It’s not rocket science, the key to becoming an incredible stand up is figuring out how to make anybody laugh. Laughter is the currency we deal in, it’s what pays the bills and makes for the best shows!
It can be quite hard to figure out how to actually make people laugh.
A lot of the time we don’t necessarily know why somethings funny, we just know that it is. When you start to understand the key psychological triggers to laughter, you can start to use these to your advantage.
Here we’re going to run through 9 triggers of laughter, explain what they are and offer a little example so that you can use the same triggers in your set and guarantee laughs everytime!
Starting with perhaps one of the most obvious triggers of laughter we have surprise! The key to this trigger is to essentially catch the audience off guard. The classic “pull back-reveal” joke structure uses this trigger, leading the audience to make an assumption on one thing and then “revealing” the surprise! Here’s an incredibly simple (and not the funniest) example,
“I slept in and missed the school bus! But i’m sure those kids found a way to get there on their own”.
The reveal in this joke being that it was the driver of the bus talking and not one of the kids. Often these jokes can come across as a little “hack” but when done well they can make for an incredible joke so surprise is still a key ingredient you should use in your set!
“I was raised as an only child, which really annoyed my sister”
It’s bad but people like to laugh at those of a different status to themselves. There’s a golden rule in comedy of never punching down at those of a lower status, but when using superiority it can be useful to punch down at yourself! If the audience feel a little superior to you then they will likely laugh, self deprecation is very useful for this, Rhys James has a brilliant self deprecating joke that also combines Surprise too!
“My girlfriend was always asking me to text me when I got in…. That’s how small my penis is”.
He both shifts the frame of the story and makes fun of himself allowing the audience to laugh!
On the flip side, some comedians make jokes from a place of high status, Tom Allen is an incredible example of this, the way he positions himself as a high status comedian means he can throw out quick witty one liners laced in mock disdain that we can’t help but laugh at! Even when presenting lines such as
“well it wasn’t nearly as rubbish as i’d thought it would be”
leave us in stitches because of how he positions himself relative to the audience! Superiority is something every comedian should consider using and figure out what best suits them.
If we didn’t like to laugh at the misfortune of others, Harry Hill would have had an embarrassingly short run on you’ve been framed. But it remains an iconic piece of television created entirely around laughing at the embarrassment of others! Laughing at your own embarrassment makes other people feel more comfortable around you.
When using embarrassment make sure that you never embarrass those in a position lower than yourself as this could be seen as punching down, stories and jokes about embarrassing things about you or embarrassing things about people in a higher status than you are a fantastic way to go.
“You know you’re working class when your TV is bigger than your book case.” Rob Beckett
The relief when tension is built and released is a huge laughter trigger and one that very skilled comedians use often! The danger with this one is that to use it you inherently have to build some tension and sit in it, and when you’re working out your jokes you don’t know yet if you have the jokes to be able to break it too. The bigger the tension, the bigger the release, then the bigger the potential laugh, but if you don’t get the release then the louder the silence will feel!
A good example of this is David Cross in his special “I’m from the future” I wont detail the whole bit here but he opens his show by saying
“As prisoner number 18765393210 was being lead to the delousing showers she began to reflect upon her first 8 days in Auschwitz…”
The tension is created by talking about a topic that many are uncomfortable to talk about! He later releases this tension with a light hearted joke about having to wear a mask during covid! It’s a fine line he treads, but worth checking out to get an idea of how to use this trigger.
This is when we combine two things that shouldnt be related and find a way to relate them! We take two seemingly incongruent things and compare them to one another, it’s a relatively simple trigger that can be super successful too! For example Stephen K Amos once compared Love, to a Fart.
“Love is like a fart, if you have to force it it’s probably Shit”.
The key to this is that the link has to be applicable to both things, a connection needs to be made despite how incongruent things may first seem! If the joke was just
“Love is like a fart, full of methane”
the joke doesn’t land because that’s just a fart. The punchline has to fulfil both criteria!
This is a relatively simple tool to use, audiences will tend to laugh when they recognize or relate to something, this is why topical humour is so popular as it feels like you’re in on the joke. It’s also why a lot of comedians will reference pop culture within their set!
For example, young up and coming comedian Luke Hall (author of this article), has a joke where he compares a second hand self help book, to Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. The audience recognize this reference and in the context of a self help book theres some surprise and incongruity there and so they laugh!
It’s a simple tool that embellishes an already incredible joke from the promising young stand up!
Caring less about things that should bother you is funny. Being objectively ambivalent comes with a little bit of surprise too as the audience expect you to care a great deal, this can be a bit of a tough one to use and on the other side of the coin, you have exaggeration! Caring too much about tiny little things is hilarious.
James Acaster has a brilliant bit about setting up a rival banana shop to compete against pret a manger because they didnt give him a free banana, It’s a ridiculous response to a simple situation that makes for a very funny bit! Ambivalence and exaggeration are two sides of the very funny same coin, you need to decide which side suits you best when!
These jokes can sometimes resemble riddles more than jokes, they get a laugh because the audience again feels like they’re in on the joke! A lot of word play jokes are configurational that tend to use a potential double meaning. Other examples are techniques like “do the opposite”. Glenn Moore is brilliant at these, for example
“I saw a man with knuckle tattoos the other day, he had Hate on one and Inbreeding on the other”
It takes a second for us the audience to get that they have multiple knuckles due to inbreeding but makes for a phenomenal joke.
This often comes hand in hand with incongruity, and is the key that slots things together! Noticing a coincidence that is extremely unlikely to happen and acknowledging the absurdity and incongruity of it is where the humour and the laugh comes! If the audience also recognize this then you’ve got a hot bed of triggers all in one joke!
9 psychological triggers for laughter, when you’re writing your next tight five make sure to keep these in mind, it can also be a useful tool to go back across old sets and try and identify which trigger brings the laugh at which jokes.
Simply mastering these you can start to get a lot more creative with how you use them and combine them to become a truly great comedian!
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