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The Science of Creating Humor

20 techniques you can use immediately in your next presentation

Do you think being funny is an innate trait? Some people do seem to be “born funny,” the rest of have to work a little harder. The good news is you can quickly get better at using humor. You can then put these skills to immediate use in your writing and presentations, with friends and family, and at gatherings of all types.

Humor follows a pattern. It many ways it is mathematical in its structure and rhythm. What shows, skits and jokes entertain youthe most? Deconstruct why and you will begin to understand what you can do to create humor of your own.

Delivering a funny line begins with choosing your subject. Just like writing down your dreams upon waking will reveal you dream far more than you realize. Write down humorous incidents throughout your week and you will quickly see there is good material all around you. You just have to notice them, and then record them in some way—a smartphone note app is ideal. Once you have some potential material to use in your next presentation, you can then “process” these ideas through each of the 20 filters below. One or more of them is likely to yield a joke or funny story you can use.

Example: Do you travel by plane frequently? Think about your check-in experience, TSA, airport and airplane food, the flight attendants, the boarding process, inflight announcements, and the passengers surrounding you at the gate and, later on the plane. Most likely there is a funny anecdote or person you have experienced in your travels that would be excellent fodder for a good joke or story.

Twenty Joke Filters:

  1. Bizarre Pairings— We chuckle when we hear words combined in surprising ways, even when a phrase is only slightly different from one we are used to hearing. For example: How could you alter the following phrase: “directionally-challenged?” __________-challenged? How could you play off the phrase “horse-whisperer?” _________-whisperer?

E.g., This guy on the freeway today thought he was the semi-whisperer. It did not go well. He survived but we sat in traffic for two hours.

  1. Alliteration— words that start with the same letter or sounds,

E.g. “Academic Armageddon” to describe finals week.

  1. Repetition— Remember the beer commercial line: “I love you, man”? For a while, it was funnier every time you heard it. Problem is, it’s been dead for years. Beware of overusing a phrase or using it after everyone else is over it. Instead, look for fresh “trending” phrases your audience has likely not yet heard.
  1. Altered Image, a visual gag—Example: A popular advertisement for the New York, New York Casinos depicted the Statute of Liberty with her skirt up just like the famous photo of Marilyn Monroe. What iconic image could you alter for a laugh?
  1. Spoofs—Examples: The L.A. Times produced realistic but fake “Low Speed Chase” news segments which were shown as pre-movie advertisements in theatres. Saturday Night Live is well known for their hilarious television commercial spoofs. Remember “Mom Jeans” (when you’ve just given up) or Queen Latifah who takes “Tylenol RT for racial tension headaches”?
  1. Unexpected Endings—Here’s a classic hotel joke you may have heard at a conference. It has been told so much it is essentially a public domain joke. It’s funny because it has a surprise ending: “The towels here are so fluffy and luxurious, I almost couldn’t close my suitcase.” (Best used with a few straight lines of set up.)
  1. Self-Deprecating Humor— Unless your performing at a roast, be very careful about lampooning others (without their permission.) Instead, make fun of yourself. Your audience will always appreciate your ability to target your own shortcomings and quirks. For example: “I still have a six-pack but these days I keep it in a cooler (padding your belly.)” Or: “It took me 10 years to get my Ph.D., but it took me 15 to get over it.”
  1. Exaggeration—Some of the best humor is created by simply blowing up well-known experiences until they are absurdly funny. One bank ran a series of radio ads about being put into “voicemail purgatory” (also an example of “bizarre pairing”) when attempting to call other banks. You could take this theme further by using phrases such as: “Our Lady of Perpetual Hold,” etc.
  1. Twisted Familiars— Why not take an overused or familiar phase and put a new spin on it. For example: “Will Work For __________” Could be answered with “stock options,” “sushi,” and “chocolate? Or: “Drive carries no chocolate, caffeine (experiment with your own fill-in word.)”
  1. Memes—Use an image of a well-known movie or celebrity, or even a pet, and adding your own funny caption. Funny recent example: An image of a crazy-haired, Christopher Walken in a snowy forest with the caption: “Walken in a Winter Wonderland.”
  1. Current Events Humor—Humor can also be ripped from today’s headlines. Late television night comedians are masters at this genre. For example— In response to a White House report than more Americans are working than ever, you might respond: “Yes, I also read the President has created thousands of new jobs; my brother-in-law has 4 of them.”
  1. Savers— It’s crucial to acknowledge to your audience when your joke has badly bombed. Never be the last one in the room to admit your joke failed and don’t just plow on. Acknowledge it quickly with a saver line or comment of some type. Johnny Carson was great at this.

