Laugh Lines: How to Be Funny On the Fly
Quick tips for quality quips.
By comedians Jan McInnis and Frank King
Kick off your speech with a standard joke and everyone will see it coming. But get things going with a spontaneous, off-the-cuff joke about the event at hand, and listeners will connect with you quickly.
As two comedians who have made their living in the corporate market for more than a dozen years, we’ve written thousands of jokes on the fly for every type of company and event. We can assure you that a well-placed quip about the event you are at is a great way to go – it grabs the audience’s attention and reminds them that you’re going through the same thing they are.
With that in mind, where should you look for the jokes? The great thing about comedy is that there are no absolute rules. Here are a few guidelines we’ve used for our own material. Use them in quickly formulating your own original material:
• Stick to the basics. To be funny fast, use all the same techniques you would to write any joke, such as creating analogies, taking things to the extreme or making word associations. The bad news is you’ve got to find the material and formulate the joke quickly. But the good news is you can make speed work for you by referencing the experience everyone is having in common at that moment. That means you need less setup to the joke, and it allows everyone to relate to you immediately.
• Check out the room. There is all sorts of humor just waiting for you to bring to life. Is the room big, small, cold, painted a funny color, hard to find or near the expensive hotel shops? What is it about the space that’s on people’s minds? If the room is freezing, for example, it’s probably distracting everybody, so make an analogy by quickly listing all the things you associ-ate with freezing: think igloos, ice chest, freezer, snow, ice or the North Pole. From there, it’s only a short hop to “It’s my first time speaking at the North Pole.”
Jan once performed in a room that had lots of bizarre antiques, which gave her this opener: “This is the first time I’ve performed at a yard sale.” Everyone had a good laugh because she put a la-bel on the room immediately. Another time, when the hotel room was a long way from the lobby, Frank said, “The walk was so long, and I’ve got that rolling luggage, I had to stop and rotate the tires.”
• Pay attention to demographics. Is the group all female, all male, under 30, over 90? That’s good news, because for once in your life you can actually use a stereotype! First ask yourself, what do I associate with that group? For example, with women it might be makeup, perfume, asking for directions or long lines at the bathroom. Then figure out what would most apply to them, and you’ll have a great opening line. Jan once opened with, “It’s nice to be in front of 900 women, but I’ve been trying to get in the bathroom since 8:30 this morning.”
• Read the agenda thoroughly. What else is happening? Notice how the agenda is ordered, if there’s a misspelling, and even the titles of the other talks. Jan once noticed that a teambuilding exercise – during which the attendees beat drums and shook rattles – was followed by a talk on professionalism. Just by pointing out the irony, she was able to kick things off with a good laugh. Also, remember the agenda may not stop with you. If you’re holding the audience up from something, use a comment such as “I’m the only thing between you and happy hour,” or “you and rush hour traffic,” or “you and the buffet lunch.”
• Food is fair game. Now, don’t go slamming the cook, but if you didn’t know what was in the mystery dessert, chances are few of the attendees did either. One great technique is to make up a funny name based on what it looks like, such as “the-cook-has-quit special” or “the-end-of-the-week parfait” or “I-gotta-get-rid-of-this-now gelatin.” Most jokes come from making connections and pulling out the ironies. Are there cheese cubes at every break? Or is every booth giving out candy – at a dental convention? Ask yourself questions like “Why this food at this conference?” and you’ll get some funny answers.
• Actually listen to the speaker ahead of you. The audience is listening to them, so you should too. If the speaker pounds home a point over and over and over, such as, “Do not cold-call prospects,” then you can lead with the opposite: “So I was cold-calling these prospects…” These jokes are great because you won’t need much setup, and everyone will get the reference. As long as you don’t go overboard being mean, a gentle ribbing may actually endear the previous presenter to you because you’re reminding the audience of his or her speech.
Coming up with jokes on the fly isn’t that hard if you’re looking for them, and they can really help you get off on the right foot. So take these tips and start everyone off laughing – you’ll have a better time, and a better audience.
Jan McInnis is a corporate comedian and comedy writer. Her jokes have been featured on The Tonight Show. Reach her at Jan@TheWorkLady.com.
Frank King is a Certified Speaking Professional with the National Speakers Association (NSA) who has been performing corporate comedy for 22 years full time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.