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Learning how to be funny is an essential people skill.
Most people don’t realize you can learn how to be funny. In fact, I want to convince you that the funniest people hone their witty craft.
And being funny matters.
You’ll be more successful if you know how to make people laugh.
…but only the good kind of laugh, not the awkward kind:
Learning how to be funny can make everything easier. Let me tell you a story.
A year ago, I was having dinner with my favorite person. But I hadn’t said anything remotely funny in the last hour.
The dinner was great. The company was great. The awkwardness was great.
I wanted to impress this guy. And yet, all I had been saying was, “Wow…Cool” and “OMG, that’s SO amazing…” with overly dramatic dropped-jaw expressions. My heart was beating. My inner self was mocking me, “Such a loser!”
I wasn’t able to come up with anything clever on the spot.
The next day, I woke up knowing I had blown it completely. I’m sure he thought I was boring–heck, I thought I was boring!
Feeling stupid, I asked Uncle Google “How to be funny?” I got some interesting, but not all that helpful, answers. Things such as, “Listen carefully,” “Appreciate irony,” and “Be surprising.”
I’m sure those funny tips are all true, but HOW EXACTLY DO YOU USE THEM??
I set out to find actionable and easy-to-use-by-anyone ways to be funny. I went to the best:
- The amazing Humor Investigator, Siyan Li, who analyzed 600+ talk show videos (Yes, she admits to having mild OCD tendencies.) to uncover patterns for anyone to be funny and witty, fast.
- My friend, comedian David Nihill, who spent more than a year interviewing and studying comedians for his book, Do You Talk Funny? 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker
My goal was to uncover exact lines and formulas ANYONE can use to be funny in daily conversations. I wanted to go beyond the vague instructions that still leave me wondering what to say. Let’s change that for you too.
Using the research just mentioned, I have put together a post on how to be funnier. If you want to know how to get funnier in your personal and business life, here are the exact lines, formulas, and practical strategies.
Give the opposite answer to yes/no questions
The easiest way to be funny, even if you are not, is to give the opposite answer to yes/no questions.
Yes, it is that simple. If people are expecting you to say yes, you say no; if people are expecting you to say no, you say yes. The more obvious the better. Let’s look at why this works:
This is Jennifer Lawrence’s go-to strategy.
This clip was filmed just after Jennifer shot to fame with The Hunger Games. Don’t forget, at that time she was only around 20 years old.
Given all these factors, the reasonable and expected answer to “Are you used to it (all the attention and publicity)?” is a big fat “No.”
I bet 99 out of 100 people would have answered Ellen’s question with “NO! It’s overwhelming/amazing/crazy,” with their head shaking, modesty taking control, and giving you chapter and verse about how lucky they are and who they want to thank.
You expected Jennifer Lawrence to answer with “No.” So, when she didn’t, it became funny.
When people expect you to say yes, trying saying no.
A yes/no question is your cue.
Let’s see another example of J Law — you will know how much she loves this tactic!
Jennifer was the guest host on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, interviewing Kim Kardashian. That was a first-time for Jennifer. So, Stephen Colbert asked Jennifer about her first-time experience of being a talk show host: “Not that easy, huh?”
Guess what Jennifer said?
“Pretty easy! Not that hard!”
Seeing Stephen’s shocked face was when I fell in love with this tactic. Of course, the truth is, it wasn’t easy. Jennifer went on to talk about why it was difficult immediately afterward.
A ‘How to Be Funny’ Tip: When people ask you a yes/no question where you think they already know your answer, try giving the opposite first. Then, of course, laugh and give your real answer, which is what Jennifer did after pausing for raucous laughter.
The magic is that the moment you give the opposite answer, you have surprised your audience, so they laugh. Then you can move on to your real story.
I tried this technique myself the other day.
At a dinner, a group of newly acquainted friends were talking about each other’s background. Knowing that I’m a scholar from China, a guy teased, “So you must be one of those one-in-a-million smart Chinese students selected by the government, huh?”
I said, “OH, YEAH!”
Raucous laughter! Of course, I’m probably not. 🙂
Special Note: Give the opposite answer for yes/no questions when there is a strongly expected answer. Otherwise, neither “Yes” nor “No” is gonna be funny for questions such as, “Is the weather good?”
