(written in a hurry after three cups of coffee)
I’m going to explain in this article how to be funny. It’s an insane goal and one I’m sure to fail at. That said, I’m amped up on coffee and feel like taking on the world, and whoever reads this article will be the victim of my temporary confidence.
I am kind of funny. There’s a strong chance that I’m VERY funny. Let’s say, conservatively speaking, on the Absolute Scale of Funniness that I’m hovering right around 7. I’m funny enough to take a shot at writing this, but not funny enough to be busy, say, writing funny things for other people.
Okay, so here’s how to be funny:
You go with things the way they are going and then when no one is expecting it, you go a different way.
You thought there would be a bunch of rules and big long essay but nope it’s just that one sentence. Hey, that’s kinda funny right there!
Let’s break this down into two steps:
- You go with things the way they are going
- Then you go a different way
For example, say you want to be funny in a conversation with human beings.
Step 1: For most of the time, you just go with the conversation. They nod, you nod. They complain about the president, you agree — no matter what you really think. Or maybe you offer a socially acceptable non-confrontational response like “hmm, I guess I get that.” Whatever. You’re just going with it. Your whole goal is to not be noticed. I think it’s best if you grew up unconfident, or scared of bullies or in a terrible family you naturally know how to blend in and not be noticed. However you get there, you need an ability to vanish.
Step 2: Then you need this OTHER ability to do the wrong thing. Give the wrong answer, disagree about something in the stupidest way, start absolute mayhem, change emotion sharply, become temporarily totally stupid, make a silly face, whatever.
It should feel like this: You go with it. Go with it. Go with it. Go with it. STUPID CRAZY THING. Return to going with it. Go with it. Repeat.
Here’s an example when a friend of mine was funny in this way! Buckle up.
I went to see a movie with two friends. The movie was McCabe & Mrs. Miller a 1970-something Robert Altman film. We were discussing films of the 1970s and also all films and just being very calm and smart and very much like film buffs — saying things like “Do they make movies with long takes anymore?” or “I miss practical effects!” or “Sometimes it’s easier to enjoy an old movie if you know what year it came out and you can adjust your expectations.” Right? Kinda normal film talk.
Then I said “You know, now that I think about it, I haven’t really seen that many Altman films at all.”
And one of my friends said “You fucking ASSHOLE!”
And… it was funny!
Go with it, go with it, go with it, go with it, SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
It’s about whimsy. Drunk people are great at this, I’m sorry to report. I was in a bar once (once? more like every night for 10 years!) and saw a guy sitting by himself. Older guy, in his sixties. He was dressed dapper : hat, tie, jacket, and narrow glasses that have flat top edge like Ben Franklin. He also looked shitfaced. He was wobbling while sitting on the stool. 1:30am.
If you’re sitting at the bar at 1:30am you’re shitfaced by context.
Anyway he was by himself, staring over his pint of Harp. And — without being prompted by anything, he removed his glasses and placed them back on his nose, upside down, and continued to stare.
That’s the instinct I’m talking about — the pointless whimsy that’s required.
Don’t Overdo It
If you overdo funny moments you quickly become annoying. Then you’re trying too hard, forcing it, being inauthentic. You have to wait for when they’re NOT EXPECTING you to be funny.
The absolute hardest time to be funny is when someone introduces you as funny. “This is Will, he’s hilarious.” Or even worse someone says to you “I hear you’re funny, tell me a joke.” I have stock answers for these situations. For the former I say “Yes, I am hilarious” with no emotion at all. For the latter, I say “no.”
The Clock Method
To sum up: being funny is about saying the right thing most of the time, and then saying the wrong thing.
What is the “wrong” thing? Here is the world’s worst and most useless explanation.
Imagine a clock. An analog clock with numbers. The numbers on the clock are a scale of “weirdness of things you could say.” At NOON are things you say when you’re just trying to blend in. And all down the side are increasingly weird things to say. Until you arrive at six — that’s the exact opposite of normal. For the sake of this metaphor, there is no left side of the clock.
Let’s say someone asks you “what are your plans after college?”
