Laughing is important. I’m not just saying that because I’m a comedian who desperately tries to get people to guffaw at his jokes regularly and uses his success at that as a barometer of his self-worth. No, I’m saying it as a human. Comedy is a common denominator, a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live. When you find something funny, you laugh.
If you’re next to someone else who also laughs, boom, instant connection. You don’t even have to speak the same language. You only have to have a sense of humor. Funny is funny. And what’s the secret to comedy? Timing.
Developing your child’s sense of humor
So how does this sense of humor develop? Or more importantly, when does it develop in humans, like, baby humans? I know that there is a scientific answer, but I’m not a scientist. I’m a comedian. So I will tell you what I have learned first-hand about my own kid’s humor development and leave the facts to the nerds who all have a more lucrative career than I do.
My son just turned 11 and I daresay the kid has a fantastic sense of humor. I want to say that I had something to do with cultivating it, but honestly, I’m not sure I do. I have shown him what I find to be the cream of the crop of comedy films and stand-up specials. His comedy playlist includes Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Jerry Seinfeld, Airplane!, The Marx Brothers, and Jim Gaffigan. He loves them.
I really only started to show him these things after I could tell that he would like them. Sure I would have eventually shown him these things anyway, possibly to save his comedic taste. But I harbored a deep fear that he wouldn’t find them funny, which, if true, would prove what I have suspected all along—he’s the mailman’s kid.
See what I did there with that trite joke? I switched the focus of it. I surprised you, which is precisely what a good joke does. Comedy is surprise. A great punchline is one that you can’t see coming that hits you out of nowhere. It has a twist to it that surprises you.
Funny physical feats
I knew early on that my son would be ok in the humor department because he “got” this comedy fundamental when he was just about 2 years old. I was feeding him a healthy lunch (we were still a few months away from him becoming the pickiest eater on the planet), but he was dumping his carrots out of his bowl. I was getting annoyed as any parent would and speaking in an exasperated tone.
After he did it a bunch of times, my son picked up his bowl turned it halfway as if he was going to dump them out again, but this time he stopped and looked at me. He paused for a bit and started laughing as he put the bowl back down. Then I started laughing, which made him laugh even more. This was it. His first joke. It was unbelievable.
You see, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for most of his entire life, so I’m privy to the entirety of his comedic progression up to this point. When he was a baby, he would look at me and I would get him to smile. You know, the giggle-fest tricks. Peek-a-boo was huge because each time we say “Peek-a-boo” and reveal our face, it’s a surprise. And a surprise is funny.
That’s why it’s a big deal to them. Then they grow up a little and poop jokes become the thing because what else do they know? Farts, burps, and butts—anything that has to do with bodily functions is hilarious. But this “carrots in the bowl” bit was different.
It was sophisticated humor. It had a great surprise punchline, but it was also a connection. This is important, especially in a child’s development. He recognized that he and I connected on a shared experience. When Seinfeld talks about small bags of peanuts on airplanes, we know exactly what he means. Well, some of us older people do.
Our shared experience was that he was being a little annoying dumping out his carrots instead of eating them. His surprise turn was that he wasn’t going to do it this time. When we locked eyes and he saw my reaction knowing that he “got me,” it sent him over the edge.
That look said, “Hey, you think I’m going to dump these carrots out again, don’t you?” And then my face said, “No, please stop!” And then his face said, “Well, guess what? I’m not!” Set-up, reaction, punchline, laugh. The kid’s comedy structure in his 1st ever joke was impeccable. After that fateful day, I think he got hooked on making us laugh. And why not?
Once you get a taste of laughing at any age, you discover that it feels good to laugh. And when you make someone else laugh, granted, I might be biased here; I think it’s the greatest feeling in the world. So he started to look for other little things that would make me laugh. Sometimes it wasn’t so funny. He only knew a few words, but I would think it made him work harder.
Our bed’s headboard is filled with fun stuff like little pictures and quotes that make us happy. One day my son zeroed in on a small photo of a 2-headed dragon, pointed at it, made a noise, and fell back on the bed in hysterics. Well, I have no idea why because this joke wasn’t as well thought out as his first, but it hit me right and I lost it.
Not everyone has to be funny
In retrospect, it was most likely just lack of sleep, but this struck me at the time as a great joke. Of course, he would proceed to do it over and over, trying to catch that first lightning-in-a-bottle response again. And that’s when he learned his next lesson in comedy; repetition is a comedy killer. As any parent can attest, once your kid finds something that makes you or anyone else laugh, they try and repeat it over and over. This is a kid staple.
Comedy supposedly comes in 3s and 5s, they say. That’s why on Saturday Night Live if there’s a sketch about a talk show, there are usually only 3 guests. The last hopefully being the funniest one. In theory, if they added one more guest, it would kill the sketch. But the 5th one after that would potentially bring it back around again. This is all comedy theory.
I also subscribe to the notion that if you repeat something perhaps 30 or 40 times, there’s a magic number in there where it sometimes suddenly becomes funny again. But just for a brief moment, and it’s only if the joke is well crafted, to begin with. If you’re going for a laugh like that, you are really taking a gamble. I make sure my kid knows these facts because they’re important to me. I can’t stand to see him drag it out after repeatedly claiming he is Captain Poopy Butt. So I give him the hook.
That might seem harsh. But here’s the deal, I’m not always going to be around to coach my son on his comedy. Someday in high school, he’ll have the attention of his entire class and I won’t be there to tell him if he should stretch out his story or flash him the light from the back of the class to let him know that his stage time is up. He’s going to have to figure it out on his own in that moment. And if it’s important to him, he will figure it out. If it’s not, so be it.
Not everyone has to be funny. Yes, I know I may have exaggerated its importance earlier. The hard truth about life is that some people are just downright not funny. I bet some of you right now are thinking, “Yeah, no duh, we’re reading one of them.” The science nerds I mentioned earlier? Not funny. But they are saving the world at the moment with the vaccines, so we should give them a pass.
When someone is innately funny, they are said to have “funny bones.” You can’t grow funny bones. You either have them, or you don’t. And either one is ok. I personally love comedy; I write it, perform it, and study it. I want to know what makes comedy work. So for me, when my kid showed early signs of having funny bones, I wanted to make sure he heads down the right path.
Why comedy should be important to kids
So, is comedy this important to everyone? No, not on the surface anyway. It should be, but it’s not. Think back on your last 3 conversations. How many times did you try and make the other person laugh in any way or vice versa? I would wager that it was quite a few times. That’s comedy! You don’t have to watch stand-up specials and write jokes.
Daily comedy is more casual. It’s a way that we connect with people. It doesn’t have to be your career. You don’t have to craft hilarious stories before every big meeting or lunch with a friend. The best comedy is easy; it’s friendly. It’s a shared connection.
Something that will make you and whoever you’re talking to laugh because you both have shared knowledge about, say, traffic on the long commute to work. Or how you don’t have to deal with the traffic because now everyone works from home. Or how you’d rather go back to sitting in traffic for hours every morning if it meant not being around your kids every minute in an endless loop. See? Joke!
But comedy is vital for kids. It should be. In your adult life, laughing is just some nice, delicious whipped cream on top of your daily stress sundae. It’s not necessary; it’s just nice. If you go through a day without comedy, you may not even notice. But in a child’s development, comedy is crucial.
Comedy is a way for them to connect with you on a social level, which will eventually lead to their ability to bond with other kids on that same level. “Hey, do you like Sesame Street? Isn’t Cookie Monster hilarious!?” Boom. Connection. If comedy has no official place in their lives as adults, who cares? But as kids, they use it as a tool to find and connect with friends.
Also, as my kid gets older and I have to be on top of him to do his homework, clean his room, and fold his laundry, he now reacts in a “what am I going to have to do now” kind of way when I call his name. Our relationship is now more about the daily grind than peek-a-boo.
Whenever I can, I make it a point to try and make him laugh every day. And when he laughs, the ice melts and there’s our connection again. But the best part of my day, hands down, is when he makes me laugh. There’s nothing like it.
You see? Timing.