Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Freaking hilarious. Let me diagram it for you . . .

Posted by Melanie Jacobson at 10:01 AM
This one time, I felt sorry for Robison Wells and it's not even because a horn is trying to erupt from his forehead. That in itself is not a big deal. (I mean, if it's a unicorn horn it would be pretty cool. If it's a goat horn, well then . . . yeah. Okay, that's a problem.).

Anyway, I felt sorry for him because he was talking about how he had to put together a class on how to write humor for a writer's conference.

Now I also pity Sarah M. Eden for the exact same reason. She's stuck with this topic, too. I think they are both brave and good people (of questionable sanity) for taking this on . But I still feel sorry for them.

Here's the thing. I don't think you can teach people to be funny. You got it or you don't. It's that indefinable thing that makes someone become a massive pop star and someone else never make it at all when they have equal talent and looks. The "it" factor, maybe. (Oh, and minus any sleeping with the right people hijinks. (Cheating slutty McHohos. [I'm looking at you Susan McBoyle. {I'm totally not, cuz I'm writing about jokes, see? See how I did that?}])

But you're funny . . . or you're not.

Unless you're like me. In which case, you are HILARIOUS to the people that know you and often lock up around everyone else.

But, and for the sake of this argument and also because I think it might be true, my books are pretty funny and those jokes are cracked in front of thousands of people I'll never meet. And yet if you put me in a social situation where I  know less than 20% of the players, most of the time I morph into this interested observer and nothing funny to say comes to mind at all.

Get me in a room full of friends, I kill.

Get me in a room full of friends who are also funny, I lock up again. I think I can only be funny if I'm the clear alpha funny dog or if I've known everyone in the group FOREVER.

It's a weird thing.

Anyway, the point is, I know funny. I am funny. This has been voted on and ratified by the marketplace, so say the sales of my book. That's the expertise I'm claiming. Oh, and you can ask the 25 classes worth of 8th graders I taught over five years. They'll tell you: I'm funny. And get me in front of a room full of teachers in a staff development meeting? I will destroy them.

The thing is, I can't turn it on or off. I just am or am not. There's no deciding I want to be funny and then the jokes come. They're there or they aren't.

I truly believe most funny people are this way.

It comes down to this: as soon as you explain a joke, it's not funny anymore. Or put another way by Sarah Eden, "In my experience, classes on humor are the unfunniest classes at all."

I bet if you surveyed the attendees in Sarah or Rob's classes on humor (and I've been to other classes they taught and can vouch they are each hilarious), this is what you would find. 15% of attendees are friends or acquaintances who are there for a good laugh and didn't even read the title of the class. The rest are people who have no inherent funniness and will leave with lots of earnestly taken notes and still no clue how to crack a joke, much less a good joke.

Case in point: This Wired magazine article from May looks at humor through the lens of science, trying to quantify what makes something funny. (Yes, I read my  husband's magazines in the bathroom. If he can stay in there with it for an hour, so can I. Also, I'm suddenly a genius when it comes to buying his gifts because, hello? I could blindly point to any item on any page in that magazine and he'd want it.) And while it's an utterly un-hilarious article about humor, it's fascinating. This is kind of the nutshell, although seriously, go read the whole thing:

It makes perfect sense.

But if you have to explain it to someone . . .

I'm just saying. Rob, Sarah . . . you have my deepest sympathies.


Jenny P. on July 20, 2011 at 10:11 AM said...

I have a friend, well, a blog friend who is a real friend, but still a friend I've never met in person... when we chat online, OH MY GOODNESS, am I ever funny. Something about her brings out the hilarious in me. But I cannot, under any circumstances, muster it up at will. I think it probably has to do with how well I know she understands my intent. I don't worry about what she will take the wrong way, whether or not I'll hurt her feelings. I know she knows if I say something along the lines of "Because I'm just that fabulous" she'll understand the humor in it, and not actually think I sit around thinking about how awesome I am. She gets me. Which means, I can be funny with reckless abandon. She isn't the only friend that brings out my funny, but she's so flippin hilarious herself, I think I am most funny around her.

RobisonWells on July 20, 2011 at 10:41 AM said...

I don't disagree with your sympathies, because YES, I AM A POOR BABY. That's clear.

But I do disagree with your thesis, I think. While I definitely think there is a small segment of completely humorless people who cannot be taught humor, I think there's a large portion of the population who are moderately funny who can be taught to be funnier.