At “noon” you have normal answers like this:
- “I just don’t know. Get a job, figure things out.”
- “I’m looking for engineering jobs — hopefully on the west coast.”
- “For right now, moving home. But I want to be in New York as soon as possible.”
Right? Pretty normal.
Move a bit away from noon down the clock, into weirder answers. Let’s say you’re at 2 (10 minutes away from “normal”). Then you’ve got answers that are a bit odd, but still somewhat attached to reality. These are fun.
- “For me, it’s all about good loving. I’m looking for ladies.”
- “I’m into changing personalities. New person every day.” (Thumbs pointed at own head)
- “Married immediately. Currently very single.”
Move still farther away from noon, like 4. You are 20 minutes past noon, a full ⅔ of the way away from normal. Now stuff is downright strange, almost nonsensical.
- “I want to jitterbug, jitterbug, jitterbug. Live free. Roaring twenties. Gatsby!”
- “Let’s do something. Move in with me. What’s your name again?”
- “It’s the HORROR, the HORROR!” (claws at face)
These might read as fun here in this article, but in conversation and in improv scenes they tend to NOT WORK. TOO WEIRD.
At the very bottom, 6pm — you have the OPPOSITE of normal. There’s usually a lot of ways for an answer to be the very opposite of what you expect. These “opposite” answers make more sense than the previous batch. The mirror image of normal still looks normal, it’s just pointed in the wrong direction.
- “What I’m looking into carefully now is more debt.”
- “I may just go blue collar: janitor, food processing plants, maybe retail. Fuck it.”
- “Just sit at home and not think too much, be as stupid as possible.”
These do work. There is a logic to them, because they are commenting on what is “normal/expected.”
But they’re too on the nose.
12 Minutes Past The Hour
Okay, so what’s the funniest answer? The funniest answers are like 12 minutes past the hour. Weird but not too weird. I will often picture a clock face when I’m doing improv and I know I have to make a funny move, and I’ll feel out an answer that feels just about 12 minutes past. Don’t over swing.
So in response to “what are your plans after college?” some “12 minutes past noon answers” are:
- “Hopefully, start at the very bottom.”
- “Live with no morals. Like, HARD.”
- “Date an heiress, or join a band. At night! By day, it’s accounting all the way.”
Yes, I do this. When doing improv, when having conversations, I will often picture a clock.
Try it, and see how it goes.
When I read essays like this one about being funny there will come a time when the author drops a generalization — like RULES for being funny. “Use the “k” sound,” “follow the rules of threes” — that kind of thing. I’ve read stuff that sounds crazy to me. I read somewhere in an otherwise terrific book on doing better auditions, that in comedic scenes you should never make eye contact, which sounds insane to me.
Who would be so audacious as to offer rules for being funny?
Here are mine.
- Quieter is funnier than loud.
- Serious is better than grinning.
- When in doubt, do less.
- When it’s time to do physical comedy, pretend you are trying to keep the attention of a three year old child.
- When trying to make up a funny thing to say and you have zero ideas, mention an animal. “I feel like a falcon.”
- An abrupt change of emotion, then going right back to the emotion you had: that’s funny. “What a nice day! Oh wait no, there’s also DEATH. Eh, actually, I’m fine.”
- Agree with accusations. “You know, I AM lazy.”
- Give a shit.
“Have you thought about what kind of tacos you want?”
- Or sometimes completely shrug it off and look at the person like they’re nuts.
“Have you thought about what kind of tacos you want?”
“What? (furrow your brow like you’re completely stunned) I don’t CARE.”
- The ‘ol hesitation pitch: put a pause in a sentence at random. “For dinner I’d….like turkey.”
- Non round numbers are funnier than round ones. “Be there in five minutes” is plain but “Be there in just over four minutes” is ever-so-slightly more fun.
- Never maximize any examples. Use examples that are one notch below the maximum.
“I should write a letter to the lieutenant governor!”
“My dream would be to win a silver medal in the Olympics. Winter Olympics.”
“What would you do if someone just gave you nine hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”
That’s all I got. That’s how to be funny.