Updated: Sep 9
One night when I was a teenager, I was in a car crammed full of young people my age heading to a social activity. The other kids were tossing topics back and forth between each other loudly. I tried to fit in with them even though I wished I were somewhere else.
I made a comment or two during the drive. The other teenagers continued flinging high-pitched sentences between each other except for one of the girls in the backseat who held up a hand and said, “Wait. Jeff just said something funny and none of you heard it.”
The group quieted somewhat, but soon regained its previous verbal intensity.
My life changed at that moment. The girl didn’t repeat my comment. I didn’t need her to. This was because the miracle had already occurred. I had caught a glimpse of a way through a dense forest. From that time forth, people would have to earn the right to get my jokes: people would have to listen. If they didn’t, they lost out.
I had stumbled upon what is known as “affiliative dry humor.”
Doctors come up with complicated names for everything. Psychologists have their own mysterious words. Try to spell hypochondriasis. Biochemists are masters at it. Say deoxyribonucleic acid quickly three times in a row.
Why can't common folk be allowed to come up with a few words of their own?
Affiliative: “Appealing to the ordinary lives of the listeners,” vs. slapstick, teasing people (put-downs), puns, or pasty jokes like, “Did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the monk?”
Dry humor: A humorous saying or anecdote spoken without exhibiting a change in emotion or facial expression. Dry humor is often presented as a personal story.
There must be some portion of the joke that doesn’t feel nonsensical. For example, sometimes when I'm asked to say something about myself, I may start off with the following without any change in expression:
I am the youngest of three children. My parents are older.
Or if I’m in a particularly snarky mood, I may say,
I was born at a young age.
Comedians make up affiliative dry humor jokes all the time—anecdotes that start off sounding true. For example, one of my comedian heroes, Steven Wright, said,
I got food poisoning today.
I don’t know when I’m going to use it.
The comment is relatable because people do get things, and afterward, they often do wonder when they’re going to use them. This is what makes affiliative dry humor so natural.
When people hear dry humor,
they must decide where the truth ends
and where the joke begins.
Back in 1981, I was in a store in Orlando, Florida, which sold carved, wooden signs bearing slogans. One of the signs said something I’ve never forgotten:
Things are more like they are now
than they ever have been.
I thought the message was funny. But did it have a meaning beyond the joke? I learned later that the quote originally appeared in a real-estate advertisement in an Amarillo, Texas newspaper in 1948. It was later repeated (with slight variation) by U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford.
Yes, dry humor jokes are that well respected.
The joke that waited 12 years to be told
When I was a young child, I used to like drawing things. I apparently used up so much paper in the house that my mom bought me a large chalkboard (the real kind with chalk and felt erasers). I hung it on my bedroom wall. It stayed there heavily used for about twelve years until she took it down after I moved away. That was when she noticed what I had written neatly in chalk on its back side twelve years before:
One year, mom bought us a large assortment of lollypops. Over time, us kids would eat the lollypops and then leave the wrappers laying about the house. Mom would complain to us and say, “Put the wrappers in the trash!”
Instead, I began to hide wrappers around the house. Not under trashcans or pillows where they would be found easily. I put them behind couches, filing cabinets, in air vents, and in the very back of closets. I hid them behind the washing machine and dryer, and even behind the furnace. I’m certain there are still lollypop wrappers somewhere in that house to this day.
I think I was a very patient child.
Advantages of dry humor
Why dry humor over the other forms of mischievous jest? It turns out there are good reasons:
Dry humor takes listeners by surprise.
Dry humor jokes (the verbal kind) tend to be short.
The substance of the joke is what matters, not the delivery.
Everyone gets to avoid the uncomfortable and disruptive announcement, “Hey, everyone, I’m going to tell a joke.” Dry humor is like taking candid photos. People don’t know they're happening until after the shutter clicks.
The humorous phrase or anecdote is delivered seamlessly and organically within normal conversation. Those who aren’t paying attention must then perk up, saying, “Wait, what did I miss?”
But the greatest benefit of dry humor is you get to skip the awkward, unnatural machinations of ordinary joke-telling. Can you imagine trying to be funny while administering the following three steps after getting everyone’s attention:
Provide the setup of the joke.
Include an incongruity in the multiple interpretations of the setup.
