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.