There’s almost nothing more frustrating than watching someone get effortless waves of laughter out of a captive audience while you stand by, wondering how to be funny. The good news is, while some people are naturally hilarious, being able to think of something funny to say in any given moment isn’t just a gift—it’s a skill.
That means that like any skill, a sense of humor can be learned, strengthened, and improved, until you’re confident in your ability to be funny over text, on a date, in the office, or even onstage as a stand-up comedian or improviser. (And no, it won’t require you to just memorize thousands of simple jokes, so no need to panic about the homework just yet.)
When it comes down to learning how to make people laugh, there are tips, tricks, and even scripts that can take the guesswork out of the whole situation. So read on for everything you need to know about telling funny stories and jokes, and you’ll be cracking up your coworkers, friends, dates, and family in no time.
When you think of funny people, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably talking: your favorite comedian delivering a stand-up routine in their Netflix special, or the funniest guy at the office regaling his deskmates with tales of his weekend. But thinking about humor in that context glosses over two very important pieces to being funny.
The first is that being funny is way more about listening than it is about talking. The most hilarious people are keen observers of their surroundings, sensitive to the smallest, most insignificant details in their environment. They pick up on the kind of stuff most people miss on the first pass, but recognize instantly when it’s brought back up.
But just like a poker player noticing a tell in her opponent across the table, you don’t necessarily want to shout out your discovery the moment you clock it. The secret to how to be funny in conversation is all about choosing your moment, reading the room, and finding a healthy balance between listening and speaking.
The second and related secret is that even the funniest people aren’t funny all the time. Performing constantly or even watching someone perform constantly is draining. So a lot of times, if you feel like you’re making a lot of top-quality jokes or quips and they’re falling flat, it might well be that you need to give it—and yourself—a rest for a second.
Scientifically, the three main factors that cause laughter are superiority (“I’m better than you”), incongruity (“You surprised me!”), and the breaking of tension (“What a relief!”). And since it’s pretty tough to surprise people or relieve their anxiety when you’ve been hammering away at them with jokes nonstop, it’s probably better to save that kind of thirst for Instagram.
What you’ll want to cultivate instead is a confidence that you are already funny. Give yourself the validation so you aren’t demanding it from people around you, and you’ll be amazed at how differently you’ll be received. As an example, think about the way a toddler hands over a plastic phone to an adult. Nine times out of ten, the adult is going to pretend to answer that phone and babble into it, right? Even though they’re fully aware no one’s there.
Why do we do that? Is it because being mean to babies is a major downer? Yup, that’s part of it. But another important aspect is the toddler’s earnest confidence that this is how phones work. That confidence opens up a shared reality between the two of you, and lowers the stakes for you to do something that might feel dumb in another situation. Kids and toddlers alike often believe in their world so strongly that when they ask you to join them, you say yes without a thought. A great comedian has that much confidence in their own reality, and it wins people over in the same way. That’s comedic banter, so if you’ve ever answered one of those creepy Fisher-Price contraptions on wheels, you’re already doing it!
But even though kids are genuinely great audiences to practice on, because they can smell fear better than any bloodhound, it’s likely that you’re interested in learning how to be funny with your fellow adults. So next, let’s get into some specific situations that are likely to come up on your journey toward humor.
So you’re in a group of people, and you’re wondering how to make them laugh. Bad news first: if that thought is in your brain, you’ve probably already missed a lot of the conversation, so your initial task is to get out of your own dang head. Notice who in the group is racking up the laughs, and challenge yourself to figure out what exactly is so funny about them.
Are they quick? Dry? Sarcastic? Sardonic? Quippy? Ironic? Witty? Punny? Clever? Corny? Self-deprecating? Satirical? Slapstick? Expressive? There are so many different types of humor and ways to be funny, and figuring out where others land on that spectrum will help you find your own voice and niche as well.
If you don’t know anyone funny, you can practice this same scenario on funny TV shows, movies, podcasts, stand-up specials, or improv shows. Any time you laugh, make a note of it and ask yourself why.
After a while of this, you’re gonna be pretty great at noticing the funny thing in any given situation, and just like that, you’ve honed your observational skills. Now it’s just a matter of putting them to work for you. Think about the elements of your comedy that only work in person. That’s stuff like facial expressions, physical comedy, funny voices, and juxtaposition—saying one thing while clearly indicating another.
As an example, if you’re meeting a group and want to apologize for being late, the old you might have said, simply, “Sorry I’m late,” or something defensive to get the attention off of you. There’s no guarantee that wouldn’t work, but options like the ones below would probably get you closer to what you’re looking for:
Not all of these responses are going to be perfect for you or your friend group, but they should get your creative juices flowing, at least. To come up with your own funny response for moments when all eyes are on you, try plugging your own details into this formula:
[an apt observation about the situation] + [a charming dig at yourself] + [an emotion]
If that goes well, relax while you wait for the next opportunity to show itself—hunting for it or forcing it will just put you and everyone else on edge.
Being funny in a text message can be challenging, as typing words on a screen strips every sentence of context, but a conversation over text also gives you extra time to craft a witty response.
Just make sure that thinking doesn’t verge into overthinking, and that you aren’t turning too much of a critical eye on your texting partner’s responses. There can be a temptation via text to point out errors or get a little punchy in what feels like a funny way. But across the board, it’s usually funnier to poke fun at yourself than others.
Texting presents an excellent opportunity to try out comedy classics like the rule of threes and linguistic playfulness—a type of humor that manipulates language in fun and surprising ways. That can mean swapping out words or phrases to form puns, or making up your very own phrases that are specific to you.
Similes are particularly fertile ground for this challenge, because they allow you to compare two things that either do or do not go together. For example, “I’ve been as busy as a bee” versus “Well Maureen, I’ve been about as busy as a zoo lion during the day.”
