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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May 9, 2011
Or if you're doing your comedy on a late night cable show, just quote an opinion expressed by a Conservative then laugh derisively.
May 9, 2011
explaining the funny takes away the funny.
May 9, 2011
I know there's a lot of controversy about not releasing the Bin Laden photos, but I can tell you that I know from experience that it was the right decision. My brother-in-law was in the same position Obama was in. He had some gruesome and bloody photos proving that a fantastic event had taken place -- he had photos from the birth of my new niece. Now we're all just as happy about her birth as we are that Bin Laden is dead, but I don't really want to see all the bodily fluids involved in the process. Clean her up and get some snapshots from Olan Mills. They must have a Pakistani branch. Just get a nice 8x10 of Obama prettied up and swaddled in a body bag with a little "it's a terrorist" sign. Grandma will want one for the mantle.
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May 9, 2011
You may have just done the world a terrible disservice and created many wannabe comedians from your blog.
May 9, 2011
Surely the "something out of place" here is the suggestion to include a naughty element as one of the six humour techniques, as outlined in (IIRC) The Dilbert Future? ;)
May 9, 2011
how about a SEAL's wife dragging them to marriage counseling to complain about his lack of spontaneity: "every November for the last 10 yrs we've gone to my parents for Thanksgiving & every year by Memorial Day he builds a full scale replica of their house & starts rehearsing egress scenarios!"
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