What's so funny?

What's so funny?

Many of my nonnative English speaking clients tell me that the hardest thing for them to understand is humor.

Just like we have unique taste in music, food, and other things, different kinds of comedy can appeal to different kinds of people. The following is a description of a variety of common things that can “tickle our funny bone.”  This is not an exhaustive list, just a sampling of kinds of humor you are likely to encounter on a regular basis socially and/or in the media. 

Some styles of humor are percieved in a more positive manner, and tend to lighten the mood, and make social situations more enjoyable. Other styles of humor are intended to exclude or ridicule, and may cross a line, becoming uncomfortable or offensive.

Check out TV sitcoms, late-night Talk-Show hosts, stand-up comedians, and see what appeals to you! Then laugh out loud because it feels good, and is good for your health!

Anecdotal: These are humorous personal stories that are often embellished for comedic effect. They may be tales of misadventures, or funny thoughts about parenting, etc. In the following clip, Bill Cosby tells a very amusing story about “natural childbirth.”


Deadpan: This type of humor, aslo referred to as a “dry” sense of humor, is often   delivered in a matter of fact way with limited expression. The comedian, Steven Wright, is notable for his wry, deadpan delivery. 


Physical humorPratt falls and other “characteristic” moves permeate this type of whole body humor. Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live was a master.  Here are some clips:


The popular sitcom Seinfeld, famously billed as a “show about nothing”  featured the stand up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and his neurotic, self-centered friends. The show was known for how the character Kramer, hilariously entered his friend Jerry’s apartment, who lived next door. Check it out:


Another kind of physical humor is slapstick which often involves mock violence, and/or people slipping, tripping, etc. The Three Stooges are famous for this type of comedy. Charlie Chaplan, in the era of silent movies, is another excellent example. Watch “Charlie Chaplan - The Lion’s Cage.”


Farce:  These skits are often ridiculous, improbable situations with humorous elements. The Carol Burnett Show was known for this type of entertainment. Watch the following clip about a visit to the dentist with the actors Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. If this appeals to you, there are years of funny scenarios to enjoy.


Impersonations: When someone assumes the speech and mannerisms of another person, re-creating the character in an exaggerated style, laughter typically ensues.  Jimmy Fallon, Dana Carvey, Martin Short, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, and the late Robin Williams, are just some of the many comedians who honed this comedic gift. 

Here are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler impersonating Sarah Palin and HIlllary Clinton in a Saturday Night Livetelevision broadcast.


Watch the brilliant Robin Williams doing a world tour of accents!


Self-deprecating: Some people poke fun at themselves in an effort to endear themselves to audience or friends. However, when it targets personal frailties and/or physical attributes such as obesity or homliness, it can have detrimental effects on the person’s self-esteem. Joan Rivers once said, no female comedian was ever pretty as a young girl. This remark highlights how self-depracting humor and self-image can be inexorably related. Here is an example of Joan Rivers talking about herself as a young woman on her debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. 


Jokes, Witticisms

The following are some excerpts from President Ronald Reagan’s speeches. Reagan was well-known for his modest, yet humorous storytelling and wit. Remember, he was an actor before he entered politics!


Parody: A parody is a spoof of a particular person or genre. Saturday Night Live is famous for its parodies on virtually every topic, especially those related to politics and pop culture.  Here is a clip making fun of Spanish daytime soap operas.


Risque: These jokes are typiclly sexual in nature, unsubtle, and potentially offensive.

Situation Comedies: These TV shows often incorporate many of the genres of humor as described above. Check out some famous sitcoms such as “I Love Lucy,” “The Dick VanDyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Friends,” Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Modern Family,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Big Bang Theory,” etc. Many of these long-running series are now available as CD sets.  

 Do some serious research, and find out who and what makes you laugh!