The Chicago Tribune published a piece promising to instruct people in the ways of comedy…or at least how to fake being funny. The problem is that as one Skepchick pointed out, their suggestions suck. The author, Josh Noel’s advice is poor. I hate to be the one to tell him this but they’re not funny and if people are laughing at what Josh Noel is saying, they’re just being polite or are laughing at him for trying too hard.
So I figured I’d try to construct a short list of my own tips on not just faking funny but really being funny:
1. The three most important rules of comedy: delivery, delivery, delivery. Good delivery can make anything funny and poor delivery can make anything unfunny.
2. Misdirection. Any punchline you can see coming a mile away is not funny. The key is to cleverly surprise or trick your audience. This can be accomplished in numerous ways, one of the more unique of which is the famous Aristocrats joke where everything is thrown into the set-up, preparing the audience for a huge pay-off only to deliberately deliver a completely underwhelming punchline. The real joke is on the audience whose expectations were deceptively built up for the very purpose of ultimately tricking them by going the other way. The key is in misdirection and subverting expectations. Another brilliant example of misdirection is “The Battle of Wits” scene in The Princess Bride. While the set-up in the scene is very funny what puts it over the top as one of the funniest scenes in film history, if not the funniest scene, is the surprising end, which completely turns the expectations created in the set-up on its head. It’s like a well designed magic trick.
3. The Rule of 3 – Going along with the misdirection idea, set up a pattern with two items in succession and then make the third item comically out of step w/ the first 2. The classic example is the guy standing on a fragile frozen lake where objects keep falling on the ice, First maybe it’s a bowling ball. Then a grand piano. Still the ice doesn’t break. Then a feather falls onto the ice and it breaks.
4. Don’t go big with your humor. Big is cheap and might get a quick chuckle, but it’s definitely not funny.
5. Rule 4 can be broken if you’ve laid in the groundwork of establishing a funny character who can get away with it. (See: Austin Powers, Ace Ventura, Zoolander, etc.)
6. Putting either larger than life characters in ordinary settings or ordinary characters in larger than life settings. For example, imagine almost any Star Wars character at the laundry mat or imagine that annoying guy at the office working on the Death Star (See: Robot Chicken Star Wars parodies). Dr. Horrible is also a great example of the former, being an evil mad scientist in a very mundane setting, as is Dr. Evil in group therapy, or Darth Vader’s less successful and identical relative Chad Vader working as the night manager of a supermarket. And in the internet shorts God Inc., heaven is depicted as a giant corporation where all important decisions in the universe are decided by middle management. Historical characters can also work. For instance, imagining Hitler in almost any mundane situation is funny.
7. Random weirdness can be very funny. While South Park did a great job of spoofing Family Guy‘s common device of cut-to jokes involving completely random allusions, one of the reasons Family Guy is successful is random humor works. And let’s face it, lately Family Guy has been much funnier and more spot-on in his satire than South Park.
Sorry, that was just an extension of #7. But almost any sentence with the word “pants” in it is funny. It just is.
8. Callback humor is very funny. That is when you establish a funny idea and then keep calling it back at different, even sometimes random times as to turn it into a running joke. This is also very effective in creating rapport with people as it allows you to build inside jokes that are only funny to those in the loop.
9. Committing to a joke for a long time is funny. The Simpsons used to do this all the time such as the bit when Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on the rakes or when Homer’s brain tries to recall the significance of having a dental plan, or when Bart wastes several minutes of real time dialing Australia on the phone. Family Guy does this all the time too such as the various times in which Peter fights with the giant chicken. These sequences go on needlessly long, taking up three or four minutes of the 21-minute-long show on a single joke. What’s particularly interesting about these jokes is that they tend to create a roller coaster of emotions. At first it’s funny. Then it goes on so long you start to get tired of it and are just waiting to get back to the story. Then you start to think it’s got to end any second now and anticipation builds. Then you realize that it’s a whole minute later and they’re still playing out the same joke,. You start getting annoyed. Then after another thirty seconds or so it becomes funny again because they’ve really committed to it and have tricked you into watching one stupid joke for that long. And then it finally ends and the joke becomes so popular that they bring it back and some people regard it as genius.
Andy Kaufman was also a master of this sort of thing: simulating the look of a broken television, committing to reading The Great Gatsby in its entirety instead of performing jokes, the long-running wrestling stunt. In fact, Kaufman was so good at this sort of thing that the Tony Clifton joke is STILL being continued decades after Kaufman’s death as people continue to inhabit the role. Kaufman’s dream was to have a Tony Clifton in at least every U.S. state. It’s literally a joke that never ends.
10. Jokes involving stupid people will always be funny.
Well that’s ten right there. I’d love to hear comments about them or other people’s additions to the list.