A formula for making people laugh even if you don’t think you’re funny

Make ‘Em Laugh 

Give people a genuine laugh and you’ve put them at ease and made a quick connection. However, you’re not a comedian. That’s not your job. Telling a joke that doesn’t land can let the wind out of your sails pretty quickly. So, if you don’t want to tell jokes, don’t. You can still get people to think differently, feel differently, and do what you want them to do. You can inspire them. You can thrill them. You can move them. All without ever telling a joke.

However, humor is the spice of life: a little here or there goes a long way.  Also, it’s a gift that keeps giving: when an audience laughs, they settle in to enjoy themselves and you loosen up and gain confidence to deliver your best. So, even though I’m not suggesting you hit the stand-up comedy circuit, there are some simple joke-telling tricks that will have them rolling in the aisles or at least wearing a genuine smile. (And, if you have any desire to be a professional speaker, you’ll make a lot more money if you can make people laugh.)

And, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t love to be able to make people laugh? It really is a fantastic feeling to get people giggling. Their faces brighten up and their demeanor lightens up. Interestingly, I’ve found that the biggest laughs in a speech often come from improvised moments. Just recently, I delivered a Book Yourself Solid® keynote for Transamerica®, one of the country’s largest financial services firms. Prior to my speech, there was a panel discussion on compliance issues around texting with clients. Apparently, it’s a big no-no.  So, of course, what did I do? I opened my speech by saying, “My advice to you: send texts to your clients.” On paper, it’s not particularly funny. In the moment it killed. It broke the tension that had built up in the room over this issue. The audience roared with laughter. I took a bow and said, “Thank you very much for having me. Good night!” and walked off stage. I came back ten seconds later.

So, if you’d like to try your hand at preparing a joke in advance or just want to learn how to find humor in the moment, here are eleven insights that will help you.

  1. A joke is often told in three acts.  If you know how to tell a story, then you know how to tell a joke. Most jokes are told like stories.  They include exposition, conflict, and a resolution.  Suspense is key.
  2. Some jokes are told by putting together the completely unexpected, as in the two-story joke.  Story one leads down one path.  Story two takes you down an alternate path that is totally unexpected.  Story one is the setup and story two is the punchline.  Here’s an example from Mel Brooks:

Story one: Tragedy is when I cut my finger.

Story two: Comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die.

Notice that story one piques your interest because it’s an obvious set up; cutting one’s finger is not actually a tragedy. Your audience tries to guess where you’re heading. Then comes story two, the punchline with a twist where you give them something they don’t expect. It’s a delightful surprise. Just make sure they can’t predict where you’re going. If they can, the joke will fall flat.

So how do you go about writing a joke?   Here are two exercises to get you started:

Write a provocative or interesting story one.  Next, write down where your audience will think you’re headed, their expectations.  Then write story two and go in the opposite direction.  For example:

Story one: A priest, a doctor, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

Story two: The bartender said, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

Or, a better one from Wendy Liebman; notice how the setup causes you to expect something.

Story one: The only way to really have safe sex is to abstain…

Story two: … from drinking.

The punchline delivers something different than expected. It reveals a surprise.

Exercise: record Jimmy Fallon or any other late night program host doing a monologue. Hit pause on your remote just before the punch line. See what you think the next line would be, and then play to see what they actually say. Next step: write a better punch line. Good luck with that.

  1. Shared social context allows for instant recognition thus the set-up is achieved. A lengthy explanation that would damage the joke or give a hint at the punchline isn’t needed. This explains why so many jokes have the same set up. “Three men go into a pub.” It’s instantly recognized as a joke
  2. Make the punch line worth the time they spent listening.  Craft a list of punch lines and try them out on friends, family, or a colleague.  Professional comedians test and tweak their jokes for months before finalizing them.
  3. Use the rule of three as a joke structure.  For example: same, same, different: Rome, Paris, Newark.  

Professional comedians use the rule of three all the time.

Chris Rock:  There are only three things women need in life: water, food, and compliments. 

Jon Stewart:  I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way.  I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house. We had an enormous feast.  Then I killed them and took their land. 

George Carlin: One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.

