“Laughter is an instant vacation,” said comedian Milton Berle. And let’s face it, we could all use a vacation from the stress of public speaking. But what if we told you that adding some humor to your presentations can actually make them more effective?
According to studies, humor can increase likability, enhance credibility, and improve the retention of information (1). In fact, a survey found that 92% of respondents felt that humor was beneficial in getting their point across (2). And if you need some more convincing, here’s a cool fact: laughter can actually reduce stress and boost your immune system (7). So, not only will your audience enjoy your presentation more, but it could also be good for their health!
This week, I rummaged through my college archives for comedy resources (yes, I kept notebooks and textbooks), and retrieved my notes from a theatre class on comedic plays. The following lists of comic devices are taken from my personal class notes. My hope is that these lists can be a resource for you so you can identify the various comedic conventions in your own life and stories. You’ll know where the joke is and what to emphasize as you tell your stories.
So, pack your bags, grab your sunscreen, and let’s take a trip to the funnier side of public speaking!
WHAT IS COMEDY?
Comedy is an art that has been around for centuries. But what makes something funny?
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”
According to research, comedy evokes laughter and adds levity to even heavy subjects (3). Additionally, topics that center around relationships and socialization are funnier than those about death or isolation (4).
Evokes Laughter – We naturally start to laugh when we see it.
Light Touch – Not forced down the throat. The joke is brushed gently– seemingly natural. Levity is added to even normally heavy subjects.
Marriage and Socialization (rather than Death and Isolation) – Topics are about relationships and interaction with others in the world rather than the absence of life or loneliness. (For example, it’s funnier to watch the introvert go to a grocery store than watch him sit on a couch alone reading.)
Derision– We deride people. (Express contempt for; other words–Mock/ ridicule) We laugh at a character/person because we see them as temporarily beneath us. Example: A Saturday Night Live sketch with a goofy Presidential impression.
Incongruity– Something that doesn’t fit…or mesh together. We laugh because we see things as not fitting together.
Automatism– We laugh in relationship to how much the characters remind us of a machine. Often we see repetition or lack of naturally expected emotion.
There are many comic devices you can use to add humor to your presentation, including:
Mistaken Identity – This is the big meat and potatoes of comedy. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a disguise that’s worn, it can be just a mistake.
Mistaken Incidence (or Cross Purposes) – When (at least) two people think they’re talking about the same thing, but they’re not.
Repetition (predictable) – Something occurring over and over.
Character Eccentricity – When a character is flawed and their own actions seem obsessive and more than necessary. For example, some tragic heroes act more like villains–by making automatically jealous actions before understanding what’s really going on.
Under or Over Reaction – Emotionally responding differently than we thought they should.
Funny Costume – (This often is paired with “mistaken identity”) – Exaggerated, dumb, the derision factor, or incongruity. This is why it’s so funny to see a boy dressed as a girl.
Physical Beatings – If someone is truly in pain, then it’s not funny. But when it’s more about ego. This is seen in chase scenes or when a little old lady hits a burglar with her purse.
Gulling or Tricking – When the pompous are brought beneath us through tricks or taken advantage of (gull).
Exaggeration – Acting “over the top” or like a “deer in headlights” (Like: “What! …Who, me?”)
Inversion – When a character (or person) flip-flops. They go from being smart to being dumb…OR from being in love, to not in love.
Comic Irony – There is a reversal of expectations. In a performance, usually, the audience knows about what is happening and watches a character figure it out. You see this in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when characters that are in love get a spell cast on them…then they like someone else and act like fools. The audience knows why, but most characters in the play are confused and do not know what’s going on.
Caught with Pants Down – (This happens often in a farce) We watch someone wiggle out of a situation. (Like: with their hand in the cookie jar…or when the bathroom door is knocked open and someone literally has their pants down.)
Gags – Things like bits, sticks, having a limp,… etc. You see a lot of this in physical comedy such as in Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies. It’s all about him tripping or someone trying to throw a pie at him and he ducks down but the pie hits an old lady behind him…and then she hits him with her purse.
