What Makes Me… Funny?
In this installment of our “What Makes Me a…” column, we asked 10 people what makes them think of someone as a “real funny guy.”
Tracey Sturgal, professor in communication studies at Marquette University: As a linguist, I’ve learned there are as many perspectives on humor as there are dialectal variations of English. And even though so much of what’s considered humorous is subjective, many have tried to analyze what is funny from an objective lens. One theory is the benign violation theory. It states that if something violates how we think the world should work and isn’t threatening, people will likely find it humorous. There’s also the incongruity resolution, which states that when two things don’t go together, the brain attempts to rectify the situation. This generally leads to laughter.
For me personally, people are funny if they can tell a clever story or joke while being honest, relatable, brave and surprising. I remember reading Tina Fey’s bit in Bossypants about needing to take her pants off as soon as she gets home from work… while I was sitting on the couch after work in my underwear. To me, that hit all four — honest, brave, relatable and surprising. I also find that stories are funny when they touch on something that matters to the listener(s) and allows the audience to contemplate a potentially new angle, whether that be a current societal pulse or a nostalgic callback. Hasan Minhaj’s latest — Homecoming King — is a good example that conquers both.
Maggie Rowe, writer on Arrested Development: I think what makes someone funny is an ability to be surprising about something very obvious, evoking a response of both “So true” and “I totally wasn’t expecting that.”
Mike Sacks, author of comedy interview collections Here’s the Kickerand Poking a Dead Frog, and the new novel Stinker Lets Loose: I know a lot of people in comedy are told that they’re too “critical” or “negative.” In reality, I think most people in comedy are very decent; they’re just bothered to a greater degree by things that aren’t right. They’re unable to tune the bullshit out. So they’re not necessarily being miserable, they’re just easily annoyed.
Denise Wiesner, sexologist and founder of Natural Healing Acupuncture: The people who come into my office for help usually have serious issues that they’re addressing. So I believe what makes one a “funny” person is the ability to laugh at themselves and the absurdity of all their physical, spiritual, sexual and emotional issues.
Sarah Spiegel, singer, actress and comedy writer: Somebody who’s funny will ask the questions nobody else thinks to ask. I had someone show me an article recently about Baby Jessica, the girl who fell down that well 30 years ago. The author writes that Jessica is “so grateful to God” that He got her through this ordeal. However, my first thought was, Maybe she should’ve asked why God threw her down that well in the first place.
Allan Murray, actor and stand-up comedian: What makes people funny is their interpretation of life and how they share it with others: a funny filter. Let’s say you’re having dinner with a friend who’s a nice guy, but not known for his sense of humor. He’s asking for your advice because he had a horrible day — got a parking ticket, was late for work and almost got fired.
Imagine the same horrible day told to you by your hilarious, funny friend who cracks you up: same story, different delivery. What’s missing from the non-funny guy’s story? Undertone. The comical version doesn’t diminish your concern for your funny friend — he’s telling you about his horrible day, but there’s a funny layer that you connect to. Funny makes us feel comfortable.
Jonathan Schmock, actor, director, cartoonist and TV comedy writer: When answering the question “What makes me funny?,” you always come off like a pompous ass. So let’s get started: I guess I’m funny for the same reason a lot of people are funny — because I’m wary or terrified of practically everything. Being funny is part of that “fight-or-flight” thing, but it’s almost more interesting because it’s a little of both. It’s “I surrender” and “Fuck you” at the same time.
The first time I remember being funny was in grade school. We had to bring in a newspaper article and read it into a microphone like we were on the radio. I had picked an article about the embassy being overrun in Vietnam. I was terrified, and my hands started to shake. The kids, especially the other boys, started to giggle. So I knew my life was over… unless my hands were shaking on purpose. What could that purpose be? And then that thing happens in funny people when your brain takes over and says, “I’ve got this.”
I realized that if I pretended I was in the embassy being overrun by the Vietnamese and overdramatized it, I would be funny. It worked. All the kids laughed, and from then on, I was “the funny one.”
More largely, when you can show people we’re the same by admitting we’re different, that’s a cool thing. And all of this is why I’m a pompous ass.
Dylan Brody, author of Laughs Last and The Modern Depression Guidebook: I suffer from a severe case of Comedy Tourette’s that has afflicted me as far back as I can remember. I know I couldn’t have been older than 5 the first time my mother said, “Dylan, everything doesn’t have to be a joke.” My reply: “No. But everything can be.”
The more emotionally resonant a situation, the faster my brain generates humor. My wife has pointed out that even as events occur, I rewrite them internally for maximum comedic potential. Certainly, I’ve learned some technique and imposed some craftsmanship on the process over the years. But at its heart, the funny remains a knee-jerk reaction for me, an instinctive response. You should have heard me the night my dog died. I was heartbroken. And hilarious.
Barbara Romen, producer of The Green Room with Paul Provenza; Set List: Stand-Up Without a Net and Comedians Cinema Club: A masterful command of language, spot-on timing and a scathing sense of irony merged with just a soupçon of self-deprecation are my personal comedy bliss. I love the expression of ideas in original, unexpected ways that catch me completely off-guard. Prototype: Tim Minchin.
Claudia Lonow, comedy writer and sitcom producer (Accidentally on Purpose and Less Than Perfect): I grew up in comedy. My mother and stepfather had various improv groups that would practice in our living room. But comedy isn’t only our family business, it’s how we deal with everything. So I’ve come to think that what makes someone funny is an ability to lighten the mood and let some air out of the room. For instance, my 85-year-old grandmother was getting a gynecological exam to check on her cervical cancer, and the doctor said, “Now, Mrs. Astrow, I’m going to insert my finger…” to which my grandma replied, “Put in two, I want a second opinion.”
C. Brian Smith is a staff writer at MEL. He last wrote about his father’s love of Dewar’s.