  1. Laugh at yourself.  When you joke at your own expense, you defy expectations.  The audience expects you to play to them with authority, but then you take them off guard when your punchline points at you.  A friend of mine was a speechwriter for a governor who became very unpopular but succeeded in rebuilding his support.   Nonetheless audiences were quite aware of his controversial record and he would put them at ease with a couple lines that always got a laugh: “It’s nice that people are waving at me with all five fingers now!” and, “When I was a kid my Dad got me a summer job shoveling out the horse stables at the local track.  I didn’t know then it would be such a good apprenticeship for being Governor.”
  2. Don’t tell everyone how funny your joke is going to be before you tell it. If you do, the audience will sit back, cross their arms and think, “Oh, yeah? Prove it. Let’s see what you got kid.” The best jokes are often the ones that sneak up and surprise you.
  3. Once you start, don’t stop. Commit to the joke or you won’t get a laugh. If you back off of it as you’re telling it or you tell it half-heartedly, the audience will feel your hesitation and assume the joke isn’t going to be good.  Oh, and avoid detours. Jokes usually work best in a straight line.
  4. Don’t forget timing.  This is important to prepare and all the more important to execute.  Timing requires real awareness on your part.  You need to make sure that you deliver the punch line at the optimal moment.  Part of that is keeping an eye on the room and your audience.   Who’s unsettled or restless?  Do you have an interrupter in your midst?  If there is a sudden distraction in the room or a movement in one part of the audience, slow it down.  Draw out the set-up or the conflict so that the room is settled in time for your punch line.  In your own way, learn from comics such as Louis C.K. who know how to “own the room” and protect the timing of their material from disrupters.  He’ll say, “Shut up, no one’s here to listen to you,” and get a laugh. You’ll likely need to find a nicer and gentler way of phrasing the command, however.
  5. Create tension.  The optimal moment for the punch line is after you have built up tension with your set up.  Take your time.  Make them lean forward in their chairs.  Then when you deliver it the tension releases with a bigger laugh.  And what happens just before you deliver the punch line?  The pause … of course.  For timing the biggest weapon in your arsenal is the pause.  Don’t rush it as you bring it home: “And the moral of the story is …  [wait … wait …wait … then land it] …”. Also: a good joke gives the context quickly and efficiently, so the audience has instant recognition of the set up. If you take too long setting the context, you’re going to lose them.
  6. Be appropriate.  Be very, very careful of offensive and off-color humor. The golden rule you can take to the bank for the rest of your life in the spotlight is this: Bad humor selects weak targets. Great humor at someone’s expense should only take on the powerful folks in the room.  That’s the power dynamics of good comedy: If you’re going to make a joke at someone’s expense, make a joke about someone who is higher up. You can make fun of the President or a well-known politico as long as it’s not overtly political which activates everybody’s baggage.  Jimmy Fallon made endless hay out of the buggy website for Obamacare but never let his Obama jokes get nasty or controversial. A little joke focused at the CEO of the company where you’re speaking can put you on the side of the employees and in most cases the boss can take it just fine.

While doing advance research to prepare for a corporate client I discovered that the two guys running the company made for a visual contrast—the President was as bald as I am, while the CEO had a gorgeous mane of well-groomed black hair. In doing my research, I checked around and not only heard that folks teased him about his manicured mane but made sure he’d be OK if I made fun of it.

So the day of the speech arrives.  A few weeks prior I had been given a t-shirt that says—WITH THIS BODY, WHO NEEDS HAIR? I thought it was hysterical so I bought another one and brought it with me. The first thing I did after I’m introduced by the CEO with the great hair is make a big deal about his absolutely extraordinary shiny mane, how long it must take him to get it looking like that, and I’d kill for a head of hair like his.   Then I ask the (bald) President to come up to the stage. Once I have him standing next to me, I tell him that guys like us have to stick together and give him the t-shirt (I had notified the video crew ahead of time so they could get a close up shot of the shirt so it could be read on the six giant screens in the convention center).  It killed, everybody loved it: a great example of how you can get on the audience’s side by needling the boss without going too far.

So, A Skeleton Walks Into a Bar…

A skeleton pulls up on a barstool and motions with a finger of bone—“Bartender, get me a cold beer…and a mop.”

Now, that, my friend, is a terrible joke.

28 thoughts on “A formula for making people laugh even if you don’t think you’re funny

Lou Bortone

This is great advice, Michael! I especially like #8, because I see so many people not “committing” to the joke and following through. They bail out at the last minute and the joke fizzles out.

Many colleagues and clients tell me that they’re just not “funny,” but I think you find the funny in the situation, not in yourself. Anyone, even introverts, can be funny when you just look for the humor in the situation. So go find the funny!

Michael Port

Right on, Lou.