Cause your listeners to resolve the incongruity by their inhibiting the literal, non-funny interpretations, and choosing the meaning of the funny one.
Good luck with that!
How to develop a dry sense of humor
The first thing you must ask yourself is, “Do I want a dry sense of humor?” Maybe you already have other wonderful talents. Just because you’re not going around cracking jokes doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Well, mostly.
Assuming being witty is want you want, then the art of being funny is like learning to ride a bicycle. You fall over a hundred times until one day it works and you don’t know why. Or it’s like learning calculus. You’re screaming in agony until the moment when you say, “Oh. Anyone can do this.”
I tried coming up with examples of dry humor to demonstrate how it’s done. But everything I found seemed to feel flat. This is because dry humor happens in the moment. It doesn’t work as well when repeated later. But I did manage to find the following three items:
Humor in the book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.”
British humor is often dry humor, such as Monty Python’s famous skit about an argument.
Anything from the TV series “The Office” (which originated as a British TV show).
Here are some steps to help you on your way toward developing unassuming, natural humor that comes out at the right moment to help reduce people’s stress:
Be aware of everything around you. I was at a social gathering last weekend. The host divided everyone into four groups and then had us play several games. For one of the games, the host explained that he would play recordings of upbeat, exuberant pop music. Anyone who tapped his or her feet, sang along, or made any movement with the music would cause the group to lose the game. I said, “Oh, you want us to be oblivious? I can do that.” Everyone laughed. After my group won the game, I said, “It’s because we’re so detached.” One woman in the group moaned and said, “That’s not true.” This caused greater laughter.
Babies and cats are funny. Their humor is exaggerated, relatable, and natural. And they don’t laugh at their own jokes. Such is the essence of dry humor.
Watch this video at least eight times closely until you get it: Three Principles of Joke-telling.
Regarding specificity (see video from previous bullet), this week my wife has been babysitting the 18-month-old girl next door because the girl’s mother has been in the hospital due to complications of childbirth of their new son. When my wife came home for dinner today, she said, “I’m going to have to be more prepared for when I’m a grandmother.” I said to her,
“You can’t prepare for grandkids.
One comes in through the front door
holding a severed head on a platter.
There’s no preparing for that!”
Practice, practice, practice. Try your budding skills on strangers. If the joke falls flat, then just walk away.
Sometimes when standing up and leading a group of people I haven’t been with for a while, I might say, “I see some strange faces with us today. And I see some new ones.”
When we go to a restaurant where people are waiting to be seated, and the host or hostess asks us for a name, I may say, “Steve,” even though that’s not my name. Or I may give the name of someone else in our party. This makes the person who I named smile. Or I may tell the poor name-writer, “Straflustratrompski.” After I receive a look of terror I say, “Jeff.”
When we leave a crowded restaurant, I’ll sometimes say to strangers who are waiting to be seated, “We cleared a table for you.” Without exception, they’ll say with an enthusiastic smile, “We really appreciate that.”
We used to frequent a restaurant named CiCi’s Pizza. One day, the cashier lady was wearing a blue hat with the Chicago Cubs logo on it—a single letter “C.” I said to her, “Your hat lost one of its C’s.” She put both hands on her head and began looking distraught. She turned left and right quickly and said, “Oh, no, no! No!” She was as skilled as I.
Never appear too eager to tell a joke. Dry humor is a delicate seasoning. Use it sparingly.
Time your statements to when they’re least expected. Throw out your line and move on.
Never laugh at your own joke and never explain it.
Dry humor is never disrespectful.
We live in a highly anxious world. If you want to give the people around you some relief, then learning to be bit funny is a noble quest. And laughter is healthy. In case you have any doubt about this, check out the following physiological facts:
Reduces buildup of cholesterol
Increases function of blood vessels
Reduces anxiety, and is naturally motivating
Improves learning by capturing and holding attention
Decreases levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and catecholamine
Increases activation of the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward systems
Increases muscle activity, lung function, and the removal of pulmonary secretions
Improves psychological and physiological processes, including the production of antibodies and endorphins
I’m confident you’ll catch on if that's your wish. You may not become famous, but when you walk into a room, everyone will be glad Steve came by. If that's your name. Or is it Straflustratrompski?