Eight Steps to Becoming a Funnier Person

Six of which are actually useful.

Posted Nov 04, 2014

I'll be honest—I'm skeptical of anyone who promises to have "Eight steps to improve your _____." Fill in the blank: intelligence, sex life, sense of humor. Promises abound, but if all it took was eight steps to master a complex life-skill, you'd have learned it by now.

That said, our sense of humor isn't fixed, any more than our smarts or ability to pleasure sexual partners. We determine how humorous we are, and we can become funnier if we want. It just takes work and knowing where to start. So here are some useful steps for where to begin. Most are based on science, others on personal recommendations from comedians, and some are just made up. 

  • Take risks. Take for example this article's subtitle, "six of which are actually useful." I know it's not laugh-out-loud funny. It might even elicit a groan or two. But not every attempt at humor will succeed, and if you wait for only the "sure things," you'll fail. A survey of famous comedians by the psychologists Seymour and Rhoda Fisher found that one personality trait stood out: a desire to be heard. Funny people aren't shy. They take risks, and when they don't succeed, they move on.
  • Watch comedies. This is perhaps the easiest advice to follow. Studies show that simply watching a comedy, or an extended standup routine, increases heart health, improves immune system response, boosts creativity, and even makes you smarter. In Stephen King's book, On Writing, he emphasizes one step for aspiring writers: read. Read a lot, and often. If you want to enjoy a humorous life, why not follow the same advice for comedy? Watch funny bits from movies and ask yourself why you like them. It can't hurt.
  • Actually study. I know, this sounds tedious. But you can study comedy, and it's fun. Take for example the study by the psychologists Aaron Kozbelt and Kana Nishioka; they found that our ability to explain humorous New Yorker cartoons is correlated with our ability to actually be funny. And I'll admit it: I don't always get them either. A fair percentage of New Yorker cartoons go over my head, but I always Google the caption if I don't get it. There's no shame in it. It might even help you come up with your own better captions one day.
  • Practice, practice, practice. There is no perfect joke, and no perfect way to tell one. Scientists have actually tried to measure the pauses and inflections of comedic timing and found…nothing. The only way to perfect that comedic timing is to work on it. Tell jokes in the mirror if you have too. The only way to refine the delivery of a joke is to practice it—a lot.
  • Support your local comedy club. Go watch comedy live. See the artists in their natural habitat, and observe how they differ. It's hard to believe that Louis CK, Carrot Top, and Dane Cook all have the same profession. Help support the brave individuals who make comedy their calling, and ask yourself: what would you do the same? Differently?
  • Choose not to be offended. Yes, being offended is a choice. This doesn't mean that you have to like or agree with everything you hear. But adopting a humorous outlook requires viewing the world like a sociologist, studying the things that bother us before responding to them. As homework, watch some standup by Amy Schumer or Daniel Tosh (or George Carlin, for a master course), and ask yourself what these comedians find offensive. How do they respond?
  • Learn to tell a single joke well. Almost nobody tells traditional jokes any more. And not since we lost Mitch Hedberg has a one-liner about a duck brought down the house. However, everybody should still have at least one joke in their back pocket, appropriate for all audiences. Practice it often. Perfect it. You'll be surprised how often it comes in handy.
  • Tell yourself: it's okay to have a little edge. It's natural to present only our positive sides to others, but that doesn't help creativity, particularly with humor. A huge meta-analysis by the psychologist Gregory Feist found that creative individuals tend to have the following personalities: open, conscientious, self-accepting, hostile, and impulsive. Those last two traits might surprise you, but they shouldn't. Studies show that a little edge (measured as psychoticism, known as the tendency to be bitter or antagonistic) helps artists and scientists alike. Passivity sucks.

 
P.S. I know the picture has nothing to do with the article. I just wanted to include a picture of a rabbit with a waffle on its head. You're welcome.

Feist, G. (1998). A Meta-Analysis of Personality in Scientific and Artistic Creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 290-309.

Fisher, S. and Fisher, R. (1981). Pretend the World is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale: New Jersey).

Kozbelt, A. and Nishioka, K. (2010). Humor Comprehension, Humor Production, and Insight: An Exploratory Study, Humor, 23, 375-401.