You can practically see them slipping away. Yes, they’re still in the conversation with you, at least physically, but you know: The other person has disengaged. Who knows where their attention has gone, but it’s sure not here. In awkward situations like this, saying something funny can be the perfect way to reel your quarry back in. So says actor, screenwriter, and Monty Python alumnus John Cleese. Easy for him to say, you say — he’s funny. He admits it’s true that not everyone can be, but for most people it’s not as impossible as you might think. In his Big Think+ video “Make Your Mark with Humor,” Cleese shares a couple of techniques that can help you find your personal funny.
What’s funny to you?
Cleese believes that the only true indicator that something’s funny is that you think it is. As in any creative — dare we say “artistic?” — field, your own taste has to be your primary guide. It’s all you can reliably count on: Other peoples’ senses of humor vary so wildly you’d go insane trying to make all of them laugh.
Cleese says that whenever he observes audience members from offstage as they watch videos at his shows, he’ll see a stunning array of reactions: “He’ll be roaring with laughter. She’ll be roaring with laughter. He’ll be looking pleasantly amused. Nothing there at all.”
Model what makes you laugh
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” says Cleese, “and the best way to start is by copying something that is really good.” He suggests finding some bit by a comedian you enjoy, and learning to imitate it. Over the course of repeated attempts, you’re likely to begin absorbing its internal rhythms and tone, and maybe even add a touch or two of your own. “Steal or borrow — or as the artist would say, are ‘influenced by’ — anything that you think that is really good and really funny,” says Cleese.
Study it until you ruin it
Another, more analytical, way to see how comedy works is to watch or listen to something you find hilarious until, well, you don’t. At this removed place, you’re able to take it apart. Dispassionately dissect its mechanics, looking at word choice, timing, gestures, and so on to figure out how it worked so well.
Go forth and be funny
If you can make yourself laugh, that’s about all you can do, says Cleese, with the hope that at least some others will agree.
It’s worth noting, of course, that as you develop your conversational humor, you want to avoid offending the people you’re trying to get on with. Some, like Cleese, revel in upsetting some people, or at least they don’t mind it very much. However, if you’re trying to learn how to use humor to better engage with others, you obviously do need to keep an eye on how far you can go.