Public Speakers — Being Funny

How do we, as public speakers, know what’s funny?

I was recently asked:  “What do you look for when searching for a funny punchline?”  Who is the best judge of what is funny?  Me?  You?  The audience?  There is no simple answer.  The art and science of humor is complex.  To figure out whether or not a line is funny…and how funny…you must look at the structure of the line, the word choice, the timing, the physical delivery, the common knowledge of the audience, and more. 

I’m a pretty good judge of what’s funny.  But what might be funny when I deliver it, might NOT be funny when you use the line.  And your best line might fall flat if I were to use it.  My audience is not your audience.  My style is not your style.  You may live in a different city or country.  You may have a high-energy style rather than an low-key style like mine.  Because of the complexity of humor, the only way you’ll know for certain whether or not a punchline is funny is to try it on a live audience.  Sometimes a joke will work, sometimes it will bomb. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle.  Falling teaches you how to stay on the bike.

When a line doesn’t work, make a note.  Take a serious look at the line and analyze why it didn’t work and what you could do to improve it.  If the line does work, make a note for future reference, “I guessed right!”  Trial and error will show you the path to choosing funnier lines.  After you pass enough lines by a live audience you’ll begin to internalize the skill of knowing what is funny and what isn’t.  And remember, YOU are not the judge of what is funny…the audience is the judge.  The skill of knowing what’s funny is the skill of knowing what THE AUDIENCE will think is funny. 

Sometimes you’ll realize that something is funny even when you, personally, don’t think it’s very funny.  What matters is the opinion of the audience and the trick is knowing “what will be the audience reaction,” before you deliver the line.  The only way of knowing the answer is to take a hopefully-funny line and test drive it.  That’s one of the great things about Observational Humor.  When you work on developing that skill, you’re always testing out lines which you created, and getting immediate feedback.  It’s the best way to learn what’s funny and what isn’t.