The other day, I bought a new sweater. When I got it home, it made my hair stand on end from all the static electricity . So I took it back, and they gave me a new one free of charge.
That’s the most recent groan-worthy joke my dad told me. Is it the best joke in the world? No. Did I laugh at it anyway? I sure did.
That’s because my dad is someone I would say is “naturally funny.” I know this because he’s one of the only people who even tries to make people laugh at our family reunions.
I often wonder, does that mean some people are just born funny, and others aren’t? Or can someone learn how to be funny on their own?
My answer: Yes and no.
Indeed, some people seem to be funny from very early on. Take this little girl who got famous on Vine (the TikTok of yesteryear).
On the flip side, you’d be hardpressed to find a single successful comedian who hasn’t bombed on stage early in their career. Humor, like every other skill on earth, can be improved with practice and patience (and, in this case, maybe some awkward moments).
Even if you consider yourself to be decidedly unfunny, you can still learn some basic tricks to be funnier. Keep reading for 8 of my best tips to get you lots of laughs.
Why is it important to be funny?
Before we get into how you can become a better comedian, let’s reflect on the true value of humor. Sure, it always feels good to make other people laugh. But there are other serious benefits that come with being funny.
Being funny is charming and attractive
There’s a reason why people say a sense of humor is something they look for in a partner. Being funny is attractive—people like to laugh, and they like spending time with someone who frequently gets them to bust-up.
A sense of humor is attractive to more than just potential romantic partners. People who are funny may find it easier to make friends, and a shared sense of humor can make your existing relationships much stronger.
A sense of humor can disarm a difficult situation
Have you ever noticed in movies, when the action starts to get really intense, the main character will often crack a funny joke? That’s because a well-timed bit of humor can diffuse tension like nothing else.
This applies in real life, as well. When you’re stressed at work, or feeling upset about something, being able to laugh at the situation can make it a lot easier to deal with. (Humor is just one of the many ways you can be a more positive person.)
Laughing improves mental and physical health
You know how they say laughter is the best medicine? That’s not just an idiom—it’s really true.
In the long run, frequent laughter can boost the immune system, relieve pain, lighten your mood, and give you a better outlook on life.
So go ahead and work that funny bone. It will do you a world of good. Here are my tips to help you do just that.
The most important element of humor: Surprise
My first tip about cultivating a sense of humor is also the most challenging. If you really want to learn how to be funnier, you need to master the element of surprise.
Surprise is at the center of every single joke and funny situation. The only way to make someone laugh is by surprising them in some way. That’s why a joke isn’t funny if you already know the punchline—it takes all the surprise out.
This is also why we find videos like this to be absolutely hilarious:
Though that video is only a few seconds long, the timing is perfect—you have no idea that cat is going to whack her in the face until it happens. (There’s also a ton of irony built into this video—the fact that she’s upset about how much work she has to do, only to get smacked down by her own cat, is part of what makes it funny.)
Of course, the tricky thing about surprise is that it’s naturally hard to predict! True surprise, like that cat paw, comes out of absolutely nowhere. But here’s the secret—when you’re a funny person, you learn to create surprise on your own.
In fact, every traditional joke is just a method of setting someone up for surprise.
The setup who?
A surprising answer!
Even puns, perhaps the most basic jokes, are about surprise. My dad’s joke about the sweater is an example; when he told me that joke, I thought he was telling me a mundane story. Then bam—he hit me with a punchline (albeit a rather stupid one) that I didn’t see coming.
Think about some of the funniest jokes you know. Examine them for the element of surprise. What does the listener expect, and how does surprise knock them off their feet with the punchline?
Examining jokes like this is a good start, but the next tip will help you get ahead of the surprise and start making people laugh.
Work on your observation skills
Being observant is key to mastering surprise and building a sense of humor:
To get to the surprising punchline that no one else sees, you have to be aware of the world around you. You must actively look for the things in life that are absurd, bizarre, ironic, and hilarious.
There are many ways to build up your power of observation. Meditating and reflecting regularly is a good start, as is keeping a journal, capturing photos or videos, or having long conversations with good friends.
Whatever method you choose, look for things that strike you funny, even in the mundane.
Hot tip: Try it first at your local thrift store. I guarantee if you spend ten minutes there, you’ll find some odd t-shirt or weird knick-knack that makes you smile. When you do, pause and interrogate the moment—what is it that makes you laugh? Why is it funny?
The more you practice this kind of thoughtful observation, the easier it will be to effortlessly recognize funny moments in the moment.
Treat humor like a school subject
I’m about to give you the best homework assignment ever.
If you want to know how to be a funny person, you should study truly funny people.
Thanks to Netflix and YouTube, there are so many opportunities to watch professional humorists at work. Not to mention, the number of hilarious books and podcasts that are widely available.
You can start with the humorists you already know and love. Find your favorite comedy segment, and take notes on exactly why it’s funny. I did this in college once for my favorite comedian, Maria Bamford. I wrote a 20-page paper on her YouTube series, “The Maria Bamford Show.”
At the end of it, I found out exactly why I found Maria so funny. On top of her zany voices and wild impressions, she also pokes fun at herself and the difficulties she’s faced in life. She does it with a sheen of absolute absurdism that still has me quoting these weird videos to this day.
