How To Be Funny

From my experience, educators just aren’t a funny group. Those who aren’t self-serious exert too much effort, firing off puns, confusing goofiness for wit. It isn’t a bad niche they carve out for themselves and, let’s be honest, on the list of Essential Teaching Virtues, “funny” ranks pretty far down the list.

I only became objectively funny my senior year of high school. I spent every year before that one watching, testing, and failing, my m.o. for every skill I’ve developed since birth. Here, in what’s gotta be one of the most gratuitous / self-congratulatory teaching seminars ever to hit the ‘Tubes, I offer three notes:

  1. Become Indifferent To Your Audience’s Reaction

    By my senior year I had at long last topped out at 6’7”. (2m for anyone outside the US, Liberia, or Burma.) Consequently, I stopped tripping over desks, tripping over my feet, tripping over invisible stuff. I experienced a surge of self-confidence which made me care a little less how my classmates perceived me.

    Nothing kills a joke deader than someone’s desperation for approval. Me, I had to stop growing. However you do it, make sure it doesn’t matter to you if they don’t laugh.

  2. Share Only What Makes You Laugh

    This makes step one a heckuva lot easier ’cause, worst case, you have a good time; best case, someone else has a good time too. It also makes the whole funny thing seem effortless, which is a high priority.

  3. Don’t Cue Your Audience’s Reaction

    Here’s one of the most cloying movie trailers in my recent memory for what I have little doubt is an equally cloying movie: Dan In Real Life.

    The most grating element in a storm of grating elements comes halfway through. Dane Cook’s sister makes a limp joke at the expensive of his illiteracy.

    CUT TO: some other scene, the family bursting into spontaneous laughter, like, whooping laughter, the kind that could set off a chain of embolisms around the table, at something else entirely.

    That joke-laughter cutaway is a truly desperate maneuver. A lot of folks won’t mind it. But those folks will find you amusing no matter what you do. The folks who can darken an audience’s collective mood (talking about Gladwell’s Mavens here) this will drive them up the wall.

    You’re nudging them in the ribs, whispering “geddit?” telling them how to think, feel, and react. This is a buzzkiller and a dealbreaker in what should be an effortless transaction.

    Maybe you don’t have a laugh track but maybe in your mental script you’ve got a line reading “pause for laughter” one which you signal with an involuntary “… um …aha … heh …” and some nervous laughter.

    Rather breeze right by it. Onto the next.

There are a lot of practical, workmanlike applications of humor in the classroom. You get those indifferent kids, sullen and detached, suspicious of any teacher evincing warmth. In these situations, you have to retract.

If you’re a desperate humorist around those kids (the exact opposite of the indifferent joke-teller you oughtta be) they won’t just find you unfunny, they’ll find you alienating.

Instead, you sidle up nearby ’em and carry on an interesting and funny conversation with the kid just past ’em. You drop something witty on the other kid, totally indifferent to the real target here. Resist the temptation to look, but from the corner of your eye, notice the kid chuckling a bit. Strange though it sounds, through your indifferent humor, she has found something completely kindred.

Update: Scott knocks down my entire post with one well-aimed paragraph. Currently blocking his i.p. address.

Kids are like most everyone in that it doesn’t matter how someone tells a joke,but it REALLY matters who tells it. Nobody is going to laugh at something when they think it will put them in the position of looking like a dork. People will only laugh when it makes them seem associated with a person that they consider to be highly admired by others around them… it makes them look like they are in on something that no one else is. In other words, if you read this blog post hoping to learn how to be funny, then you probably shouldn’t try it. Just stick to teaching.

About 

I’m Dan and this is my blog. I’m a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

12 Comments

  1. very good advice. if we want to *be* funny.
    if we’re willing to *appear* funny, pandering works.

    johnny carson did this all the time:
    the funniest part of his schtick was *usually*
    “well, nobody laughed at *that*; good thing
    i’m all lovable and impreturbable and stuff”.
    drove me nuts, but then, i’m not most people
    and he sure was able to make it pay.

    but the *really* weird thing is something
    i noticed a long time ago when i actually
    saw lots of movies in theatres instead of
    just waiting for the DVD to appear
    (a few weeks later — one of the few things
    to’ve gone right in the new “info economy”):
    the jokes that were *in the preview*
    always seems to get the biggest laughs.
    it’s as if the crowd is *more* amused
    when the element of surprise is *removed*
    (but of course catching us by surprise
    is a big part of how actually *being* funny works).
    they know from having seen it already
    that the studio wants them to laugh right here
    and so they just obligingly do. wha.

