What makes something funny?

The more you think about this question the more it will drive you crazy. It’s a lot like explaining your own jokes, people who are funny hate doing it but sometimes it’s necessary to get your point across. Before we asked 30 of the best Twitter joke-writers on earth the story behind their best joke but this time we asked what makes them laugh and why it makes them laugh, and this is what they said.

Pixelated Boat
It’s difficult to say. Humor is subjective, and it varies across cultures. For example, saying “I heard the king ate a potato” would be very funny in a culture where potatoes are a low-status vegetable consumed only by mule thieves and disgraced candlemakers. But in a land where potatoes are rare and prized for their nutritious starch, this rumour could spark a revolution against an out-of-touch, carb-crazed monarch. Timing is important, too. If you said “Hey Titanic, got enough ice?” NOW, you’d be praised as the sharpest comic mind since Jack “Dr. Laughs” Kevorkian. But if you’d said it BEFORE the Titanic sank it would’ve just been confusing (until the ship did sink, and then people would ask why you hadn’t used your psychic gifts to prevent the catastrophe, instead of pre-emptively zinging a doomed ocean liner).

Bob Vulfov
The things I find funny are usually unexpected. There are lots of great jokes where you can predict the punchline about halfway through. That doesn’t make the thing unfunny, just a little less surprising. The jokes or situations that make me belly-laugh like an insane person are the ones where the punchline sneaks up on me. Like if someone is walking toward a banana peel and you as a viewer see the banana peel, you know what’s about to happen. That person is about to slip on a banana peel. And if they do, it’s pretty funny. Not belly-laugh funny, but pretty funny. But, if that person is one step away from the banana peel and then a piano falls on top of them, I think that’s way funnier. Also, the only comedy reference point I have is Looney Tunes.

Maura Quint
I propose something is funny if I laugh at it. I know that people would usually say “if someone laughs at it” or if “the audience laughs at it,” but that’s really broad, so broad it’s probably hard to quantify. I mean, maybe you wrote a joke and no one laughed right away but a week later some guy on a smoke break from his job as a busboy in a gruel diner in the Ukraine eventually read your joke and chuckled as much as his worn face and otherwise joyless existence allowed. Does that mean the joke was funny? Maybe, but that’s a pretty long journey to go just to judge the comedic value of something. I want to make it easier. Let me decide what’s funny. You have nothing to lose except those jokes where someone slips in vomit. That’s just gross.

David Hughes
Me. I make things funny. It’s a gift and a curse, truly. I can take any topic and make it hilarious. What’s that? Give you an example? No. That’s actually a really difficult question to answer though. Because honestly I don’t know what makes something funny. I know what funny is, sure, and to a degree I know how to be funny - fuck off, yes I do - but I don’t think there’s a particular formula or rule to it. I used to. I used to think tweeting about owls or being shocking was funny but looking back I was just being an asshole, And owls are also assholes. The things I enjoy writing about the most, the things that I find funny, are the tweets about my daily life. Interactions with my wife, boss, coworkers, obstetricians, therapists etc. Most of those tweets come from actual events and conversations, mostly mind numbing in nature, but with a much more entertaining close in dialogue. Or at least I hope it’s much more entertaining. So yeah, I tend to lose focus during conversations that don’t interest me so I amuse myself quietly. Then I shout them on twitter.

The things that make me laugh the hardest are very stupid. Like when Borat was naked.

What makes something funny to me is when it catches me off guard, when it makes me think about some common, everyday thing in a way that I never would have thought of it before. When someone takes something in life and turns it on its head and skewers it in just the right way as to make it comical, that’s a magic moment, a moment I’ve been chasing my whole life.

Dan O'Brien
There are two main qualities that I think make something funny. First, there’s something in the joke that you recognize or relate to. You read it and think “I do that!” or “That’s exactly how cats act!” or whatever. People enjoy the connection they feel when a joke is reflecting something in them or their friends/family/pets. The second thing that makes something funny is the element of surprise. The joke writer leads you to think one thing is going to happen, but then they make an unexpected turn.

Lots of things are funny for all kinds of reasons, but usually it comes down to surprise. You think you know what you’re about to hear, but you’re wrong. A horse walks into a bar…and orders a drink?! That never happens!