The best part? You don’t need to be naturally funny to come up with any clever stuff. Just throw out a “yes” or “no,” and there you go.
Play with Numbers
Uncle Google says that “be surprising” is the way to be funny. It’s true. But how?! One way to be surprising is to play with numbers.
For those of you who dread numbers: fear not. Numbers are your best friend when it comes to being funny.
Why? Because numbers are specific. When something is small, numbers tell. When something is big, numbers tell. When someone is a jerk, numbers tell. (Please forget the last sentence, but the first two are true).
Therefore, to be surprising, all you have to do is build up people’s expectation to be the opposite of what that number suggests. For example:
Amy did a phenomenal job prepping Ellen to believe that the prize money was very small. But then she decided to be funny about it, so she dropped $10 million, which is a huge number! And that’s why everyone was surprised and laughed so hard.
Most people would think a party with 150 people is not small. Sofia also led people to believe that she was gonna say a very small number by 1) first saying “It wasn’t that big.” and 2) using the word “ONLY.” Both are very convenient ways to build up people’s expectations in the opposite direction.
A ‘How to Be Funny’ Tip: When you’re about to say a very big number, add “only” before it. When you are about to say a very small number, say something along the lines of “it’s a huge amount” beforehand.
Use The Rule of 3
At its most basic level, the Rule of 3 establishes a pattern, then ends with something unexpected. For example, I say red, white, and blue. But what if I say red, white, and barf. It’s kind of funny, and your brain perks up because it was an unexpected turn to the Rule of 3.
This breakaway from the pattern created by the first two items builds tension and creates surprise, usually resulting in laughter. Think of it as 1 normal, 2 normal, 3 funny / odd / different.
When you are talking, see if you can give an unexpected answer for 3. This is especially funny in writing. For example,
- I want to teach you how to be more charismatic, more captivating, and more words that start with c.
- I love hotdogs, hamburgers, and handsome men.
- I am so thrilled, happy, and terrified to be here!
You can see some examples from the world of TED here:
Use a Character Switch
When we tell a story, there are usually multiple characters in that story. More often than not, those characters have very distinct personas that people will make assumptions about. For example, Little Red Riding Hood is the vulnerable one, and the Big Bad Wolf is the dangerous one. But what if you switch personas around and the Big Bad Wolf suddenly is vulnerable? That’s when people’s assumptions are overturned and things become really interesting and funny.
Obviously, Ellen was talking about Sofia’s English since Sofia is the foreigner with the thick accent here. But Sofia just pretended that Ellen wasn’t talking about her, but about Reese. This unexpected character switch is funny.
In the story of Jennifer Lawrence getting into a bar fight in Budapest, two characters are involved: Jennifer and the aggressor.
Seth implied that Budapest was a dangerous place for Jennifer to get into a fight. But Jennifer pretended that Seth was not referring to her, but the other character in the story — the aggressor.
A ‘How to Be Funny’ Tip: If you and your friends are talking about an experience or a story where at least two characters are involved (that’s just about any story isn’t it?), then it could be your chance to be funny. Switch the character traits for an unexpected twist.
Bonus Example: Fifty Shades Freed
In the movie Fifty Shades Freed, Ana asked Christian, “If you are not coming with me to the forest, what if I run into a bear?”
“Too bad for the bear!” quips Christian.
Christian substituted Ana with the other character in the story — the bear.
Use “Whatever” as Your Secret Weapon
In my opinion, Sofia Vergara is one the funniest actresses in the business. She has a go-to word: whatever.
She uses whatever especially when people ask her awkward questions.
Example 1: Sofia was sharing that she ate a lot of pizza in Italy. Jay Leno saw an opportunity to tease her, so he asked how much weight she gained. It all was getting kind of awkward. Sofia didn’t want to answer, but Jay kept pushing…
Boom! By throwing out a “whatever,” Sofia turned things around. She made it look as though it wasn’t her being made fun of; it was those who tried mocking her who were being ridiculous.
