You Don’t Have to Be a Comedian to Make People Laugh: Self-Deprecating Humor

You don’t have to be a comedian to make people laugh.  Really. I know.  I tried.  In 2006, I took a stand-up comedy class at Stevie Ray’s School of Improv.  Here’s the proof that I shouldn’t plan on a career in stand-up comedy:

It’s a little painful to watch.  However, I did learn a lot: what makes people laugh, why people laugh and what not to wear.  Unfortunately, I didn’t learn “what not to wear” until after this performance.

One humor technique I learned that almost always works, both in conversation and on stage, is self-deprecating humor—making fun of yourself.   If you made it to the 26-second mark in the above video, you saw me get a small chuckle when I said, “My sand shifted.”   That was an attempt at self-deprecating humor.  If I had been more overweight, that comment would have been funnier.   Right now, it’s funnier by about 30 pounds.

Even straight-laced Al Gore, at the beginning of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” used self-deprecating humor when he came on stage and said, “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States of America.”  See that comment at  1:42 in the video below:

Former Presidents have also famously used self-deprecating humor.  When Abraham Lincoln was accused of being two-faced, he replied, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”  During the 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan diffused the age issue, quipping,  “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

You don’t need to be famous and you certainly don’t need to be a comedian to use self-deprecating humor.  The main benefits are:

It makes you more approachable–you seem less threatening or intimidating.  The other person may even get the satisfaction of feeling a little superior.

It makes you seem modest, likeable and confident.

It diffuses tension.

It makes people laugh and people love to laugh.

And,  it can make you more attractive.  In a 2008 Evolutionary Psychology article, Dissing Oneself: The Sexual Attractiveness of Self-Dep-Humor, researchers found that “self-deprecating humor by high-status presenters (but not low-status presenters) increased long-term attractiveness for both sexes.”

“Self-deprecating humor should always be two-pronged. It should comically acknowledge a criticism or situation, but also infer that there is no substance to it and that you’re in the driver’s seat.”–Robert Orben

Here are some helpful tips on what you should and shouldn’t do in using self-deprecating humor.

First the don’ts:

Don’t: Use it when you are insecure about something.

Don’t: Use it too frequently or you will appear to have low-self-esteem.

Don’t: Use it with too much emphasis or you will appear to be fishing for compliments.

Don’t: Use it with literally-minded people. They may not get the irony and may agree with you.

Don’t: Use it to define a group (even if you are part of that group). You may offend someone.

Don’t: Use it in the presence of your partner, if it might embarrass your partner.  Recent studies have shown that you need to take your partner’s feelings into account.  If a husband puts himself down because his weight has gone up, his wife may feel that their friends might judge her for making fattening meals.

Now, how to make self-deprecating humor work for you:

Do: Make fun of your short-comings if you are comfortable with them.  I can make fun of myself as a dancer “with two-left feet” because I’m OK with that.

Do: Address the obvious, if it might be the “elephant in the room.”  Reagan did that with his age comment.

Do: Make fun of yourself if it is not true.  I can say, “I’m such a moron,” because I’m not.  Well, not about most things, anyway.

Do: Bring in current events, if you can.  Tell how some recent news event is affecting you.  You will seem both  fresh and funny!

Do: Say it in a casual way.

When you use the right amount of self-deprecating humor and in the right context, it can be a powerful tool to increase your approachability and likeability.  Plus, you might as well get to yourself before someone else does!

Diane’s website


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

5 Responses to You Don’t Have to Be a Comedian to Make People Laugh: Self-Deprecating Humor

  1. Jack Passanante Jr. says:

    Diane, that was very funny and, as a local theatre actor and director, I applaud your courage to try this. Stand-up is one of the hardest forms of entertainment! You did a great job and I can see that it goes hand in hand with your career. Congratulations and Break-a-leg!

  2. Michael Bolton says:

    Great stuff Diane! I just love Reagan’s line about his age. Sometime I’m going to have to get your thoughts about Stevie Ray’s School.


  3. Thanks, Michael! Both Kim and I took Improv I and II and the Stand-up Comedy Class at Stevie Ray’s. The instructor can make a big difference!

  4. Prince says:


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