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The Serious Side of Humor

Last year, after attending one of his shows, I asked my long-time friend, Steve Mazan, whether he agreed with some of the notions I had been developing about humor.

"Steve," I said. "I have a theory: I think that all humor is either about the truly absurd or the absurdly true."

Steve just looked at me and grinned in his typically mischievous way. "You are absolutely right," he replied.

Steve would know: He is an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer and a top-bill comedian who, among other things, has toured clubs all over the U.S., written for the Ellen DeGeneres Show, been the subject of a feature film, and appeared on Late Night with David Letterman.

Like Steve, I believe that humor is one of the most powerful tools for human influence in existence. And yet, it is rarely, if ever, mentioned in any of the major works on persuasion and effective communication. This is a profoundly enormous oversight and one that becomes readily apparent once you understand how humor functions and what it can accomplish.

For the heart of humor is poignancy, and most humor is based in the simple principle of bringing to light an insightful truth, but in a really odd or highly absurd way. To illustrate, let me share a few examples from some of history’s other great comedians:

From the late, great Mitch Hedberg…

“I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. I don’t need a receipt for a doughnut. I’ll just give you the money, and you just give me the doughnut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I just can’t imagine a scenario where I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut. To some skeptical friend, “Don’t even act like I didn’t get that doughnut! I got the documentation right here…oh, wait, it’s at home…in the file, under ‘D’ for ‘doughnut’”.

Or George Carlin…

“When Thomas Edison worked late into the night on the electric light, he had to do it by gas lamp or candle. I’m sure it made the work that much more urgent.”

“When you step on the brakes, your life is in your foot’s hands.”

Or Lewis Black (also talking about doughnuts)…

“If you stop eating doughnuts, you’ll live three years longer. It’s just three more years that you want a doughnut.”

All laughs aside, you don't need to look hard to see the vein of truth that runs through each of these examples.

Yes, when it comes to comedy, it’s always either the absurdly true, or the truly absurd, that gets a laugh.

So, congratulations! We are done now. You now know everything you need to know to become a great comedian and comedy writer!

Well, kinda, sorta...

There may be more to humor--actually, much more--but for now I'd like you to just zoom in on the idea that humor can be really useful in situations where you want to persuade someone or establish connection with them.

How? Humor tends to accomplish several important objectives simultaneously:

  • It demonstrates confidence and control

  • It demonstrates security and humanity

  • It highlights intelligence and insight

  • It shows how savvy and 'in touch' you are with the world

  • It builds reciprocity, as most people appreciate the gift of laughter

  • It helps establish a sense of commonality and decreases social awkwardness

  • It helps develop rapport

  • Etc.

All of these effects are likely to increase a person's attractiveness. However, more than anything, humor builds an internal state of agreement that breaks tension and lowers defensiveness. A well-placed joke or humorous insight often has the power to open the bolted mind.

From years of teaching advanced communication, I have come to understand that persuasion and influence are first and foremost about eliminating all ‘interpersonal noise’ from our interactions with others. It’s not about foisting one's will upon an unwitting target; rather, it’s about tearing down and getting rid of all the walls that tend to keep people from embracing new and more useful ways of thinking.

So, now you can see there is more to humor than just a good laugh. And now that you understand the essence of humor and how it functions, you possess a powerful tool to break down the barriers that have kept others from coming to agree with you—and that’s no laughing matter.

To find out more, check out other interesting articles at

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