As part of our global expedition exploring what makes things funny, we’re grilling humorists about the science behind scoring laughs.
Film has Cannes. Athletics have the Olympics. Music has South by Southwest. Comedy? It has Just for Laughs.
The Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, currently celebrating its 30th anniversary with a month-long party ending on July 31, is hands down the largest comedy festival in the world. This is where comedy superstars rub elbows with podcast kings and sit-com showrunners. This is where promising new talent hope to make it big, catching the eye of just the right industry insider. This is where an entire city turns into one big, rowdy comedy club.
Much of the credit for this goes to Andy Nulman. In 1985, Nulman, then a journalist, joined the two-day-long Francophone comedy festival, then two years old, and added English events and extended the celebration to a month. By the time he departed in 1999, Just for Laughs was an international force to be reckoned with. Then, after founding the tech company Airborne Mobile and selling it for nearly $100 million, Nulman came back, becoming Just for Laugh’s president of festivals and television.
While not a comic himself, in his role at Just for Laughs Nulman has worked many a room and has learned a thing or two about what make things funny. In between readying his town for the ultimate 30th birthday bash, Nulman offered up some of his trade secrets.
Humor Code: How do you define humor?
Nulman: Humor is a necessity, as important as water or oxygen for human survival. Too bad so many people underestimate its power, and see it as something frivolous.
Humor Code: What do you think makes things funny?
Nulman: Hate to be formulaic, but to me, funny is a function of two parts familiarity and one part surprise; F2S if you will. Great humor is a brain game, not for the feeble-minded. It takes you on a journey, and jerks you around just when you think you know where you’re going.
Humor Code: Were you born funny, or did your funniness come from practice and development?
Nulman: I was born gutsy. My funniness comes from others. The way I make people laugh is by saying and/or doing the slightly inappropriate. A kind of “smarter smart-ass.” Not enough to be hated, but enough to know better.
Humor Code: Does good comedy have to come from a screwed-up childhood?
Nulman: No it doesn’t. My mother told me that while beating me with a hairbrush.
Humor Code: What are the biggest misconceptions about what you do?
Nulman: That, after 30 years in the comedy business, I’m actually funny. I feel like the janitor at the MIT Media Lab—just because he’s in the building doesn’t qualify him a genius.
Humor Code: What, for you, is the toughest kind of audience to make laugh?
Nulman: Toughest kind of audience is comprised of comatose Jewish people over the age of 65 sitting in a banquet room. You’d be surprised how often I’ve faced this type of crowd. Why are they tough? Because most are sleeping, and those that are actually awake bark: “You call that funny? My grandchildren can do better!”
Humor Code: In your opinion, what makes a good comedic performance space? What makes a bad space?
Nulman: A good space has clear sight lines, crisp lighting and a crystal-clear sound system. A bad space is when the clear sight lines are just paths for projectiles, the sound system is two round PA speakers invisibly imbedded in the ceiling, drinks are two-for-one, shooters are a buck and the audience is illiterate.
Humor Code: How could the comedy industry do better at finding/fostering/promoting new talent?
Nulman: It’s not up to the industry; it’s up to the talent. The industry will always be there to jump on and ride the next big thing… not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if the industry gets too involved too early, it may taint the end product. To me, developing comedic talent is like kids and sports—instead of trying to organize them, give them a proper place to play… then stand on the sidelines and look for the standouts.
Humor Code: How will comedy be different five years from now? Who — or what — is the future of comedy?
Nulman: Broadcast in all its forms won’t be enough anymore, no matter how small and powerful devices get. Comedy will jump from the stage and screen to our everyday life. While there will always be shows and films, the new comedy will envelope our daily existence and be played like a competitive game. This is my holy grail at Just For Laughs: finding this new digital comedyDNA. I won’t rest until I find it. Or at least until I’m over 65, sitting comatose in a banquet room.
Humor Code: Describe your comedy creation process, as well as your revision process.
Nulman: My creation process is usually conceived on the fly. I say to myself: “Should I really say or do that?” And then I say or do it. It’s very sink or swim. As for revision, if it’s “sink,” I say “Well, I’d better not say/do that again!”
Humor Code: Can you give an example of when one of your jokes failed badly? Can you explain why it failed?
Nulman: I made fun of this telemarketer who had just been busted in a high-profile arrest. Seemed like an easy-enough target; scummy guy, ripping off the weak and disenfranchised. Go figure he had so many friends in the audience. So many powerful, scary friends. It was like taking the Lord’s name in vain in the deep south of the ‘60s. I had to leave through a side door.
Humor Code: What are the characteristics of a good comic?
Nulman: Persistence. Twisted view of the world. Not being lazy when he or she eventually hits it big. Being funny.
Humor Code: How far would you go to get a laugh?
Nulman: Quite far. I would smack your mother on the ass to get a laugh.
Humor Code: Is anything off limits?
Nulman: My mother. Probably because she passed away over a decade ago.
Humor Code: How is technology changing comedy for the better — and how is it making it worse?
Nulman: Making it better: The Internet as a promotional and broadcasting platform. Making it worse: Relying on a Mechanical Turk and AI software to answer these questions.