[Note: If you’re new to this series of article on improving your sense of humor, also read the previous articles under “Senior Humor Training” before following these guidelines for improving your sense of humor.]
Last week’s article offered guidelines for becoming a better joke teller. This is an important skill to learn, but I am convinced that developing your ability to spontaneously create your own jokes or other forms of verbal humor is much more important than joke telling—at least in terms of the health and resilience-boosting benefits associated with humor. The available research does not yet allow for a clear conclusion here, but my own educated guess is that the more you actively use your sense of humor, instead of just telling and re-telling memorized jokes, the greater the health and happiness-inducing benefits you’ll receive.
I’ve had many people tell me things like, “I’m just not quick enough to come up with my own jokes on the spot” or “I always get the double meaning when I hear a joke, but I can never think of them on my own” or “I think you’re just born with that or you’re not.” In fact, the people who you think must have been born with it have been doing it so long that it’s become built into the way they think. They’ve just been cultivating the habit for a long time. So you need to know that it’s a skill you can cultivate too, and it doesn’t take that long to build the habit of spontaneously playing with language.
Special Note for Non-Native Speakers of English
Playing with the language system itself is one of the last things you learn in mastering a second language. Since English has become the international language for most businesses across the entire planet, it has become important for non-native English speakers to somehow improve their ability to understand and create their own puns and other verbal jokes in English. I’ve written a special article (also dated March 30, 2012) at this website to show these individuals how to use the two books referred to in this article to build this skill. The impact of completing these exercises on their ability to finally “get”—and even create their own—jokes in English is striking. See that article for details.
Building the Verbal Humor Habit
So how do you get past the telling of memorized jokes and stories to the point where you can create your own jokes spontaneously when talking to others? I’ve learned that what works best is to start out with the most fundamental form of verbal humor—the form that we got so excited about when we were kids. And that, of course, is the simple pun.
Everybody knows that we generally groan at puns. And the reason we groan is that most puns are basically elementary school kids’ humor. Kids first begin to understand puns at six or seven years of age (although they start telling them before they understand them; see my articles on children’s humor at this website for a discussion of this). The important thing to realize here is that even though we generally don’t find puns very funny (because they are just too easy to understand), it is much more difficult to create your own pun than it is to understand it when someone else says it. So the starting point for this critical component of the 4th Humor Habit is to strengthen your ability to create your own puns.
The First Tool: Start with Children’s Jokes
I have developed specific tools to systematically build your ability to generate your own spontaneous puns and other verbal humor. For those who have never been spontaneous punsters, I start out by using elementary school children’s jokes and riddles to build a strong foundation habit of playing with word meanings. The tool for doing this is my book, Stumble Bees and Pelephones, which is full of examples of children’s jokes (based mainly on puns, but on other techniques, as well) with a key part of the punch line missing. A series of clues is given to get you thinking in the right direction without giving you the answer. By the time you do this 200-300 times, you begin to find double meanings of words (the key to getting the punch line) just popping into your mind automatically, with no real effort on your part.
Two examples from this book are given below to show you how this works. The basic idea here is to look at the clues one at a time and use as few as possible to figure out the punch line. If you just look at the answer without trying to figure it out on your own, it will not work as a skill-building tool. Answer given below.
1. What happens to little canoes when they’re bad? They get ________.
First clue: It’s a kind of spanking.
Second clue: Find another word for “oar.”
2. If your dog is not allowed in the house, where does she have to stay? In the ________ lot.
First clue: What do dogs do when they communicate or get scared or angry?
Second clue: It sounds like “marking.”
Third clue: You put your car in this lot.
These are admittedly not very funny to adults. But that’s not the goal here. The goal is to BUILD THE HABIT OF QUICKLY THINKING OF EXTRA MEANINGS OF WORDS that can enable you to turn it into a joke right at the moment you think of it. Even though these are kids’ jokes, I’ve learned over the years that going through this process with several hundred simple riddles and jokes like this lays a solid foundation for doing the same thing at a more sophisticated level with adult jokes.
The Second Tool: Adult Jokes
After people improve their ability to generate funny punch lines with these kids’ jokes, they then move on to doing the same kind of thing with adult jokes. My book, Small Medium at Large, contains over 500 jokes with a key part of the punch line missing. In this case, however, only one clue is given. A broad range of joking techniques is represented in the book, so by the time you’ve gone through the entire book, the habit of creating your own punch line becomes pretty firmly entrenched. The skills generated in doing this over 500 times are then consolidated by letting the book sit for a couple of months and then going through it again. You will have forgotten the answers to many of the jokes, and using the clue a second time to come up with the answer further strengthen the habit.
Here is an example from this book.
3. As two politicians discuss political strategies, the democrat says, “Whenever I take a cab, I give the driver a large tip and say, ‘Vote Democrat!’” The republican says, “I have a similar approach. Whenever I take a cab, I ________________ and say, ‘Vote Democrat!’”
Clue: Remember, this is a republican talking, so if he also says “Vote Democrat,” is he really doing the same thing with the cab driver?
Remember that in jokes like this, a good joke teller always switches the identities of the key characters in the joke depending on who will be hearing the joke.
Exercises to Build Spontaneous Verbal Humor Skills
In addition to working to generate your own punch line for all the jokes contained in the two books mentioned above, the following activities will further build your ability to use different joking techniques spontaneously. Make an effort to do them as often as possible within the next week or two to maximize your benefits with this Humor Habit.
1. Look for ambiguity in everyday conversations.
Certain words in many of our everyday conversations are potentially ambiguous. For example if I invite you to my house for a holiday turkey dinner and I’m preparing ever tying in the kitchen, I might say to you at some point, “Ok the turkey is ready to eat.” You have a ready-made opportunity for a joking remark. I’m purposefully not providing possible joking comments you might make, but think of a couple on your own.
The context almost always makes the intended meaning of such statements clear, but you can make a joke out of these situations if you develop the habit of seeing the ambiguity as the word is spoken. Putting this on the “front burner” for a week or so builds the habit of seeing such ambiguity automatically, with no effort on your part.
2. Look for ambiguity on public signs and newspaper headlines.
Surely you’ve seen the plumbers’ trucks that say, “A flush is better than a full house” or “We’re #1 in the #2 business.” Or perhaps you’ve seen “Trees can break wind” as a newspaper headline. Many businesses and newspapers purposefully use funny ambiguous words to get you to pay attention to them. Start actively looking for these when you’re driving or reading your newspaper. Also read the menu of your favorite ethnic restaurant when the restaurant owners came from a country where English was not their native language.
See the manual for the 7 Humor Habits Program (contained in Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World) for the full set of activities designed to strengthen this Humor Habit.
Joke Answers: 1 = paddled. 2 = barking. 3. don’t give a tip at all.
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