What Lewis Black can teach you about being funny

Lewis Black's character in Inside Out
And he was the voice for this…

Many of you visit my site for tips on adding humor to your speeches. You can learn by watching great comedians. My favorite is Lewis Black. I don’t advise you to use his jokes in your speeches because (a.) most of his material isn’t safe for work, and (b.) you shouldn’t use anyone else’s jokes in your speeches. You need to develop your own humor. By watching great comedians, you can learn how. Here are the things that I’ve learned by watching Lewis Black.

Be Honest

Great comedians say the things that most of us are too polite, timid, or scared to say. Lewis Black doesn’t just say them, he yells them. And we laugh because we wish that we can yell the same things too.

Honesty also comes from a comedian’s willingness to attack any source of foolishness, including himself. Lewis Black showed this perfectly during the 2004 presidential elections:

If you want to elect Bush, that’s the prick that I’m gonna yell about. If you want to elect John Kerry, I’m gonna be yelling about him. My problem is with authority.

By shining their honesty on all sides, Lewis Black shows integrity that appeals to a wider audience. One side can laugh at the jokes at their expense because they know the other guys will get what’s coming to them too.

Be Observant

Great humor comes from finding the absurd in everyday life. Like a Starbucks that’s across the street from another Starbucks. Or TSA inspectors who pat down an elderly woman in a motorized wheelchair who couldn’t possibly be a threat. Finding these absurdities requires keen and honest observation, which Lewis Black demonstrates. Just as he says things we’re too afraid to say, he shows us things we often overlook or don’t want to admit to seeing. Here’s an example:

I was on CNN in Atlanta at one o’clock in the afternoon because apparently everybody else was asleep, and they asked me what I thought of CNN and I said, “I liked CNN until you started that writing on the bottom.” I don’t know why it’s there. Why do you put writing on a television set? We watch TV… BECAUSE WE DON’T WANNA READ!”

Add Vocal Variety

No one can scream for an entire set and keep their vocal chords for very long. Lewis Black doesn’t. In his standup routines, he’ll have stretches where he’ll speak in a normal tone. These stretches make his verbal eruptions more pronounced and dramatic. I’ve also noticed that his most devastating lines are ones he delivers softly and slowly. Vocal variety makes his routines funnier and keeps us listening.

Timing is also key. Using pauses builds suspense and draws attention to the words that follow them. Another comedian who uses timing effectively is Steven Wright. He has a deadpan delivery, but his use of timing and pauses makes him funny and effective.

Give a Verbal Twist

Honesty, observation, and vocal variety will take you a long way to developing humor. Your most powerful tool is the verbal twist. The unexpected turn of phrase and sudden insight not only makes your audience laugh, it helps you make your point. Here are some of my favorite examples (well, the ones that are suitable for this Web site):

Writing is thinking and thinking is hard work.

If you stop eating donuts, you will live three years longer. It’s just three more years that you want a donut.

Earth Day was created because we were doing a lot of drugs, more drugs than you could ever…imagine. And so we came up with Earth Day, so we’d have one day that would remind us what planet we were living on.

From Watching Humor to Being Humorous

As much as I enjoy watching Lewis Black, I can’t have the same type of humor. My vocal chords can’t handle it. I also don’t have the same life experiences as him. (He might tell me that I should be grateful for that.) The key to learning from comedians is to see what works for them and apply similar (not the same) techniques to your speaking style. Keep in mind that your goal as a speaker isn’t to tell a string of jokes, but to get your point across. Humor — when it comes from you, and you have refined it to fit your style and message — can be a powerful way to make yourself heard.