Humor - Tips for Using it in Everyday Conversation

When people get together informally, sooner or later they begin telling humorous stories. Interestingly enough, most of them will be true. It's what I call real-life humor:The silly thing little Johnny did, the trick Harriet played on Dan, what happened when the boss stood up to talk.

One reason for this is the desire to create laughter. We delight in laughter and are ready to call anyone "weird" who doesn't.

Since it's laughter you're after, you'll improve your chances by patterning your stories after the structure of gags and jokes.

The joke structure is an art form with distinct, interrelated parts designed for one purpose--to bring a laugh! Knowing what creates a successful joke can help you be more successful in telling your own stories. After all, this joke form has stood the test of time. In fact, here's a gag that made the rounds 2000 years ago in Rome:

1st husband: A terrible thing happened. My wife just hung herself from a fig tree.

2nd husband: Could I get a few slips from your tree for my garden?

Now let's look at what goes into a successful joke or gag.

Economy of words

Too many words is the surest way to kill a joke, and it is the most common mistake. What is true of the joke is also true for your personal humorous stories. Some people spend so much time on irrelevant details that the listener is bored by the time the punch line comes. There's a polite chuckle instead of the guffaw that the account of the story might have received had half the words been left out.

Listen to professional comics. Notice how every word contributes to the movement of the joke. Cut every word that doesn't move the story along, vividly and rapidly. This, of course, takes some home work. An easy and effective way to do this is record your stories on a tape cassette, CD or your computer. When you listen, you'll soon know what can be left out.

This practice can make you a more interesting story teller, will increase your confidence and give you bigger laughs.

A strong set up

The set up is the first part of the joke that builds in the listener's mind the thought or image the punch line will play on. Using the Roman joke above as an example, the first husband's line sets up the picture of sorrow and tragedy. A sharp contrast to the image conveyed in the punch line.

The more vivid the scene, the more the set up stimulates the listener's imagination, the greater the laugh potential. If the set up is weak so will be the laugh. Count on it! Your humorous stories will benefit from openings that plant the necessary thoughts and images. Remember, you don't have to tell all. Let the listener use imagination. But be sure to get in the important information.

My father-in-law had a favorite shaggy-dog story about a worm named "Motor" who lived in an apple. The worm kept eating his way through the apple with the punch line being, "Out bored Motor." Once he neglected to mention the worm's name. He delivered the punch line with great enthusiasm. You can guess the result.

The Pause

The pause is just that. A pause in the story line, giving the listener a chance to catch up, as it were, to "see" clearly the picture presented by the set up. This pause is essential in laugh getting.

Professional comedians call it