Increase the humor content (and laughs) of your professional presentations, informal business talks, and every day conversation.
Excerpted from Cantu's Comedy Wit and Humor Wisdom Soon to be republished
What separates the funny person from the non-funny person? The conventional wisdom is that some people are just "naturally" funny and have the God-given ability to "view the foibles of mankind differently than most mortals." But as Alan Weiss says in his excellent book Million Dollar Consulting: "'Conventional wisdom,' as far as I've been able to determine, isn't conventional and isn't really wisdom. It is actually a description of tired cliches intended to explain away failure before it occurs."
No, the funny person does not have a special gift that others don't have. He/she may be more creative and/or more effective in his application of those skills. But it makes as much sense to say some people are naturally funny and some are not as it does to say some special talent is necessary to run a mile, sing an opera aria, or cook an omelet. Yes, I will grant you not everyone can run a mile under four minutes, sing opera like Luciano Pavarotti or Beverly Sills, or cook like Yan. So what? One does the best one can with what one has.
Below are three real world experiences. Your assignment is to observe and find the "real-life" humor intrinsic in each one. With "observational humor" sometimes the joke is right there in front of you but more often than not, the funny person sees the situation, and because of training, background, and years of experience, instinctively applies one or more humor techniques to the situation, often unconsciously. Here's where you start training yourself to do the same:
Okay bloodhounds. There are the three real life situations. Put on your observational humor cap and see if you can find some humor. Where's Waldo? -ooops - Where's the joke(s)? You might want to stop reading for a minute and see what ideas pop into your head. What's the humor angle from your perspective?
Professional humorists always start with the attitude "Where's the joke in this situation?" One primary difference between the naturally funny person and everyone else is not possessing a special gift, but rather possessing a mind that is actively seeking jokes.
1. With the parking lot sign: $1.50 for twenty minutes. Max $15. I thought of this as a possible scene in a broad comedy (The kind Mel Brooks does) because I thought immediately of "Max" not as the abbreviation of the word "Maximum" (which was what it was) but rather I saw it as the male name "Max."
So here's my joke: I parked in a lot for eight hours and when I went to leave I gave the attendant $15. He said, "It's $36, bud." I pointed to a sign that said "Max $15." He said, "You ain't Max. Max is the owner's brother-in-law. For him it's $15 dollars. For you it's $36."
Analysis: Wordplay. Two words that sound alike but are being used in a different connotation. This joke popped into my head fully formed as soon as I saw the sign.
2. Eating yogurt. As I mentioned, I noticed every time I ate yogurt the first thing I did was lick the lid. I knew there was a joke in there, but didn't realize what it was until I saw a girl on a bus pop open a container of yogurt and lick the lid. My joke: "Did you ever notice, when you eat yogurt the first thing you do is lick the lid? (LAUGH) Why do you do that? (LAUGH) Do you think that all the nutrition in yogurt is at the top and by throwing away the yogurt-covered lid, you're throwing away the best part? (LAUGH) Are you that frugal that you think, "Hey, this cost 82 cents - There must be at least .9 cents worth in this lid I'm about to throw away!" (LAUGH) (MIME LICKING LID) (LAUGH) "Waste not, want not." (LAUGH).
Analysis: Notice, I have put laugh lines where I anticipate possible laughs and you might think the (LAUGH) sometime is put after a line that is not really a joke. Yes, you're right, but three points. 1. Experience has taught me not everything people laugh at are jokes, per se. Based on my experience I have put laugh pauses at places where the audience might laugh and, if the audience does so, I'm prepared to shut up and not step on my laugh. And 2ndly, because those are not obvious "jokes," if the audience doesn't laugh, you don't feel foolish, because it just sounded like factual stuff to the audience and 3rdly because they are not obviously "jokes" THAT'S what tends to make your audience think you are an "observational" comedian/humor writer - that you see everyday things in a "naturally funny" way - that you have the ability of finding laughs in non-joke situations. Yeah, right.
This yogurt chunk ("chunk" is a bonafide comedy term meaning a series of laugh lines on a single topic) actually follows a very specific humor technique or structure that is quite often used in "observational" humor. The first element is to notice two or more people doing the same action and to make a statement about the action as if it WERE a universal truth.