When no one responds to your joke in an otherwise friendly audience, you could say, “No, please hold your applause.” Or, “O.K., sorry, my mother liked that one.”

  1. Opening Jokes—Always tie your jokes into the theme of your presentation. Never tell a joke for the mere sake of getting people to laugh. Consider the event, what was it like setting up your talk, anything odd or humorous about the room, the audience, the topic, any irony? Chances are, you will think of something funny to comment on for your opening. For example: “It’s great to be here to speak to you on time management. I think we will wait a little longer for late-comers.”
  1. Imitations— Study a friend’s celebrity’s or leaders’ idiosyncrasies for humor.

· What words does he or she uniquely pronounce?

· What mannerisms are repeatedly used?

· What are his or her “pet phrases”?

· What topics or ”soapboxes” are most often raised?

Example—my sisters secretly recorded my mother’s Appalachian sayings then mixed a “rap-song” of them. Free phone apps make this simple. The results were hilarious, but only to us. (Don’t be afraid to create humor that works only for your particular audience.)

  1. Poems and Titles—Use humorous ditties to describe common human experiences.

Example— Ever been the recipient of a “multi-pat hug” at the end of a so-so date?

When I was single and spoke often at single conferences and on cruises, this description of that awkward good-night hug always got a laugh: “It’s as if she is saying as she hugs you good-bye and pats your back — ‘Count ‘em, One-two-Three—you’re not for me.’”

  1. The Rule of 3—Jokes can build like waves. And the little chuckles in response to the first two can set up your audience for an even bigger laugh when you tell your last joke. There is a cadence to the flow of words we use in jokes. They have a rhythmic, lyrical, almost mathematical feel when you get them right.

Example— “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? “The mine reopens, your truck runs again, and your wife leaves her boyfriend at the bar.”

  1. MetaphorsUse a colorful, but tasteful, “down home,” or humorous phrase to illustrate your point. Example: “Sorry Paul, that dog just won’t hunt.” Or: “For this project, we want to get a quote from someone who doesn’t already have a dog in the fight,” (or “a pony in the pageant.”) Audiences and clients always like this one: “Remember, don’t wrestle with a pig. You’ll get dirty and the pig will like it!”
  1. Nicknames—Be careful and be nice. It’s best to use yourself as the target or use a nickname of endearment. Example: “My wife is not very impressed with my willingness to ask for directions when I’m lost. The other day, I was trying to pretend I knew where we were going, and she said: ‘So Magellan….’”
  1. Non-Gender Relationship Humor It’s best these days to tease about relationships without using gender. (The joke immediately above works because you are making fun of yourself.) Today, audiences are more likely to complain when hearing jokes that make fun of one gender or another. It’s best to side-step it altogether. Example: “I read recently that there are two keys a successful relationship, but no one knows what they are!”
  1. For Professionals Only: Use contextualized humor. Want to be seen as a comic genius? At your next conference or meeting, take notes on the main themes of each speaker and any notably good or bad occurrences. (Alternately, make careful observations of your workplace’s most cherished, oft-repeated values.) Craft humor around these key themes and events. If you pull it off, you will be a hero, and everyone will appreciate your custom-tailored inside jokes.

E.g., “I know some people, like Terry, came to this conference to network. Kim told me over breakfast she came to get her C.E. credits. I met Han in the lobby this morning said he came all the way from South Korea! I am not sure why you came but I can say for sure, it wasn’t for the coffee.” Caution: Tease about some minor omission that can be easily fixed. Don’t tease about the conference room, opening dinner, etc. You will risk offending the organizers and the audience may turn on you for being too mean.

How to write comedic material for use in your next gathering, toast, or meeting:

Begin by generating a list of phrases, events and people common to everyone in the audience and to current events and media. Then put your material through the filter of the above 20 joke styles to see what comes out.

Caution: Remember stealing other people’s signature joke is a crime punishable by a well-deserved perception that you aren’t very funny on your own.

Don’t worry. You can do this—Humor happens-everywhere!

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