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Algorithms for Humor Success

By February 24, 2015Article

In 2012, I conducted several humor programs for Infosys managers and executives at the Infosys Leadership Institute in Bangalore. (That’s right. India outsourced its humor consulting to an American!) The goal was to provide simple techniques for putting humor into business presentations and conversations – especially for people who couldn’t tell jokes.  

Why does Infosys, a multinational high-tech company and one of India’s largest, care about humor? For the same reasons you should. In a global economy, building relationships is a key to success, and humor can help. Humor creates rapport and a sense of shared values when people laugh together. People of different cultures may laugh at different things, but they all like to laugh. If you can share laughter with someone, you’ve started building a relationship. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that many people claim they can’t tell a joke and, even if they could, they can’t create one that makes their point. Despite that common claim, one of the techniques that proved popular at my Infosys humor program was a joke algorithm. It’s for a one-liner that doesn’t require any skill in comic delivery. And you can fill in the blanks by consulting a dictionary. 

Here’s how it works. 

American football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” That line is humorous. It’s a great sound bite. It will get quoted. And it doesn’t require joke-telling ability to use it successfully.  

Most important, it provides an algorithm that you can apply to make your own points. Just replace “success” and “work” with two other words. For example, “The only place arrival comes before journey is in the dictionary.” You could use that in any kind of business motivational presentation. All you need to work this algorithm is knowledge of how to alphabetize.  

By the way, it’s not limited to the dictionary. Want to use proper nouns? Replace the dictionary with a telephone book or encyclopedia. For example: “The only place Accenture comes before Infosys is in the phone book.” (That was a big hit at my program for Infosys executives because they compete with Accenture.) 

Many of the jokes told by late-night television comedians rely on algorithms that are easily adapted for business purposes. One that’s often discussed by presentation experts is the “Rule of Three.” 

Here’s an example of the Rule of Three from comedian Conan O’Brien: “My kids no longer believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or mortgage-backed securities.” Just change “my kids” to a relevant group and “mortgage-backed securities” to a relevant issue. For example if you’re in the cybersecurity space, you might say, “Our customers no longer believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or hack-free software.” 

OK, lots of people know about the Rule of Three. Presentation consultants have talked about it for years like it’s a big secret they discovered from comedy writers. Here’s the uncommon knowledge: There are lots of other humor algorithms.  

One of my favorites is the subtraction algorithm. Here’s an example: “Windows 8 – it’s just like Windows 7 but without the fan base or reliability.” In other words, [person, place or thing] – it’s just like [fill in], but without the [fill in]. You can apply this algorithm to express disdain for just about anything. For example, a book you dislike: “It’s just like ‘War and Peace” but without the plot and vocabulary.” Or a movie you dislike: “It’s just like ‘Star Wars’ but without the cast and special effects.” 

It’s a great device for talking about your competitor’s company and products. You can also use it for self-effacing humor by turning it on yourself. That’s what I do when describing my background: “I went to the University of Buffalo – it’s just like Harvard but without the prestige and money.” 

Want another algorithm that’s easy to use? Try the “or as … calls it.” You just take an event in the news and tie it to a person or organization. Here is an example from late-night television comedian David Letterman in 2014: “The hot dog eating champ ate 61 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Or, as Chris Christie calls it, a snack.”  

The “or as … calls it” algorithm is great for pointing out shortcomings of your competition. For example: “A recent study found consumers believe many do-it-yourself kits include incomprehensible instructions. Or as Company X calls it, business as usual.” You get the idea. 

Let’s look at one more. 

The prize algorithm has been around forever and for one simple reason – it works. Here’s an example from comedian David Letterman about the 2013 Nobel Prize: 

They passed out the Nobel Prize for medicine. It went to the doctor who developed a pill that will allow you to keep up with the Kardashians.
The Nobel Prize for fiction went to the JetBlue flight schedule.
The Nobel Prize for chemistry once again went to the Yankee Stadium hot dog. 
The Nobel Prize for lack of chemistry went to Bruce and Chris Jenner. 

This is a particularly good algorithm for internal presentations at “all hands” meetings, sales conferences and department motivational gatherings. In fact, you could use much of it “as is” with minor changes to fit your audience. For example: 

They passed out the Nobel Prizes the other day.
The Nobel Prize for fiction went to the marketing department’s strategic plan.
The Nobel Prize for chemistry once again went to the company cafeteria’s daily special. 
The Nobel Prize for lack of chemistry went to [two executives]. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to be the Nobel Prize. And it doesn’t have to be fiction or chemistry. It doesn’t even have to be a real prize. Make one up and award it to someone. Award one to yourself. Tell your audience you needed it for your resume. 

Want more algorithms? They’re easy to identify by looking at jokes told by late-night television comedians. You’ll find an archive of those jokes from June 2009 to yesterday at If you don’t want to analyze them, you can just laugh at them. You win either way. 

In today’s competitive business world, increasing noise and shrinking attention spans mean you need to stand out just to be heard. Humor can provide that edge. And humor algorithms can give that edge to anyone. You know, it’s just like adding dazzle to your message – but without the effort or hassle. Or as Sand Hill’s M.R. Rangaswami calls it: marketing. 

Updated: December 17th, 2020: Malcolm Kushner’s book, “Comebacks for Lawyer Jokes,” is now available. Click here to purchase.

Malcolm Kushner, “America’s Favorite Humor Consultant,” is the author of the award-winning “The Little Book of Humorous Quotes” and “Presentations For Dummies,” which has sold over 100,000 copies. An internationally acclaimed expert on humor and communication, he co-created a humor exhibit appearing at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Kushner has been profiled in TIME magazine, USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post. His television and radio appearances include CNN, National Public Radio, CNBC, “Voice of America” and “The Larry King Show.” The Wall Street Journal has called him “irrepressible.” A popular speaker at corporate and association meetings, Kushner has spoken everywhere from the Smithsonian Institution to the Inc. 500 Conference. For more information, visit or or contact him at



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