  2. I realized a long time ago that the stuff I did in class was to entertain myself. If any kids were also entertained, well, that was just a bonus. And who doesn’t appreciate the kid who laughs at something no one else got. I always loved to give that kid a “you and me” nod.

  3. Re: Movies that cut to people laughing…

    About 15 years ago, I was watching Siskel & Ebert (yes, I meant the late Gene Siskel, not that new Roeper dude for you generation Y’ers) and they were talking about the movie (don’t ask how I remember this) called For Love or Money. It starred Michael J. Fox. I never saw it, but apparently it was REALLY, REALLY BAD! Anyway, apparently when they showed it to a test audience, nobody laughed. Even the scences that they were certain would make the movie memorably funny, nobody even cracked a smile. What did the movie people do? They re-shot some of the scences to show people laughing. I did not know this at the time but Gene and Roger talked about how the movie (and TV , I suppose) industry does this. They show folks laughing as to say, “OK, people. This is the scene where you laugh”. Sad, indeed.

  4. Kids are like most everyone in that it doesn’t matter how someone tells a joke,but it REALLY matters who tells it. Nobody is going to laugh at something when they think it will put them in the position of looking like a dork. People will only laugh when it makes them seem associated with a person that they consider to be highly admired by others around them… it makes them look like they are in on something that no one else is. In other words, if you read this blog post hoping to learn how to be funny, then you probably shouldn’t try it. Just stick to teaching :)

  5. Speaking of funny–the other day my co-teacher and I started laughing about Mystery Science Theater 2000 (and 3000). You might be too young to remember that show–human and a couple of robots “critque” movies. Anyway, decided to see if the old episodes were online–Google video had a bunch of them. Our 6th graders stood around a laptop howling—didn’t dare put it up on the big screen in case someone walked in.

  6. MST3K also said something that I agree with in regards to humor that I use in the classroom. “Its not that few people will get the joke, its that the right person gets the joke.”

  7. Lessee … too young for Carson, just old enough for MST3K. The latter, that band of robots and exiles, always seemed to be having a great time together. They laughed but didn’t care if you did. Hard not to join up with that kind of no-strings-attached fun.

  8. No kidding. Some of the boringest people I know are teachers. It’s sad. I find that the best learning happens when the kids are having a good time.

    I’ve taught high school band sectionals where the students ask me how we ever get work done in my class because they were laughing the entire time.

    But the funny thing is that what I do works, is enjoyable, and produces tremendous results. One of these days, I will put recordings on my site to prove that it really works. :)

  9. Vlorbik nailed the Carson piece, which is huge. Remember “Lame-o!”?

    (My version, to find the one kid giggling at a complete dud, put on my most serious face and my sternest voice and say “Jason, if you keep laughing I’m going to more” at which point the room shushes him and everyone starts laughing…)

    The really good throwaway lines, I just keep teaching. Let them keep up. Let them want to pay closer attention.

    Then there’s humor to defuse tense situations. And humor to keep everyone off balance.

    Some kids like to be poked fun at (just a little bit) and it would be a shame not to comply. When a class won’t quiet down, I often raise my voice at the silent kid (get giggles, and apologize, quietly, after)

    Physical humor. Straight lecture has to happen from time to time. Nothing interactive, just me talking. If I “lose” something and am searching the classroom as I talk, Mr Magoo teaches math, the ensuing silent confusion is something akin to humor.

    And finally, those lame puns? Kids expect them from teachers. They have a right to hear them. An obligation to groan. “Mr. 2718, why do you tell such bad jokes?” “It’s in our contract. I had to take a special course…”

  10. Comedy is all about timing, not all the time.

    Someone said that once.

    Oh, and Mr. 2718…I know that guy. He found a tunnel, escaped to the Uncharted Forest, met a girl named Liberty, and they both lived happily ever after.

    If you believe Rand scripts such works.

  11. EducatedBastard

    May 27, 2008 - 6:25 pm -

    Students are peons and should be treated as such.

    Who cares if they laugh? Just do the work I assign you and get the hell on.