How to tell funny jokes in a speech – tutorial

In honor of this year’s wedding season I have been sharing some ideas for wedding speeches here on HTWB, and part of many wedding speeches – especially that of the best man – depends on the use of funny jokes and general humor.

How to tell funny jokes in a speech - tutorial

Women CAN tell funny jokes without being unfeminine or inelegant.

But humor isn’t just for wedding speeches: used correctly it is a superb tool even in the most formal and serious of speeches, because it breaks the ice and allows the audience to relax into your material.

For a list of ALL our articles on wedding speeches for everyone from groom to granny, click here

As you know, however, many speeches of all types have been ruined by funny jokes that didn’t work, for one reason or another. That’s why humor is something to be approached with caution, although as I say, used wisely it works superbly well.

If you’re not a naturally “funny” person you won’t suddenly transform yourself into one just because you’re standing up in front of a group of people. If anything that tends to make you less, not more funny. So whatever happens don’t be persuaded to tell a few jokes if that’s something you would never dream of doing informally at a social gathering.

However, there are many ways in which you can use humor effectively even if you are not a natural comedian.

Women CAN tell funny jokes without being unfeminine

I don’t want you to think of me as a tedious old trout. But I have to say I can understand how some people, especially older ones, might be offended to hear a woman tell bawdy, blue jokes in a speech. That’s probably best left to a male speaker if there is one – not because it’s a masculine privilege, but because it’s boring to all but the few drunken “good ol’ boys” at the back of the room.

However as you can imagine there is a vast difference between that, and being amusing. In some ways I think women speech makers have an easier job of making audiences laugh, because they can get a laugh on a much more subtle level than men can – especially from the other women in the audience. We girls do not need four-letter words or side-slapping hysterics; just a smile and a few choice words and people (well, mainly female audiences, anyway) get even the most subtle funny nuance.

How to tell funny jokes in a speech - tutorial

It’s important to get people laughing with you, not at you. And the late Boris Yeltsin, here, tended towards the latter – especially after a few snifters. Moral: don’t drink alcohol before you give a speech, funny jokes or not.

Anyway you look at it humor, correctly used by women or men, is one of the most powerful communication tools we have at our disposal. Incorrectly used, as I intimated above, it can be a recipe for disaster. But how you use humor for speech depends simply – like it does in pretty well all other circumstances – on your using your common sense.

That’s how you can get everyone laughing with you, not at you, and avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

So what techniques can we use to harness humor effectively?

Understand your audience

That’s something we speechwriters promote very hard in the context of all types of speeches – social, political, business, motivational, educational, etc. And the more intimate your audience is, the more important it is to understand them very well if you’re going to make a connection with them, never mind make them laugh.

If the people in your audience all have a keen sense of humor you won’t need to be quite so careful, but it’s still easy to upset a few people unwittingly. Let’s see, then, how we can minimize the risks while making everyone smile. 

First of all, use funny jokes about situations, not people

If you think about it, the butt of many jokes and other humor is a person or group of people, so it’s hardly surprising that offence is caused. The more extreme types are obvious – mother-in-law jokes, blonde jokes, women jokes, men jokes, gay jokes  – but there are many more subtle ones, too.

Then there are the nationality gags. I remember in one year hearing exactly the same joke (in three different languages) told by an American about the Polish, by a Canadian about Newfoundlanders, by a French person about Belgians, by a French-speaking Belgian about the Flemish, and by a Flemish person about the Dutch. But I digress.

Obviously most humor is going to involve people in one way or another. However as long as the butt of the joke is a situation or set of circumstances, not the people, you’re far less likely to upset anyone. And there is an added advantage here.

Nearly everyone usually can identify with a situation

Take this one for example…

Some people are driving along at night and are stopped by a police car. The officer goes to the driver and warns him that one of the rear lights on his vehicle isn’t working. The driver jumps out and looks terribly upset. The officer reassures him that he won’t get a ticket, it’s just a warning, so there’s no problem. “Oh yes there is a problem,” says the man as he rushes towards the back of the car. “if you could see my rear lights it means I’ve lost my trailer.”

As the butt of the funny joke is the broken rear light and the loss of the trailer, not the policeman or the driver, no-one can be offended. And most people can identify with how that would feel.

A play on the words: not always a wise choice

Another other key issue with humor is wordplays, puns, and anything else that’s based on figurative speech, slang, or jargon. The short answer is they don’t always work – especially if you have other-language speakers at the wedding. However if the play or double entendre is in the concept rather than the words, it probably will work.

These may be funny to us, but would not be understood by anyone who is not a good English speaker (or who is older or otherwise less likely to be up to speed about current affairs, etc.) because there is a play on the words:

* Déjà moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bull before.

* The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

The following, however, probably would be understood because the humor is in the concept, not in the words themselves:

* You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.

