If the average person could improve just one trait, many would choose humor. People value charm, intellect, efficiency, patience, etc., but humor is a magic key. It oils the wheels of social interaction and makes almost anyone seem likeable and attractive. Indeed, when asked what they look for in a partner, most people include “a sense of humor,” and it is arguably the main thing they look for in a friend. In short, the funnier you are, the more popular you will be.
The Nature of Humor
To begin with, you need to develop a sense of timing and taste. You can be the sharpest and wittiest of people, but joke about the wrong things, or at the wrong time, and others will not find you funny. In general, avoid making jokes at another’s expense. This isn’t always true, of course. Among old friends, for example, there are often running jokes, sometimes dating back to school; friends in their 50s and 60s can still laugh at something stupid one of them did when he was nine. But be careful: deep down most of us resent being laughed at. Those old school friends may laugh along, but that doesn’t mean they like being reminded of the time they called the teacher “mum,” or the day their swimming trunks fell off in the pool!
Never make it too vicious or personal, and never ridicule someone to make yourself look good. If you mock someone in order to boost your own self-esteem, they will resent you. In essence, the joke must be “you are a fool, just like me and everyone else,” never “you are a fool, unlike me.” Don’t underestimate people; they will soon sense that this is what you are doing.
Humor is often a kind of defense mechanism. We laugh to reduce tension and the risk of confrontation. But we also laugh to make things less scary. The best comedians take a funny perspective on life’s struggles and traumas. The audience then laughs with relief to discover that they are not alone, that others have felt the same. Art offers something similar. We appreciate art because it makes us feel less alone and therefore less afraid. We recognize that this painter or novelist has felt the same lust and fear and grief as we have.
Comedy takes it a step further. The greatest stand-ups not only reassure us that they’ve also been incompetent parents, had disastrous marriages, struggled to pay the bills, and so on, but that this is no big deal, that it is even funny. They find humor and absurdity in darkness, and that comes as a wonderful revelation. Reassure people that their deepest fears aren’t so bad and you will be loved forever.
Humor tends to be rooted in what you should not say. So, for example, you are not supposed to admit that raising children is often exhausting and boring. Neither should you admit that your kids frequently disappoint you. The best stand-ups break the taboos that people secretly want broken. When you make a joke about your useless, lazy son, the other parent relaxes. They no longer have to compete with you, or defend their own child. Instead, they can smile, roll their eyes, and tell you that their son also failed his exams and cannot hold down a job! Instantly, you bond and establish intimacy. Without humor, social interaction would be unbearably tense, with people constantly on the lookout for insults or challenges.
Humor should never be an excuse for cruelty. Often, people disguise their hatred, or sadism, behind a joke. We’ve all heard someone say, often with fake astonishment, that “it was only a joke” when their victim takes offense. For example, do not draw attention to someone’s stutter or physical deformity. The individual himself may use humor to help them cope, but that is up to them, not you. Most people with a disability or deformity do not want your pity, but that doesn’t mean they want you to draw attention to it either. Some taboos need to be broken, some do not – learn to distinguish between them.
Even philosophers have tried to understand why we find certain things funny. Some argue that the pleasure comes from feeling superior. We laugh because the other person has been made to look a fool, and that makes us feel good about ourselves. That would explain the popularity of hidden camera shows, for example, in which a member of the public has a trick played on them. We laugh because it might have been us – but it wasn’t.
This sort of humor is especially popular at school. Here you have a bunch of insecure, hormonal teenagers desperate to fit in and be accepted. The quickest route is to humiliate another child (which explains the constant bullying). Nothing is funnier to a teenage boy than the sight of another teenage boy making a fool of himself. And of course we laugh when someone’s sense of superiority is undermined. For example, only the very cruel would laugh at an elderly or blind person falling over. However, if the Town Mayor, notorious for his pomposity and arrogance, were to slip over on the ice we probably would laugh. In that instant, we switch places. One minute he is strutting along feeling superior, then he slips and we feel superior.