This is very, very common in observational humor. How many humor variations have you heard on the "observation" that men won't ask for directions or the "observation" that women love to shop? Those are NOT universal truths. There are women who won't ask for directions and there are men who like to shop. But notice how well it sets up the "observation(s)" that follow when a humorist uses that above mentioned "truths"?
After making a statement AS IF it were a universal truth, then you elaborate on the situation. While you have a multitude of options to choose from, the most common three are: you feign bewilderment as to why that action is done, or the converse: you offer plausible reasons for that action being done, or you act out the situation.
I used option one: questioning plausible explanations why everyone licks the lid
3. Hospital stay for exploratory surgery. Bonus points - I am going to share my immediate thoughts and then relate the jokes that three professional comedic friends created. Interestingly enough, as you read our retorts, you'll notice all four of us keyed in on the same concept. And we all did lines that were based on some variation of that concept. Here is each professional's line and Cantu's analysis.
Cantu's take. This is exactly what went through my head as soon as I heard the surgeon's words: First, there were several unprintable words regarding the fact I would have to again eat hospital food. (OBVIOUSLY I WAS BUMMED - - - FOR ABOUT THREE BEATS) and then the Cantu humor mode went into play.
I thought "Exploratory operation? Just my luck. Got a doctor who's not happy being a surgeon. Wants to be an explorer as well (LAUGH). He got up today, thought 'Gee, Columbus discovered America, Jacques Costeau has explored the seas. John Glenn has explored outer space - TWICE! (LAUGH) What's left to explore? - (PAUSE THREE BEATS) Cantu's colon."
Analysis: Contrast technique. By taking the word "exploratory" to mean to explore, in the sense of searching uncharted territory, I set up real-life serious concepts of exploring and got my humor using the contrast technique when I compared discovering the Americas, exploring the ocean, and outer space with exploring a colon.
Your bonus illustrations. Below are the spontaneous responses of three other comedy professionals when I told each, separately, that I had to go back into the hospital for exploratory surgery. I had already formed my idea for using my response to the surgeon's remarks for this article. My friends' lines came afterwards spontaneously, unrequested, and immediately after hearing me quote my doctor (because, of course, they're "just naturally funny" *L*). These were unprompted lines.
Susan Cerce, my writing partner, business partner, and webmaster said. "Exploratory surgery? What's your doctor going to do? Come into the operating room with a pith helmet and native guide?"
Analysis: Combo technique. Use idea of exploring inner most Africa or some hot tropical land and combining safari dress plus a guide with operating room setting.
My good buddy and former house MC when I owned the legendary, Holy City Zoo comedy club, Don Stevens said, "They're gonna look for Jimmy Hoffa!"
Analysis: Wordplay. Using the word "exploratory" to mean to explore in the sense of looking for something missing, in this case Hoffa's body.
Malcolm Kushner, humor consultant ( http://www.kushnergroup.com Kushner, has written two excellent books in which I am quoted: "The Light Touch" and "Successful Presentation Skills for Dummies") said, "EXPLORATORY surgery? That's Latin for 'Big Bill'.
Analysis: Structure joke. Kushner is a lawyer so it is natural for him to think of Latin terms that the general public is not familiar with and have to translate them. A structure joke is a joke where you can use the basic structure over and over and over for many situations. Take any bit of industry jargon and say, "JARGON TERM." That's Latin for "BLANK."
Here's what I found interesting. All four of us picked up on the word "exploratory" and mentally converted it into some form of "explore" and then pulled out a specific humor technique on which to fashion the joke. But remember, the remarks were instantaneous. The choices of the joke word explore and the joke was subconsciously done.
So here's one trick to observational humor: ASSUME THERE'S A JOKE in everything you see, hear, feel, think, discover. You want to start using "observational humor?" If you're not a comedian or professional humorist think of actions and habits of people in the industry you speak to or that you work in.
Think of things you've seen, try to discover the humor you have missed because you WEREN'T actively looking for it. Also, remember if two or more people have done any action, you can probably pretend IT IS a self-evident truth and then elaborate on it for humorous effect.