We all know and love (and want to be) those people…
The funny ones.
The ones who seem to crack up co-workers and friends with a word or a well-timed gesture.
People gravitate towards them--even you. Funny people make you laugh and smile and feel good, who wouldn’t want to be around them?
Even though it can feel like some people are born to be funny and others are born to laugh, you can actually learn how to be funny.
Learning how to be funny in conversation is a crucial people skill. It will help you:
Just like any skill, learning how to be funny takes practice! If being funny doesn’t come naturally to you, just remember:
There’s no such thing as a funny baby.
No one is actually born funny.
It’s a skill that these people have been working on and building for a long time - probably since childhood.
The class clowns, the crack-ups we remember those kids. Now that they’re all grown up, they’ve used that experience to their advantage.
They’ve had a lot more time to learn from trial and error what’s funny and what’s not (and that’s an equally important skill--learning what types of humor to avoid).
So let’s get to it...
In this article, you'll learn…
The Different Types of Humor
There are dozens of different types of humor. These types of humor are like different tactics in an overall strategy.
Your objective is to be funny. These “types” of humor are just tools you can use to obtain that objective. As with all tools, you have to understand their purpose and how they work to use them effectively.
As you practice, you may find that you naturally gravitate more towards one type of humor or another. That’s fine! Try them out and then choose what works best for you.
So we’ll do a breakdown of each type of humor with examples, and then talk about how to implement them without trying too hard!
Just remember, if an attempt at humor does flop, you’re in good company! There isn’t a comedian alive who hasn’t experienced dead air at some point.
What’s most important is that you laugh it off and continue the conversation with confidence.
Humor Style #1: Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is the combining of two (or more) things that don’t normally go together. The comparison and contrast between the two things make their differences stand out even more.
The humor happens when the contrasts are absurd.
Check out this example of juxtaposition from Will Ferrell.
When Jimmy Fallon asks Will Ferrell if he’ll be doing anything “cool” over the holidays, Will responds with “Oh, yes, very cool.”
But then lists some very traditionally uncool things like hanging out with his mother-in-law.
As the audience feels the incongruity between what Will is saying--“very cool”--and his actual plans--“family time”--it makes them laugh.
Juxtaposition is a great way to ease yourself into learning how to be funny and witty because it’s observational. When you notice silly contrasts and links that make you laugh, point them out!
For instance, if your host has a really big dog who likes to cuddle, you might say “that's is a great lap dog you’ve got here!”
Or if someone asks how the weather is when you’re obviously soaked with rain, you could reply “Beautiful!”
Juxtaposition often speaks to us most when it’s visual, so if you see a picture of a tough-looking muscle man walking a tiny dog on a pink leash, share it in the group chat!
You're sure to get a few laughs.
Humor Style #2: The Left Turn Story
The left turn story is pretty much exactly what it sounds like--a story that has an unexpected twist!
This is a successful form of humor because it uses the element of surprise.
The “unexpected” is funny--especially when it’s not happening to us!
Here’s another clip from the same video of Will Ferrell discussing his most first Oscars red carpet experience:
You think this is going to be a riveting recounting of his red-carpet experience and the frenzy of the paparazzi--a look into the life of a celebrity. He really sells the story with his imitation of the photographers.
But then he reveals that it wasn’t his name being called, but Will Smith’s!
The sudden turn is unexpected and hilarious--even more so because it’s a little self-deprecating.
We’ve all had moments like this.
You see someone waving at you across the room and wave back… only to realize they were looking at the person behind you! It’s embarrassing, but it’s also relatable. A huge element of humor is poking fun at shared experiences.
That’s probably why my deep-cut jokes about Back to the Future tend to fall flat--people don’t get the reference!
Look for relatable, unexpected moments in your life, and then practice crafting them into stories. These are the stories you can tell at parties to captivate your audience!
Think you’re a boring person who doesn’t have any unexpected stories? WRONG! Any story can become a left-hand turn story if you work backwards.
Figure out the point of the story, and then figure out how you can tell it so the ending is a complete surprise!