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Self-deprecating humour

Many cultures – especially British – appreciate speech makers who use humor “against” themselves. That’s safe, at least, because you don’t risk hurting anyone else’s feelings, and it can be very funny.

Let’s look at two different ways to tell this story during a speech by a bride, thanking her father for his opening address. Her father has been bald since he was in his twenties, by the way…

“I remember when I was little I asked Mom why Dad had so few hairs on his head. She said, “because your Dad thinks a lot. You know what they say … grass doesn’t grow on a busy road.” “Oh,” I said, “why have you got so much hair then, Mom?”

“I remember when I was little I asked Mom why Dad had so few hairs on his head. She said, “because your Dad thinks a lot. You know what they say … grass doesn’t grow on a busy road.” “Oh,” I said, “why have I got so much hair then, Mom?”

How to tell funny jokes in a speech - tutorial

A couple of gags “against” yourself, especially at the beginning of your speech, will help to lighten everything up and make the audience relax.

The gag is essentially the same in both versions, only in the second you have turned it against yourself – not your Mom. A safer alternative, unless Mom can take a joke…

Self-deprecating humor is very effective provided that it does not start to verge on the paranoid. A couple of gags “against” yourself, especially at the beginning of your speech, will possibly help to lighten everything up and get the audience chuckling. However you do not
want it to turn into a catalog of misfortunes. So stay positive!

How to tell personalized jokes

Over the years I have collected a database of thousands of jokes which I use to “switch” for clients’ speeches, presentations, cabarets and business theater. The technique works for any kind of speech, though. Basically what you do is take the hub or kernel of a joke and build up the surrounding story in line with your subject matter. For example:

The food in this hotel is disgusting. What could I do about it?
You’d better bring it up at the New Guests’ Welcome Meeting.

(As chief bridesmaid) Some of you here will remember that Cassie’s “hen” night was quite an occasion … in fact my memories of it aren’t all that clear after about the seventh glass of champagne, but still! One thing I do remember though was that breakfast the next morning was awful … greasy, cold scrambled eggs and undercooked sausages. I remember poor Cassie complaining about it and I told her not to worry, we would all bring it up as soon as I could find the manager.

One day my housework-challenged husband decided to wash his sweatshirt. Seconds after he stepped into the laundry room, he shouted to me, “What setting do I use on the washing machine?”
“It depends,” I replied. “What does it say on your shirt?”
He yelled back, “University of Oklahoma.”

(As mother of the bridegroom) I don’t want to worry you today of all days, Sheila, but I think I should warn you that Brian’s idea of being domestic isn’t quite what ours is. I remember not that long ago when he was at our house he decided to wash his favorite shirt so he took it into the kitchen and put it in the machine. Then he shouted to me, “what program should I put it on, Mum?”
“Well it depends,” I said. “What does it say on your shirt?”
There was a pause for a couple of seconds and then he shouted back, “Grantham United F. C.”

Using external sources of jokes and funny lines and then personalizing them has the great advantage of offering you a huge choice of material. In the meantime though, what about internal humor?

“In-jokes” – the pros and the cons

“In-jokes” are jokes which are hilariously funny to a group of people who know each other very well, but are unlikely to raise more than a smile – if that – from an outsider. Correctly used, in-jokes are extremely effective.

They work particularly well for company events where the speaker can send up the boss’s golf handicap or the finance director’s bonsai trees or anything else that’s commonly gossiped about by the water cooler in the office.

How to tell funny jokes in a speech - tutorial

Correctly used, in-jokes are extremely effective.

Here’s an example of how in-jokes work in a business context. As expected, these aren’t very funny if you don’t know the circumstances and people involved. But because everyone in this audience knew the characters referred to very well, the seemingly mild gags brought the house down. The occasion here, was a business conference for a large UK telecommunications corporation.

Flight attendant 1:  Good morning/afternoon ladies and gentlemen.  On behalf of Captain XXX and his crew we’d like to welcome you aboard this British Teleways flight 2002 to ICT Solution Sales Training … our fantastic new destination channel that’s going to be a REAL winner with all our passengers next year. As this is our maiden flight to the new destination you’ll be pleased to hear that our inflight entertainment today is all live and all performed by female flight attendants.

Flight attendant 2:  It’s for this reason that the two Senior Captains who should have been travelling with us today were especially disappointed not to be on the flight after all. They of course are Captain Peter YYY who reluctantly decided to take himself by sea … and Captain Phil ZZZ who is flying at 30,000 feet anyway, now that Wolverhampton Wanderers have finally got to the top of the 1st Division.

(Peter YYY was a devoted sailor, and Phil ZZZ was a keen Wolverhamption Wanderers team football/soccer fan.)

Now let’s take a look at how the in-jokes concept can work for a social occasion. The following are excerpts from speeches I wrote for a bar mitzvah. The first is by the bar mitzvah boy’s 16 year-old brother, and the second by the (13 year-old) bar mitzvah boy himself. I spent about a week on and off with this family getting to know their personalities and in-jokes and it paid off. They and their 350 guests thought the speeches were fantastic. Mind you they all knew the boys and their personalities really well. Just for fun, see how much you can gather about their personalities from the in-jokes I’ve used for them…

OLDER BROTHER: Good evening. I’d like to spend the next few minutes talking to you about XXX.

It started way back when he appeared as a cute little baby. Apart from our parents that’s the only thing we’ve ever had in common.

But we’re so different, I think my parents probably brought him home from a maternity clinic on another planet.

Take food, for example. Whereas I’m a bit picky and enjoy the finer culinary delights … with XXX, you could serve him a plate of roasted football boots and he’d eat it. As long there was lots of it and plenty of ketchup. And of course, he doesn’t share. He hoards food like it’s going out of fashion. I like to make my Mum her favourite snack when she’s up in the office working late. XXX might think of doing that but he’d eat it himself on the way upstairs.

Now … clothes. Everybody jokes about the fact I like Gucci and Prada, but after all, I AM the son of a fashion-conscious family. But the closest XXX’s ever come to being label conscious, is knowing the difference between Arsenal home and away shirts. And that’s when he’s going somewhere special. The rest of the time he’s so badly dressed even the dog won’t be seen out with him.

Being tidy is another thing. OK, I admit it. I’m not tidy. Well, I’m the creative type. But XXX’s so obsessed with neatness and regularity, he’d drive an accountant to distraction. He even makes his bed in the morning half asleep as the alarm’s going off, before he’s even finished getting out it.

Then, there’s preparations. I tend to make mine for things at the last minute, when it’s all fresh in my mind. But even when he’s just getting ready for school, XXX’s got to have everything laid out like it was morning drill in an Army boot camp. Sometimes I wonder why he even bothers to go to bed. If he didn’t he could then use the whole night to get ready for school.

Sport is another thing. My idea of good sport is something with a bit of class, you know, backgammon or chess. But XXX’s out there every weekend running after a ball in six inches of mud. At least that David Beckham manages to dress reasonably well. That’s amazing considering he’s depriving some village of an idiot. Perhaps that’s why he plays for LA Galaxy….

And now for the Bar Mitzvah boy …

YOUNGER BROTHER (BARMITZVAH BOY): …. YYY is pretty strong as well. But I’m getting stronger and can deck him in a double armlock any time I like. I know he complains that I don’t share with him. I don’t understand it. I’ve offered to share a lot of my things with him but he’s not interested. Not my hoards of chocolate biscuits, Westlife CDs, dirty football kit, nothing.

It’s all very well for him to laugh at me taking plenty of time to get ready for school. But I think that’s a lot better than his way … being shouted at 8 times to make his bed … and leaving everything so late he’s running out to the car still trying to do up his trousers.

And as for all this fashion stuff … well, YYY, I know David Beckham wears lots of Gucci and Prada.  (SARCASTICALLY) And that says a lot for Beckham’s brain power, doesn’t it?

Anyway if YYY was going to play any games at all, they’d be with Mrs Beckham, wouldn’t they!

Well, maybe YYY and I did come from different planets. On the other hand, we orbit around the same thing – our family.

Okay, we’re really different, but we’re both loyal players on the ZZZ team. Actually I couldn’t wish for a better brother. Nobody else could argue so well….

Where to find jokes to tell, adapt and personalize

It’s not really possible to copyright jokes; someone once said there are only six basic jokes in the English language and all the others are adaptations or developments of those original themes. So if you want a good supply of jokes to use in your speech, just turn to dear old Grandpa Google.

Given that Search on Google is much more intuitive these days, simply ask it a question and you should get some pretty relevant answers in the first page or two of results. Try to make your search as specific as possible so you don’t waste time scrolling through hundreds of useless responses. This means that before you start searching for jokes you need to have decided where in your speech structure they should go, and what/who they will be about.

Here are some examples:

… I just Googled “jokes about weddings” and got 11.8 million results.

“Jokes about cars breaking down” got 10.5 million results.

“Jokes about golf handicaps” got 43,900 results.

“Funny jokes about sushi” got 748,000 results.

“Funny grandchildren jokes” got 708,000 results.

How to tell funny jokes in a speech - tutorial

Google prefers “funny jokes” to “jokes,” so remember that when you’re searching – and when you’re optimizing material for SEO.

And so-on. Now, here’s a final tip … when you’re searching on Google for jokes, use the words “funny jokes … etc.” For some reason best known to the deepest Google algorithms, more people search for “funny jokes” than they do “jokes,” which strikes me as tautology. But then I’m a bit precious like that… LOL!

Hope you find all this helpful! If you do, please share it…


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