Can You Teach Someone to Be Funny?

A humor expert explains how almost anyone can make a good joke.

Posted Nov 16, 2015

simpleinsomnia/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: simpleinsomnia/Flickr Creative Commons

Funny people are the reason we LOL, LMAO and ROFL. They regularly turn our frowns upside down and are no stranger to saving the day. 

But what makes funny people actually funny? Is this talent something that you’re born with or maybe it’s Maybelline?

(Sorry, bad joke. Or was it?)

I talked to Leigh Anne Jasheway, an award-winning humor speaker, comedy teacher and author who has spent her career figuring out the answer. 

Yes, you can absolutely teach someone to be funny,” she says. Leigh Anne has taught more than 1000 students in her comedy classes – and she’s seen her share of comic transformations first hand.

Photo of Leigh Anne Jasheway/ The Accidental Comic
Source: Photo of Leigh Anne Jasheway/ The Accidental Comic

One of her most notable examples was a man in his mid 60s, who had recently suffered from a stroke. He came to her first class drooling, the left side of his body paralyzed. When asked why he was there, he explained that he had always wanted to do stand up and hoped to be the funniest guy in the class.

Ten weeks later, his wish came true.

This isn’t an unusual scenario, says Leigh Anne. “Science shows everyone who is not schizophrenic has the capacity for comedy. People aren’t born with more or less talent than anyone else.”

The only thing that people need to learn is: What is funny.

“A good joke imitates real life but deviates from the expected with enough misdirection and exaggeration,” she explains.

erysimum9/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: erysimum9/Flickr Creative Commons

This is likely why jokes involving chickens and road crossings are never funny, except to kids. (They’ve never heard jokes before!). If we can predict the punch line, we’re not going to laugh.

Here’s a doozy (provided by Leigh Anne): My grandmother’s hobbies are knitting, crocheting and involuntary manslaughter.

It’s funny because the third in the list deviates just the right amount from an expected response. 

My grandmother’s hobbies are knitting, crocheting and removing the tops off of cotton swabs probably won't get a laugh though. Sure, it's unexpected, but it's also too weird.

Weird doesn’t usually translate to funny, according to Leigh Anne. Weird is just weird.

In her classes, Leigh Anne teaches eight different joke formulas, which typically rely on some type of exaggeration or misdirection.

There’s The “List of Three,” which is used in the above example. Many sitcoms employ this type of joke. It’s when the first two in the list are an expected pattern while the third is an unexpected or surprising twist. This is your classic textbook misdirection.

Some other notable joke formulas include metaphors, ranting and observation.

The most successful comedians, she said, have learned to mix up different types of jokes in their routines – even if there’s one type they feel most comfortable with. Think Dennis Miller and his infamous rants.

So you’ve mastered all of the different joke formulas – are you now destined to be the next Louis CK?

Tracy Byrnes/ Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Tracy Byrnes/ Flickr Creative Commons

Not necessarily, says Leigh Anne. “Stand up is 50 percent what you bring and 50 percent how the audience reacts and interacts.” Being funny is contingent on how the audience responds to you – it’s not about you rattling off your favorite zingers. The exact same set that had the crowd convulsing on the floor might have them walk out during the next show.   

Why is this the case? Because even though the jokes are the same, it’s not the same set.

“Every audience is different. What you bring to the joke changes even when you’re telling the same joke – your attitude, if you’re bored, your facial expressions – the audience can sense this. And if the comedy seems old or stale, the audience wont relate.”

I also asked her: Are there ever situations where everyone is laughing? Is there such a thing as universal humor?

“Pure slapstick often transcends a lot of cultures since you don’t need to get references,” Leigh Anne explains. “This is the sense of humor we had when we were toddlers.”

Physical humor including falling down, weird bodily noises and pretty much anything Jim Carrey does are things we laughed at when we were younger. She says our brains are still wired to laugh at this type of humor. (Which is probably the reason Dumb & Dumber is still one of my all-time favorite films.)

What do you think? Can you teach someone to be funny?

Follow me on Twitter at @thisjenkim

Learn more about Leigh Anne Jasheway and her classes at The Accidental Comic.

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