To be funny, you don’t have to intentionally try. You can use vivid and outlandish imagery to describe what you see and make analogies.
You’re reading this book in English, and in the English language, there are words that are superior to others for comic effect. You could say that someone is “funny,” but you could also say that they “made your cheeks ache from laughing.”
We use lazy, uninspired language on a daily basis, and part of being funnier is to slowly replace those common terms and phrases with more flavorful ones. You could call someone “stupid,” but you could also call them a “buffoon” or “nincompoop”—objectively rarer and sillier words, and less directly insulting than “stupid.”
Other examples of words that are inherently funny, or at least unusual, are:
• Lake Titicaca (a real lake)
Not that you should be using those words specifically, but there is definitely a range of more creative words you can add to your everyday language. The first step here is to realize that we naturally speak in a boring and overly sanitized manner. Alternatives like the ones listed don’t just sound funnier, they fill our minds with funny images and thoughts of berries, lakes, etc., that are completely unrelated to the context the word is being used in.
Our vocabulary and daily sense of imagery is sorely lacking, and we need to fix that to become more interesting and funny without visible effort. Remember in your English (or SAT) classes when you learned new vocabulary words—the ones with four or five syllables?
You’d pepper them into your vocabulary subtly to make yourself sound intelligent and erudite. See? I just did it myself.
If you commit to replacing parts of your vocabulary, and thinking for a split second more when you describe things, these small changes can make a big difference as to how you are perceived. Someone who “dances funny” is barely a blip on our screen, but someone who “dances like a gorilla cooking an omelet” catches our attention immediately.
The first step is to destroy normal adjectives from your vocabulary and replace them with something that you have to think about. Other people often will not have actively thought about your examples, and the result will be unexpected.
If you wanted to say that your weekend was “good,” what might be better and more descriptive ways of doing that?
Good -> imaginative -> splendid -> like a big Bloody Mary -> better than using the bathroom after a long car ride -> almost as good as Christmas morning.
If you wanted to say that you love coffee, what might be a better and more descriptive way of doing that?
I love coffee -> it is my lifeblood -> I’m dead without it -> my blood is fifty percent caffeine -> I would bathe in it if I could -> I drink so much my urine looks like coffee too.
See the difference?
It’s not difficult, but it’s not easy to come up with on the fly, either. This is a mindset you have to proactively cultivate. Whenever you come across a normal adjective, think of what other synonyms you might use in giving people descriptive answers.
When you use better words and phrases, you’ll make people react to them because you are saying much more than just the words and phrases themselves. If you struggle to come up with good alternatives, you can always fall back on using analogies. Like in the first example involving “good,” you can use “as good as…,” ideally with a comparison that invokes common imagery.
As another example, if you had to think of an alternative for “bad,” you could use “as bad as the seventh circle of hell.”
Another way to inject vivid and outlandish imagery into your daily speaking is to simply choose to describe observations, actions, and objects in an unconventional and creative way.
For example, comedienne Amy Schumer has a great example of this when she describes her sleeping positions. She could describe how she sleeps as “messy” or “weird.” She could even go another level up and say she sleeps like an “unsalted pretzel.”
The unsalted pretzel gives you a mental image, but she does even better.
She describes her sleeping position to be “as if she fell from the top of a building” or “in the shape of a swastika.”
There’s your instant mental image, which now has the added intelligent humor of combining two very different concepts (sleep and swastika, sleep and falling off of a building).
Another example of this is from PJ O'Rourke, who described his experiences with local military in the Philippines, involving contact with a small policeman who amazed him.
He described the policeman as very intimidating and scary, but also very petite. His exact phrasing was, "He looked like an attack hamster."
Even if you're not trying to be funny, just the way you come up with analogies on contrast and compare different concepts can make for really amusing descriptions.
How do you master the art of humorous descriptions?
The first step is to attempt to disassociate from the meaning of what you see, and just focus on the elements and traits of what’s in front of you.
For example, in the case of PJ O'Rourke, you would disassociate that you were looking at a police officer, and focus on the elements and traits of the police officer.
