Harris O’Malley breaks down the science behind how to get the laughs.
Despite what people will tell you, the ultimate universal attractant when it comes to dating is very simple: be funny. The oldest dating cliché in the book is that women want somebody with a great sense of humor. And it’s true — the people you see who can “punch outside of their weight class” (as it were) when it comes to dating are people who know how to be funny.
People may insist that looks, height, abs and money beat making someone laugh, but science backs up the funny guy. It all comes back to the Reward Theory of Attraction — the more people enjoy being in your presence, the more time they want to spend in your presence. When you can make someone feel good, they associate that feeling with you… and nothing makes people feel better than when someone can make them laugh.
But what does it take to be funny? Well, having known plenty of naturally funny people, from class clowns to professional comedians, I can tell you it all comes down to one thing: pain. The funniest people I know have rich veins of pain to draw from; they may have developed their sense of humor as a defense mechanism against being bullied. For some, humor is a way of keeping the darkness at bay, or ingratiating themselves to others. So clearly the answer is to traumatize yourself until you’re hilarious.
Ok, no, not really. After all, not everybody has a deep well of pain to draw from1 and not all humor is born out of trauma. Much like dating, humor seems like something you either have or you don’t… but that’s not true. Just like dating, humor is a skill. You can learn how to date better. And you can learn how to be funny.
So how do you do it?
Find The Humor That Works For You
One of the first things you have to recognize is that humor a wide, wide topic. Humor and the things we find funny are so wildly varied that it’s almost impossible to catalog and catagorize all of the types of humor — not that it hasn’t stopped some people from trying. There’s the humor inherent in defied expectations, for example – when someone zigs instead of zags and the result is completely different from what you anticipate happening. There are the multiple forms of word-play, from the quippy verbal banter of the Marx Brothers to the witty observations of Oscar Wilde to good old-fashioned puns. There’s the humor of surprise and of exaggeration and repetition. There’s the physical comedy of slapstick. There’s the cringy humor inherent in second-hand embarrassment and schadenfreude. Humor can be found in unusual behavior, in energy, in satire, parody and mockery, in observation and reflection and in basic absurdity.
However, humor is also deeply personal; what one person finds funny, other people may not. Some forms of comedy leave people completely cold. Essays could be written about the humorless void that is Larry the Cable-Guy, and yet for a long, long time he was one of the most popular comedians of his era.
People cringe at the “humor” of The Big Bang Theory, but somehow it remains one of the highest rated television shows in history. As some anonymous monk once said: de gustibus non est disputandum.
This is why it’s important to focus on humor that you like. Humor only works if the one being humorous enjoys and appreciates it. If you aren’t amusing yourself, then all you’re doing is pandering at best and begging for approval at worst. Pandering to an audience, whether it’s an audience of one or dozens, is the hallmark of a hacky comedian. It’s needy behavior, and as I’ve said before: neediness is the Anti-Sex Equation. If you want to be funny, then you need to explore what forms of humor speak to you and what makes you laugh. The humor that resonates with you is often the humor that you’re best able to reproduce. And more importantly: it’s humor that reflects who you are, rather than an attempt to be someone else. Humor should speak to your authentic self, not some artificial identity.
But you need more than just recognizing you have a love of knock-knock jokes. You need to understand how to make humor work. Which is why if you want to be funny, the next step is…
Wanna Be Funny? Do Your Homework.
There’s more to humor than just writing as many jokes as possible; if you don’t understand how to deliver a joke or why something is funny, then all you’re going to get are blank stares and awkward coughs. So the best way to understand humor is to surround yourself with it, to immerse yourself in it. Just as writers are advised to read as much and as widely as possible, people who want to be funny need to take in comedy. The more humor you expose yourself to, the more you begin to process it and understand it. Treat it like learning a language – you want to build up your vocabulary and to learn the grammar and structure of humor, and the best way to do this is to study people who’re funny – especially people who are funny in the way you want to be funny.
Much as finding your archetype helps when it comes to developing your personal style, finding the comedians who reflect your sense of humor gives you a base to build from. They’re not just your role-models, they’re your teachers; in many ways, they’re showing you all the little things that go into what makes someone funny. Comedians are scholars and sages when it comes to the process and mechanics of humor. Any successful comedian has spent years honing every aspect of their act – from the jokes themselves, to the pacing, the rhythm, the tonality, their body language and the way they respond in the moment. Even the comedians who “just wing it”, like the late, great Robin Williams, are doing so with years of experience and practice under their belts. They’re the comedic equivalent of jazz musicians – they may be masters of improvisation, but they have a command of the basics to build upon.
When you’re watching the comedians you love, examine everything they do. Break it down — why do you find it funny? Is it the tone of voice, the absurdity of the situation they present, the shock of the unexpected? Why do we laugh when Patton Oswalt describes the KFC Famous Bowls as a pile of sadness and grease? What was it about Richard Pryor’s delivery that made his jokes work? What is it about Jackie Kashian’s stories that make us cackle? The best comedians and humorists often layer their humor. “Weird Al” Yankovic, for example, brings many forms of comedy to his music; his songs are built on multiple levels of humor — the defied expectations of the original song, the absurd, exaggerated situations, the gentle mockery of the original artists.
You also should examine other forms of humor — clever writers, quippy TV shows, even podcasts with bantering hosts. These all help build up your metaphorical vocabulary and give you a broad base to build upon as you’re trying to develop your sense of humor.