Because these are personal stories, I don’t have a script to follow, but here are a few examples for inspiration:
Humor Style #3: Unexpected Answers
This is another form of humor that uses the unexpected to surprise and delight.
This is a very simple premise and a great place for beginners to start!
All you have to do is give an unexpected answer to an ordinary question. This works best when the question has an expected or socially conventional reply.
For instance, if someone asks a professional chef, “Are you a good cook?” The expected answer?
Modest but affirmative, something like, “Yeah, I’m not the best but I love what I do!”
If instead, they answered, “Well, I haven’t killed anyone with my cooking in weeks!” with a big grin, they’d probably get some smiles.
Here’s a perfect example of Ryan Reynolds giving an unexpected answer:
This is an easy one to practice!
The next time someone asks you a question with an obvious, expected answer, throw out the opposite! (Be sure to smile as you say it to telegraph that you're making a joke!)
Humor Style #4: Callback Humor
Callback humor is a joke that references a previous joke or funny occurrence.
This humor style works well because it make the audience feel like you have an “in-joke” with them.
And whether it’s because they already know it’s funny, so they’re primed to laugh, or because they had enough time to forget about the joke, and hearing it or remembering it again is an unexpected surprise, people always laugh harder the second time around.
Check out this example from the Ellen Show:
The joke gets established, and then....the call back happens:
This is a fun tactic to break out at parties that’s pretty low risk.
Take note of something that gets a big laugh and then refer to it again later in the evening.
For instance, say your friend Sarah admits that she had a crush on Simba from The Lion King when she was a kid. You all giggle and share your own silly kid crush stories.
Then later in the evening, when you’re planning your next friend outing, you could suggest, “Why don’t we go to the zoo, Sarah needs to drop off a valentine at the lion exhibit anyway.”
Try it at your next get-together!
The best callbacks come with patience.
Wait for the right moment - soon enough that we remember the joke and long enough that the conversation has moved on.
Types of Humor to Avoid
While the following types of humor certainly have a place, they can easily give off the wrong impression or even backfire.
That’s the opposite of what we’re shooting for here!
So proceed with caution.
Use Sparingly: Self Deprecating Humor
Self-deprecating humor is a comfortable fallback for a lot of people.
You can’t laugh at us if you’re laughing with us, right?!
Unfortunately, when it’s overused, self-deprecating humor can come off as insecurity and make people feel uncomfortable.
If you drop something in the middle of a meeting, a simple “Clumsy me!” can get a relatable chuckle out of people.
But if you mess something up and say, “I am so stupid! It’s like there’s nothing up here!” it can come across as harsh and sad.
Also, it's easier to get away with self-deprecating humor when you're already the highest-status person in the room. (Think of a CEO vs a junior member of the staff saying “Clumsy me!”. Hits a bit different, huh?)
Avoid: Telling actual jokes
It can be tempting to tell actual jokes (knock-knock jokes, two priests walk into a bar, etc.) because you can memorize them and practice them ahead of time rather than telling a conversation-appropriate story.
But that’s the problem!
You’re not a professional comedian!
You’re trying to have normal, relatable conversations with people.
Memorizing jokes interrupts the flow and rapport you worked so hard to build.
And besides, pre-written jokes almost always suck.
Avoid: Any Type of Aggressive Humor
It can be tempting to jump on the bandwagon when people are already teasing and laughing.
But this kind of humor escalates to an uncomfortable place very quickly.
Avoid put-downs and making jokes at other people’s expense altogether to avoid coming across as mean spirited.
And if you do tease a good friend, for the love of God, make sure it's ONLY about something a person can change (like a piece of clothing) and not about something they can't. (Like their nose.)
Sarcasm is when you say something mean in a nice tone. It’s funny in TV shows and on-stage, but it isn’t conducive to building healthy, happy rapport in real life.
The definition of sarcasm in the dictionary is literally “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.”
That’s the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve here, so just steer clear!
Action Steps: How to be funny in conversation
So now it’s time to start building out your repertoire and testing your material!
Here are some actionable steps you can take on your journey to learning how to be funny without trying.
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