Look at this email I got from a reader:
What makes you funny, and how do you get there?
I mean, it is probably one of the biggest parts of me and my friend’s conversations, and I feel like I’m terrible at contributing.
Elena isn’t the only one with this question. In fact, how to be funny is something a lot of people want to be better at.
1. Why It’s fun to be funny
Like Elena’s email indicates, humor seems to be a big part of social relationships. For many people, their favorite friends to hang out with are the ones who make them laugh, and funny people are more likely to experience popularity than people who don’t express a sense of humor. Research tells us why:
“Humor and laughter are exceptionally important for the flow of natural human conversations, and given that laughter triggers an endorphin release, it might serve to facilitate social bonding among groups of people.” 1
This explains exactly why a good sense of humor is such a desirable characteristic; laughter triggers a chemical reaction in our brains that makes us feel good. The more we laugh, the better we feel– so it stands to reason that we associate the people who make us laugh with those good feelings. And naturally, we make an effort to spend the majority of our time around people with whom we’re at our happiest. This also explains why funny people tend to have more friends.
*WORD OF CAUTION: Many people become very talented at using their humor to hide their true feelings, including deeper psychological issues (think Robin Williams).
While developing a good sense of humor can cause people to want to spend more time with you, we at SocialPro want to encourage you to make sure you also develop close friendships with people who want more from you than a good laugh. Although humor is great, it’s critical for your mental and emotional wellbeing that you have people in your life with whom you can share your problems as well as your jokes. If you are struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out for help.
2. Why Katniss Everdeen and James Bond Aren’t Funny
In spite of the research that shows the benefits of incorporating humor into your conversations, being funny isn’t a deal breaker when it comes to being likable. You don’t have to be funny in conversations to be fun to hang out with. Maybe you’ve even noticed how people who try too hard to be funny become less fun to hang out with.
It’s not a coincidence that attractive characters like Katniss Everdeen or James Bond aren’t presented as jokesters – being “the funny one” isn’t the only thing that can make you attractive or enjoyable to spend time with. They have other qualities that make them attractive instead; they are both passionate, determined, loyal, intelligent, self-sacrificing, and talented in different ways (Katniss and archery, for example).
If you want to be funny, that’s great! The tips in this article will help you a lot. But if being funny just isn’t your thing and you don’t want to make yourself do something you don’t enjoy, then don’t force it– find what you’re good at, and continue developing that. Everyone has their own role in their friend group, and not everyone can (or should) be “the funny one.”
3. Finding Patterns in Humor
With that said, humor and wit can make you more attractive if you do it in the right way and at the right time. So what steps can you take to become funny?
As you’ve probably noticed, “funny stories” and puns aren’t always that fun. What really triggers genuine laughter in a group is timely remarks aligned with the specific humor pattern of that group. This can be inside jokes and things that relate to the situation.
First, it’s important to analyze your group’s humor patterns. Let me show you what I mean.
Every group has its own type of humor, which means that you need to understand the type of things that your friends find funny.
What’s the underlying core of the jokes? Sometimes it’s funny because it’s a deliberate misunderstanding, sometimes it’s a spoof of something the group knows about. Some groups love puns, while others hate them. Sometimes it’s funny because there’s an unexpected twist. You want to find the underlying pattern behind what your group thinks is funny.
When you understand the pattern, then you can tap into it and make your own jokes by repeating the pattern.
Here are some examples of humor patterns. A humor pattern is a pattern you use to be funny in conversations. There is a virtually unlimited number of humor patterns and you need to analyze and understand the pattern of YOUR group of friends.
4. Being witty in conversations
Wit is a type of humor that emphasizes speed. A witty remark is a funny, sarcastic, or ironic comment that seems to immediately follow the event or remark that prompted it.
Witty styles of humor can take more time to develop than others, simply because wit is dependent upon speed. When you first begin making an effort to be more funny, you will likely notice that all of your jokes and funny comments don’t occur to you until after the moment has passed. That’s ok!
As you continue paying more attention to your own sense of humor and the humor pattern of your friends, your funny thoughts will begin coming to you more quickly. Eventually you’ll find he humor flying right out of your mouth (and then it’ll be time to move on to working on your filter!).
Read more: How to make conversations more interesting.
5. Inside jokes and catch phrases
When I was in my teens, it was new and cool to watch movies on the computer instead of on the TV. Once I was at a computer movie-night and nothing worked. We were troubleshooting for hours and when we were finally about to start the movie, the computer got a blue screen and shut down. As this happens, someone said (without irony): “So when will the movie start?” – obviously not understanding that everything had gone haywire and there wouldn’t be any movie.
Ever since then, whenever there’s a severe technical problem, the standing joke in my group of friends has been to say “So when will the movie start?” This is an example of an inside joke catch phrase.
6. The “Ironic Remark”-type of humor
My dad, who’s an artist, once told me that he was happy I didn’t become an artist as there’s no employment security.
