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The Art Of Telling Jokes: What Makes It So Funny?

Humor is subjective, especially when I try to tell a joke. Those of us who can make people laugh know it when we try to pull off a crass joke at a formal dinner party or we tell a highbrow quip at a baseball game. We know it when we flop. We know it when we land a funny, kill, hit the funny bone, too, but how is it that we were funny? How did our funny jokes go over so well?

We don’t have to take the substance out of funny jokes to consider what makes funny jokes funny, really. We just have to have the thick skin and miserable childhoods and caustic, bantering mentality that compose a comic sense of humor…and give a few nods to the elements of a good joke.

The Element of Surprise

When the unexpected—the absolutely bizarre or unpredicted—suddenly appears, the shock elicits inappropriate] laughter.

You have likely seen (in an old movie, in a melodramatic TV show) a woman slap a man for kissing her. Consider the show, Third Rock from the Sun. Dick Solomon (played by the genius of quasi-slapstick, John Lithgow) is an alien commander sent by The Big Head to study earth humans. Everything is new or daunting or perplexing to him. In the first episode, he is at a gathering with Mary (played by the brilliantly witty Jane Curtain). They end up in the restroom together and he inappropriately kisses her. She slaps him. He looks wounded. Then he slaps her back. He thinks it is part of the earthling ritual. Hysterical, that unexpected out of the norm behavior.


Slippery slopes make for the funniest of simple jokes. On Tool Time, for example, Tim Allen is fretting about his oldest son Brad (and again, I paraphrase). He says to his wife that if Brad doesn’t go to college, he’ll never get a degree, and if he doesn’t get a degree, he’ll have to move back in, and if he moves back in, Tim and his wife will have to baby-sit the whole new family of Brad, Brad’s wife, their kids, etc., when they are in walkers….

The Truth

Funny jokes are based in truth—somebody’s truth. This is unfortunately how racist jokes have survived, too, as they are based in a common understanding of what is a truth (which is in fact an ignorant mythological, collective truth). But since we can get away with humor about an ethnicity if we are of that ethnicity (and known for our people’s sense of humor, ahem), let’s pull off a mild one here:

Self- and Other-Effacing Funny Jokes

Telling the truth about oneself is safe. And the more ridiculous the better. David Sedaris is superb at pointing out his own inanities and idiosyncrasies: he writes of

John Lithgow in Central Park

having the booze-drinking, cigarette-smoking, aproned housewife mother who has a coffee clatch neighbor over for a visit one morning, and how he, with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), is still compelled to carry out his necessary rituals, no matter how bizarre, no matter that an outsider will witness them. So he walks to the doorway of the kitchen where his mother and their neighbor are chatting, and he steps to the wall near the door, to the light switch. He begins his imperative licking of the light switch. The neighbor is stunned and staring. The mother just rolls her eyes and says something casual, like, “David, stop licking the light switch and come say hello to Suzie Q.”

The Funny Jokes without the Fanfare

Some of the funniest stuff is that which is not prefaced by any warning that it will be funny. The funniest people to me are those who are deadpan—as if they are SERIOUS—and we are the nervous gigglers who can’t quite wrap our brains around whether they are for real or not.

Cary Grant pulled this off in the best of ways, tossing off flip remarks every other line or so of dialogue.

Jake Johansen (sic) tells a wide-eyed, innocent tale that is so funny you pee a little.

No laugh, giggle, grin, or even smirk that indicates it is a joke.

Then again, there are hysterical jokesters who are so funny they can’t contain their usually straight-faced selves, and they laugh, too. This is funny, also. Louie Anderson, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ellen Degeneres come to mind. You can catch them breaking, and that makes their humor all the funnier.

And Timing Matters

This is the trickiest part of telling funny jokes, waiting for the beat, knowing the pause. But if you know your audience, know your joke (are comfortable with it) and don’t TRY too hard, it’ll come for you. Or it won’t, and they’ll kick you out of their homes, and you’ll be so ashamed you’ll move to a secluded hick town where no one laughs, an you’ll sink deeper and deeper into forgetting and depression and drinking Jack Daniels, about which, Robin Williams says, if alcohol is a crutch, then