I often ask myself, where does humour come from? What’s different about the things that children laugh at, and how can we help them laugh more? It’s well known that if you pull humour apart, you can kill it stone dead. But I’m going to risk a bit of a dissection in the hope that my personal angle into what tickles kids will help you create more laughter.
I start here: children (whether they are much loved and also if they are not) experience the world as people with very little power. As parents, most of us tell ourselves this is all for the good, because we are wiser and more knowledgable than they are. The power gap is inescapable. But, of course, as we exert our power, telling children we are right, right, right, we say and do crazy, illogical things, inconsistent things and, sometimes, horrible things.
In other words, we are a bit wrong, quite a lot wrong or totally wrong. What’s more, children quite often resist us, so that we are unable to exert that power. Then there are places that children can escape to – in their minds or with their friends - where adult power can’t reach.
All this is fertile territory for making them laugh (the source, if you like): moments of authoritarianism gone wrong; daft acts of resistance; inappropriate line-crossing and taboo-breaking.
Remember what made you laugh as a child
If you want to discover how to make children laugh – and I truly believe all adults should, because children need laughter – the best place to start is with your own childhood. For me, the core memory is that we were a family that treasured hilarity.
I was the youngest, and there was my mother, my father and my brother. They each had their own way of turning anything, from washing up an eggcup to a chase across the North York Moors to catch up with a train, into a comic account. I’m not sure why they did this but if, as Charlie Chaplin directs us, we should look for comedy’s origins in pain, then I can find some of that in my mother’s unspoken loss of a child, my father’s ever-absent father and my brother’s sense that he couldn’t live up to our own father’s expectations.
I watched them playing this stuff out in everyday life but, alongside this, there were the books, films and plays that made us all laugh and that were then recycled and remixed into the family sagas and gags. All this made me happy then, makes me happy now and, sometime in the mid-1960s, made me think that I could join in: that I could have a go at writing and performing this stuff, too.
Dare to be daft
As I began to perform - songs, poems, sketches or conjuring tricks - I began to learn what children run with and what they don’t. I discovered that, quite often, an element of surprise or absurdity might be the key to unlocking laughter. Perhaps the way I would say, “Mm?” or the way I played with my eyebrows. I started collecting these, almost as if I was collecting bits of costume. I added them to snatches of dialogue, real, invented, exaggerated or whatever, which if you perform them, get the timing right, seem to work every time.
Here’s one that I do: “One time I got into trouble. You know the sort of thing... like... say... I’m in the bedroom and I’m sitting on my brother’s head for half an hour. My dad comes in and he shouts, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ And I say, ‘I’m sitting on my brother’s head for half an hour.’ And he says, ‘I can see that!’ And I say, ‘Well, if you can see it, why are you asking me?’”
When the laughter comes, I hear relief. The father here is trying to control the situation but is losing control. And a child-audience supports the child, asking: “If you can see it, why are you asking me?” The child has exposed the absurdity of what the dad just said.
Let laughter be a lightning rod for worry
I think at the heart of this laughter is an anxiety born of that lack of power children experience. There are plenty of other areas to explore through this type of humour: worries about what we look like or sound like; worries about achievement (perceived lack of); worries about “Am I good enough?”; worries about family foibles; worries even about illness and death.
I found I could play on this anxiety and use it by assuming the role of a child (or the adult behaving like a child) who can’t stop himself doing daft things. This child (or daft adult) might be motivated by greed, ambition or the need to create fantasies at the very moment he should be keeping focused on what’s going on. When children laugh at this, they can feel superior to the silliness of the child I am playing. Again, this is relief: as if they are saying to themselves, “I am not as silly as that boy Michael Rosen was.” Or, “That’s the sort of thing I do; thank goodness people are laughing at him for doing that, and not me.” Comedy can act like a lightning rod to channel the anxiety away.
Some of the best moments come out of what we might call the transgressive anecdote from our own lives. Any encounter, any situation in which there was a confrontation between us as children and our own parents, or teachers, when we did something daft, can arouse amazement and delight in our children. There’s something wonderful about knowing that our own parents were fallible.
Collect jokes (and get the timing right)
People always talk about the timing of jokes, but in a family setup, it’s not so much the timing itself as the time you tell it. Persistent joke-telling is a bore. The trick is to hold the jokes you know for the moment when they will work. I collect joke books and cartoon books, and have always given them to my children. I’ve even written one Hearing children reading jokes to each other is a treat.
Making children laugh isn’t terribly difficult. You just have to understand where the laughter is coming from, and why it’s necessary in a child’s development. I’m no scientist, neurologist or psychologist, but I know it helps them find their way in life, because a child’s world is full of pomposity, rules, BS, notices, announcements, lists, predictable patterns of speech, people pretending to be certain when they’re not.
And this is all quite apart from the whole barrage of spin, deceit, fakery and the overblown nonsense of advertising, self-publicity and political chicanery. It is our duty as adults to spend time redressing this power balance by puncturing all of it - with wordplay, inversions, bad puns, altered names and mashups. Enjoy.