We also laugh out of relief; tension builds and is then relieved in a burst of laughter. For example, imagine a factory run by two brothers. One of these owners is married to a rude and obnoxious woman who drives a big, expensive car. One day the car breaks down and she is forced to queue for a bus with the other workers. As it pulls in, she pushes to the front. The other passengers are furious, but they dare not speak in case she has them fired. The driver, however, tells her to go to the back of the queue. She yells, “don’t you know who I am? I am one of the Manager’s wives.” The workers all feel humiliated by this dreadful woman’s arrogance and wealth. They resent her power over them, and yet they cannot speak. Thus tension builds. When the driver replies “I don’t care if you are his only wife,” they explode in laughter.
They laugh partly because it is a good joke but also because of the release of tension. She has been made to look foolish, and so their fury converts to laughter, rather as one form of energy converts into another.
Finally, we laugh at incongruity – at things that do not meet our expectations. Stand-up comedians do this all the time. They create an expectation in the audience and then win a laugh by denying them what they expect. A classic example of this is the legendary Monty Python sketch “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” At first we see the stereotypical English gentleman figure: tall, immaculately dressed, rolled umbrella under his arm. Then he suddenly does his ridiculous walk. We laugh at the incongruity. This was the last thing we expected.
Comedians often use what is known as the “rule of three.” In other words, you say two normal things and then something funny. This will be even funnier if it is unexpected. For example, someone asks how your birthday went and you reply “great, thanks, I got a cake, some lovely cards, and moved another year closer to death.” Some even nickname this the “boom, boom, bang” technique. People also use it during wedding speeches: “what can I say about my partner that hasn’t already been said, except that he’s lazy, has no fashion sense and is the love of my life.”
And when you joke, be sharp, quick, and precise. The longer it takes you to make a remark, the less funny it will be. The definition of a bore is someone in love with the sound of his own voice. Unfunny people are the same. They take forever to tell a joke or anecdote because they assume people are fascinated by everything that comes out of their mouth.
In general it is best to avoid jokes or puns. If you are going to tell a joke, make sure it is a good one (nothing is more excruciating than someone making a joke that doesn’t work). As for puns, they only work if used ironically. The British comedian Tim Vine has made a career out of this. But the audience aren’t laughing at the puns, they are laughing at the awfulness of those puns – and Vine is in on the joke (which the audience understand).
Stories are much better. But the anecdote or story should usually be at your expense. The British comedian Ricky Gervais often remarks that wealth and fame make it harder to be funny. After all, how can you joke about bills or public transport when you are a multi-millionaire who takes a private jet? The audience can’t take you seriously. Instead, says Gervais, he has to focus on losing his hair or getting fat.
Pretending to mis-hear is another common technique. For example, someone says “my friend Doug got into Oxford; I can’t believe it” and you reply “well, if my dog had got into Oxford I’d be surprised as well!” As with so much humor, you need to judge the context. Such jokes only work with the right sorts of people. Some will not realize you are joking, others will find it irritating, even offensive. And you need to make it clear that you are joking. If you keep up the pretense for too long, people won’t laugh.
You can also pretend to take offense at something. Again, this works best if the other person knows you are joking. A good example can be found in an interview between Joe Rogan and Russell Brand. Brand makes some remark and Rogan (who is American) laughs at his English accent. Brand pretends to take offense and says “right, I’m noting that as a hate crime.” But if you watch this particular episode, you will see that Rogan knows he is joking from the start. Such mock offense is only funny if the other person knows you aren’t really offended. If they think you are, you merely create tension – and tension kills humor.
Professionals also use something known as the “callback” technique. You can apply this to conversations with your friends. Simply pick up on something they said, maybe something pompous or pretentious, and then refer back to it later in the conversation. You relate it to what you are now talking about, only in a comic and absurd way. For example, your friend says “well, I’d say I’m at the peak of my physical fitness.” Later, when he says “god, I missed my bus last week and had to walk to work,” you can reply “that must have been a breeze, what with you being at the peak of physical fitness.” But be careful. If your friend can take a joke and knows you well, this works. But with someone who takes themselves seriously, it may not. You also need to be careful how you make such jokes. Pitch it wrong and you may sound sarcastic, even aggressive.
As with so many things in life, some are born gifted, others have to learn. The key is practise. And that means socializing with funny people. Just as your conversation skills will improve if you spend time around great talkers, so your humor will be sharpened by hanging out with witty friends.