What is Humor?

We all have things in our lives that make us laugh. We all laugh at the movie of the week or our favorite shows and it brings us pleasure. But we never really analyze why it makes us laugh. If something is funny, why is it funny? Does it have to do with the person or is there some sort of formula for funny? Some people would tell you that there are certain formulas for comedy, but in reality, not all those formulas will work for everyone. Let’s go over a few of the humor techniques used by many famous comedians and writers to see why certain things are funny.

Relatable Topics: People find relatable topics funny. If someone talks about their girlfriend/boyfriend spending too much of their money, some people will say, “Wow, that happens to me, too. This guy is funny.” Other people in the audience will be like, “Well, I’m sure that happens, but I’ve never experienced it.” So they may not laugh as much as the people who can relate to it. Some people talk about their childhood, banking on the fact that everyone in the audience had a childhood of some sort. Unless, of course, Michael Jackson is in the audience. But using common denominators that people go through in everyday life is one tool for making people laugh. If they’ve experienced it, remembering the experience will only heighten the laughter and reminiscence. It’s a very powerful tool for getting laughs.

Coincidences or Synchronicities: This is a tool that was used almost to perfection on the sitcom Seinfeld. It was amazing some of the crazy coincidences that would happen on that show. It would start out with each one of the four main characters having a story and towards the end, they would all collide into some sort of explosion of comedy. It just had that appeal to it because it took one funny story and added another funny story and the combination was one gigantic piece of comedy. I really enjoyed this type of humor and still do to this day. We, as a society, love to see connections between things. That brings me to my next topic:

Connecting two usually unconnected items: Steven Wright was the master of this. Some quotes of his are as follows:

I spilled Spot Remover on my dog. Now he’s gone.

I have a microwave fireplace. I can sit down in front of the fire for the evening in eight minutes.

I put instant coffee in a microwave and almost went back in time.

Like I said, connecting things that otherwise would be solitary is very intriguing. I enjoy listening to things like that. It’s kind of just noticing things. Wright said in an interview I read recently, “It’s kind of like art. It’s just noticing things. Like if you were to draw a table and chair, you not only have to consider the table and chair, but the shape of the space between the table and chair. I guess I do comedy from the spaces between things.” It was something to that extent. And it really spoke to me. Comedy catches the things that “fall through the cracks.” The usually ubiquitous things that we never really consider can be brought out in spades. Here’s an example from my personal joke stash. “People always say, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Why not? If I bought some cake, why wouldn’t I eat it? Did I buy it just to throw it out?” It’s just the things that people don’t really think about in general. It’s creative, in a sense. It’s making unfunny things funny by connection.

Surprise: The element of surprise is prevalent in comedy. Misleading an audience and then turning it around at the last second, preferably on the last word is comedy gold. I’ll give you an example from Jim Gaffigan: “Isn’t it funny how when you’re single, all you see are couples, but when you’re part of a couple, all you see are HOOKERS?” You see, he misled you into believing that he was going to say single people, but he turned it around at the last second to totally throw off the audience. That is something that really speaks to me. Another example from my own personal stash is. “I don’t know why, but I can never write anything down while I’m in the car and someone is driving, especially if that someone is me.” It’s just some clever wordplay, I know, but it illustrates a point here. People like to be surprised. That’s why we find magic acts so amazing. Twists in jokes make them better and more cutting edge. I know those are cliché terms but this is one of my first articles for this website, so don’t judge me by that yet.

The Rule of Three: The rule of three is a great way to get an audience going and surprise them at the end. This is also in the same hierarchy as the surprise element. For example, here is a joke from George Carlin sometime in the ‘80s or ‘90s. “I like going down to Florida. Everything is in the 80s. The temperature, the ages, and the IQS.” You see what that did there? It got you going with two regular parts of the series, and turned it around at the end. Here’s another one I heard recently. “A man and a woman had a child from a frozen embryo recently. The woman said, ‘I didn’t know if I was going to have a little boy, a little girl, or fish sticks.” Conan O’Brien at his best. Although he’ll never be Carson. Another look at the rule of three is many business speeches will use it. Sometimes the rule of three is used and then negated. For example, “To be a president, you have to have three qualities: honor, courage, and integrity. Unfortunately, our president possesses none of these qualities.” Negation of a previous statement can also be very funny if it’s done right.

Callbacks: Callbacks are monumental in stand-up comedy. That can set you apart from the rest of the pack. It’s where you use a punch line from one of your previous jokes and apply it to a later joke in the set. Many comics do it, and when it’s done correctly, it is a gem to behold. It creates an intimacy with the audience. It makes them feel like they are the comedian’s friend. It’s really a powerful comedic tool.

I’m sure there are more tools, but for now, let’s get to the why. Why does this stuff make us laugh? It’s simple, in fact. We, as a society, yearn to laugh. We yearn to have a good time, and comedy allows us to put aside the troubles of our day and just laugh. Laughter is a great medicine mostly because you can’t overdose. I love laughter more than anything. It helped me through a tough time in my life when I had a brain tumor. Serotonin is key. If you laugh constantly, you’re either insane or very happy. Studies show that children laugh something like 200 times a day while adults laugh about 5 to 10 times a day. What happens to all our joy. We’re told we have to grow up and be more serious about life. And that kills our joy. Our joyless spirit walks the Earth that’s too serious to let out a chuckle once in awhile. But going to see a comedian helps us rediscover our childlike nature. It allows us to open up and be who we really are and laugh at what we think is funny. There’s no “Oh, you can’t laugh at that.” Well, what do you think you’re there for? Why would you go see a comedian if you’re not going to laugh? You sick bastard! Just kidding.

Upon remembering our spirit, as Oprah so eloquently puts it, we tap into the real us. And the real us is way better than the socially conditioned us that’s been told all kinds of propaganda from news media and other sources to live in fear of everything that moves. Comedians also tell the truth. You don’t get the truth from media sources. Go see someone perform political humor and you may have a new perspective opened up on you. Humor is a powerful tool. Will people remember the time they cried or the time they laughed? It’s up to them, but if it was up to me, I’d choose to remember happy moments. Humor is my religion and I invite you to embark on a journey with me into Comedy Heaven.


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