When it comes to being funny people love to complicate it. Maybe with good reason as the number of reasons we laugh, what we laugh at and why we laugh can be complicated. But, if you study it and read some books, you will quickly see how simple being funny can be.
I’ll save you a bunch of time and reading by boiling it down for you.
The surprise theory is one of the primary theories of laughter and being funny. In fact in The New Comedy Writing Step by Step, Gene Perret quotes comic Tom Dreesen:
Comedy is nine-tenths surprise. The audience laughs because they didn’t think you were going to say that.
And in Comedy Writing Secrets, Mel Helitzer shares that:
Surprise is one of the most universally accepted formulas for humor. A joke is a a story, and a surprise ending is usually its finale.
In addition, the authors of Inside Jokes get a little more detailed:
We laugh when we find that something we’ve momentarily believed to be the case isn’t in fact true.
Are you getting the idea?
How does this help you be funny? Simple. If you want to be funny and make people laugh you can use surprise to do it. One of the easiest ways to create surprise is based on the idea shared in Inside Jokes; defeat of expectation.
John Vorhaus talks a lot about expectation and defeat of expectation in Comedy Writing 4 Life and The Comics Toolbox. The idea is simple. Let’s start with an example.
If I ask you, “do you ever wake up grumpy?” What am I really asking? I’m asking if you ever wake up in a bad mood. In this case grumpy is used to mean bad mood.
The expected answer then is “yes or “no” or something very close to it. What if instead you answer with “No I usually let him sleep in.”
Now, instead of the expected, we have the unexpected and when said along with a point to your husband, boyfriend or even your dog, the expected answer and accepted meaning of grumpy has been changed from a “bad mood” to mean a nick-name or term of endearment.
My favorite examples of defeat of expectation in dialogue comes from the TV show Cheers.
A compilation of Norm’s answers to a couple of questions as he is entering the bar:
Question: How’s the world been treating you? Or How’s life treating you?
- Like a baby treats a diaper.
- Like it caught me sleeping with its wife.
- It’s not, Sammy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.
- Beats me,….. Then it kicks me and leaves me for dead.
- Not for the squeamish.
- Oh, I’m waiting for the movie.
- Well, the plot’s okay but it kind of falls apart at the end.
- Ask a man whose got one.
You can see how the writers of Cheers twist the expected answer and get laughs. You can be funny doing the same thing.
Start paying attention to the questions people ask when you are at the store, coffee shop, etc. Write them down and think about the expected answer and some possible ways to twist the meaning and be funny.