When I put out my first couple books (my first was a rom-com) I had the attitude that I was a funny guy, so therefore I'd write funny books--I was essentially transcribing my funniness. However, as time went on I figured out more and more how to craft a joke--how to set up something better, and how to twist it for a better punchline.

Now, many years later, I don't think I write a single "funny" tweet or blog where I don't actively think about the mechanics of humor.

(This makes it sound like I ought to be funnier than I am. Oh well.)

Anyway, the point is: I disagree, and Melanie is a terrible person.

Melissa Bastow on July 20, 2011 at 11:08 AM said...

I'm funniest when I'm sleep deprived. But yeah, at any time, if I'm not the alpha funny, I'm dead.

Alisa on July 20, 2011 at 11:10 AM said...

I think I'm a pretty funny person. My best work is around friends for sure but the funny just comes no matter what. My whole life. I moved to Utah and I tell you I crack a joke and all I get are stares. They're not dirty jokes or inappropriate it any way I'm just apparently no longer funny. My guess is people just need to get to know me but how, Melanie, can I be funny in CA and a total dud in UT?

RobisonWells on July 20, 2011 at 11:16 AM said...

The answer is in the mechanics of humor. The scientific theory I find most useful defines humor as "Non-serious social incongruity". The social aspect of humor (shared experiences, shared worldview, shared philosophies, etc) will determine how well you can setup a joke. And if you can't set it up correctly--if you can't establish a "norm"--then you can't present a punchline that is sufficiently incongruous to that norm.

Man, this is funny stuff.

(If you're interested, these are the notes from my humor class.

Karen Peterson on July 20, 2011 at 11:17 AM said...

I totally agree that you can't teach people to be funny, but you can help funny people hone their skills.

And I think you're pretty darned hilarious. :-)

Chantele Sedgwick on July 20, 2011 at 11:21 AM said...

"Unless you're like me. In which case, you are HILARIOUS to the people that know you and often lock up around everyone else."

Yep. Totally me. Around my friends I can be hilarious, but when I don't know a lot of people, I usually sit back and watch. :P

Krista on July 20, 2011 at 11:48 AM said...


Except my books aren't funny books. But they have funny parts in them.

But other than that, you are me.

Do you like sushi?

Donna K. Weaver on July 20, 2011 at 12:45 PM said...

Lovely post. And Robison and Sarah are both funny.

So are you.

Becca on July 20, 2011 at 3:57 PM said...

I did a humor class last fall. People laughed. Loudly. But only because I went into the class saying, hey, sorry if you're not funny - I can't help you. But if you read funny, it might rub off on you. Then I read them loads of funny things for like 15 minutes, and we talked about *how* it was funny (as opposed to *why* it was).

Also, I am satisfied to be the least funny person in a room of funny people, and I don't particularly care if nobody laughs at me (usually). Okay, unless my family is there. Then I demand laughs.

Lara on July 20, 2011 at 9:02 PM said...

I'm mostly not funny. But I can be very funny, amongst friends. I'm just never really the funny alpha-dog. And I'm actually okay with that. I like to laugh at others' jokes...and everyone needs somebody to laugh at their jokes, right?

Maggie on July 21, 2011 at 7:32 AM said...

Wow, what a lot of words on being funny.


And I can't say I've ever seen a sentence in this format before Melanie ([{dfdkfj}]) that took skills!

Melanie Jacobson on July 21, 2011 at 1:39 PM said...



I think this is one of those situations in a non-neo-hippie-New-Agey kind of way where we both get to be right. Because my thesis is that you can't teach funny and yours is that you can teach funniER. And both of those things are true. I don't think you can teach someone to craft a joke if they don't have a baseline to start from. And I think you can teach someone who is already funny to hone their delivery.

But here's the thing. Unfunny people send out an email invitation saying, "Hey, Girls' Night Out at my house, come have fun!" And funny people start with, "I just bought tasty cheese so I guess that means I better have a girl's night at my house."

It's a question of funny people's brains being wired incorrectly. You just can't teach faulty wiring.

InkMom on July 22, 2011 at 4:05 PM said...

I read Wired in the bathroom, too.

Jolene Perry on July 25, 2011 at 2:09 PM said...

What's funny...
is that Both Robison and Sara are HYSTERICAL people, but yeah, I wouldn't want to teach that class either...

Emma said...

You sooooo can't teach people to be funny (I have tried) and anyone who says you aren't funny is either boring or just... well boring :)

oh and you used to teach 8th graders? why didn't I know this? I totally would have signed up for your class!

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