The Fourth Humor Habit: Create Your Own Verbal Humor—Telling Jokes

[Note: If you’re new to this series of articles on improving your sense of humor, you may want to read the previous articles under “Senior Humor Training” before following these guidelines for improving your verbal sense of humor.]

A four-year-old girl got very sick after swallowing a nickel, two dimes and three pennies.  The doctors treated her for weeks, but there was no ______.  [Answer given at end of the article.  Clue: she didn’t improve.]

This simple joke is just one among over 500 (more difficult) jokes presented in my book Small Medium at Large.  The key part of the punch line is missing so that you use the available information to generate your own funny answer.  Doing this repeatedly BUILDS YOUR SKILL at thinking of your own spontaneous jokes.  If you need some help, the clue gets you started thinking in the right direction without giving you the answer.  After doing this several hundred times, you gradually build the habit of having different kinds of joke techniques pop into your head with no effort at all.  The important thing at this point is to see that YOU CAN DEVELOP THIS SKILL.  It just takes practice, and Small Medium at Large gives you that practice.

The ultimate goal of the Fourth Humor Habit is to be able to create your own jokes or other verbal humor spontaneously in the midst of any conversation.  (It’s not too late for seniors to learn to do this!)  But what I’ve learned works best to get you to that point is to first spend a week or so just focusing on learning, remembering (especially the punch line!) and telling jokes.  This is especially true if you’ve never been much of a joke teller.  So the March 23 article here focuses only on telling and remembering jokes.

A few basic joke-telling guidelines are offered here.  You’ll find a full list and a detailed discussion of this Humor Habit in my book, Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World: The 7 Humor Habits Program.

Remembering Jokes

How many times have you heard people say, I don’t know what it is, I just can’t remember jokes.  Luckily, this is not a permanent condition.  Here are some basic starting ideas to start boosting you memory of jokes now.

1) Make sure you think it’s funny.  You’re much more likely to forget a joke that wasn’t funny to begin with (and why would you want to retell it anyway?).

2) Repeat the joke to the person who just told it to you (e.g., “Wait let’s see if I’ve got it; there’s a rabbi, a preacher and a priest who . . .”).  Repeating it immediately helps put it into long-term memory.  And the person who just told it to you will correct you if you get it wrong.

3) Write down the punch line and a few basic features of the joke at your first opportunity.  This helps put it into long-term memory.

Following these and other guidelines provided in my book will help you avoid the plight of the young preacher in the following story.

There’s this older and younger preacher who are having a conversation about preaching, and the older guy’s giving him some ad vice.  He says, “Some days, you’ll notice some people nodding off in the middle of your sermon.  But I’ve learned the perfect thing to do when that happens.  I just lean over the pulpit and say, ‘Last night, I held a woman in my arms who was not my wife!’  And that really perks them up.  Then I hesitate a bit and say, ‘It was my dear, sweet mother.’”

The young preacher says, “That’s great.  Maybe I can use that some time.”  And sure enough, during his very first sermon, he looks out at his congregation and notices a lot of people nodding off on him.  He remembered what the old preacher told him, so he stood up tall behind the pulpit and said, “Last night I held in my arms a man who was not my wife.”  Then he hesitated and finally said, “But I can’t remember who she was.”

In this case, forgetting the joke is what makes it work.  But when you forget a key part of one, it won’t be funny.  So be sure you’ve got the joke memorized before trying to tell it.

Telling Jokes

1) Cardinal rule: don’t ever tell jokes putting down another racial, ethnic or other group in the presence of people you don’t know.  You’re sure to offend someone. You may be able to ease up on this rule in the presence of people who know you well–and know that the joke does not reflect your true feelings about the “butt” of the joke.

2) If you must tell put-down jokes, poke fun at yourself.

3) Know your audience. You’ll often want to change key details in the joke to make them more salient to the person(s) you’re speaking to.

4) Be sure you can repeat the joke in your own mind before trying to tell it to someone else.

5) Don’t laugh at your own joke (especially in advance).

6) Don’t announce, “I’m not very good at telling jokes, but here goes . . .”

7) Don’t drag it out.  Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.

Exercises to Build Joke-Telling Habits and Skills

1) Learn and tell one new joke each day.  Rehearse it and then tell the same joke to as many people as you can.

2) Watch DVDs of you favorite comedians.  Note as many details as you can about their delivery and copy their style.  Be on the look out for a style of delivery that works for you.

3) By the end of a week or two, make it a point to tell all your jokes to good friends (anyone who will be supportive—and who you think has a good sense of humor).  Ask for their feedback on how you could do better.  Then move on to telling them to others.

Copy right owned by Paul McGhee.  This article may not be reproduced without written permission granted by Paul McGhee.  For more details on joke telling, see the 7 Humor Habits book.

Answer to joke: “change.”