What You Can Learn About Humor From Chris Rock

Being funny is a very important asset that you need to have. However not everyone knows how to deliver a joke properly. I recently read a great book on this titled “Comedy Writing Secrets” by Melvin Helitzer.

In the book, Helitzer breaks down the anatomy of humor. He does this by using what he calls the THREES formula:

Target
Hostility
Realism
Exaggeration
Emotion
Surprise

Helitzer writes that humor is often criticism and that’s why it has a target. This can be a person, place, thing or basically anything. We all have some bad feelings towards some things. With humor you can unleash all this hostility towards the target. All good jokes have truth to them. So they have a very honest realism built in. You start off with this truth and then build upon it using exaggeration in order to get your point about it across. You should incorporate your feelings here. Using all this, you need to heighten the emotion in the audience. Your aim is to build up tension. They should be at the edge of their seats waiting for the unexpected resolution. The unexpected resolution is what is the key behind all the laughter. You need surprise in order to have a joke that people laugh at.

A great way to understand these concepts is to look at what comics have done. Notice how they use these elements in order to get people to laugh. We can use one of my favorite clips from comic Chris Rock in order to analyze this. Watch the clip below. Look at who he picks as the target, how he builds up hostility, where the realism is, and where the exaggeration comes in. Examine how he builds emotion with his structure and his words. And then notice how he suddenly brings in the surprise.

In order to better understand surprise, let’s look at another clip from Chris Rock.

From the clip above, also notice how humor has its situational, personal and cultural parts. When you are telling jokes, there is always an audience you are telling them to. In which situation, to which people and in which cultural context would you tell the above joke and in which you wouldn’t tell it? What about other jokes?

So now some homework for you. Go watch some of your favorite comics and try to pick out the above elements in the THREES formula from their routines. Also notice the context they are telling the jokes in and what type of people might find them funny and which won’t.

Then go out and practice on your own!

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