I told a friend about this, and he replied: “Then he must be happy that you instead became an entrepreneur,” referencing my decade-long roller coaster ride of running businesses.
He found what I had just said to be ironic and made a remark about it. It’s funny, and this is an example of an “ironic remark” type of humor.
Another way to be funny with ironic humor is by purposefully “misreading” a situation, or acting as though you think a situation is different than what it obviously is.
I was at a birthday party a few days ago and we were divided into three groups. We had games where we competed against each other and out of the three groups, my group had hands-down the worst results.
I remarked “Well, at least we got third place,” and the table laughed. It’s funny because I purposely misread the situation by acting as though third place was a good thing when really, third place was last place.
7. How to be funny to connect with someone
Bonding, or “affiliative”, humor is the type of humor that helps you relate well to other people. This is one of the most common types of humor because it can incorporate wit, inside jokes/catchphrases, and irony — as long as it helps you relate to another person.
Bonding humor occurs when someone is talking about something and you share something funny that’s happened to you or a funny story that you’ve heard that is related to what that person is talking about. This helps you connect with them over the topic of conversation and promotes exactly what it says in its name– bonding.
Says Louise Thompson in this article for Psychology Today, “People who use bonding humor are fun to have around; they say amusing things, tell jokes, engage in witty banter and generally lighten the mood. . . They’re perceived as warm, down-to-earth, and kind, good at reducing the tension in uncomfortable situations and able to laugh at their own faults.”
In a sense, bonding humor is an adaptive type of humor that draws on any of the other humor types depending on what the situation calls for. Since this type of adaptive behavior is also key to building rapport, it’s easy to see why people who excel in this type of humor are so fun to have around.
The above are just a few examples to help you understand what a humor pattern is. Now it’s time to analyze what patterns your group has, and how you can tap into these patterns. What inside jokes and catch phrases can you use? What misreadings of the situation can be fun? And so on.
Jokes need timing, so the first few times you try it you’ll probably come up with them too late. And that’s OK– it’s about practice. If you start off by analyzing the core of your group’s humor pattern and then practice making jokes with the same core, you’ll make great progress over time.
8. The Secret Behind the Best Jokes (According to Science)
There is one thing that distinguishes a funny remark from a hilarious joke, and that is this: anticipation.
“In order to cause laughter, the best jokes are thought to build up a set of expectations in a listener and then use a punchline to update their knowledge in an unexpected way.”1
Think about it: some of the funniest jokes you’ve ever heard are probably the ones where you were led to believe one thing was happening only to find out that something entirely different was happening all along. It’s the same reason why Fight Club and Inception are two of the most talked-about movies to ever be released. Something totally unexpected is happening right in front of our eyes and we have no idea it’s taking place (but we love it).
In this way, a good joke is much like an optical illusion. We think we see one thing, but something else is also there without us realizing it. When we know someone is telling us a joke, we automatically begin to look for the abnormalities– the things that make it funny. We anticipate something unexpected, but we still can’t always figure out on our own what it is.
It’s the job of the person telling the joke to bring us to the realization of what is actually happening, leaving us in shock and awe. Then we laugh, and when we laugh there is a release of endorphins inside our brains. We feel good, we think back positively on the joke, and as a result we think positively about the person who told the joke.
9. What’s Your Humor Style?
Like you saw earlier, there are a lot of different types of humor patterns. Everyone’s sense of humor is unique, but chances are you fall more within some categories of humor than you do into others. Finding out your style of humor can help you determine what humor patterns to focus on as you work on becoming funnier around your friends.
Take this What’s Your Humor Style? Quiz to learn more about the type of humor that comes most naturally to you.
10. Use Storytelling to your Advantage
One thing some of the funniest people I’ve met have had in common is this: They’ve all been great at telling stories. When they begin one of their stories, everyone listens intently because they are being entertained by a master. Usually, you get at least a good laugh with the group when you tell a good story. But that’s the beauty of it; you don’t even have to be funny because a good story is its own reward– it’s just interesting to listen to.
Let me show you an example of a great storyteller in this Ted Talk by Sir Ken Robinson:
And here’s another Ted Talk if you are really motivated to become a better storyteller (I recommend it!):
Comedians are another example of great storytelling. Many of their “jokes” are simply their retellings of various things that have happened to them. It’s the way they tell the stories and explain what they were thinking in that moment that makes them funny. A great example of a comedian who uses storytelling as the basis for his humor is Dan Cummins (word of warning: many of his jokes are not family-friendly).
Paying attention to the methods used by your favorite storytellers can help you pick up on the types of things that make a story entertaining. Then you can begin incorporating them into your own stories.
Read more: How to be good at telling stories.
11. Types of Humor to Avoid
Like we mentioned previously, a good sense of humor can increase your popularity by causing people to feel good when they spend time with you, and we looked at several types of humor patterns that you might find to be commonly used among your friends.