Ramakrishna Reddy

Hi Michael,

Really cool list of tips on creating humor.. I have a big interest in humor.. This was definitely helpful for any one starting out… I think you can add the importance of ‘Pause’ after the punch…. I have seen speakers not giving time for audience to laugh and the next time audience might not laugh properly because they might loose out on hearing what the speaker has to say..

Michael Port

That’s a great point, Ramakrishna.

Kay Fudala

Michael – This is a gem of a post! I am bookmarking it and referring to it before I deliver any workshop.

My fave was #6. I took months of improv just to learn to laugh at myself.

Although you meant this as a post about public speaking, I connected it to coaching. When we help clients see the incongruities in their current situation, when a powerful question can elicit a laugh or two, people get unstuck much faster. Humor has great power – to overcome fear and to engender confidence. Now, if only I could find my equivalent of the “who needs hair” joke!

Michael Port

I’m so happy it is helpful, Kay. I’m so happy that you see how this will help you in your work because I meant it to apply to all situations where humor is helpful, not just public speaking.

George Flinn

Great advice and reasoning for number 11. (Be very, very careful of offensive and off-color humor. The golden rule you can take to the bank for the rest of your life in the spotlight is this: Bad humor selects weak targets.) I have never heard it explained so well in such a few lines. Thank you!

Storyteller On Page, NOT Stage

I don’t do public speaking because it literally took all of my childhood to master hiding my stutter. I’m afraid if I started public speaking, I’d receive too many pats on the back…

Nothing congratulatory, but so I could hurry up & make my point & get off the stage!

ba-dum-pum-tsss…

Oh, it’s nothing like Bertie a la ‘The King’s Speech’, but I could stand a Lionel Logue in my life. smh

Mike Patterson

Michael, thanks for the great tips. Increasing humor in our communications will make us instantly more likeable and improve the quality of our delivery. I appreciate how unselfish you are in sharing your expertise.

Remya Warrior

Thanks for sharing these tips. I love your opening story about how you asked everyone to send Texts to their clients.
I loved tip #8. Committing to the joke is so essential. If we don’t enjoy ourselves, our audience will not either.

Doug Wilder

Michael, thanks for the outstanding formula for making people laugh. However, you wrote, “here are nine insights that will help you.” I am having a hard time finding which two of the eleven insights won’t help me. Doug

Michael Port

hah! That’s great. I meant eleven. I’ll fix. Thanks.

J Shoop

Thanks for your post, Michael! I love studying speakers, and it’s so cool when someone is genuinely funny without really trying to be funny. Maybe it’s a gift, or maybe it’s a skill… The common theme seems to be relating with the audience being relate-able. Thank you for the fuel for thought, and keep up the good work!

Michael Port

Thanks so much!

Tony

Thanks for the post and thanks for “Book Yourself Solid”. I would like to add to this post is to avoid the obvious hack-joke. What is hackiness? The difference between Louis CK and the morning drive DJ.

The best humor has an edge to it…if you are brave enough.

Thanks again.

Tony

Joanna Free

This is both such a tight and comprehensive list, Michael. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I had a chance to study some with David Granirer – he calls his work Stand Up for Mental Health. He’s based in Vancouver, Canada, but he works with people all over, and he teaches people with mental illness how to create humor out of their tragedies – great tragi-comedy. It’s kind of like your work, in that it has a ripple effect, touching many other aspects of a person’s life. He makes many of the same points you make here. I appreciate hearing them again as I continue to grow what I do!

Best to you,
Joanna, aka: Nicci Tina

Peter Osterhaus

Hi Michael,

I admire your ability to elicit laughter in any type of situation. I will follow your tips … and prepare to kill. 🙂

Michael Port

Thanks Peter!

Susie Miller

Brilliant! love the t-shirt story! Need to remember about tension and timing. Thanks for these great tips

Yucel

I thought I was going to have to get one of those joke writing books…You’ve got the heart of it here.

Thanks

Bob curry

I think your trying to hard Michael and did you write those comments

kai

thx it helped

10 Comedians

Succinct tips, Michael!

We would add: test your funny stuff with a test audience (not a deliberately sympathetic one) before you deliver it in an important meeting or conference. Record or video yourself and review it to gauge the audience reaction – listen for the laughs (while on stage, people smiling awkwardly at you could look like success to a less aware speaker). Modify it if necessary. Having done this successfully beforehand can also add to your confidence when you deliver your humour on the important stage.

Egypt

You really saved my skin with this intoamrfion. Thanks!

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Hello Michael!

Really bunch of insights of stand-up comedy. It’s definitely going to help budding comedians.

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