This is Part 3 of a 7 part series on the factors that drive internet popularity. While it should stand perfectly well on its own, you might want to start with Part 1: Conspiracy Theories, or the post that inspired the series: The Novelty Bubble.
Whether it's the second most popular post on Reddit, ever, the second most popular post at BuzzFeed this week, or a crucial component of Cracked's business model, content that is simultaneously humorless and popular is an exception, not a rule. The internet thrives on humor, and languishes without it. It's a fact so self-evident that it scarcely requires evidence to support it.
As I mentioned in The Novelty Bubble, emotional positivity tends to elicit more social sharing than negativity does. While posts that anger or spark controversy often do well, this is because of the emotional intensity that they elicit. Since humor is positive and often emotionally intense, funny content tops the charts more often than not.
It would be a waste to devote any more time (mine or yours) to proving how important humor is as a factor in internet popularity. Instead, I'm going to examine how to make humor work, and how to fit it into content that isn't inherently funny. In the process, by necessity, I'm also probably not going to be especially funny. Not much I can do about that. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The Science of Funny
There are a number of theories about what makes things funny. I'm partial to the belief that humor has its origins in pre-human communication. We see laughter in the great apes. It may actually be the case that laughter was a precursor for language, so it should come as no surprise that laughter expresses a wide variety of things, and occurs in a wide variety of contexts.
Here are some of the theories about humor:
- Benign violation theory: This theory, proposed by marketing scientist Peter McGraw, assumes that humor arises when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening, yet somehow acceptable, okay, and safe at the same time. I find this theory especially compelling, in particular because it explains bizarre things like laughing during a horror movie or after a jump scare. It also explains tickling (the locations of our most vulnerable organs are the places we're most ticklish). It's ambitious in its range, but I'm not convinced it covers everything. In some ways, this is an expansion of an older concept called relief theory, which suggests that humor is a way to relieve tension.
- Superiority/Social theory: This approach dates all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and it's based on the idea that we laugh when we feel a sense of superiority, either over somebody else, or over our past selves. While this can't explain all humor, there is a lot of evidence pointing to humor being deeply connected to social status. A manifestation of this from the other end of the spectrum can be seen in experiments where "employees" are more likely to laugh with "bosses" than "bosses" are to laugh with "employees" in role-playing situations. The laughter is completely authentic; experiments ruled out "suck up" laughter, but it's tied to social status. The fact that it is possible to laugh both submissively and mockingly demonstrates that humor is probably closely tied to social hierarchies, and probably dates back to days before language was a thing. Interestingly, most laughter is almost entirely disconnected from what we would typically call "comedy," and in fact it seems to exist for entirely social reasons, where the "punchline" is as witty as "I know" or "See you later."
- Incongruity theory: This is the theory that humor arises when we resolve an inconsistency or undergo a sudden change in perspective. The most obvious manifestation of this is the pun, where the dual meaning of a word becomes a source of humor. The theory encompasses much more complicated forms of humor, though, and is based on the idea that two differing frames of reference are set on a collision course, according to Arthur Koestler. Closely related is the idea that a sense of humor is necessary in order to tell the difference between the literal and the abstract, and the idea that humor is a subconscious "bad reasoning" detector.
In other words, laughter can mean a lot of different things. Unlike, say, sadness, which is pretty much always the same experience (with differences in intensity and maybe mixture with other emotions), laughter is loaded with variety. Laughter can mean:
- I'm better than you
- You made a mistake
- You have more power than me
- I made a mistake
- This line of reasoning doesn't make sense
- This line of reasoning makes too much sense but it violates our social norms
- These two things don't normally go together, but for some reason they really do in this circumstance
- This person isn't really hurt
- This person really is hurt but they're not like us/we're better than them, so it's okay
- I recognize this experience and I'm laughing because I thought I was the only one who experienced this
- I recognize your obscure reference
- I like you
- I wasn't expecting that
- You actually meant the opposite of the thing you just said
- You didn't mean what you just said
- For the love of God please tell me you didn't mean what you just said
- I'm nervous
- I'm happy
- This whole thing is just absurd
From Theory to Practice
Now that I'm finished buzzkilling humor with science, it's time to buzzkill humor with practical advice on how to make your content more funny. And I'm going to do that by expounding upon it at length and covering every approach in painstaking detail. Just kidding, I'm going to give you a bulleted list and let you take it from there. (It turns out humor isn't formulaic enough to expound upon at length. Who knew?)
- Take two things that don't fit together and force them to fit. ("10 Reasons Miley Cyrus is Exactly Like Rand Paul.")
- Comedians say "nothing is off limits." That's usually taking it too far for anything other than pure comedy, but it is a good idea to push the limits.
- Get oddly specific. When Jerry Seinfeld explains how he writes a Pop-Tart joke, he draws attention to the line "When I was a kid and they invented the Pop-Tart, the back of my head blew right off..." he then explains, "...that got the whole [joke] started, that a specific part of my head blew off, not just my head, but just the back..."
- Seinfeld also points out that some words just sound funny (like Pop-Tart). Use them. "We were like chimps in the dirt playing with sticks...what makes that joke is you get chimps, dirt, playing, and sticks. It's 7 words, 4 of them are funny." On top of that, finding a way to fit them into what you're saying if they don't fit makes the whole thing funnier.
- Point out the flaws in arguments of your opponents, as long as you can do so lightheartedly.
- Steve Kaplan says the difference between comedy and drama is that comedy tells the truth about people, while drama idealizes it. Hamlet doesn't fart in Shakespear's masterpiece; those aspects of humanity are removed for dramatic effect. Telling the truth even when it makes you look ridiculous is one great way to be funny.
- Self-deprecate. Not so much that you actually hurt your own credibility (again, unless pure comedy is your goal).
- Reference something your target audience is likely familiar with, but that isn't necessarily known to a wider audience. This is the whole idea of being "in on the joke."
- Repetition can be funny. It also relies on being "in on the joke" and is effectively a self-reference.
- Make an absurd argument, especially if the conclusion is one you disagree with. Yes, this is straw-manning, but if your audience has a sense of humor they'll recognize that straw men are okay if they're introduced for humor. Of course, all the more effective if it's an argument people actually use, and you're just breaking it down to make the absurdity more obvious.
- Let your personality quirks shine. As discussed above, people laugh for social reasons, and while a personality quirk probably isn't going to make somebody laugh out loud, it might elicit a smile and set the mood. Comedians understand that the character is at least as important, if not more important, than the jokes.
- Borrow "always say yes" from improv, the idea that you keep building on the premises that have been established, no matter how ridiculous the result starts to look.
- Some of the worst comedy comes from people who are trying too hard to be funny. Humor more often results from taking an absurd situation very seriously.
- Use misdirection. Set things up like they're going one way, but take them in a different direction. A good way to do this is to work backwards: start with a place you want to end up, then find an unexpected way to get there.
- Think like a child.
Read more in this series: