Lately, I've been listening to a lot of comedians on satellite radio. When you hear twenty comedians in a row, their methods start to become transparent. I didn't realize how formulaic most standup humor is.

The technique I hear most often involves creating a scenario in which one type of person or way of doing things is imagined in a different context. For example, you might say, "I wonder if any of the members of SEAL Team 6 are married."  Then you do a bunch of jokes in a wife's voice as if she is the only person on Earth who has no respect whatsoever for the heroic warriors who ended Osama Bin Laden: "So, you can find the world's most wanted terrorist in Pakistan, but you can't find the scissors in...the scissor drawer." And "I'd better drive. I don't want you hard-landing the minivan in someone's courtyard and then blowing it up."

See how easy that is? It's a bit different than a "fish out of water" method because most SEALS will probably end up married at some point, so the fish is right where it belongs. It's the juxtaposition of the heroic history of a SEAL with the mundane routine of marriage that is out of place.

In this example I also used the humor trick of making sure someone is unhappy in the imagined scenario. Humor doesn't require someone to be unhappy, but it's an easy way to get a laugh. In this example the SEAL is henpecked.

Familiarity is another dimension that helps humor. By grounding jokes in the familiar, such as the scissor drawer and the minivan, people can better relate. If I had tried to move the SEAL context to someplace unfamiliar to the audience, such as an imagined alien planet, it would fall flat.

Another humor trick is to use current topics. SEAL jokes are funny today, but by next year they will seem stale.

Yet another humor trick is the "bad solution." The bad solution is something that makes sense on some level while at the same time being ridiculous. For example, blowing up the minivan because of mechanical difficulties is a concept that your brain tries to make sense of while simultaneously knowing it to be ridiculous. It's the "almost makes sense" part that makes you laugh. The master of that method is Steven Wright. He has lots of jokes that almost make sense but don't, such as "I like to reminisce with people I don't know."

Cleverness is important in humor too. The audience has to be wondering how the comedian thought to combine unrelated topics and still connect the dots in a way that almost makes sense. Sometimes the easiest way to be clever, create a loser, and insert familiarity at the same time is with sarcasm and exaggeration in the voice of an imagined other.

So here's your humor toolbox:

1.       Pick a topic that is current.

2.       Put something in the wrong context.

3.       Make someone in the scenario a loser.

4.       Add familiar and mundane elements to ground the joke.

5.       Create a solution or logic that almost makes sense but doesn't.

6.       Use sarcasm and exaggeration if necessary.


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-1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2011
These two are also part of the stand-up formula:

7. Make a joke that is uncomfortable for those who brought dates.
8. End with a reference to a joke or observation you made at the beginning of the set.
May 13, 2011
What's the most -- timing -- important thing about comedy?
May 11, 2011
Wired Magazine recently had an issue dedicated to this subject of "what is funny".


May 10, 2011
I hear Schwarzenegger's marriage is about to be terminated by his wife... apparently he's been womanizing and she caught him saying "I'll be back" to other women too many times. He's also got a problem with a big ego... but after steroids and old age, that's probably the only thing he's got that's too big. But at least he's got a movie career to fall back on. Supposedly his comeback will be drama and that's nice; I'm sure hearing him butcher Shakespeare with that accent of his will be a hoot to listen to.

May 10, 2011
How do you define humor?

Benign Violation.

Read the May 2011 edition of Wired magazine about this very topic. It blew my mind how well it described why something is funny, and why other things are not.

May 10, 2011
Technology is squeezing the humor industry. On Bill Simmons' podcast yesterday, Jimmy Kimmel complained that Twitter is making it harder to write a monologue. He said that after the writers finish their daily work, they check the major comedians' twitter feeds just to make sure they haven't duplicated a joke. If they have, then they throw it out. He said they don't check the entire Twitterscape, but there's always some guy living in his parent's basement who just tweeted a similar joke.

So if I were a late night joke writer I would not sleep well at night knowing that I'm just one new Google app away from unemployment. "'Google Jokes', our AI jokefinder scours all the Twitter feeds every 5 minutes to bring you the funniest jokes".

May 10, 2011

For some reason your joke was hilarious to me. Not so much at first, but then I got the image stuck in my head of a helicopter tied to a lamp post and SEALs sliding down the pole and the more I thought about it the funnier it became. Good job.
May 10, 2011
I heard that the evolutionary basis for humor is pattern recognition. Your brain recognizes a pattern, and gives you a reward with laughter. For the humor to work, it's stuff like puns, role reversals, fish out of water, etc... that makes you laugh.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 10, 2011
I think you're missing an important element: delivery (unless #6 counts for this). I always enjoyed watching the late Phil Hartman on "NewsRadio." While his character was an insane pompous windbag, a lot of his lines aren't objectively funny -- his tone and mannerisms, and interactions with others, are what made it so amusing. The best joke in the world will still sound kind of lame if the delivery/packaging is awful.
May 10, 2011
I have to agree with Raskolnikov, humour is a skill that some have and others don't. I tried writing cartoons once and completely ran out of ideas after six.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 9, 2011
It seems to me the main comedic formula is to contrast men and women, noting how humorously different they approach: parenting, shopping, sports, housework, etc. Brainstorming for just 1 minute, I can quickly think of typical topics such as:

"Why do women anguish over what gift to bring when the invitation says No Gifts Please?"
"Why do women think toilets are flushable trash cans?"
"Do men really believe there is a 'clothes fairy' that picks up their dirty socks?"

A funny person could take those, or a thousand other little observations, and easily make a funny monologue.
May 9, 2011
If you want a real in-depth study, try Sigmund Freud's study of jokes. Yeah, that's boring too.

Basically, to paraphrase E. B. White: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.”
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 9, 2011
I don't think anyone can use a formula to be funny if they don't already have an innate gift. The result of using a recipe might end up being humorous but not really funny. Something vital would be missing, as if serving a meal by clipping photographs of food.

I've known people who were very literate and tried to be funny but couldn't manage any more than polished wit; and others who could barely write a complete sentence yet in whatever they said (from the time they were children) were "funny to the bone," and had everybody constantly in stitches.

As to trying to analyze humor -- beware! Isaac Asimov wrote a short story, "Jokester," in which the super-computer Multivac reveals that all humor is part of an alien science experiement upon human beings -- whereupon the entire human attribute of humor suddenly disappears.

In a world devoid of humor, life would become sort of like an everlasting life insurance meeting. If laughter existed at all it would be cruel or bitterly ironic and would offer no temporary comic relief from daily existence.
May 9, 2011
A Steven Wright line that might have gotten a laugh from the SEALs...

"For a while I didn't have a car... I had a helicopter... no place to park it, so I just tied it to a lamp post and left it running..."
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
May 9, 2011
Steven Wright has some of the best material. They guy makes me bust a gut every time I hear him.
May 9, 2011
For the syndicated cartoonist there are the added degrees-of-difficulty of a 6 week lag time so topical jokes are guaranteed to be lame, the "No Swearing Allowed" rule, and the pressure of having to be funny every day, 7 days a week.

May 9, 2011
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 9, 2011
The common thread in most of your toolbox is absurdity. Absurdity in any degree is the basis of most humor. When two (or more, but normally two) things not normally related are juxtaposed, it creates an absurd situation that is humor. Both the similarities and differences between the two ideas can be highlighted to increase a jokes effectiveness.
May 9, 2011
george carlin says, "I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke. What the exaggeration is. What the exaggeration is. Because every joke needs one exaggeration. Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion"
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
May 9, 2011
A few comedic geniuses come to mind whose work defied the standard formula. Once I saw George Carlin on TV. He stood on stage and gestured as though he was about to tell a joke but he didn't utter a single word. Eventually, with the audience in stitches he simply took a bow and left. The other is Steve Martin doing his plumber's joke that employed a steady stream of technical plumbing terms few people understood yet somehow, through its audacious absurdity and equal parts Steve's physical gestures and tonal inflections, it was hysterical. These are isolated incidences of course, but you have to admit Andy Kaufman's comedic algorithm was so off the charts it consistently defied any sort of definition beyond just, performance art.

As far as Scott's joke writing exercise is concerned I think Ocsar Wilde said it best, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
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