One thing I’ve learned from being on twitter for 5 years is that not everyone finds humor in the same things as I do. However, most people definitely enjoy humor with things they can relate to—especially subtle everyday things. For example, one of my most popular tweets is: No fucking way will I choose the shopping cart that someone left a piece of paper in. We’ve all been there…standing inside the entrance of the food store, about to shop by dropping food into a big metal basket on wheels (that often sits outside and is apparently washed only once or twice each year) and if there are only 2 carts left we will ALWAYS pick the one that DOES NOT have a harmless receipt at the bottom of it. It’s like eww, gross. I am too good for you, you filthy tainted cart. The day I sent that tweet is the day I realized how silly the whole thing is. But I’m still not picking that cart if I have a choice, no fucking way.

Funny is being sent one way and ending up somewhere else. How you do it determines where you sit on the fucked-up spectrum of humor, and who (if anyone) is going to laugh. I like humor, and therefore tweets, with pathos, human fallibility and some grounding in reality. Chuck a couple of funny words like ‘meatus’, ‘slanket’ ‘or ‘Karl’ in there as well, and you’ve got yourself a winner.

I think anything that identifies the insanity of people dealing with everyday situations is funny. We’re barely holding it together. When I’m standing in line for coffee and everyone around me is on the verge of a full blown nervous breakdown because they’re training a new barista or the thing that grinds the beans is making an offensive noise, picturing someone losing their mind (in a safe, non-homicidal way of course) is really funny to me. I’ll always laugh at the thought of inappropriate, dark overreactions to day-to-day drudgery.

Karate Horse
I only have one thing I find funny and that is when people list the amount of buttholes they have. I find this funny because 1) having a lot of buttholes is hilarious and 2) having a lower than standard amount of buttholes is also hilarious.

Jonny Sun
This is an impossible question. And I’m sure that wayyyyy funnier and way more qualified people in this article have given way better answers than I ever can. But I’ll give it a shot. At its most basic level, I think humor is about the subversion of expectation. It’s about the platform and the tilt, the setup and the punchline. That’s the most basic element to all comedy and “anti-comedy” (where there is the expectation of a punchline, and the subversion is that the punchline does not happen as expected). To me, the fun that comes from comedy is finding all ways you can craft an expectation in someone’s mind and then finding the most interesting ways to subvert that expectation. Comedians are like the friendliest possible con artists. Comedians are Canadian con artists. One of my first sketch comedy directors would always say “all funny people are smart” and I think about that all the time because it takes a crazy understanding of how people think, I think, in order to understand humor. And then everything builds on that.

I also like the idea very much that comedy is used as a tool for social change and as a way of punching up (and never punching down). Another thing I like about comedy is that it can reveal truths better in ways that are different than fact can. And I love the idea that there is an evolutionary link (if you believe in evolution…) between laughter and fear – that laughter is a response to create a feeling of safety after a perceived threat. There’s a theory on humor called the “Benign Violation” theory that essentially posits that something is funny if: a) it’s a violation of some sort, that it creates some sort of disconnection in your thought process that throws you off (aka the subversion of expectation); and b) it’s benign, that it is not a real threat but is safe. If you combine this theory with the idea of laughter as evolutionary response, then what laughter does is literally create a warm fuzzy feeling in your brain to tell you that you’re safe. That’s why laughter and humor are such powerful mechanisms for bringing people together. And it’s why it’s such an amazing mechanism for creating empathy as well. I think what makes something funny is the vivid, beautiful humanness of it all.

Good humor ultimately illuminates the universal and specific struggles of being human and being trapped on this often sad, often awful, often alienating earth. I personally believe all great humor feels like an inside joke, but to everybody. To be both incredibly specific, such that it feels like this joke was built just for me, the one person who would laugh at something like this, and incredibly universal, such that everybody feels that way, both at the same time. It’s a magnificent, impossible contradiction. To me, that’s what I love about comedy and what I try to get to with my own writing.

