stoned to death.
  • My hard drive needs to have some work done on it.
  • My wife was on top of the world

Mastery Comes From Deliberate Practice

The people we meet who are really witty or seem to be naturally funny, have been observing and practicing for a long time. Every time they use a phrase with friends, that's their practice.

So once you learn these little tricks (what I like to call structures), you have remember to try them out and try them out often. Soon they will become a part of you and you'll start to be seen as witty.

And you'll know you're getting good at it when a teacher, a boss, or your spouse starts to refer to you as a "pain in the ass."

Jerry Corley
Jerry Corley

Jerry Corley is a professional comedian of nearly 30 years, working nearly every venue imaginable.