Lessons in Laughter, Pt 1: Find Your Own Funny

In late February, I was given the daunting but unforgettable privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Bridgewater State University. As I wait for the video to be released, I wanted to put together the thoughts shared in the talk (combined with a great many others that didn’t fit into the 11 minutes) for your reading pleasure. First up: the importance of finding your funny.

This time last week, I was a bundle of nerves preparing for the one-night-only grad show from my sketchwriting class (cheekily entitled “6-8 Inches” in homage to our frequent cancellations for snow, and our class predilection for dick jokes). But my journey with this group started months ago when our teacher asked us a seemingly simple question: what makes you laugh? And while I knew on some level, I don’t know that I had ever taken the time to make a “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” list. But it can be powerful to know just what makes your funnybone shake. Why?

(1) It can help you tell your story. We live in a world vastly overpopulated with data- facts, opinions, statistics and the like. We have to find a way to filter it, and many of us- for better or worse- do this by focusing on what captivates us, the things that stand apart from the boring. And one way to make a story worth listening to, is to make it funny. I learned last year at a conversation with Arrested Development’s Mitchell Hurwitz and Modern Family’s Danny Zuker that the litmus test for many jokes on the former’s show was if the writers themselves found them funny. Write for the room, not for the potential viewer. People can tell the difference! Hurwitz gave this advice to another prominent showrunner, Dan Harmon (of Community fame). I use these examples for a very specific reason, which I’ll get to in just a moment.

Danny, Mitch, and the one-day-to-join-them Mike, at their conversation on comedy. I chicken danced for Mitch Hurwitz, I’m proud to say. CO-ka-CO-ka-CAW!

(2) It can help others hear your story, particularly ones that are difficult to tell. Relationships with power differentials (teachers with students, supervisors with employees) are particularly powerful places to tastefully demonstrate a sense of humor. Sometimes positions of power, or lack thereof, can make messages hard to receive; the ability to make them relatable can assist in overcoming differing stations in life. Contrary to older models of leadership or management that applauded a monolithic approach, humor is one of several humane elements (alongside the much buzzed about “authenticity” and “vulnerability”) being injected into our new take on leadership that values connection over fear and intimidation. Opening with a joke or periodically injecting tasteful and appropriately-timed humor can help create the relatability that builds all-too-important trust. While balance is key here, lest we forget the many stumbles of The Office‘s Michael Scott, the right amount can make all the difference.

(3) Your humor builds your tribe. As promised, I want to return to Harmon and Hurwitz for a minute. Their niche successes drive home a very important point about putting your sense of humor out into the world: not everyone is going to “get” it.

Like BoJack Horseman (voiced by Arrested’s Will Arnett), you may worry about if people are going to “get it.” IMAGE CREDIT: Entertainment Weekly

Both Arrested Development and Community have fiercely dedicated audiences, but ultimately not large ones. This may be why they had to resort to alternative distribution methods (Arrested to Netflix, Community [soon] to Yahoo! Screen). In a sense, your take on humor could be not just the litmus test for what goes out into the world, but what people you choose to take on said world with. As an example, I think about my friend Nick from high school. I’ve known him for half my life now, and we’ve been through a lot together. There are times where I tell people we probably shouldn’t still be friends, but here we are! He and I developed an inside joke about five years ago at brunch that makes us both fall apart whenever we think about it. The joke itself isn’t particularly interesting if you’re not us, and we know that. But if you ever really want to know it and have ten minutes (it will take that long and 80% of that will be giggling), I’ll tell you. Ever since that moment occurred, a story was created that never fails to connect the two of us. It’s not the most accessible of jokes, and having giggled about it in the presence of other friends we know it’s not one that everyone gets. But in a way, that’s the point: our jokes, our silly and unique takes on the world, are precisely the thing that let us know who is deserving of our time, energy, and hearts.

Stay tuned for parts two and three real soon! In the meantime, try out the exercise we did and make a list- what makes you laugh?

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