He was small, petite, scary, intimidating, powerful, fierce, authoritative, serious, severe, and elfin.
What are two distinct concepts that would fit the descriptions above?
O’Rourke identified a small animal, a hamster, and also played on the fact that this person had a strong physical and military capability who can attack. When you put those two concepts together you may come up with the funny image of an attack hamster.
This type of humor really stretches your imagination and creativity. You're forced to brainstorm what the basic elements are related to, and what they resemble on a physical level. These weird combinations create funny images like Amy Schumer's description of sleeping.
Another example is when a character in the Avengers: Endgame movie told the flabbier-than-before Thor, “You look like melted ice cream.” The mental imagery such choice of words evokes is instantly striking and funny, and it derives much of its humor from the easily recognizable resemblance of “melted ice cream” with Thor’s silhouette. It’s worth noting that you may want to be careful about using this technique to comment on people’s weight in casual conversations, of course. Keep in mind that sensitivity as to what would come across as insulting more than amusing still holds prime importance in social situations.
How might using imagery be applied in your daily conversations? Say somebody asked how you are after a particularly punishing trekking experience. You may go with the usual “I’m so tired,” or you may spruce up your response by instead saying, “My feet are lumps of custard and my knees feel like unoiled, creaky door hinges.” If you want to tell someone “It was so hot yesterday,” you could instead opt for the more stimulating line, “Yesterday, the Earth moved to take Mercury’s place beside the sun.” The vivid images these statements create in your listener’s mind will surely keep humdrum chats at bay.
Another great benefit about this particular approach to humor is that it necessarily increases your vocabulary. It also exercises your creative thinking in coming up with weird analogies and weird connections on the fly. Compare this with simply saying the same words over and over again like "good" and "bad," which leaves you coming off as an unimaginative and fairly dull.
The final way, and a more hit-or-miss way, to use better imagery is to use popular culture references to replace adjectives. The more widely known the reference is, the better the joke.
However, some people will completely miss the reference and not know what you’re talking about. That’s why this can be hit-or-miss.
This is very simple. Let’s pick a well-known reference to use: the corruption of the Olympic Games. It’s not something that people know details about, but it’s something that people generally know exists. See—it’s tough.
What traits would you assign to this reference? Corruption, unfairness, inequality, deviousness, sneakiness, and so on.
You can use the traits of the reference to describe things, such as “That cashier gave me a one-dollar bill back instead of a ten-dollar bill. Does he work for the Olympics or something?”
You’re replacing the word “corrupt” with a popular culture reference—a much more descriptive, timely, and vivid way of speaking.
Let’s use another well-known reference: the television show Game of Thrones.
Use the traits of the television show to describe something—in this example, “addicting”: “This octopus pie is almost as addicting as watching Game of Thrones. It’s amazing.”
The key is to get people to visualize the references and laugh from the disconnect.
With that said, make sure the references you use are appropriate. It pays to devote some attention to the ages and contexts of the people you're speaking to. For example, a third extremely common pop culture reference that is often used humorously is “that’s what she said!” from The Office. Though it’s a great way to make sexual puns out of random statements among friends, a more formal setting might make it appear distasteful.
You may also use references to describe people in your social circle in a more interesting way. Rather than saying that your little nephew is resourceful, you might instead say, “The way he puts together his own toys will put MacGyver to shame!” Of course, note that anyone born later than the ’90s might not get this reference so well. This is where your insight on generational differences comes in—try to match your references with the age of the person you’re talking with. That way, you heighten the chances that your reference will be a hit rather than a miss.
It only takes a little bit of effort to begin replacing the words and phrases in your vocabulary to sound like a completely new person. Unfortunately, we only get one chance to make first impressions on people, so make them count! If you watch any relatively popular movies or TV shows, you can also use references from them since there is a greater likelihood that someone else would’ve heard of it. With some luck, not only will you come across as funny, but if the other person is a fellow fan, you’ll also have something to bond over.