Once you’ve dissected your favorite comedian, it’s time to diversify. Watch a Netflix series featuring someone you’ve never heard of who looks and acts nothing like your favorite comedians. Go to a local comedy show where you won’t know what to expect. Subscribe to three comedy podcasts you’ve never listened to before.
Treat comedy like a buffet—sample everything, and when you find your favorites, go back for more. Soon, you’ll know how to cook up a style of comedy that’s all your own.
Bonus tip: When you come across a comedian that you find to be unfunny, take notes on that, too! What is it about their delivery, style, or choice of subject matter that turns you off? This is important to understand as well, especially when it comes to my next tip.
Learn how to read the room
Knowing your audience is one of the most important parts of being funny. The jokes you tell, and the style of humor you exude, should be tailored depending on the situation and people you’re with.
For example, here’s a joke:
An SEO specialist walks into a bar. And a pub. And a bar near me. And a tavern. And a best local dive bars.
Did you laugh? Unless you’re an SEO nerd like me, you probably didn’t. But when I tell that joke to my colleagues? Well, they don’t find it funny either. It’s not a great joke, even if you understand it, but at least they’ll get it and politely smile.
The humor you have with your best friend is going to be completely different than a joke you might crack while on a first date. What makes your mom laugh might only get a blank stare from the clerk at the grocery store.
So how do you learn to read the room?
Once again, it’s all about your powers of observation. In addition to being observant about the world around you, you also must be keenly attuned to the people you’re with. You need to think about who they are, what their current situation is, and what they know about you. You use all of that information to read the room.
This person has taken a rather mundane scenario—standing at a buffet—and turned it into something that made a lot of people laugh. Why? Because a lot of people have had those awkward moments at buffet lines. This funny man is simply calling that out and building humor off the common ground he shares with his wide audience.
This kind of humor is often called situational comedy—in fact, that’s where the term sitcom comes from. “Seinfeld” was so popular because nearly every joke was built off a common situation.
Make a running joke out of something
Making a good joke isn’t easy. Finding a way to make one joke funny multiple times is even harder, but if you can pull it off, it’s the funniest thing in the world.
You’ll see plenty of comedians do this. They’ll tell a joke at the beginning of a set and bring that same joke back around again (with a twist) when the audience least expects it.
“Arrested Development” is chock full of running jokes that last over multiple episodes and even seasons. My favorite is the various chicken dances that happen throughout the show:
Running jokes are great for those personal, intimate moments of humor between friends and partners. Inside jokes are running jokes—they are something that you and someone else can reference over and over again and always get a laugh.
To make good running jokes, you need to keep track of what makes people laugh. You also need to walk a balance between making a good running joke and beating a dead horse. When people start to laugh less and groan more after you make the same joke more than once, it’s time to retire it.
Make fun of yourself (but be gentle)
Here’s another quote you’ve probably heard before: “You want them laughing with you, not at you.”
That’s the key to what’s known as self-deprecating humor. When you turn yourself into the punchline of a joke.
This kind of humor can be incredibly effective if it’s coming from the right place. There’s a big difference between laughing at yourself out of kindness and forgiveness versus laughing at yourself because you really don’t like yourself. (That’s not funny—and people won’t laugh if you try it.)
When you use self-deprecating humor, you are saying to the audience: “I know myself well, and therefore I can laugh at myself without it hurting. And I invite you to do the same.”
For a masterclass in this, check out this clip from the comedian Rosie Jones:
For my last tip, I’m going to talk about what isn’t funny. Because if you really want to be seen as a funny person, you have to know when it’s the right time to make a joke and when it’s better to bite your tongue.
The first thing to consider is the situation you’re in. Cracking jokes as you share a few beers with a friend is absolutely perfect—making silly comments at a funeral, on the other hand…
Good comedians know exactly where the line is between what is and isn’t acceptable, and they know how to test that line for laughs. But when you cross over that line, you will veer into very unfunny territory.
The easiest way to avoid crossing the line is to keep your jokes “free from harm.” Whether you’re laughing at yourself or a common situation, your jokes won’t be funny if they come at someone’s true expense.
Let’s take a look at some of the examples from the article above.
With the girl who got smacked by her cat—are we laughing at her or with her? After all, she was crying at the end of the video.
But you can reasonably assume that she recovered well. The cat didn’t maul her, and most people who cry from stress eventually get over it. Not to mention, the creator shows us she’s in on the joke by adding the caption “still can’t believe he really got me like that” and the hashtag #imokay.
What about that Maria Bamford clip, where she mocks her mom’s accent and jokes about her addiction and mental health?
Well, if you watch the rest of her YouTube series, it becomes very clear that Maria has nothing but love and respect for all of the people she imitates. Later in the series, she even gets her mom to join in the videos. She talks candidly about her past experiences in interviews.
What about that “Seinfeld” joke about salsa? Are they making fun of people with Hispanic accents?
There are some questionable jokes from “Seinfeld” that definitely veer into the “unfunny” category, but if you listen to this joke, they’re actually making fun of themselves and their own accents. People from New York pronounce “seltzer” like salsa—not the other way around.
For jokes to be funny, they need to come from a place of kindness and respect. Take them to a place of cruelty, and you’ll hear crickets for sure.
Final Tip: Don’t try too hard
If you follow the tips in this article, you’ll definitely learn how to be funnier. But don’t try to work on these things around the clock. Trying too hard to be funny is a sure way to be anything but.
Instead, practice these tips every once in a while, and give them time to “steep.” Don’t force your humor—let it find you.