Of course, learning how to be funny means more than just a scholarly study of what makes you laugh — you have to learn how to put it into practice. And that means actually trying to be funny.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Theory is all well and good, but if you’re trying to be funnier, then you have to go out and actually perform – metaphorically speaking. No matter how much you may absorb from watching Louis CK’s stand up routines or Archer’s rapid-fire back-and-forths, you still have to actually go out there and do it. All the theory in the world doesn’t do you any good if you can’t actually deliver in person. And like any skill, it takes practice. Humor is like music — it has a beat and a rhythm that you can only learn through deliberate performance. You’re only going to learn about timing and pacing and delivery by going out and making a point of trying to be funny.
No matter what style of humor matches your personality, you need to work on it in front of people. Humor, after all, needs an audience, otherwise it’s just meaningless noise. Without the reaction from an audience — whether from your friends, or the cutie at the bookstore — you have no real way of gauging your success or what you need to work on. Theory is lovely, but it’s ultimately meaningless without any real-world application.
At first, you may not even know what to say or how… which is why you were immersing yourself in the things that make you laugh all this time. When you’re trying to develop your sense of humor, it’s natural to start off mimicking — even blatantly repeating — people you find funny. And you know what? This is fine. This is how you learn. Musicians don’t just start composing one day2 — they study, they practice and they play other people’s songs in order to learn. You develop your style by studying other people’s first. That should be your end goal — not to just memorize other people’s bits, jokes and quips but to figure out how to develop your own.
As long as you’re building towards developing your own voice, don’t be too down on yourself for being influenced by others. Oscar Wilde, a man famous for his quick wit, was notorious for blatantly borrowing lines and quips from other people. To quote a famous exchange between Wilde and James McNeil Whistler:
Wilde: I wish I had been the one to say that.
Whistler: You will, Oscar, you will.
Just make sure that you’re not mindlessly imitating your humor idols – if you’re going to mimic them, study their best material and figure out how to make it work with your personality.If you’re just using other people’s material as a crutch, not only will you never develop your own sense of humor, but you’ll end up with a reputation as someone who just repeats jokes.
(I should point out: I’m talking about learning to be funny in your every-day life. Borrowing other people’s jokes for, say, your local open-mike night is a giant-assed world of no.)
Of course, there’s more to developing your wit and humor than just polishing your material – you want to work on the spontaneity and timing, judging your audience and understanding context, as well as trying different kinds of humor. There’s more to being funny than just telling jokes. Learn how to banter. Tell stories about your life. Appreciate the comedy value of a precision f-bomb. Drop a pun or two. Broaden your base as you practice and you’ll find that being funny will come easier to you… and more importantly, you’ll come off like a person who’s funny and clever, not somebody who’s workshopping a bit on an unsuspecting audience.
You Have To Learn How To Fail, Too
One of the things that’s important about practicing how to be funny: it also teaches you how to screw up. Failure is a key part of learning after all. It’s only through failure that you can really pinpoint the areas that need work. Bombing – whether you’re on stage or out with your friends -sucks. But if you can keep your head about you, it can be a learning opportunity. If your jokes and humorous stories are doing well on the lead-up but the punchline continually goes over like a lead balloon, then that’s a pretty good indication that you need to refine your delivery.
You have to be willing to endure the failure to learn. Are you talking too quickly? Are you using a specific tone of voice or inflection that tells people “here comes the joke”, instead of making it sound natural? Are you misreading the audience and what you think is funny is simply not going to work for them?
Part of what makes failure important is that it teaches you about the importance of timing and context. Sometimes it’s a case of “too soon” and people haven’t had enough time to process the subject you’re joking about. Sometimes the joke or the story itself is fine, but the context is inappropriate. Other times, it’s simply that you’ve overdone the type of humor. Acting like a goofball gets tiresome, while sarcasm and aggressive humor can lose its value incredibly quickly.
And then there’s “edgy” and offensive humor. For most people, trying to be “edgy” doesn’t work; it takes a high level of social calibration to know how to tiptoe up to the line without going over. Don Rickles is able to get away with insults and racially charged humor. You, most likely, aren’t, and the potential for fuck-ups is incredibly high. Even if you didn’t mean to offend somebody, “hey, it’s just a joke” isn’t a defense, nor is “get a sense of humor” going to make up for the fact that you were a dick. Remember: the fail-state of “clever” is “asshole”.
Know When To Knock It Off
While learning how to be funny will give you an advantage when it comes to dating, you also have to recognize that you don’t want to try to be funny all the time. At best, it’s exhausting. Try to imagine being around Robin Williams when he was “on”; he was brilliant and hilarious but past a certain point you simply don’t have the energy any more. You simply can’t keep up with him.
At worst, however, it’s obnoxious. Too much humor gets in the way of actually connecting with people, which is your ultimate goal. The guy who turns everything into a joke and won’t take anything seriously is a frustrating asshat. When everything you say is fodder for another quip, you start to feel like they don’t take you seriously. Constantly joking and delivering one-liners — especially when you have real, legitimate concerns — telegraphs a lack of respect and interest.
You don’t want to be that guy.
Humor is best delivered strategically. It’s better to pick your moments with care than to just shotgun blast jokes out and hope that something hits. The more you practice and the more you learn how to be funny, the better you will become at picking the right moment. And when you can deliver that perfect quip at the exact right time… well, you’ll be amazed at how effective it can be on a date.
Women love a man with a sense of humor. Develop yours and watch your dating life take off.
This article originally appeared on Doctor Nerd Love.