In an informal survey taken at the 2023 Harvard Invitational, 18 extempers were asked what form of jokes gets them the most laughs. 8 stated dry humor, 4 said puns or one-liners, 4 cited self-deprecation, and 2 asked “you get laughs?”
Over the years, humor has become one of Extemp’s trademark distinctions. From AGDs to on-tops, competitors have explored nearly every aspect of humor out there (with varying degrees of success). Despite its constant usage, the concept is still a tricky one to master – luckily for you, this self-proclaimed comedian is here to discuss the structure of humor, when to use it, and sources of inspiration.
In a regular conversation, it’s easy to almost predict what the other person will say next. In Extemp, the goal is to break this predictable cycle, instead allowing humor to rise from an unexpected outcome.
So how do we accomplish this? The answer to this question lies in both the buildup and punchline. You want a buildup that has the audience thinking of something else entirely, and then a concise punchline. To put this into context, take a look at my very first line in a 2022 Bolsonaro speech:
“From the Amazon Rainforest to his own country, Jair Bolsonaro is very good at sucking the life out of things.”
You could practically hear the crickets.
The main issue with the delivery was the grammatical structure. By placing the punchline too early in my sentence, I failed to give the audience time to process. This logic applies to every impact sentence in general – you always want the ‘takeaway’ phrase at the end of a line, followed by a pause. So a few tournaments later, the revised AGD became:
“Jair Bolsonaro is very good at sucking the life out of things. First, it was the Amazon Rainforest. Now, it’s his own country.”
Now this definitely wasn’t my best AGD, so full on laughter was certainly not my expectation. But this time around I got some chuckles, a few smiles, one or two nods. In an event that tends to have the world’s most stone-faced audiences, I consider that a win.
HOW TO USE
I refuse to see Extemp become the next Humorous Interpretation. So for the benefit of society, here’s a very clear cut list of what to do and not to do!
DO evaluate your judge. If your joke is pop culture related and your judge is 70 years old, there might be a slight issue. While a college student might appreciate a Drake reference, others… might not (learned this one the hard way).
If possible, DO set up a theme. For example, if an AGD was about the pandemic, the on-tops could be centered around quarantine, online school, and masks. This isn’t a top priority, but it can earn you some serious points for being polished and connected.
Do NOT force cheap jokes if the tone of your speech is serious – undermining the topic will not win any rounds. There are other ways to ensure you have your audience’s ears here, ranging from alarming statistics to raw stories. On that note, you also don’t need a funny line to introduce every point. The last thing you want is a “how does this connect???” on your ballot.
Finally, do NOT spend too much time on an AGD. If your joke is taking you 30 or more seconds to get through, then you’re losing time to actually address the question. A similar note for on-tops: be concise, and make sure to clearly restate the actual point as your first/second/third idea.
While I’d like to emphasize that canned AGDs are significantly less effective than more specific ones, it’s not a bad idea to take inspiration from sources or past jokes. Here are some of my favorite places to look for new content or formats.
SNL Weekend Update – current events and pop culture based jokes that are prime AGD material. Just keep in mind, some of these walk a very fine line. Make sure you’re filtering out accordingly.
The Onion – The only time citing this source is not only acceptable, but also valuable.
The Borowitz Report – Basically the Onion.
The Economist – Their intro sections are incredibly witty, one of my favorites from 2022 linked here.
All in all, don’t be too discouraged if your judge doesn’t crack a smile every time! Nearly every audience appreciates a balance between informative and humorous content, despite their external reaction. And if you find yourself leaning to the side of the latter… may I suggest HI?