[simile] + [adjective] + [matching or non-matching noun]
Specificity is your friend here. For some reason, it’s always funnier to throw an adjective before your noun, like saying “Can we take your stunning silver chariot?” instead of “Do you mind driving?”
As for the rule of threes: set yourself up for an easy joke by saying two regular things in a row, and then adding a surprising third thing. If you’re asked how work is going, for example, you could say:
[“It’s going great!] + [two great things] + [one not great thing]
“It’s going great! I just got a promotion, I finally found a lunch spot I like, and I haven’t seen my family during daylight hours in weeks.”
Also, remember that when texting, you have control over the way the recipient reads your words. You can break them into different lines or even send a punchline word by word to create tension before a big reveal.
As you may have noticed, the person who wants to be the funniest person in the office isn’t always actually the funniest person in the office. So work and work functions present an ideal opportunity to hone another comedic skill: reading the room.
Do people have their bodies turned toward you, relaxed expressions, and smiles on their faces? That’s a receptive audience. Furrowed brows, headphones, faces turned toward screens, and closed office doors are the opposite—good indicators that your workmates don’t want to be interrupted.
Because so many people are at work to…y’know, work, these environments aren’t always the best place to work on reactive humor, which requires eager banter between two or more active participants. When it comes to how to be a funny person at the office, focus instead on self-generated funniness like jokes or quick observational stories. Quick being the key word: get in and get out.
In general, being funny is about going with your gut, but a work situation is one where it’s really okay to edit yourself. Remove extra words and pauses during which your coworkers could get bored and wander back to their desks, and don’t be coy. Whatever made you laugh about whatever you’re sharing, make sure it’s front and center.
Also, remember that silence is golden. Especially early on in your comedy journey, aim to make just one person laugh once per day. Yes, even if it means missing out on other perfect joke opportunities; just noticing them is proof that you’re getting funnier by the day. That way, you leave your coworkers wanting more instead of rolling their eyes. Morning greetings, questions about your weekend, or queries about future plans are great places to start.
For bonus points, pocket a funny moment you noticed in order to bring it up later. Funny moments age like a fine wine. What might have given you a chuckle when it first happened can be worth a full giggle during a later recollection.
How to Make People Laugh and Master the Art of the Joke
Now here, finally, is where we really get to flex those reactive muscles, because there’s nothing sexier than a witty repartee with a stranger. (And nothing less sexy than a date who listens to absolutely zero things you’re saying because they’re too excited about their own jokes. So do yourself a favor and ignore most of the search results that came up when you Googled “how to be funny around girls.”)
The same way you set the bar in your work interactions, try coming into your date with the goal of being interesting first. Be honest and truthful and don’t feel like you need to tell people what they want to hear, which can come through as disingenuous in a dating setting. If you’re able to follow those rules, the funniness will start to come through on its own.
To ease it along, try laughing at funny things your date is saying. Having a good sense of humor in general means laughing as much as you make other people laugh, but that’s especially true on a date. Being a receptive listener is part of the give and take of a funny conversation, so use your own laughter and the “yes, and” rule from improv comedy to show that you absorbed the last thing that was said before jumping ahead with your thing.
Your goal on a date should be to build something funny with your date, so as you’re trying to get some banter going, try to steer clear of sentences that start with “or”, “but,” or “no.” Instead, look for opportunities to “yes, and” the last idea.
If your date points out a puppy outside, maybe pitch a name you think would be good for it. If that goes over well, you can build a rich inner life for this dog together. But if you pitch the name “Horace” and your date suggests “Sherlock”—yes, it’s a little bulldog puppy, how did you know?—work on dropping your idea and building on theirs:
All three of those responses invite your date to add on to what you’ve built, as opposed to building something right alongside. And if you’re paying good attention, you can always bring back one of these inside jokes you’ve created later in the evening as a callback. Which makes your date laugh and reassures them that you’re a good listener.
It really is just practice, practice, practice. (Just not on the same people, so you don’t get found out.) Telling an excellent joke is all about creating tension, breaking patterns, and surprising your audience. So experiment with pauses, different speech patterns, and above all, confidence.
It can take time to learn how to naturally be funny, but as a reminder, if you don’t think your joke is laugh-worthy, neither will your audience. You have to be your own biggest fan, which is why observational humor often lands so much harder than retold jokes out of a book or a special. Not only has your audience potentially heard the joke before, but how much credit do you really get to take if they haven’t and they love it? No one is going to tell jokes about your life better than you do, so start there and stick to your guns.
That said, if a joke isn’t working, don’t be afraid to can it. But not before asking yourself why it isn’t working. Is your joke offensive to a community that you aren’t a member of? Try switching the structure so that you’re the butt of the joke instead of putting down another group, especially if it’s a minority group.
Think of stories as longer versions of jokes, but just as lean. Practice them with pauses, different word choices, and switching out the order of events to see which way flows better.
You can really set yourself up for success in the way you frame these stories, as well. Starting out with statements like, “The funniest thing happened to me yesterday” sets an expectation, while framing with “I had such a weird experience yesterday” does not.
In the first example, you’re priming your audience to hear a joke; in the second, all they know is they’re about to hear a story, which gives you the element of surprise. Which, as we already learned, often inspires laughter. And regardless, lets you walk away clean if no one laughs.
[low-stakes intro] + [short comedic story] + [back to listening mode]
Aim to be talking for one minute maximum when you first start out; your listeners will ask follow-up questions if they find your story funny and interesting. To get to that point, don’t be shy about practicing your storytelling skills at home, in the mirror, or on a friend. Storytelling is an art, and just like being funny, it’s one anyone can master with practice.
Humor Writing: Write Funny for the Internet
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