How to Be Funny

by Abby on June 6, 2012

Boys wearing funny glassesAs you may have noticed, I’ve been struggling to find my funny lately. What with all the sentimentality and trauma.

Although even in the ER, there were moments of humor. Like when the doctor sewing up my son – upon learning my husband is a die-hard Red Sox fan – threatened to stitch the Yankee’s logo on Riley’s forehead.

I’ve decided to clue you all in on the secret to being funny, in person or in your writing. I feel perfectly qualified to educate the masses on this subject, since:

a) I watch a lot of sitcoms on TV,

b) I have published some humor pieces in national magazines and gotten encouraging feedback on my annual submissions to the Erma Bombeck humor writing contest, and

c) I have read Tina Fey’s book, Mindy Kaling’s book, Jenny Lawson’s book, and everything David Sedaris has ever written.

OK, ready? The key to humor is…drum roll please…the unexpected. That’s it. Right there. The secret to making people laugh, whether it’s in writing, on TV, in a keynote address, a sermon, a YouTube video, a first date, or whatever.

You know how sometimes you can see a punch-line coming a mile away? Like, say, any prison joke ever told, and every episode of “Last Man Standing”? I’m sorry, Tim Allen. That was rude. But true. Sorry! Still true. (Not that I’ve seen every episode. Just the 2 when the batteries in the remote were dead and I was forced against my will to watch them.)

The take-away here is: don’t go for the easy joke. Don’t go into the over-trodden men-are-clueless-and-unromantic/women-love-to-shop/teenagers-are-annoying territory. It’s been done. It’s FAR funnier to say you are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome due to being terrorized by your early-rising toddler. (This example courtesy of Monica Sakala, cast member of the Listen to Your Mother: DC show, in which she read: “Occupy Parents: Oppression by Toddler.”)

Another key to humor is absurd juxtapositions. For instance, saying that my 3yo is ill-mannered at mealtimes is not that funny. Noting that he showed up at the dinner table wearing nothing but a bike helmet and began snorting ranch dressing through his drinking straw is funny. And true. It’s also true that my 5yo introduced himself to our new neighbors by shouting “Bon jour!” while wearing a green leprechaun mustache left over from St. Patrick’s Day. Talk about making a strong first impression.

For more examples of funny, see:

Novelist @jenniferweiner ‘s tweets during “The Bachelorette.” (Funny even if you don’t watch the show, like me.)

This SNL skit, “Bein’ Quirky with Zooey Deschanel.” (Love Kristen Wiig as Bjork!)

Almost any episode of “Hot in Cleveland.” (I mean, Betty White, Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves and Valerie Bertinelli on the same show?!)

And this, slightly more cerebral, “Anne Geddes Baby Manifesto.” (Note the effectiveness of well-chosen phrasing like “billowing fat rolls.”)

So whatcha got, people? Lay some funny on me in the comments.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

jetts31 June 6, 2012 at 7:23 am

Every morning I wake up, either by mybalarm clock or by my kids dropping an atomic elbow on my bladder, I am surrounded by comedy. Marriage, parenthood, daily life just lends itself to fantastic material.


Abby June 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Ah, yes, the atomic elbow to the bladder — hilarious! Unless it’s your bladder. 😉


Ali June 6, 2012 at 8:01 am

I wrote a post about how much it sucks not being funny because, Hunger Games notwithstanding, the best writers are often hilarious! As you pointed out, Jenny Lawson’s book had me in tears on every page. Problem is, I’m an emotional writer, so my work is often dark and sends–as I’ve been told from publishers–an important message, but this is not what the public wants anymore; publishers are now looking for powerful messages to be conveyed through humour, somehow.


Abby June 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I wouldn’t worry too much about what publishers are looking for. Forcing yourself to be funny because that what’s popular now sounds like a recipe for misery. Remember, they told JK Rowling that her books would never sell — until they did!


Monica Sakala June 6, 2012 at 2:24 pm

I am so flattered to be mentioned in this post. Your blog is fantastic! I better go before my oppressor catches me surfing the web….


Abby June 7, 2012 at 9:54 am

Thanks, Monica! You were great in LTYM.


Corey Feldman June 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Working on my funny, seem to have lost it myself


Kyle June 7, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Hey Abby,

You’re totally on the right track with thinking about being unexpected–if anything, something that is expected *can’t* be funny. What seems to work for me is to try and predict what the audience expects you to say, and then say something totally different.

Watching a lot of TV helps too–SNL is great (aren’t you upset Kristen Wiig is leaving?? outrage!) and as a fan of Tina Fey you must know that 30 Rock has ridiculous amounts of subtle humor trickled in every episode.

(Sometimes you can get away with paraphrasing jokes you hear on TV or read online, especially if you know your audience hasn’t heard of ’em yet! cough cough)

I hope I’ve been helpful!

Kyle V.


Marta Estrada September 3, 2021 at 2:44 pm

Hey Abby, I was dirking coffee and reading your blog, Suddenly i feel to read coffee jokes. So, I have also some clue to being funny by reading this coffee jokes, David Sedaris
is a great writer, I read the Jenny Lawson’ book, Its cool:). By the way you kids looking good. How is going your kid day during pandemic time?


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