Humour, Seriously
by Jennifer Aaker & Naomi Bagdonas

  • Personal Development
  • Ashto = 7/10
  • Jonesy = 6/10
humour seriously

In Humour Seriously, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas blend the behavioural science of humour with principles of comedy and teaches us how to make a successful application of humour in business and work.

Both Jennifer and Naomi are the creators and teachers of a course called ‘Humour: Serious Business’ at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. They teach some of the world’s most ambitious, smart, and caffeine-addled business minds how to use levity to transform their businesses and lives.

They wanted to find out why people don’t use humour more, so they surveyed thousands of business people across a wide range of ages and industries about what holds them back from using humour at work.


The 4 Deadly Humour Myths


Myth #1 = The ‘Serious Business’ Myth

A large portion of survey respondents reported that humour simply has no place in ‘serious work’. Early in our careers, this myth often stems from insecurity about our lack of experience. We think that we don’t know enough about what we’re talking about, so we play it safe and stay serious. (This is of course before you’ve spent long enough in the workforce to realise that NO-ONE really knows anything … ).

Yet according to another survey of executive leaders, the Robert Half Institute found that 98% of people preferred a colleague with a sense of humour and that 84% of people believed that those with a sense of humour perform better at work. So while we’re worried that humour may harm our reputation, the truth is it would actually help our reputation. Humour is looked on positively by leaders in the business, and our peers also rate us with more leadership qualities if we show a sense of humour.


Myth #2 = The ‘Failure’ Myth

We think everyone has felt this one; the deep, paralysing fear that their humour will fall flat. We’re all terrified of that awkward silence following a joke that doesn’t land or the worry that you may have unintentionally offended or upset someone with your gag. Getting a laugh doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘win’ and silence doesn’t always mean a ‘failure’. A series of experiments was run at Wharton and Harvard, exploring humour’s impact on perceptions of status, competence, and confidence (as well as failed humour’s impacts on these too). It turned out that the most important factor was not whether it got a laugh or not, but actually if the joke was perceived as appropriate. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the joke you make is funny or not. As long as your joke is appropriate, you will be perceived more positively in the eyes of others.


Myth #3 = ‘The Being Funny’ Myth

This is the feeling that in order to use humour and levity in the workplace, you have to ‘be funny’. It seems logical to think that having humour in the workplace means you need the sharp wit and killer timing of Chris Rock or Dave Chapelle. But what’s actually more important than being funny is signalling that you have a sense of humour. The former means being the centre of attention, making the gags and getting the laughs, but the latter means playing a long game and being a part of the humour team. The second option is obviously a lot more achievable but no less important. It relieves you from the pressure of being the core instigator of jokes and allows you to add levity in a more natural way.


Myth #4 = The ‘Born With It’ Myth

Humour is one of those things that is seen as something you’re born with or you’re not. It is seen as an innate ability, rather than as a learnable skill. To solve this, we simply need to adopt the growth mindset and realise that no one is naturally funny. Those who are seen as funny are the ones who have practised and taken risks to step outside their comfort zone to develop their abilities.

5 years ago, When Jennifer was first learning comedy through stand up and improv courses, she asked her family, ‘Who is the funniest in our family?’ There was an awkward silence, and her daughter said, ‘Well, dad is the funniest in our family! Then cooper, then Dev, then me, then our dog Mackey is the next funniest … Then after that is you.’ Five years later, Jennifer is co-authoring a book about humour.

If she can surpass her dog in humour levels, it’s anecdotal proof that humour is a learnable skill and that you can improve your skills too, even if you feel like you’re not born with the funny gene.


The Anatomy Of Humour (How You Can Create More Humour)


PART 1 – Finding the Joke

A common misconception is that humour involves inventing something out of thin air. In reality, humour more often comes simply from noticing the oddities and absurdities in the world around you and identifying them in an unexpected manner.

Principle #1 = At The Heart Of Humour Is Truth

The truth lies at the heart of all humour. Viewers laugh at the people and the scenarios because of shared recognition. we’ve all been lost in a car park, desperately looking for our car; we’ve all been waiting at a busy restaurant starving and waiting to be taken to our table; we’ve all slept on a dodgy fold out couch. Shared truths create the foundation for humour. So instead of trying to find what’s funny, start by looking for what’s true, because that’s where you’ll find the best humour.