But there are also types of humor that should be avoided; some people use their sense of humor in a way that is harmful to both themselves and/or the people around them.
12. Put-Down Humor
One of these detrimental types of humor is that of making fun of someone else– also known as put-down humor. Laughter is commonly referred to as the cheapest medicine, but laughter at the expense of another person is not free– its asking price is the dignity and value of the person who is serving as the butt of the joke.
Making fun of someone can be hilarious once, not so funny twice, and is closing in on bullying thrice. As a rule of thumb, I make it a goal for people to leave a conversation with me feeling like a better person. I try to give others value. It makes us both feel good. It’s an easy win-win. Making fun of someone else takes from their value, and it makes them feel worse about themselves as a result of your relationship. Lose-lose. Do not make it a habit of being funny at someone else’s expense.
Explains Dobson in her article, put-down humor is an “aggressive type of humor…used to criticize and manipulate others through teasing, sarcasm and ridicule. . . Put-down humor is a socially acceptable way to deploy aggression and make others look bad so you look good.”
In other words, put-down humor is a form of bullying that does just as much harm as more blatant forms of verbal aggression.
Referred to by Dobson as “hate-me humor,” this is is the type of humor in which people put themselves at the center of the joke. While it can often be funny and isn’t always a bad thing, it’s important to use this type of humor with a measure of caution.
“Routinely offering yourself up to be humiliated erodes your self-respect, fostering depression and anxiety. It can also backfire by making other people feel uncomfortable,” she says in her article.
As a rule of thumb, don’t make self-deprecating jokes about something you are actually insecure about.
Here’s an example:
I (Amanda) have struggled with an eating disorder since I was in high school. For many years I was convinced that I was overweight, despite constant reassurances from friends and family (and my doctor) that I was perfectly healthy.
I would constantly joke with my friends about my weight, unaware that these comments were hurtful to my friends who were heavier than I was. In addition to being insensitive to my friends, joking about myself in this way also made me vulnerable to being joked about by others.
One night I was at a social event where a casual dinner was being served. As I began to eat my one taco (after carefully calculating and recording the calories), a friend of mine looked at my plate and said, “So you were the fat kid in school, huh?”
He was joking, but I. Was. Devastated.
It was a comment that appeared harmless because of the many jokes I had previously made about myself; and because I often joked about myself in this way, my friend assumed I would know he was joking, too. The problem was that my jokes were not, in fact, jokes. Nobody (not even me, at the time) knew I was battling an eating disorder, and I was using self-deprecating humor as a desperate attempt to get people to reassure me that my worst fears weren’t true. But in reality, I had made myself vulnerable by using self-deprecating humor related to a topic that was a legitimate insecurity.
Self-deprecating humor can be insensitive to the people around you who may really struggle with the things you’re making jokes about, and it can also be very harmful to you by 1) promoting a negative self-opinion and 2) making you vulnerable to being mocked by others in an area of insecurity.
Be very careful when choosing to use put-down humor and self-deprecation.
14. Don’t be Afraid to Stumble
As Elena said in her email, overthinking usually just ruins humor. As long as you’re focusing on being “cool,” you will be inhibited and stuck in your head. So we know we need to be relaxed and uninhibited to get it right, but that’s easier said than done.
To relax, we need to stop being afraid. Stop being afraid of messing up. Stop being afraid of being awkward. When we’re afraid, we freeze. When we relax, we can just laugh it off– together.
Everyone messes up from time to time. It’s not a big deal.
Let me tell you a secret. I embrace my own awkwardness. I’m not always super cool and I mess up a lot– but so do most of my friends! It’s not a big deal, and we just laugh about it and it turns into a great moment anyway.
I love being able to relax like that– just having fun without judging or being judged. I think that’s one of the fundamentals of being funny.
Most of the time, you’re paying way more attention to your own “mistakes” than everyone else is because they’re too busy analyzing their own “mistakes.” Making a big deal of it only draws attention to something people may not have noticed in the first place.
But laughing off a mistake you made or making fun of yourself for a joke that missed the mark will show people that you don’t take yourself too seriously and you’re fun to be around. For example, if you joke about something that you find funny but nobody else laughs you can say, “No? Just me? Okay.”
This sort of faux-awkwardness allows you to acknowledge that your joke wasn’t that great so it doesn’t turn into an awkward silence, and it gives people a chance to laugh with you–maybe not at your joke, but at the way you handled the flop.
So let yourself be silly– it doesn’t have to be perfect.
You will stumble a lot in the beginning, but with each try, your experience grows. And you will notice yourself slowly improving. You will start feeling more relaxed and comfortable once you are okay with messing up and being awkward. You will notice you have a lot more fun with your friends when you follow these mindsets.
Viktor and I are reading all your comments. We love to hear what this makes YOU think about!
- Dunbar, R. I. M., Launey, J., & Curry, O. 2016. The complexity of jokes is limited by cognitive constraints of mentalizing. Human Nature, 27. 130-140.