Knowing the difference can make you a better person
If you want people to laugh at your jokes, you need to have a reputation for being funny.
No, I didn’t write that backwards, even though it looks that way. It’s just how it is: it’s not simply funny jokes that make us laugh, it’s funny people.
That’s why comedians talk so much about how hard it is when they just start out: the real work is not saying funny things, it’s establishing a reputation as a funny person.
If it was just about being funny occasionally, anyone could do that. I’m not even trying to encourage you, it’s just true. You just need to say the right thing at just the right time, even if it’s by mistake, like one of my cousins once did. She was in primary school then, and I was explaining about eclipses using little, different-sized plasticine balls for the sun, moon and earth — when the earth-ball fell out of my hand. Without thinking, she cried, “You broke the world!”
I laughed hard for five minutes.
But she didn’t say that to be funny, even though she was smart enough to get her own unexpected joke. It just happened. And it can happen for anyone, including in those horrible moments when you realise people are laughing, not at your joke but at you, because you’re the joke—a situation that’s never funny to you yourself, but offers some insight into how jokes must feel.
If you’re wondering why I, a mental health professional, even know this (or care), it’s because I learned the hard way—and yes, there totally are psychological implications.
Learning to be funny the hard way
You see, when I was a kid in secondary school, I really wanted to be funny. It was basically my only hope. Not only was I too clumsy for sports, too shy for girls, and too dorky for cool, but I also couldn’t picture a future in which any of these calamities were altered. But being funny seemed reachable—it felt like something I could aim at, you know?
So I learned to hack humour. And lucky for me, I had someone to learn from, a friend who was funny. I mean, I thought then that he was the funniest human being I personally knew—and even now, he would still come into my top five.
So I paid attention to him, trying to learn all I could. And the thing about having to learn that way is you start to notice things about your subject matter that escape those who come by it naturally. You have to notice them, after all, if you’re to have any hope of ever getting better at it. One of the things I discovered from those years of working hard at increasing my humour quotient (I know—the things an adolescent male takes as important, right?), was that, for a similar quality of joke, my friend consistently got more (and longer) laughter.
It took a while to be sure of this, considering (as I knew even then) how subjective humour is, and at first I put it down to a failure on my part to intuit what made people laugh. But even when I started to get a good grasp on other people’s humour (with moderately successful results), I still had nothing on this guy. It wasn’t until I started really paying attention to the timing of the punchline (a key element of humour) that I noticed something:
We were often laughing before he delivered the punchline.
I’d be building up to my punchline, and everyone would be waiting for it before deciding whether it was funny or not, and how much they’d laugh. But this guy would simply start the joke, and he’d give that little chuckle you learn to deliver to signal that you’re about to tell a joke, and we (yes, including me) would already be laughing!
What was really going on here?
It took a while, but I finally put it together, even though it wasn’t until much later that I came across the technical psychological name for it. See, what was going on was a kind of conditioning. Like Pavlov’s dog, which learned to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of its meals, and soon started to salivate just on hearing the bell even when no lunch was in sight, we had all become conditioned to start laughing once it became apparent that this guy was going to tell a joke, before they had even heard the joke. (Not to say we were dogs, or anything.) We had come to associate him with our laughter.
And just like the dog would salivate even when food didn’t come, so also, even when the joke wasn’t that funny (yeah, call me a hater), he would score some laughter anyway, and was forgiven for his less successful jokes because he would sooner or later hit a biggie. He was funny, and everyone expected him to be funny. People generally expect you to continue to be what you’ve been.
But that sucks when “what you’ve been” is unfunny.
I won’t even lie, I did hate on him a little. Okay, maybe a little more than “a little.” Look, I was jealous, okay? I mean, here I was, working my butt off, so to speak, and this guy was having a ball and living off established glory. Of course, as long as continued to envy him, I kept missing the point. Not until I let go of my slab of raw beef could I appreciate the truth: I had been working on the wrong goal.
I’d been trying to be funny, instead of working at being a funny person.
The two, it turns out, are not the same.
The difference between being funny and being a funny person
Being funny, you see, is always about the moment. You want to say something funny now. You want to make people laugh now. But the moment always passes, doesn’t it?
Being a funny person, on the other hand, is a full-time gig. If you sign up for that, it means you going to be always thinking about the funny. You realise that all the world is a stage, you’re the comic, and within everything is a secret joke just waiting to be told. So you learn the art of looking for it, which leads to:
- you telling jokes more often (because you see ten times more than everyone else)…
- being unfunny more often (because when you tell jokes that often, you’re bound to fail a lot)…
- learning what works and what doesn’t from all the telling and all the missteps…
- and overall developing a reputation for being funny (because over time people forget all your unfunny jokes and start to actually think of you as unfailingly funny).
This was what my friend had been so faithfully doing that I didn’t realise: doing more, failing more, learning more and in so doing, developing a reputation where people came to expect that from him.
And you always know the hater because he’s the one who isn’t laughing.
But here’s the best part…
All of this can be applied to basically anything. I mentioned earlier that I later gave up on being funnier than my friend, partly because I simply was not blessed with his degree of natural talent, but also because I decided it wasn’t that important to be funny. But I did apply the lessons I learned to other areas of my life.
I have worked at my writing in that way. And similarly, I’ve worked at being kind. Not just at writing, but at being a writing person. And not just being kind, but at being a kind person.
None of which is easy, but all of which is totally worth it.
Because, the point is not just to develop the reputation for being that person, but really it’s to make a promise. Because that reputation is a brand, when you think about it, and a brand is a promise. It’s you saying, just by being who you are, that this is what can be expected of you, and then consistently living up to it. It’s a promise you make to others, but first of all, it’s a promise you make to yourself.
It works the other way too, of course: if you’ve developed a reputation for being a jerk, even your good behaviour will be interpreted through jerk-lenses.