Principle #2 = All Humour Contains Surprise And Misdirection

Laughter often springs from the unexpected. Scientists call this the ‘Incongruity-Resolution Theory’, which is a really un-funny way of saying that humour comes from the difference between what we expect to happen and what actually happens.

For example, when the setup of the joke leads in One Direction and the punch line unexpectedly pivots to the Backstreet Boys, we experience incongruity. See what we did there? By setting up saying ‘One Direction’, you would expect us to say ‘another direction’ or ‘a different direction’. But instead, we pivoted from Jonesy’s favourite 2000s boy band to his favourite ’90s boy band.

Plenty of humour falls flat not for the lack of a clever idea, but for lack of misdirection. Either the expectation isn’t adequately established, or the punch line doesn’t adequately defy it.


PART 2 – Forming the Joke

Once you’ve found something true but odd, you can start to develop it into something a little funny. Most jokes have some form of set-up + punchline. The set-up is the observation of truth, and the punch line flips expectations and causes some misdirectionsurprising the audience and making them giggle. Sometimes the observation alone is enough for a laugh, but often we need to massage them a little to get them to the point of being laugh-worthy.

Here are some things you can do to nail the build-up and the punchline:


Take something that is true, but extrapolate it to the extreme. For example, saying ‘I feel like a quarter of my day is just sending people updates or asking them for updates’ is nowhere near as funny as if you exaggerate it to 97%. 97% is a lot funnier than 90 or 100 because it’s an oddly specific number like you’ve actually calculated it).

Create Contrast

By heightening the differences and juxtapositions, you’re taking the odd truth you noticed and making it even funnier. For example, Seth Meyers’ gag went: ‘The New England Patriots have become the first team in the NFL to buy their own plane to fly to games, meanwhile, Cleveland Browns have been downgraded to the luggage compartment on Spirit Airlines.’ The first part of the story was true, but it wasn’t very funny on its own. By creating an exaggerated juxtaposition (pitting the most successful franchise against the least and adding hyperbole), a plain news story becomes a cheesy gag.

Use Specifics

If you can drill down to something super specific, it can become funnier than something general. Jimmy Fallon had a gag: ‘British researchers are warning that one-fifth of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction. Even worse, KALE is expected to survive.’ If he had said ‘vegetables’ are expected to survive, it wouldn’t have been very funny. But by making it ultra-specific on the whipping boy of vegetables, it becomes a lot funnier.

Follow The Rule Of Three

Aside from all of these, we’ve got the big daddy of all comedic weapons: The Rule of Three.
The first example sets it up, the second example confirms the pattern and sends their brains down a specific path, then you throw in something completely unexpected. It will seem like the perfect setup for a punchline. For example, take Laura Kightlinger’s joke: ‘I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead.’


PART 3 – Delivering the Joke

Now that we’ve identified something true and used techniques to build it into something funny, we have to deliver it in a way that can get a little chuckle, or at least lighten the energy in the room. 10% of the gag has been done in the crafting, but 90% of the value comes from the delivery. You can tell a killer joke in a boring way that falls flat, or you can tell a shit joke with passion and at least get a sympathy chuckle. Here are some tips for a strong delivery:

Pause before the punchline

Draw people in and build a little suspense, rather than just rushing through it to no reception.

Dial up the drama

Heighten the motion by varying the tone, pitch, inflection, and pacing of your delivery. Repeat funny lines!

Land with confidence

The quickest way to not get a laugh is to be timid. You have to deliver confidence in order for the gag to work.

Use Callbacks

This is a very easy thing to do! It means you don’t need to create a gag all for yourself, you just need to notice something funny and mention it again! Callbacks give you a lot of bang for your buck by densely packing a wealth of meaning and context into a relatively small container.



Humourboth in life and workbegins with the subtlest of mindset shifts. You don’t need to become a world-famous comedian with killer stand up skills to be able to inject a little humour into your workplace. Simply look closely for the sparks of levity in the nooks and crannies of your everyday experience. When you see these small sparks, give them oxygen, fan them into flames, play along, and build on them. By helping them spread and multiply, you’ll be warming and adding light to everyone around you, even in the darkest moments (especially in the darkest moments).

If anything, humour can actually help you become more productive and effective. Humour at work can deepen relationships, make people feel more joyful at work, and fundamentally transform companies from being too serious to something more enjoyable.

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