Thoughts On How To Be Funny In Conversations
Humor has got to be one of the hardest things to give advice about. This article isn't going to try to be complete guide on how to be funny. I'm just going to share some assorted thoughts I have about it based on my own experience. I'll focus on spontaneous humor in social situations, as opposed to things like writing a witty essay.
I think I can be a funny enough guy that I'm not completely unjustified in writing about this topic. I'm never going to become a famous comedian, but if I'm around someone who likes my sense of humor I can have them laughing a lot of the time. Of course, some other types of people think my jokes are stupid. I've also lost a few points over the years by joking around at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Basically, I'm fairly funny in a way that a lot of people are.
One overall theme in my observations is that humor can be a double-edged sword. If you use it properly it can help you, but misusing it will set you back. I also focus on the idea spontaneous social humor, isn't so much consciously created as it just pops into your head fully formed.
Being funny is great, but you don't have to be funny
Being funny makes you entertaining to be around, and it allows you to inject amusement into otherwise ho-hum situations. Spending a Sunday afternoon watching bad television is pretty boring, but if your hilarious friend is there cracking jokes about the shows, it's a decent way to pass the time.
But you don't have to be funny. If being humorous isn't your thing there are many other ways to give people a reason to want to spend time with you. Everyone's had friends who weren't funny at all, but were still really personable, likable, and interesting. Also, some people are just hard to get laugh out of. Being funny isn't an option, so you have to find other ways to connect with them.
Being around people who are funnier than you often makes your own jokes fall flat in comparison. Usually the right move here is to let them have be the comedian in the conversation, and switch to another style of interacting with everyone.
Trying to be funny all the time isn't a good thing
It's easy to fall into the trap of joking around too much. We can know on paper that making one good joke an hour is better than making one good joke and ten bad ones, but in practice it can be hard to rein yourself in.
With humor less is often more. The friend who's always "on" gets tiresome pretty quickly. People also take you less seriously if all you seem to do is kid around. But getting a laugh seems like such a positive thing. They're entertained and you get a little hit of validation. It's tempting to try to keep that going for as long as you can. You may even pressure yourself to always be a great comedian. It's better to mix humor with other types of conversation.
Another point is that someone can laugh at something, but still not like it overall. You can probably think of a sitcom you don't enjoy, but will still chuckle at isolated gags if you ever have to watch it. If you're goofing around 24/7 people may laugh at certain antics or corny jokes in spite of themselves, but they'd really prefer you took a break.
People assume your humor reflects what you're like as a person
I think someone's sense of humor is at least partially connected to their personality and worldview. A super-serious, uptight person isn't going to have much of one at all. Someone who's more laid back and sees the absurdity in life will probably be more amusing. A cynical, cerebral person will probably have a more cynical, cerebral sense of humor. A loud, obnoxious guy will probably have a more loud, obnoxious sense of humor. Most people understand this instinctively.
You can sometimes improve your sense of humor by shifting your personality and the way you see things. If you're too pessimistic or anal-retentive you may find you become funnier if you lighten up. But all that applies only to a point. Just because you tell a sick or offensive joke doesn't automatically mean you're a budding child molester or KKK member. Most people understand this as well.
Where you can run into trouble is that people will assume your sense of humor reveals what you're really like on some level. If you have an overly strange style of humor, after a while people will think you really are warped. If you're always making jokes about dark or shocking topics people can't help but wonder about you after a while. The same goes for overly cynical, angry, cutting, random, immature, or socially thoughtless jokes. Look at any comedian whose material relies on using an exaggerated persona. You can't help but think they're really like that, at least to some degree.
What gets you a laugh in the short term may be hurting you in the long run, if it affects the way people see you for the worse. Maybe when you joke around your co-workers laugh at the time, but weeks later they could make a comment like, "Man, you're twisted. I worry about you sometimes..." Be aware of what impression your jokes are making and adjust them accordingly if necessary.
Now to a degree we can't win with everyone, and shouldn't try to recalibrate our humor to be totally bland and conforming. People with quirky senses of humor naturally attract friends who appreciate their style, and rightfully drive away the overly serious types who aren't a match for them. That's one thing. However, if you think your humor has elements that anyone would agree are a bit much, then you might want to challenge yourself to broaden your style.
Humor also takes part in the larger realm of conversation and social skills. People will judge your proficiency in these areas by how they show through in your humor. If you consistently make jokes at inappropriate times, or don't consider your audience, or interrupt other people to tell them, then you'll be seen as socially clueless. But as your social skills improve, your humor should get sharper as well.
It's hard to be funny on command
Every time I make a really witty comment it never feels like I consciously crafted it. It's more like it just popped into my head in response to a certain stimulus. Like conversation, humor often just flows out of who you are as a person. If you get your unconscious "humor generator" in decent shape then it will produce good output on its own.
This also means it usually doesn't work out when you try to force humor. I think everyone's had the experience of trying too hard to be funny and coming up with a lame, corny line that bombs. If a C-list comedian is a guest on a talk show you can often see this in action. They try to make everything that comes out of their mouth funny, but it just comes across as attention-starved and trying way too hard. You can't always be witty. Sometimes there isn't enough "raw material" for your mind to create a hilarious line out of. It's better to hold back and wait for a moment when you really have something clever to say.
