“Darren, how do I write a funny speech?” I get this question constantly from speakers. Personally, I don’t believe it’s about writing a funny speech at all. If you want to write a funny speech, that’s writing fiction. Even the best fiction is based on some truth.
Your starting point is crucial. Where do you get the idea? Where do you look? Are you looking in the right direction? If you want more humor in your life — or in your next presentation — look at the tragedies in your life. Seriously! Choose to look at the situation from a “funny” perspective. Ask yourself, “What’s funny about that?” The answer you get might just surprise you.
Humor is a release of tension. First, find the tension, then relieve it! Remember, comedy cuts down, humor lifts up. The other day, I was reading an email from somebody, and they had this quote by Charlie Chaplin:
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up,
but a comedy in long-shot.”
In my early days of humor studies and teaching, I had a different perspective. In the late 90s, when first teaching the Humor Boot Camp®, a camper came up to me on a break and said, “I know you’re teaching us to look at our own lives, but nothing funny ever happens to me.” My first thought was, “Do you have children?” I thought she was wrong. Funny things happen to everyone.
However, the more I studied humor, the more I realized she was absolutely right. Nothing funny happens to her because she doesn’t “see” it as funny. There aren’t “funny” things unless we see them as funny. I say,
“Humor is in the mind of the beholder.”
A few years ago I went to see Kathy Griffin’s show in Las Vegas. She’s a great performer, and the audience loved her. I didn’t laugh much. I respect her success, but my sense of humor doesn’t match hers. It doesn’t mean that she’s not funny. It means she was not funny to me.
So, where do you look? Look at your tragedies. Your failures. Your frustrations. When I first read Judy Carter’s book to learn to be funny, I noticed that Judy teaches to write humor from our own frustrations. This also leads to self-deprecating humor. You are making light of you. This also endears you to your audience. You’re opening up and willing to be truthful.
My comedy mentor, Vinnie Favorito, used to begin his nightly show in Vegas with the first 10 minutes devoted to making light of himself being from Boston and being Italian. His openness connected him to his audience and created “permission” for him to then make light of people in his audience. His humor is direct and brutally honest. People are willing to laugh at themselves because he has already made light of himself. I’ve seen him do the same routine without those 10 minutes of self-deprecating humor, but it just didn’t work as well — even though he’s the same person doing the same routine, and he’s brilliant.
Steve Allen said:
“Comedy equals tragedy plus time.”
If you suffered a recent deep tragedy, you will be better served if you wait to heal first before you talk about that one. As Charlie said, you need the “long-shot” perspective to make it funny. If you are over 20 years old, I assure you that you have plenty of humorous material if you’re willing to look for it. In my brief World Championship winning speech, “Ouch!” I covered bombing on stage, a sandwich shop business failure, my brother teasing me because he didn’t think I was funny, and being rejected when telling my parents of my dream. Lots of failures and frustrations in one short speech. It was my failures that got laughs. People can emotionally relate. That’s where the connection occurs.
So, your first step to getting laughs and moving your audience to action is to start making a list of your biggest failures. What are they? Make a list.
Don’t believe me? Humor me. Do it once, and see what your audience decides.
Share your experiences here on my blog!
World Champion of Public Speaking
I loved your article and have read some of the same things about humor. What would help me is to see an example of a tragic experience from one’s life and the humorous spin on it.
While I appreciate your view on what makes great humour I disagree with your premise that tragedy, , failure, misfortune, frustration or irritants are required ingredients.
My view of humour is that you create an unexpected disjoint.
I once spoke with someone on a stand up comedy forum. She wondered where she could draw humour from, explaining that she came from the mid-west USA where nothing happens in her State. Even the land is bland and flat. She answered her own query! I replied that THAT was a great starting point for humour. You don’t need personal tragedy to create comedy in my view.
Do I consider you funny, Darren? Most of the time 😉
Would like to suggest Jeanne Robertson as an example of someone who manages to find humour in just about anything!