Humor – The Element of Surprise

I have always been funny according to my family and friends who see it as a wonderful personality attribute. For me, it was about survival. I was the overweight kid whose chances of being popular were about as likely as Harriet the Hooker getting the lead in the Christmas pageant. Simply put, I didn’t fit in. I didn’t have the looks, the talent, the clothes, or the money to climb the ladder of popularity. I didn’t even know where the ladder was.

Humor started as my defense mechanism. It was how I dealt with acne, hair better suited for a career in the circus, and the angst of those teenage years when I didn’t know just how much worse it could actually get. I laughed my way through it all. Over time humor became more than a way to cope. It became a tool – an important tool. When I made people laugh, they liked me. It’s hard to be angry (i.e. shoving a kid’s head in a locker) when you’re laughing. When you’re funny, people want to be around you. When you’re funny, people trust you. You become the better salesperson. You become the better writer. You become the sought-after speaker. You start getting paid to be funny. You learn one of the most important things about business and life – funny sells. I challenge you to find one aspect of your business or your personal life where humor won’t make you better.

I’ll give you the bad news first. If you don’t already possess the natural ability, nothing will turn you into Jay Leno. A series of articles will do nothing if you have the stage presence of a ficas. You can study timing, work with the best coaches, take writing courses – but it doesn’t guarantee you a career making people laugh. It takes talent, drive, persistence, luck, and a couple of doses of the crazy gene. But the good news is that you can always learn to be funnier. You don’t have to be a comedian to cultivate a sense of humor and work it into your business or your life.

So how can we sharpen our humor tool?

My goal in writing this series of articles is to help us do just that – to sharpen our humor tool. Or as I like to call it, our sixth sense. And I hope to do this by making humor a concept that we can get our hands around. By taking something extremely complicated to understand and making it easy. Today I’m going to focus on one key ingredient to making people laugh – the element of surprise.

I have spent my entire life making people laugh. I have spent the past several years trying to figure out how I do it. And in every case, I come up with the same answer. I do it by saying (or doing) what people don’t expect me to say (or do). I wish it sounded more cerebral, but there it is. It’s the truth. I look for the one thing to say that they don’t expect me to say. I thrive on the element of surprise. And it’s the element of surprise that makes a joke work. I don’t care how the joke is written or delivered, or who tells it, I’m still convinced that it fits that definition. It goes against what is expected.

To understand this better we need to take a moment to think about what people expect. That’s a tall order, I know, because people expect all sorts of things depending on their combination of life experiences. But let’s just throw out some simple expectations that people have. If it helps, think of them as assumptions that we make in life.

For example, we assume that mailboxes don’t talk. So when a mailbox talks back (I’m thinking back to a Candid Camera episode) we laugh. We assume that when somebody is walking down the street they will keep moving in the same manner without interruption. So when they fall, we laugh. We assume that hefty football players aren’t scared of anything. So when one screams like a girl at the sight of a bug, we laugh. If I’m in a group of mothers bragging about their kids and I say I’m lucky if my kid can find his way out of a box, they laugh. The expectation is that I will join in and brag about my kid, not the opposite. Starting to make sense?

In social settings, we’re given the context and we react to that. Funny people are finding the humor in what is being said in the moment. When you use humor (whether on stage or on paper) you have the responsibility of creating your audience’s expectation. You get to set them up to think in a certain direction and then surprise them by saying or doing something else.

That’s all I want to say for today. I know, you’re probably feeling cheated. You’re probably thinking this article was about as helpful as a solar powered screwdriver. You’re probably wondering how the element of surprise will help you become funnier tomorrow. You’re probably thinking I did this just so you’ll read the second article.

I have my reasons. I don’t want to jump into joke construction until you’ve had time to really think about this concept and watch as it plays out in your life around you. I want you to spend time thinking only about humor as it relates to the element of surprise. Look for it in the sitcoms you watch at night, in the books you read, or the conversations you hear around you. When you’re in a group and they’re talking about something, think to yourself of the things that they wouldn’t expect you to say. Be careful about saying them out loud. Trust me on that one.

I want to leave you with a really deep thought before I go – one that will help your humor tremendously. Creating humor doesn’t start with finding the funny in life. It starts with finding the truth in life. I see so many young comedians try to create new material by trying to think of what sounds funny. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not only wrong, but extremely difficult to do. Don’t start thinking funny. Start by thinking of the truth about life. We’ll get into this more in article two on Joke Construction.

Happy humor hunting!