These are my notes from Dan Kennedy’s book Make ‘Em Laugh & Take Their Money.
Being funny is serious business. It’s hard. And writing humor is harder than speaking it because you don’t get to use gestures, facial expressions, props, or benefit from peer pressure placed on the group by the first few who laugh.
People buy more and buy more happily when in good humor.
Today, it’s more dangerous to be funny than ever before. Why? Political correctness, sensitive, sue-happy audiences.
But it’s also necessary, now more than ever, because people are buying based on who they like the best; instead of who has the best deal. And attention spans are getting shorter as minds are turned to mush by constant, multi-sourced, multi-sensory stimulation.
Truth is, people will give more minutes of attention to something they find entertaining and amusing than they will to anything serious. Like it or not, you’re in show biz.
So what’s funny?
Stupidity. People laugh at stupid criminals, stupid politicians, stupidity in their own field.
Rants. Going off about little aggravations, where you say what everyone else is thinking. Hold times, long lines, lack of leg room on airplanes.
Shared, common life experiences. Marriage, kids, Midwest upbringing, pets, neighbor drama, diets that don’t work.
Guilty laughter. First date goes poorly, grandma dies, snooping in someone’s medicine cabinet when the shelves collapse and blow your cover, murder (think O. J.), infidelity (Bill Clinton).
What types of jokes or comedy structures can you use?
Question and answer. “How cold is it? Put it this way, I see squirrels with frost on their nuts.”
Switch. “My husband’s good at fixing things. Saturday he fixed six martinis.”
Chain of ifs. “If in trouble, read this bible verse. If unhappy, read this one. If lonesome, this one. If you’re still lonesome after that, call this number and ask for Bambi.”
Count me out. “I don’t wanna belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
Alternate definitions. “Negative thinker: someone who smells fresh flowers, then immediately starts looking around for the coffin.”
Allusive quotation. “As Methuselah said, ‘The first hundred years are the toughest.’ Or was it Joan Rivers? I forget.”
Analogy. “It’s hard to describe our production line. Picture a nervous breakdown with paychecks.”
One-liners. “I was raised Lutheran – that’s Catholic without confession.”
Optimist’s statement. “I went in to get a loan. Banker asked for my statement. I said I was optimistic.”
Optimist-pessimist. “The pessimistic business owner was whining about how bad things’d gotten. ‘So bad I can’t even pay my bills.’ The optimist replied, ‘Well, there’s something to be thankful for – that you’re not one of your creditors.'”
Paradox. “From now on, we’re gonna live within our means, even if we have to borrow to do it.”
Quadrigrams. “Go to experts for assistance, to friends for sympathy, to strangers for charity, and to relatives – for nothing.”
Marriage jokes. “How do ya tell if a man’s having fun at a party? Look at his wife’s face.”
Skeptic’s comeuppance. “Guy goes to see talent agent. Agent says, ‘Whaddya do?’ Guys says he does bird imitations better than anybody who’s ever stepped on stage. Agent tells him that Ed Sullivan is dead, there’s no place for a bird imitator’s act, and to get the hell outta his office. At which point the guy flies out the window.”
Place mocked. “They move slowly in the Bahamas. Takes a bit of adjusting. If you ask somebody what time it is, he says: ‘June.'”
Twisted proverbs. “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you create a new customer for Cabela’s.”
Famous person’s slip-ups. “Like Yogi Berra used to say, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.'”
Exaggerations. “My dog’s so smart, while I was paper training him, he learned to read.”
Dark comedy. “‘I was married twice,’ the guy says to the man next to him at the bar. ‘My first wife died from eating poisonous mushrooms.’ ‘That’s horrible,’ says the man. ‘And your second wife?’ ‘She died too. Fractured skull. Which she got when – well, she shoulda ate her mushrooms.'”
For business, humor should advance the sale. If not, leave it out. Other words, we’re not trying to be funny just to be funny.
Self-deprecating humor is a great way to win people over. Just be careful not to diminish your authority. Master the art of the humble-brag. “I’m the most famous person nobody’s ever heard of.” Also, find funny ways to get across: “If I can do it, so can you.” Don’t underestimate this. Everyone’s looking for encouragement.
Where we must always get before we can persuade and sell is to… attention.
If you need to attack someone or something, the best way to do this is with humor. And if you can’t find anything to attack, look harder. Your customers have plenty of people and things they fear or oppose or flat-out hate. And you can always humorously jab your non-buyers, making those on the fence choose a side. Or other people in other places. Like, if you’re selling somethin’ at a seminar in San Fransisco, you might mention the indecisive folks living in Can’t Decide, Illinois; as if to say you guys are in the cool, decisive group.
Almost everyone should stay away from religion, politics, death, race, gender (especially males joking about females), F-bombs. Too risky.
How to cheat at comedy – ways to be funny without having to be funny yourself:
- Props (Carrot Top)
- Funny mistakes (headline bloopers, bad ads)
- Lists (Letterman’s Top 10 List)
- Cartoons (Calvin and Hobbes)
- Photos (celebrity captions, memes)
- Short videos (viral YouTube videos, GIFs)
- Jokes remade (take old jokes, make ’em yours)
Use funny testimonials – both good and bad. Never pass up an opportunity to create or keep interest.
Say funny things in funny ways to an audience that’s been primed for laughter. That last part is important. So set their expectations.
People want stories, not information; entertainment, not education.
Word candy. Choose unexpected words and phrases to liven things up. Example: “She’s crazy” versus “She’s nuttier than your mom’s fruitcake.”
Like in public speaking, when writing, it’s a good idea to “tell them what you’re gonna tell them” and then tell them.
Making fun of authority is a sure win. Lawyers, morons working at the DMV, politicians, UPS delivery people.
Don’t steal. Sooner or later, someone will find the original source, out you, and you’ll lose respect and probably sales too. You could also be sued for copyright or trademark infringement or even deliberate intent to create confusion in the marketplace for commercial advantage. If you’re using something as-is, credit the original source. Better yet, rework it, make it yours.
Clean up dirty jokes to make ’em appropriate for your audience, but only if the clean version is still funny. Many times, it won’t be. The swear words and sexual references and whatnot usually make the joke. So don’t force it.
How do you remember a funny joke? Focus on the punchline. If you commit that to memory, you can usually work backwards and come up with the rest. If possible, write it out by hand and repeat it to some friends in quick succession.
How to improve a joke? Add detail. Make it timely. Make it yours and tell it in first person.
You don’t need people laughing out loud. Just small doses of amusement; a little mood-lifting goes a long way in business.
The secret of secrets is timing. Stops, pauses, hesitations, grimaces, gestures – all tools of timing.
Can you master comedy? Sure. But don’t foolishly underestimate the level of difficulty. It’ll take years, maybe decades of practice. If you’re not up for the challenge, just go for “decent” – which still pays well. I can attest to that.