7.2 Covert humour principles

No matter how unfunny you think you are as a person, I’m convinced that anyone presenting to children and families can exploit these covert humour principles to get smiles and laughs consistently. If any of these hacks sound too good to be true, I urge you to try them before you dismiss them. We’ll discuss hooks where we can apply them in practice in the next section.


You don’t need to be funny, just outsource it

In interactive presentations, it doesn’t matter who generates the laugh — you or your audience. Create a safe environment for them to contribute their amusing ideas and stand back to marvel at their witty remarks. After each presentation, you can steal their funniest questions, reactions and call-outs to incorporate into future deliveries. This is how effective interactive scripts develop — they aren’t written, they evolve based on the response of all of your previous audiences.


“The best comedy is that which the audience itself helps to build.”
Joe E. Brown (comedian)


You don’t need to be funny, just be fast

The more spontaneous the event seems to be to the audience, the lower they intuitively set the bar to laugh. They give you credit for speed-of-thought and responsiveness. The best part is that this spontaneity can be illusionary and the audience will respond just as strongly.


“The more in the moment you can be, the less funny you have to be.”
Jay Sankey (magician)


You don’t need to be funny, just surprise them

Peek-a-boo. As babies we laughed when we were surprised. When we grow up, we still laugh when our expectations are defeated. It’s just that our pattern-predicting machines get better with experience, so it takes a more sophisticated surprise to break them.


“I always wanted an audience to out-guess me, then I’d double-cross them sometimes.”
Buster Keaton (comedian)


You don’t need to be funny, just be you

The more your humour authentically reveals who you are as a person, the more compelling they will find it. And the harder they will laugh. This is one reason comics adopt a strong point-of-view or attitude towards everything they talk about. Your character is a vital ingredient in your comedy.


“The whole object of comedy is to be yourself, and the closer you get to that, the funnier you will be.”
Jerry Seinfeld (comedian)


You don’t need to be funny, just create a pattern

As well as laughing at patterns getting broken, curiously, humans also laugh when they first spot a pattern. Peek-a-boo. Children, especially, find repetition comforting — in a world where so much is new and confusing, it’s reassuring to know what will happen next and revisiting the same experience over and over helps them learn about it more deeply each time. The spark of recognition when a pattern is being established also makes them laugh.


You don’t need to be funny, just exaggerate

Much humour is, at its core, about exaggeration. It’s about taking some basic truth and stretching it to extremes for comedic effect. This applies both to magnifying situations you are talking about and to amplifying your emotional reactions to these situations.

Watch most stand-ups — the more emotionally expressive and physical they get, the bigger the laugh. Their response is often out of proportion to what triggered it. In fact, many comedians make a living from emoting passionately about the most mundane of topics. However, this exaggeration needs to be used wisely, and, as with expressing any emotion, it is the variation in the intensity of the emotion which is most powerful (3.1).


“New comics think that audiences are interested in the stories: they are actually more interested in how you feel about the stories.”
Logan Murray (comedian)


You don’t need to be funny, just reveal shared experiences

When a comedian stands on a stage and points out trivial parts of their lives which other people also experience, inside we collectively go, “that’s me too!” It makes us feel warm and connected to each other and it triggers laughter. It is the recognition of the universal truth of the situation we find funny, more than any wit inherent in the line. The secret of observational humour is to find experiences which are, at the same time, both universal and hidden in plain sight.


You don’t need to be funny, just be subversive

Comedy often involves taking an eccentric or anti-authoritarian view of life. Breaking, or bending, the social rules around conventions and taboos is funny. Younger children are naturally mischievous and your role as an informal educator gives you the freedom to gently push the boundaries. The key is to be child-like rather than childish. Read any popular children’s book and you will see these kinds of humour hooks at work.

Teenagers also find subversive comedy enjoyable. We normally can’t indulge this appetite, though, because this would take us into dangerous and inappropriate territory in our school and family shows. It’s hard for adults to compete with how subversive and shocking much teenage humour is.


You don’t need to be funny, just fail

Children love seeing the presenter fail occasionally. They explode with delight whenever you make a genuine or engineered mistake. They cannot contain themselves when they think they’ve noticed some impending danger before you’ve spotted it. Deploying these presenter-in-trouble techniques is almost unfair (4.5). The way that they invert the normal child-adult status makes them psychologically irresistible to any child.



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