I will say this about one thing about Twitter too… I do believe a big appeal of Twitter is that, as a medium, it provides all these new angles of delivery. Twitter is a constrained, text-based, reading-centric medium, as opposed to a visual or audio-based, performance-centric medium. It’s an entirely different language than what I think of when I think of “traditional” comedy. It’s not just about coming up with original material, but also about discovering new ways to say them. Since Twitter means and necessitates that these jokes are going to be read, there are a lot of unique and different things going on when you read a joke on Twitter versus hearing it told or seeing it happen. In some regards, there are a lot fewer ways to convey personality and voice and style, and tone, but at the same time, there are just as many different ways that you can do that aesthetically with text. There’s also a lot of room with text to play with form and format and image building that is different than other mediums. I like to imagine that comedy lies on a range between descriptive (or literal), where exactly what being shown to you is the joke and is the humor in its all-encompassing entirety (TV, film, sketch, comics, most visual mediums), and prescriptive (or abstracted), where what is being shown to you is something that you as audience have to imagine in your head, and so you are doing part of the work in building the joke based on what’s been given to you (Twitter humor, text-based humor, stand-up comedy, most audio or text-based mediums). I think because there is that aspect where each reader or listener has to bring part of their own imagination into play (in text-based mediums, it’s literally constructing the entire image in your head; in standup, it’s imagining the story that’s being told), there’s a greater sense of ownership or engagement with more prescriptive/abstracted mediums of humor, and people connect to prescriptive/abstracted mediums in a different way than they do to descriptive/literal mediums. The humor feels more personal, in a way. At least, they do to me.I’m not sure if this answers your question directly but those are my current warm fuzzy thoughts when I think about what makes things funny.

Tamara Yajia
I’d like to think my reaction to a joke is what lets me know if it’s funny or not. I see it as very straight forward: either I laugh or I don’t. I usually don’t enjoy jokes that require too much thinking. I like honest jokes that point out humanity’s dumb, vulgar side. I can tell when a joke took too long to write and it turns me off for some reason.

Sam Grittner
What is funny? Webster’s dictionary defines funny as “a clown on roller-skates slipping on a banana peel into a lake of fire while the entire cast of FRIENDS does the jerk-off motion” and I’m somewhat inclined to go with that definition. What I personally find funny are situations that capture the human condition in all of its glorious stupidity and moments that make you go, “What in the fuck just happened? Did I just witness that?” Confusion that makes me laugh is simply the best.

After an agonizing three minutes of writer’s block, I cheat and ask my nine year old… “Potty. Potty jokes. Mom, you gotta be a kid.” Dag. He nailed it. So much of what makes me laugh has to do with feeling like a kid again. Potty humor has made me laugh since before I mastered the potty. Making up words to songs has cracked me up since I heard “Robin laid an egg.” Photoshopping politicians feels like roasting the principal. Getting an obscure reference makes me feel like a cool as hell eighth grader. Hearing something off-the-wall and uniquely hilarious for the first time takes me back to when discovering new things was a daily occurrence. So much of adulthood is boring and routine, so it’s a good thing we can hear a joke and be transported back in time to [FART SOUND].

I certainly don’t consider myself an authority on funny, but to me, funny is in the details. The little day-to-day things we all go through and see. The annoyances we keep to ourselves, the things we blow out of proportion in our minds. Most of us don’t dare say them out loud, at risk of seeming foolish or petty. I find it funny to say them out loud.

Elizabeth W
What makes something funny? To me it is observational humor, irony in everyday things, and though sometimes shallow and not very creative, sarcasm. Examples of irony are in almost everything we do and say. We are constantly contradicting ourselves just trying to survive. With observational humor I love seeing someone point out the things that we all think or do but no one talks about. Being relatable lends to the humor in things. If you tell a joke and its funny, that’s one thing, but if you can make it relatable, you can really put it over the top and reach people on a different level. Hi, me again. I’d just like to add that delivery, delivery is what ultimately makes something funny. You can have the funniest idea ever, but if you can’t deliver it properly it doesn’t matter what you say, it won’t be funny.

Sean Thomason
A real truth, plainly stated. For example, I wrote most of The Wire.

Mike Primavera
Whatever makes you laugh. It’s as simple as that. Like all art, comedy is subjective. What one person thinks is hilarious, another might find boring or wildly offensive. I think that’s an important thing to remember. Before you make the comment “that’s not funny” remind yourself that it’s only not funny to you, and then maybe just keep it to yourself.