Deus ex machina (Latin for “God in a machine”) is a narrative device used in storytelling when a problem seems impossible to solve, and the story has reached a dead end without a happy resolution. It involves a “God-like” character with power, such as a superhero or a powerful artificial intelligence, magically appearing to solve the problem. The power figure usually ensures the villain gets what’s coming to them, like being defeated or brought to justice. This device is often used in movies to provide a satisfying conclusion.
For a classic literature example, in the French play Tartuffe by Molière, the titular character is a liar and imposter who poses as a righteous priest to gain money and power from a family. He fools the head of the family and gets out of incriminating situations by lying. In the end, the head of the family is about to be sent to jail, and all his property will go to Tartuffe. However, Deus ex machina comes in to save the day! The police arrive and arrest Tartuffe because the wise King (the God-like figure who was never mentioned before in the play) heard about the problems in the household and knew Tartuffe had a long rap sheet. Magically, all the family’s problems are solved!
For a modern cinematic example, in the Marvel movie Avengers: Endgame, the superheroes are fighting against Thanos, a powerful villain who had previously destroyed half of all life in the universe. The superheroes are losing, and their situation seems hopeless. However, at a crucial moment, a previously dead superhero, Iron Man, uses a powerful technology called the Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and his minions. Iron Man’s sacrifice results in the defeat of the villain and the restoration of all life in the universe. In this way, Deus ex machina is used to provide a satisfying ending to the story.
VERBAL COMIC DEVICES
Verbal comic devices can also be used to enhance humor in your presentations, including:
Sarcasm: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.
Double entendre (double meaning): a word or expression that can be understood in two different ways with one way (usually referring to sex)
Mimicking: imitate (someone or their actions or words), typically in order to entertain or ridicule.
Puns (word play): suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous effect.
False pause: Pausing where you wouldn’t normally; often to mislead someone’s expectations of what you’ll say.
Pointing: Saying something that seems to lead to point to someone or something who’s not being mentioned by name (sometimes misleading)
Throwing Away: Mumbling the end of a sentence; often showing disagreement with their own statement
Word Distortion: Saying something the wrong way on purpose or accidentally–altering it, using a strange pitch, whispering, or drawing a word out oddly.
Repetition: Saying something more than once.
Implementing Comic Devices
Using comic devices can be a great way to engage your audience and keep them interested in your presentation. But how do you implement them effectively? Here are some tips:
Start by choosing a comic device that fits the subject matter of your presentation.
Practice using the device in conversation before incorporating it into your presentation.
Keep in mind that timing is everything when it comes to humor – don’t force it.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to use self-deprecating humor. It shows your audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously and can make you more relatable (6).
Adding some humor to your presentations can do wonders for your audience engagement and retention of information. As we’ve seen from the research, humor is not just beneficial in making your presentations more entertaining, but it can also enhance your credibility and make you more likable. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be liked?
With these comic devices in your toolbox, you’ll be sure to have your audience in stitches in no time. Just remember to choose the right device for the subject matter, practice your timing, and don’t be afraid to be a little self-deprecating.
As the great comedic actor and writer, John Cleese, once said, “Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.” So, go ahead and use humor to connect with your audience and make your presentation a success!
Frymier, A. B., & Houser, M. L. (2000). The role of conversational humor in interpersonal attraction. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 134(2), 169-181. doi: 10.1080/00223980009600866
Hirsch, P. (2015, March 19). Is humor the secret to great leadership? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2015/03/19/is-humor-the-secret-to-great-leadership/
McGraw, A. P., Warren, C., Williams, L. E., & Leonard, K. (2012). Too close for comfort, or too far to care? Finding humor in distant tragedies and close mishaps. Psychological Science, 23(12), 1215-1223. doi: 10.1177/0956797612443831
Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.
Romero, E. J., & Cruthirds, K. W. (2006). The use of humor in the workplace. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20(2), 58-69. doi: 10.5465/AMP.2006.20591006
Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2005). Developing a Typology of Humor in Audiovisual Media. Media Psychology, 7(2), 141-167. doi: 10.1207/s1532785xmep0702_2
Berk, L. S., Tan, S. A., Fry, W. F., Napier, B. J., Lee, J. W., Hubbard, R. W., & Lewis, J. E. (1989). Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 298(6), 390-396. doi: 10.1097/00000441-198912000-00005