The Science of Being Funny
Can you improve your humor game with practice?
The Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center is the Harvard of comedy. An outgrowth of the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade improv group founded by the likes of Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, and Matt Walsh, the UCB training center is the only accredited improv and sketch comedy school in the country. These days, classes at its New York and Los Angeles facilities are filled with students eager to follow in the footsteps of UCB alums like Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Aziz Ansari, and Donald Glover. Which is why it might be surprising to hear that Alex Berg, a longtime instructor and former artistic director of UCB LA, for a while didn't believe his classes could actually make anyone more hilarious.
"For the first couple of years of teaching, I didn't think you could learn to be funnier," he says. "My thing used to be, 'I can teach you to be a better improviser,' but there are some people who are good improvisers who just aren't funny."
Berg was far from alone in thinking this way. Some people just seem innately hilarious while others, well… have nice personalities. So are those of us relegated to the unfunny masses doomed to polite chuckles forever? Are the lucky few simply hardwired to be funny, or can humor be learned?
Scientists haven't conclusively answered this question, in part because they can't agree on what makes things funny in the first place. For millennia, very smart people struggled with determining why we do a dumb thing like laugh at memes of grumpy cats. Some ascribe to Plato and Aristotle's superiority theory, the idea that we laugh at others' misfortune (this explains America's Funniest Home Videos).
Others are partial to Sigmund Freud's relief theory, the concept that people crack dirty jokes and other witticisms to release psychological tension. These days, many folks ascribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor occurs when people expect one thing to happen and something else occurs. Like jokes with punch lines—or a staid BBC interview derailed by a parade of ridiculous kids.
Still, even though researchers disagree on why we laugh at what we do, they do have some understanding of why some people are better at generating laughs than others. "There is a genetic component to it, to a degree that intelligence is genetic," says Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder. (McGraw, with whom I co-authored the book The Humor Code , has his own explanation of humor: The benign violation theory, the idea the humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening while at the same time seeming okay or safe.) "The single best predictor of humor ability is intelligence," McGraw says. "That shows up time and time again."
In other words, if you're smart, you're more likely to be funny. That makes sense when you think about how humor is created. One of the most durable theories on the matter was coined by the author and intellectual Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act of Creation. In it, Koestler described humor as "the clash of two mutually incompatible codes," the fusion of two frames of reference that for the most part have nothing to do with each other. The point where the two concepts intersect equals the punch line. Take the following zinger:
"What do you get when you mix human DNA with goat DNA? Kicked out of the petting zoo."
Genetic splicing and zoos don't have much in common, and neither is inherently comical. But when you intersect the two concepts—like, say, by mixing genes the old-fashioned way—you've got yourself something funny.
To have all those various concepts floating around in your head and the ability to intersect them in novel and hilarious ways? That takes some smarts.
So maybe intelligent people are predisposed to be funny. But here's one type of person who's not more likely to be better at jokes: Men. In nearly all quantitative tests, from comedy-appreciation surveys to joke-telling contests to self-report questionnaires to observational studies, men and women have been found to be far more alike than different in how they perceive, enjoy and create humor—and that includes dirty jokes. So as for Christopher Hitchens, Adam Corolla and all the other dudes who've said women aren't funny? They're just feeling inadequate.
But before we conclude hilarity is innate and there's nothing us un-funny, not-so-smart schlubs can do about it, let's circle back to Berg at UCB. Remember, he said he used to think people couldn't get funnier. Over the past few years he's changed his tune. "Now that I have been teaching for a lot longer, I have seen enough instances where people have in fact gotten funnier," he says.
The evidence that people can learn to become funnier is mostly anecdotal, McGraw says. But that anecdotal evidence is persuasive. Take a look at the biggest comedians around, like Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, and Louis C.K. None of them are spritely twentysomethings. It took years of hard work before any of them got huge.
So what can people do to learn to be funnier? For starters, Berg says, get better at being a critical observer of the world around you. "I think a lot of people are too quick to assume they are the weird ones when they see something out of the ordinary," he says. Instead, when something seems off, don't be afraid to pause for a moment and ask, "What's funny about this?" That's the first step towards generating good material.
Secondly, says Berg, find your voice: "Figure out what you really think. When people come off as false, it's noticeable." While that advice might sound trite, think about famous comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. Those guys were honest.
If you've done those things and you're still not funny, maybe try a different medium, Berg says. "If you are having trouble performing, try writing," he says. "If you are having trouble writing, try Twitter."
Finally, and maybe most importantly, be willing to take feedback—especially when that feedback is a room full of people who aren't laughing at your jokes. "The people who don't get funnier are the ones who aren't introspective enough or self-aware enough to understand what it is they are failing at," Berg says.
In other words, that group of folks who started cackling when you tried to do the Dougie at a party a while back? They were laughing at you, not with you. Once you figure out why, you'll be one step closer to becoming hilarious.