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How to Be Funny: Hone Your Funny Bone With These Practical Tips

Is it possible to teach someone how to be funny? Although some comedians have an innate ability to make people laugh, it also comes down to how well you know yourself—and your audience.

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Can funny be learned?Reader's Digest Canada

Can Funny be Learned?

A few years ago, I invited eight friends to perform a night of stand-up comedy at my house. None of them was a professional comedian, nor had any of them tried such a thing before. But it was my birthday, and what better present than the gift of laughter—or at least the mild humiliation of my closest pals? The more ambitious of the would-be performers were anxious to test their comic mettle before a live audience, while others accepted the assignment with reservations. “I’m more sit-down funny than stand-up funny,” one of them claimed—which, I told him, is a funny thing to say.

Stand-up comedy, of course, is a profession like any other, and anyone who makes a regular go of it can speak to the highly refined levels of craft, practice, dedication and resili­ence vital to honing a live act. So, while my eight friends are socially amusing, their sets were more fun than funny, and most of the night’s entertainment came from the absurdity of the whole enterprise, with a microphone stand spotlit at one end of my living room and my dog meandering through the crowd.

There’s a huge difference, of course, between shared laughter among friends and the exacting routines of professional comedy: one of them relies on comfort and familiarity, and the other, at its best, cleverly upends those things. In the 2011 HBO special Talking Funny, after Ricky Gervais suggests anyone can be funny, Jerry Seinfeld counters, “They can’t do it as well.”

“We’re pros,” adds Louis C.K.

Chris Rock takes it a step further: “We’re drugs, in a sense.”

But can hallucinogen-level hilariousness be learned, or is it limited to those born that way? Etan Muskat, an alumnus of Toronto’s Second City Mainstage, the famed venue that helped launch the careers of Dan Aykroyd, Catherine O’Hara and Mike Myers, leads improv workshops at Bad Dog Theatre Company to help performers harness their inner entertainer. But Muskat’s process involves more than simply teasing out zingers and slapstick.

“Funny is just a piece of the puzzle,” he explains. “I encourage people to be present and connected, to live in character (even if that character is themselves) and to be spontaneous. Sometimes that results in hilarity, but sometimes other emotions come out.”

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Find Your Inner ChildPhoto: Shutterstock

Find Your Inner Kid

Jan Henderson, one of Canada’s leading clown instructors, agrees that comedy can create a path to and out of sadness, anger and frustration. Henderson teaches at MacEwan University and the University of Alberta, and also leads independent workshops through her company, Fool Moon Productions. Being funny seems to be less the point of her pedagogy than a fortunate by-product: “I teach people to investigate their inner child, their inner fool—the part of them that lives in the moment, accepts all of its thoughts and feelings, isn’t focused on the future and doesn’t worry about the past.”

While Henderson acknowledges technique is an essential aspect of her profession, and her students are rigorously instructed in the fundamentals of the craft, she also stresses the need for audience members to identify with the performer, understand what’s at stake and hope for them to succeed. That human connection is something anyone can foster through a willingness to make themselves vulnerable and work through self-discovery as kids do: by way of play.

For Terry Fallis, whose novels have twice won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, being funny involves a similar balance between craft and instinct. In his humour-writing class at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, he examines satire, word play and irony, but Fallis is also wary of digging too deeply into what’s funny and why. “It’s kind of like dissecting a frog,” he says. “Yes, we learn about the frog, but it usually dies in the process. Sometimes analyzing funny writing too much ends up killing the humour.”

So whether you’re onstage or holding court at the family dinner table, accessing your inner comedian relies a lot on intuition, and that begins with really knowing yourself. But Henderson also warns of a critical difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness. “Never try to be funny,” she advises. “I’m teaching people to contact something that already exists in them and let it out.”

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Know Your AudiencePhoto: Shutterstock

Know Your Audience

So what do these three teachers think is the key to comedic success? Certainly, some people are just innately gifted humourists, as others are skilled at rock climbing or macramé. “You can definitely spot when someone has that special sparkle or charm,” says Muskat. But for those less naturally inclined, he adds, “There are a lot of skills that can help a comedian grow.”

Fallis offers some useful tips: “Less is more. If you have to explain why it’s funny, it’s probably not very funny. And understand your audience.”

That last piece of advice is critical. There’s an element of empathy involved in all comedy, of isolating something essential that speaks to a shared experience, and then expressing it in some surprising way. Think about the last time you were able to make someone laugh—chances are that whatever you said articulated something known but unspoken between you and your audience.

Muskat evokes an old maxim: “Tell the truth.” Henderson agrees: one of the pillars on which she builds her routines is “the revelation of truth.” She stresses that searching out that truth often requires going to dark places, though there’s light at the end of that tunnel, too: “The more we can laugh at the pain, the more we disempower the pain. If you’re truly laughing, you’re not afraid of the thing you’re laughing at.”

And using humour therapeutically doesn’t require full clown regalia to be a significant part of your life. Being funny isn’t just about the approval attendant to making someone laugh; it can also help guide us through difficult personal experiences.

Comedians are at their best when their material feels at once brave, surprising and honest, and the best of the bunch are those who admit or articulate things we’ve been unable or unwilling to say ourselves. But, as Fallis warns, “Humour is not always a consequence-free exercise.”

After all, comedy is also that rare thing with an inbuilt gauge of success: either people laugh or they don’t. Whether you’re hoping to headline Madison Square Garden or just be the life of the office party, part of learning to be funnier is accepting a failed joke, figuring out where you went wrong, digging a little deeper and deciding to risk trying again.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada