What makes a joke funny?

I’m delighted to introduce our first guest blogger.  His name is Daran Johnson and he’s an award-winning stand-up comedian.

Daran has kindly agreed to write a series of four blog posts about how to make people laugh.  The first of these focuses on the reasons we find things funny in the first place.  Over to you Daran:

How To Write A Joke, Part 1: What’s funny?

Comedy, or, more broadly, just those mechanisms out in the world which cause us to laugh, usually has something to do with a loss of order or control.

When someone trips up on a banana skin, it’s funny, because they don’t expect it; because they have lost the control they had over the world.  It’s to do with futility, to an extent.  It’s the notion that no matter how hard you try you just cannot control the world around you, because there are way too many variables to consider.

banana skin

This isn’t just reserved for physical comedy, or slapstick. It’s the basis of a pun, too. Consider a misunderstanding based on the fact someone uses the term ‘bare hands’ in reference to those of a bear – the confusion can easily become comic. The reason it’s funny is just because clearly the process by which our language was constructed did not proceed with the intention of two words being so easily confused.

Homophones, that is two words which sound the same and yet have different meanings, are, in a sense, a mistake. They’re a fault in language; something that hasn’t been properly accounted for.  And so when we exploit these ‘mistakes’, through the use of puns, what we’re really doing is holding a mirror up to this system of communication we’ve developed and laughing at how rubbish it is.

Language is just another method by which man tries to control the world, and our deconstruction thereof through jokes is just another means by which to remind ourselves that this is impossible. But, probably more importantly, it’s also about letting one another know that too, and sharing in the communal futility. Whether you’re making a business presentation, writing a speech for a social occasion, or just down the pub with friends, the comedy you create will likely be grounded in this idea.

So …bit of a bleak overview, but not to worry. A more optimistic way to think of comedy, perhaps, rather than ‘discovering the futility of our attempts to control’, is the simple mantra that ‘you shouldn’t take things too seriously’. The reason, of course, being because ‘things’ don’t work anyway.

We laugh at what we can’t control. So, in essence, nature is funny. When a dog licks itself; that’s funny. When horses have sex; that’s funny. Cucumbers, sleepy cats, being snowed in, waddling, the smell of a cow pat, or just the way one tree sticks ridiculously far above the canopy for no apparent reason – it’s all funny because it’s all just there, beyond our control.

So if comedy’s about lack of control, how do we create it? We need something to exploit. So look for something that doesn’t work in language. Look for some linguistic feature that isn’t doing its job properly.

Thanks so much Daran; the next installment on  ‘How to write a joke for a speech’ will appear later in the week.


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