One of my favorite pastimes has always been watching standup comedy.
Originally, it wasn’t even for the laughs. I was interested because I had been trying to improve my own public speaking skills, and I wanted to study the presentation of the comedians. They were able to captivate audiences, charm them, and make them laugh. They were certainly doing something that ordinary business presenters and professors weren’t!
So I wanted to learn their ways. I started by studying their posture, body language, gestures, and manner of pacing, but I only lasted about five minutes before I was completely distracted and engrossed by what was happening on stage.
And that’s when it struck me—being funny on command and making people laugh for an hour straight is one of the most difficult tasks in the world. What you’re really doing is evoking an emotion whenever you want, at will. In that way, it’s a little like casting a spell. Movies and television shows spend millions trying to do that, and even the best of them don’t get it right a lot of the time.
People cry at movies sometimes, but it’s a thin line to cross over into being cheesy and lame. Jokes in movies often fall flat or get repetitive, and even horror movies need to work hard to eke out a genuine moment of terror from an audience that has seen it all before. What I’m saying is that conjuring emotions in people is not easy—and yet I was watching my standup idols do just that, and to crowds of hundreds or even thousands of people.
At first, I thought it was purely talent-based. I believed that some people were just funnier than others. If there’s a bell curve, there are obviously outliers. Some of us can run a mile in under seven minutes with no sweat, and others need an inhaler to walk up a short flight of stairs. We all have different predispositions.
But it wasn’t until I investigated a little further and started reading about the comedy and joke-writing process that I found that there were certain puns, premises, jokes, setups, and methods of delivery that were essentially formulaic. It’s not magic at all. In fact, there are tried and trusted patterns, steps, and even rules that most comedians tend to follow—the more famous comedians have simply mastered these rules and have learned how to play with them on an almost instinctual level.
Let’s take a quick example: you may have noticed that comedians tend to talk about airports, sex, gender differences, and race. That’s because one of the rules that comedians follow is to make their jokes easily relatable and understandable; otherwise, only about ten percent of any given audience will be laughing. They know (from trial and error!) that they have to speak about universal human themes and struggles.
Now, there’s no world in which I can claim to be a professional comedian, but by studying and breaking down exactly what the best comedians in the world do to make people cry with laughter, I’ve found that there are proven ways to be consistently funny in conversation—any conversation.