Most overt humour requires comedy timing and credible acting skills to land it, on demand. For those informal educators feeling brave or talented enough, here’s a list of some overt humour hooks which can be used with child and family audiences.
Borrowing funny resources
One of the easiest ways to deliver overt humour is by using relevant quotes, images, memes, cartoons or videos created by other people. The resource will do most of the humour heavy-lifting for you, though in some cases, you may need to think about how you progressively reveal it, in order to keep your audience together to maximise the laugh, e.g. showing the frames of a three-frame cartoon one at a time to allow for different reading and comprehension speeds.
These resources work for most presenting characters. Also, it will often be clear from the material who has created it, but if this isn’t the case, then you should always acknowledge the source.
Many jokes which are effective for children revolve around a simple double meaning of words which sets-up a false assumption in the minds of the listeners.
In educational presentations, most of your stand-alone jokes will be relevant to the topic, but this makes finding or writing relevant jokes a challenge. Traditionally, they have been groaners — so bad, that they’re almost good. For example (hold on to your sides), “When I was writing this show, I read a great science-fiction book all about anti-gravity. … It was so hard to put down.”
Children are much more creative about how they play with and break language than adults. Wordplay includes — puns; riddles; rhymes; tongue twisters; mispronouncing words; alliteration and assonance; giving your props funny names; and using made-up words (e.g. to parody jargon by describing a prop in a science show). Individually, these devices may seem weak, but they become much stronger if you can use several together, e.g. reeling off a string of puns can eventually win their admiration, as well as their groans.
In playing these word games, it’s worth bearing in mind that many comedians have found that two types of sounds produce more laughs than others — words containing the hard “k” sound; or plosives, such as p, t, b and g, which force you to cut off your lung exhalation suddenly when you close your mouth. For instance, naming a prop “Bob” will always create much amusement from young audiences.
These are similar to verbal call backs but are usually a physical action or bit of business which is repeated at intervals throughout the show. For example, trying to get your nerve up to pull the tablecloth from underneath some dishes at different points, each time getting closer to completing the demo. The audience response to running gags is so strong it’s easy to fall into the trap of milking them too much in a single presentation. A more sophisticated way of using them is to escalate or twist the running gag subtly every time to keep them guessing.
Pointing out the mundane things which unite your young audiences works just as effectively as it does with adults. The only difference is that they have a more restricted life experience from which you can draw. For example, references to them being badgered to tidy their rooms or sometimes getting fed up with their annoying brother or sister will produce laughs of recognition. You need to know your learners well, though, to succeed with this kind of humour.
This is when you adopt extreme facial reactions and hold them for an extended time, e.g. executing a slow-motion double-take when you’re shocked. As a rule-of-thumb, you can get away with mugging more strongly than you think. The younger the group and larger it is, the more you can afford to over-react physically onstage. For older audiences, though, you will need to tone down your mugs to avoid patronising them.
One of the best-known science demonstrations involves putting part of a fizzy vitamin tablet in a film canister, which contains a small amount of water, and closing the lid tightly.
In my shows for 5–8-year-olds, I place the inverted canister on my raised, extended, open palm apparently so they “can see it better.” By holding it casually on my hand and through my words, I’m creating the expectation it will pop and fall over. After about 20 seconds of asking what they think will happen and why, the canister suddenly explodes upwards and hits the ceiling of the hall. There’s a moment of stunned silence and then they erupt in surprise and excitement.
There’s no point trying to talk over them at this stage — they won’t hear you. So, this is when I start mugging to show my shock. My eyes widen, my body freezes and my mouth drops open. I do a slow double-take at my hand, then the ceiling, then my hand again. I look around at the audience, lost for words. Next, I start to silently and slowly count my fingers to check they’re all intact.
At every non-verbal cue, the reaction escalates again. You can surf the response wave like this for what seems like an unreasonably long time. As ever, it’s your reaction that sells the demo as much as the physical outcome.
“Very often you get more out of it by your reactions to things than doing jokes.”
Johnny Carson (television host)
A trope is a convention in a specific medium so famous that you can playfully apply or parody it in your educational presentations. As well as being engaging, this will generate amusement as the audience recognise what you’ve done. Examples of conventions or formats to borrow include:
- eliciting the classic, “Oh no, it isn’t!” pantomime call-out from the crowd, so you can respond with, “Oh yes, it is!”;
- inserting a couple of funny advert breaks into your presentation which reinforce your key messages;
- using a TV game show challenge to get two teams to race to sort their pile of rubbish into the correct bins in a recycling show.
Children at different ages have their own shared dictionary of taboo words. Saying words like pants, bum, bogey or poo to young children will always get a laugh. They get a thrill from reacting to these words as they test the limits of what their significant adults consider to be socially acceptable at their age.
Just because it’s easy, though, doesn’t mean we should always do it. As you gain experience, your judgement will improve about what will work in different informal education settings.
“The forbidden is always funny. The funniest word in the vocabulary of a second grader is underwear.”
Betsy Byars (children’s author)
Double entendres are a different kind of taboo. Most educators choose to avoid making these in their presentations — it can only take one upset principal to talk to surrounding schools; or one tweet from an offended parent before you have a bad local press story. However, some educational presenters feel the use of innuendos in other forms of family entertainment (e.g. pantomimes; sitcoms) legitimises their use in our family shows. I would caution against this reasoning, though, because I believe that once an event is framed as being in any way “educational”, many adults immediately hold different expectations about the experience.
