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The Fundamentals of Funny

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The following is an excerpt from Persuasion Equation: The Subtle Science of Getting Your Way.

The use of humor can denote an individual’s emotions, intelligence, sensitivities, communications skills and maturity. It’s an anodyne for improving relationships and, thus, the potential for persuasion. Plus, when you display a great sense of humor it shows many positive facets of your personality.

When you’re funny, you have:

1. Intelligence 

Comedians are bright people. If you disregard the minority of stand-ups who use mindless obscenity in every sentence, you’ll find that most comics reveal the core of the human condition and how it relates to politics, sports, health, business and just about every other aspect of life.

Take The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who builds a fake news broadcast by satirizing the real events of the day. His overwhelming success with that kind of humor didn’t happen by accident; Stewart is one of the smartest, most well-read and provocative comedians working today — which gives him an edge when influencing viewers to agree with his stance on issues ranging from war to equality. In fact, maybe the United States would be better off if he ran for national office instead of the politicians he pokes at on his show.

2. Positivity 

Humor generally has an underlying optimism. The subject might be crisis or foolishness, but there’s hope at the other end because enough of us still exist to recognize and appreciate the irony. Think about it: The majority of humor derives from pain, mistakes and unfortunate incidents. Comic expression is the attempt to alleviate that pain, embarrassment or misfortune.

Decades back, Jewish comedians such as Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers and Milton Berle encouraged their audiences at summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains to laugh at the prejudice they encountered in mainstream society. Great African-American comics like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock helped audiences feel comfortable cackling at the ridiculousness of racism. Female humorists have taken on sexism.

Virtually no aspect of society is left untouched. Look to comics to express and expunge the pain of parenting (Jim Gaffigan), job loss (Louis C.K.), obesity (Ricky Gervais) and everyday life (Jerry Seinfeld).

3. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate what someone else is experiencing because you’ve experienced it yourself. (As opposed to “sympathy,” which is simply acknowledging another person’s hardships and feeling pity or sorrow for them.) Humor brings people together to laugh at common foibles and groan over common miseries.

Empathic people are among the most likeable you’ll find. An audience laughing in unison at a humorous story comprises individuals who recognize their close proximity to others in the room.

4. Perspicacity

When you can make a witty observation about the complexities of your company’s gaining market share in Latin American it shows you have keen insight and understanding of the nuanced challenges of the situation.

Churchill once described Soviet Union foreign policy as “a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma . . .” Not a knee-slapper, but certainly good for a chortle. As a matter of fact, I have shameless borrowed this line on many occasions to the same result. You should, too.

5. Creativity 

As mentioned above, humor is an indication of high intelligence, and high intelligence drives creativity. Finding the right degree of irony, satire, self-disclosure and nuance is not easy, and you don’t want humor to become irrational pounding, or irony to become bias.

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