There are various schools of thought as to what makes acting work. There are also schools of thought as to what makes comedy work.
What is humor? What makes something funny? And, since in voice-over work, you're usually handed a script, that may or may not be humorous – can you make something funny? Or is the humor already built in, so that all you have to do is read it?
The answer is, a little bit of both. And, unlike acting theory, humor theory is at least partially subject to scientific investigation. Someday, neurologists might even be able to tell us exactly why we laugh.
To fully explain how humor works would take a book – several in fact, including maybe a volume on human neurology and even anthropology ... because laughter is rooted deep in ourselves and our collective past.
Our objective here is simply to give you a crib sheet. But let's have at it for a bit ...
Even among scientists and highly experienced comic actors, there are many theories as to what makes something funny to us. Psychologists have identified no less than 41 types of humorous situations.
The scientists keep getting closer to pinpointing the various factors, using techniques that include real-time brain scans. But, like driving your car, as a voice actor you don't have to know exactly how it works, only that it does ... and that there are different types of engines, etc.
Here are what people consider to be the various engines of comedy:
Theories of Humor (a partial list)
Relief. We're inherently nervous and afraid. Psychological tension builds. When something happens to reduce that tension, we laugh. Freud supposed that the release is triggered by our realizing that our fear or expectation was unwarranted.
Superiority. Someone slips on a banana peel, and it's funny. Why? You're smarter than them and wouldn't have done that. Or, on the dark side of this theory, people tend to laugh at individuals that are ugly or unusual in some way. It's not polite to do that anymore, but historically you could take this tendency to the bank.
Incongruous Juxtaposition. This explanation has many variations, maybe because it is among the most common type of humor. For example, this comes into play when the late George Carlin notes* that "jumbo shrimp" is contradictory, or that -- despite all the concern over drug culture -- every town in America has a big store sign that says, "DRUGS."
(*We speak of him in the present tense, because his humor lives on.)
Script-based Semantics. While there are many ways to express humor (for example in artwork, a silent movie, or mime), this theory focuses on written or spoken humor. Essentially, the mechanism is that a sentence, or the scene it describes, can be taken two different, incompatible ways. The listener is thinking one way. But on hearing the punch line, they realize the speaker meant it another way.
Because the assumptions people make are sometimes cultural, different cultures will find humor (or not) in different semantic scenarios. For example, many Germans may not consider "Schmetterling" to be a funny word, but speakers of some other languages would ... at least when they learn it means "butterfly."
General Verbal Humor Theory. This is an effort by researchers Raskin and Attardo to quantify the effects of variation in how the joke is written. Tracking 6 factors in its construction – for example, how is it presented (as a riddle, or as a conversation, or a story, or an aside, etc.?), is there a butt of the joke (e.g., a person it's about), how is the situation described (simply, or in detail?), and so on.
Such clinical analysis might be helpful to the professional comedy writer, but it's not essential for the voice actor to follow at all. For one thing, scholarly papers tend to be absolutely UNfunny themselves. For another thing, if you have to think this much about it, the client and the rest of the crew will have packed up and gone before you get around to delivering your line.
Computational-Neural. Talk about timing! This model adds to Incongruity-Resolution theory by attributing laughter to neural activity and the timing of neural networks as one assumption is replaced by another – thus releasing spontaneous energy. It holds that humor is purely a biological phenomenon, yet the theory encompasses not just the storyline, but also the storyteller's manner and social factors. It explains why monkeys and even rats have been shown to have a sense of humor. As neuroscience progresses, look for some interesting future findings in this analysis.
Benign violation. Combining other theories, this one suggests that three conditions must be satisfied: 1) Something threatens the listener's sense of order; 2) the threat is understood to be benign; 3) both interpretations are seen at the same time. For example, a comedian's routine might not coincide with your sense of the world as it ought to be, but he or she is funny since you know they're just someone on a stage. Or maybe it's that, deep down you know they're right, yet the world survives. For example, some of Richard Prior's work.
(Want to explore this topic further? Start at Wikipedia's much more detailed and even longer list of Comedy Theories. )
Our own "theory" is much more simple
For every theory about what makes us laugh, there may be a question. For example, babies start giggling at 3 to 4 months. Is it purely neurological, or has it taken them that long to established certain assumptions that can then be violated by irony or incongruity?
Also, people are 30 times more likely to laugh when they are in a group, rather than being alone. Laughter is contagious. The human brain appears to have circuitry that's dedicated to sensing laughter. Fine, but does that mean that most of a crowd's laughter follows no particular theory?
We prefer to offer our own "lay" theory, drawn from various studies and many years of personal observation. Whatever the reason, most comedy seems rooted in some or all of the following:
Embarrassment. Either for someone else's awkwardness or displeasure, or our own. Someone else slipping on a banana peel is funny because we empathize with the person. Or, in terms of our own displeasure, suppose you're a king and the court jester makes fun of you. To deflect the ridicule, you laugh. A King might be pretending to get the joke, but most of us laugh at ourselves every day, and hopefully we're sincere.
Release of fear or tension. In the scenario above, the members of the King's court then laugh, maybe artificially, but maybe for real – the hushed tension has been relieved. Maybe this is connected somehow to the simian "fear grimace" – where our ancestors smiled to show submission?
Surprise. Without surprise, there is no humor. This is why the critical word or phrase – the one that clarifies the line's scenario (see Script-based Semantics, above) – generally comes last in the sentence.
Aggression without injury. We know the guy who falls down a manhole wasn't really hurt, so we're allowed to laugh. Or a bully might think it's funny to attack someone smaller, because the bully knows he's not really going to hurt the guy. (Or, if he does, the guy will at least survive.) But viewpoint matters. They guy being bullied doesn't see things the same way.
Very often, you will encounter humor that is a combination of two or more such situations. Consider adopting the philosophy of "Whatever works."
And we would be remiss if we didn't mention that old saw that goes back at least to the days of Vaudeville:
Words with a "K" sound in them are funny.
Part Two: Comedy Timing. How does it work in voice-over? Part Three: What's the right way to deliver a humorous VO line?