Patrick Tobin
What I find funny is pointing out how absurd life is in its most mundane details. I also like jokes that subvert expectations, jokes that seem like they’re going one way and take a turn. It’s all about perspective, and I know a lot of very funny people who have entirely different ways of looking at things.

Dani Fernandez
Funny is being able to turn something tragic into humor. You can’t always control the horror in life, but you can find a way to make it funny. That was the only control I felt I had over depression, or illness, or even failed relationships. I could make fun of it, and make fun of myself, and it felt like I had the control.

Fred Delicious
When it comes to humor I don’t think you can beat that tried and tested classic, vegetables. I experiment with vegetable related tweets quite often, carrots, broccoli, all the main ones, but in January 2014 I ventured into unchartered territory and tackled a high difficulty vegetable, celery. Straight away I knew it was an instant classic. People were going nuts, saying it was one of the best tweets they’ve ever seen. I think I nailed the pacing of the tweet, the setup wasn’t too contrived, then the punchline is just subtle enough but still funny.

Amanda Like Wine
Funny for me is dry and absurd. A line delivered by a sad character followed by awkward shifting and silence. A table conversation that turns into one person trying to remember if they made a left turn or a right turn at a road 30 years prior. Emily Dickinson reading excerpts from 50 Shades of Gray, and then vomiting into a bucket. Yes, please

The funniest people on twitter have an ability to create something that is completely original but also immediately relatable, which is really challenging. So much of twitter is tired concepts, or formats, because these are hack/easy ways to produce something reasonably popular without much effort. Most of us have been guilty of occasionally invoking these even though it’s lazy writing imo. The best, funniest people can put a fresh spin on something we all experience to make it funny.

Dave Dittell
The best suit most men will ever wear is the one they wear into their grave. You look your best when dead, a beautiful but empty shell, as all your closest loved ones watch as you are lowered down feeling just as big of a disconnect between their corporeal and mental selves. And if you live in the wrong place, this might just be when the American government’s robots swoop down and bomb everyone you’ve ever cared about, their love for you the eventual cause of their removal from this world. If you’re lucky, the robots killed everyone at your wedding instead. Now imagine that same scene, but your Uncle Louie lets out a long squeaky fart just before the low hum of the drones is recognized. You can tell on his face he’s embarrassed, but also that it feels good, that it’s a release of tension he’s been waiting so long for and can no longer hold in. Humor is the long squeaky fart just before death, the delightful ignorance of a sigh of relief from someone who’s momentarily forgotten that the only true release this world gives us is the sweet release of a death we’d do anything to avoid.

Tiger Sez
I suppose everyone has a different idea of what’s funny. Like, I know a grown ass man who genuinely lols at puns, which no one over the age of 8 has any business thinking are funny. But for me, the thing I find funniest, that speaks to me the most, is really dark, painful, raw, honest humor. Something that punches you in the gut with how real and terrible and hilarious it is. Gallows humor. The ability to take the worst parts of life and humanity and one’s personal experience and to say the things that we aren’t supposed to, and laugh about it and oneself, it gets me every time. There’s a reason the saddest people I know are also the funniest, it’s because they don’t have any other choice, it is the only way to survive. So if you can you talk about your abusive childhood and shitty relationships and general self loathing in a funny way, then I want to hear about it. Also, I love a good dick joke because I’m very mature.

Hippie Swordfish
To me, the funniest stuff is anything that’s unexpected or uncomfortable. Non sequitur humor and awkward moments make me laugh the hardest, especially when we’re talking about tweets.

I’ve been on Twitter for a while now. A lot of Twitter is really funny. A lot of it now is repeated stuff, so it can get boring. But when “it’s funny because it’s true” tweet pops up, it’s usually hilarious. I don’t mean that by having the actual cliche written in the joke, ew no. There has to be a connection. A remarkably relatable, blunt sentence that’s under 140 characters.

Rob Whisman
I think it was Roger Ebert who said this about comedy: There are people who will laugh because a guy is wearing a funny hat, and there are people who will laugh because of the reason that guy is wearing a funny hat. I like the second one. The only response I enjoy getting more than “this is so funny” is “I don’t know why this is so funny.”