Learn to listen to your instincts
Have you ever been ready to speak a joke and there was a little voice, sometimes just a feeling, in your head that was saying, "Don't say that, it's really not that funny"? When you ignore that voice you usually learn the hard way that it was right. Learn to trust your instincts in these situations. You don't always get that faint nagging voice, so if you do hear it, it's there for a reason.
Some other bits of advice your gut may give you are:
- "Say your comment quickly, before the moment passes."
- "You've waited too long. If you say the line now it won't get a laugh anymore."
- "Keep quiet. That joke will offend people."
- "Seriously, I admit the joke is witty. But you REALLY shouldn't say it in this company."
Trying to ape someone else's sense of humor usually doesn't work
One time a buddy and I were hanging around some guys we had just met. One of them turned out to be hilarious and had us all laughing for hours straight. He had a unique, sort of absurd sense of humor. Over the next few days my friend tried to copy his way of joking around. Sometimes he would repeat exact lines. At other times he'd try to come up with his own quirky observations in the same mold. It never really worked. He was using jokes that were only funny in the context they were originally said in. Or he just wasn't as skillful in coming up with those types of remarks on his own. The thing was he was really entertaining on his own. He had no reason to be a poor imitation of someone else.
If someone makes you laugh, or you see them making other people laugh, it can be tempting to try to appropriate their sense of humor for yourself. It usually doesn't pan out. It's forced and unnatural. There are a million ways to be funny, so it's best to stick with your own practiced style.
Don't overdo it with prepared material
It's fine if you've got a handful of jokes, impressions, or anecdotes you know will get a reliable laugh. But less is more. It's better if you can come up with most of your humor on the spot. It gets stale if you're always going back to the same well. It can also break the spell if older friends see you use the same material around new people. Like when they first heard one of your impressions they assumed you were some comic genius and came up with it on the spot. After a year of watching you do it within ten minutes every time you meet someone new they think, "Oh... he's not that witty at all. He does the same canned shtick with everyone."
Humor is important to rapport
Have you ever had the experience of being around someone, maybe at a job, and they joked around with you a lot, but you didn't get their sense of humor at all? They'd make a joke, it would totally go over your head, and you felt like you had nothing to say in response? I mean, what do you say in reply to something that's for all-intents-and-purposes meaningless speech to you? There's something about that situation that really kills rapport between people. It gives you a strong feeling of having nothing in common with the other person, and hence little to say to them. The lesson is that if you're joking around with someone and you see that they aren't getting it, to shift gears and try to engage with them in another way.
The opposite happens when your sense of humor just clicks with someone else's. You skip all the getting-to-know-you stuff and jump straight into being buddy buddy. So it never hurts to try joking around with someone a little at first. If it works, great, but if not then drop it.
Pay attention to the reaction you get
If you're joking around and people aren't laughing, appear annoyed, or seem like they're just humoring you, then put the feedback to good use. Your jokes may not be as funny as you think. If it seems no one ever "gets" your dry, ironic sense of humor, then maybe you need to go back to the drawing board. If you always seem to offend people then maybe you should show more restraint with your material. Think of everyone's responses as a way to polish your rough edges.
If you know you made a bad joke you can often recover by making a quick comment about how much it sucked. Sometimes the comment can even be funny. You can also just laugh it off and admit, "Yeah, that one was pretty lame wasn't it?" It's endearing to be self-aware and comfortable with your mini-failure.
The best way to become funnier is to immerse yourself in funny things
Well it's the best way as far as I can figure. Since I believe a lot of humor just pops into your head, the best thing you can do is load up your unconscious with a lot of material. Watch funny movies and TV shows. Watch funny clips on the internet. Read funny sites and books. Listen to funny podcasts. Hang around funny people. Expose yourself to different styles of humor.
Some of it will stick and come out later. Maybe you'll repeat a funny line you heard. Or a certain writer will change the way you look at things. You might pick up a new way of delivering a joke from a comedian. You may learn a novel way to handle a certain dynamic. It'll all be bouncing around in your head, and then you'll be in the right situation. Your brain will put the elements together and you'll come up with a killer line.
Stand-up and improv comedy aren't the same as being socially witty
If you want to dance well at a club, learning specific partner dances or complex choreographed routines will help you to a point, but it doesn't directly translate to dancing spontaneously in a crowd. Learning stand-up comedy or improv affects your social wittiness in the same way.
Learning stand-up will improve your understanding of humor and help you craft a joke. But you create all the material ahead of time and then perform it. It's not the same as coming up with a clever and appropriate line on the spot in the middle of a conversation. Some comedians are known for not being funny at all in real life. Not in the sense that their jokes are bad, but that off the stage they have sober, serious personalities and don't kid around much.
Improv will certainly help you loosen up and think on your feet, but the humor tends to be more physical, hyper, and silly, and focuses on acting out odd scenarios. When you're sitting around with your friends and bantering about work, it's not the same as pretending, uh, you're at the barber shop with your friend, when Batman comes in and asks for a haircut.