We all have a friend like Jay, who’s bubbly and funny, but also can be a little too much sometimes–such as when you are the butt of their jokes. Instead of secretly feeling annoyed and dampening the mood for everyone else, just say “whatever” like Sofia.
Here’s another example of using “whatever” to turn a mistake into a funny opportunity. Ellen was teasing Sofia about her pronunciation of “pyramids.” Did Sofia get mad? No. Was Sofia angry? No. Was Sofia annoyed? Probably a little!
But “whatever” made it funny instead of staying as the butt of the joke herself.
A ‘How to Be Funny’ Tip: Did your parents tell you that difficulties are blessings in disguise? Turns out it’s true for being funny and charming too.
When people tease you, mock you, ask you difficult questions, those moments can be your golden opportunities.
If everyone expects you to lose your cool, and you actually turn things around by being funny about it, you immediately become a star.
So, don’t fear the annoying questions. Be a star, exuding confidence, wit, and charm. Shout out a “whatever.”
Use real-life stories, not jokes
Ever since the 1960s, exceptionally funny people have relied upon what’s called “observational humor” to make people laugh. The classic examples of this are Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, whose experiences led them not just to do stand-up comedy, but also to create two award-winning comedy shows (NBC’s Seinfeld and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm). The beauty of using personal experiences as fodder for humor is that your life experience is unique, and, therefore, stories based on it are guaranteed to be original.
Jon Acuff does this really well:
The easiest way to be funny is highlighting actual funny things that happen in your everyday life. This is much easier than trying to come up with jokes on the spot. Exceptionally funny people track everything they find funny and then practice sharing it. In the olden days, great comedians carried notebooks to jot down funny thoughts or observations, and scrapbooks for news clippings that struck them as funny.
Today, you can do that easily with your phone. If you have a funny thought, record it as an audio note. If you read a funny article, save the link in your bookmarks. The world is a funny place, and your existence within it is probably funnier. Accepting that fact is a blessing that gives you everything you need to see humor and to craft stories on a daily basis. All you have to do is document the stories and then tell someone.
A ‘How to Be Funny’ Tip: Tell Stories not Jokes
You might think that the story of you tripping and falling at the grocery store doesn’t qualify as a joke. Actually, jokes are harder to tell in real life than stories. A joke is a fake story that sets up for a punchline. If the punchline falls flat, you end up looking like a fool. Rather than tell jokes, exceptionally funny people tell relevant stories that have humorous elements. If people don’t find a story funny, no big deal, because the story has a point beyond just being funny. If people laugh, then all the better.
Delay the funny
When you have a funny quip or idea or joke, it’s hard not to share it right away. But the best-placed pun is actually at the end. Put the funny part at the end of the sentence. For example, if the fact it’s a cat is the surprise or twist in your story, don’t say, “There was a cat in the box.” Say, “In that box was a cat.” That way, you’re not still talking when the audience is meant to be laughing. This also makes your timing look awesome.
You can watch President Obama doing this here:
An easy way to delay (and replay) the funny is to use callbacks. Callbacks bring together everything in the end. This is where you go back (callback) and reference items that just got a laugh, or create something from items mentioned earlier in the conversation. This can be one of your jokes that worked or something funny or memorable from someone else. Remember, you don’t have to tell a new joke to be funny!
Now I am going to end on something you know, but don’t want to know: Practice makes perfect. The more you practice your jokes, your stories, and your timing, the funnier you will be. Start small, with a few written jokes, a few casual stories around the water cooler. If you are really brave, sign up for an improv class or offer to write a wedding toast. Your funny is worth it.
With these tips you absolutely can learn how to be funny. I know this because I wasn’t born funny. In fact, I wasn’t funny at all. I am still no comedian. But I can tell you that after analyzing and applying these tactics in my daily conversations, I became a much wittier person.
I want to give a huge thanks to David Nihill and Siyan Li for these amazing tips. They have more great funny tips to share with you:
David Nihill was asked to give a talk at Google, which he was willing to share. Watch his full presentation here on how to be funnier:
Siyan Li has put together an amazing resource, 5 Exact Lines That Will Make You Funny & Witty Immediately, so you can respond to some of the most common scenarios and questions in a funny way!
Speaking of funny, here are a few jokes where I humiliated myself just for you: