Chris Rock (L) and Louis CK (R)
Jeff Kravitz—FilmMagic for Variety Magazine
April 1, 2014 12:01 AM EDT

So What Are The Six Steps To Being Funny?

Mel Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets is commonly used as a textbook in college courses on comedy writing.

What does it say is the best method for how to be funny? Helitzer explains the “THREES” formula.

It’s an acronym for the six essential elements that are found in everything from good one-liners, to funny anecdotes to full comedy sets:

  1. Target
  2. Hostility
  3. Realism
  4. Exaggeration
  5. Emotion
  6. Surprise

Here’s a breakdown:

1) Target

Via Comedy Writing Secrets:

Louis CK’s target here is his doctor. (Note — All videos are NSFW):

2) Hostility

Via Comedy Writing Secrets:

Lewis Black, the king of comic hostility, unleashes a torrent of anger regarding the milk section of the supermarket (around 3 mins 16 seconds in):

3) Realism

Via Comedy Writing Secrets:

Louis CK is quite harsh — but hysterical — when talking about his daughter (1min 29 seconds in.)

But it works because it contains elements any parent can relate to:

4) Exaggeration

Via Comedy Writing Secrets:

Eddie Izzard explains World War 2. For many, history can be dry but he exaggerates and dramatizes key moments to lighten the subject matter:

5) Emotion

Via Comedy Writing Secrets:

Watch how Chris Rock leverages emotion to engage his audience:

6) Surprise

Via Comedy Writing Secrets:

UCLA film school professor Howard Suber says surprise is the key to all storytelling.

Jerry Stahl tells the story of how he managed to break his addiction to heroin… by switching to crack:

(More on how humor works here. More on how humor can improve your life here.)

What Can We Learn From A Pro?

My friend Andrew Goldberg, a staff writer on Family Guy, gave a number of comedy tips in my interview with him.

What can he add to the six tips above? Don’t get wedded to your first idea:

Keep at it. Keep trying new versions (“alts”) of a joke until one clicks:

To read the extended interview with Andrew and learn more about how to be funny, join 45K+ readers and get my free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

5 reasons why humor is more powerful than you would ever guess

Three secrets to creativity you can learn from a writer on “Family Guy”

What makes something funny? Can humor improve our lives?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at

Read More From TIME
You May Also Like