Humour for adults
Distinct from double entendres, there are occasional asides which you can make in school or family shows which will only be funny to the teachers and parents in the audience. By subtly changing your eye gaze to the adults, tweaking your tone of voice and raising your language complexity, children seem to know instinctively these comments are not directed at them. In their family situations, they are well used to grown-ups switching between talking to them and conversing with another adult and provided you only do this every now and again, I have never noticed children resenting these comments.
There is a demo where you take a cardboard tube, normally used to store crisps, and carefully pour a small amount of liquid nitrogen into it. As the extremely cold liquid heats up, it boils to fill the tube with nitrogen gas, which makes the plastic lid pop off, no matter how many times you replace it.
After the first such pop, it’s hard to resist making the aside to adults, “Well you know what they used to say … once you pop… you just can’t stop.” This refers to a famous advertising slogan which a popular crisp manufacturer used to have and which most children nowadays are unaware of. The puzzlement of the children, to their parents laughing at this line, is a secondary source of humour which you can exploit sensitively.
Sight gags and comedy props
One of the unfailing rules of children’s comedy is that props which are over-sized, or undersized, are funny. Without exception. Another truism is that audiences will laugh at the sight of you or a willing volunteer in any sort of costume.
Children enjoy the simplicity of visual humour when you play around with an ordinary object by pretending it is another item or putting it to an unconventional use. For example, using a test tube like a hand-held mic to “interview” your volunteer as they describe what is happening in the science demonstration on stage.
A common hook in science demo shows is asking a volunteer to wear comically over-the-top safety equipment, whilst, at the same time, reassuring them that the demo is completely safe.
If you’ve ever been tempted to use a one-liner originated by a presenter you’ve seen, you’ve discovered that some don’t work as effectively coming out of your mouth. Character matters. There are, however, hundreds of generic one-liners and bits of business that work for so many types of presenting character they have become clichés of interactive performance. These bits also avoid the ethical issue of professional presenters “borrowing” content from their colleagues without acknowledgement.
For example, these bits are so widespread, nobody knows who originated them:
- stopping to pretend to write down a particularly funny line from a spectator, so you can use in future;
- countdown gags, such as counting down “3…2…1” and then pausing, “Did you want me to launch it on 1 or after 1?”, to further build up the suspense;
- when a mobile phone is answered in the middle of a suspenseful moment, asking politely to borrow the phone so you bring the caller into the action in some way.
No matter how ubiquitous these gags may seem to us, most of our audiences will still laugh at them if we can deliver them with commitment. Also, the more naturally you can incorporate them into what has just happened on stage, the lower the comedy bar you’ll need to jump to get a reaction.
The problem comes, though, when you’re tempted to trot out a one-liner for an easy laugh when it doesn’t suit your character or the moment. We’ve all fallen into this trap at some point. At best, this slip will shatter the illusion of spontaneity you have fought to create. At worst, it can make you look fake and destroy their trust in you.
Irony and sarcasm [ADVANCED]
The gentle humour in irony lies in how your tone or manner conveys precisely the opposite meaning to your words, or the situation turns out in a way which was contrary to what was expected. For example, the deliberate anti-climax technique — building up the first part of a science demo as if it is going to be the most amazing event they have witnessed in their young lives; only for the actual outcome to involve no visible change. (You then go on to exceed their expectations in the next part, though.) Older audiences will laugh and mock-groan at being set-up like this. Younger groups, though, will just look crestfallen and confused.
Sarcasm is much more in-your-face than irony — it is intended to mock the person you’re talking to. Teenagers are masters of the devastating sarcastic put-down. “Really? Ya think?”, I can almost imagine them mumbling, were they reading this. If it suits your character — edgy, but playful — sarcasm can break down a challenging older crowd like few other hooks. But if it’s interpreted as an abuse of your power used to dominate a lower-status spectator, there are few techniques that will make them hate you more. Step carefully.
Structural call backs [ADVANCED]
Previously, we’ve discussed using call backs infrequently in a way that appears spontaneous, even if they weren’t. But there’s another way of using an extended sequence of them where the audience eventually realise these references have been crafted into the structure of the show, so it becomes more cohesive.
In this case, you will get laughs for being clever, rather than quick-witted. As you repeat the call backs, the hidden pattern emerges. You can almost see them transition through a series of reactions — from “that was quick-thinking” to “hmmm … she did it again … she can’t be that fast” to “hang on… were all these apparently random things meant to happen after all?” to, finally, “aha… that was clever… you got me!” Audiences enjoy resolving the tension in this journey.
Most young children revel in slapstick humour — physical humour which often involves you appearing to hurt yourself or your dignity onstage. With physical pain, it’s important, though, that they know you’re not badly hurt despite your over-the-top reactions. This form of comedy looks deceptively simple, but it takes considerable training and practice to perform safely and well.
“Do funny. Don’t say funny.”
Christopher W. Barnes (children’s magician)
If you have the skill and confidence, try copying a few key characteristics of the voice and manner of adults well-known to the group, e.g celebrities. You don’t have to become an exact copy of them — it’s surprising how few features you need to mimic for the impersonation to be convincing. In your attempt to make your audience laugh, though, take care that your portrayal isn’t offensive.
You can also adopt a funny voice at certain moments of the presentation in order to draw attention or to cement that moment in the memories of your audience.