The Art of the Riff: How to Be Funny According to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” Creator

Joel Hodgson, writer, comedian, and television star has made a career out of the riff. As creator of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” he’s been making fun of so-bad-they’re-good movies for over 30 years–and the show has a cult-like following that spans generations to prove it.

In case you’re not old enough to remember the 1988 TV classic or haven’t caught the crowd-funded revival on Netflix, here’s is the premise of the show:

“When Joel Robinson is shot into space and forced to watch bad movies while mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and his crony, Frank, monitor his mind, Joel builds a cast of lovable robot sidekicks to help keep his sanity…It’s only through their wisecracks, quips and friendships that they make it through a barrage of increasingly terrible cinema–and the audience in turn gets a veritable treasure trove of gut-busting hilarity.”

Being able to riff is key to creating social media gold. After all, what’s a meme if not a visual riff? You take a photo and apply some simple design conventions and clever writing to create something new, distinct, surprising–and if you’re lucky, maybe even funny.

An LOL may be a tall order, but it’s no surprise that amusement and humor can help you create a connection with your audience. It can offer a moment of reprieve or lightness as you deliver a lot of information. It can slow scrolls. And it can make your audience more sympathetic to your message. What’s the saying? If you can make someone laugh, you can make them do anything?

Since we’re always on a quest for more engaging content, we reached out to Joel to see if he could help us learn how to be funny. He and his team of writers led the Adobe Spark team in a workshop to give us strategies for getting to what Joel refers to as “the funny.” Here are tips we gleaned from the session.

Joel Hodgson’s Tips for Funnier Writing

Don’t try to do comedy. Don’t even use the word.

“It’s just kind of taboo among comics to call anything comedy. It is so subjective. And it feels kind of formal. Comedy is a category for movies and Neil Simon plays.”

Another word Joel wants you to avoid on your quest for engaging content: joke.

“It suggests someone laboring over the number of syllables, and word count, and comic timing. Categorizing it as a “joke” can really take the fun out of it.”

You might think Joel is being a bit persnickety about word choice. But there are great lessons here. Number 1: Get specific about the tone you’re trying to strike. Are you going for playful? Witty? Silly? Outrageous? Absurd? All those words are far more descriptive and can help guide your writing process and determine which of your ideas work best. And number 2: Don’t try too hard. Joel notes that you can sometimes get better results when “there’s no expectation that you have to make people laugh. You’re just kind of in the mood to make people laugh.”

Know your audience.

Honestly, this is just good life advice. And it works everywhere from the boardroom to the chatroom.

So instead of trying to write for the Internet; write for your people. It’s helpful to think of your audience as your friends (you probably make your friends laugh all the time.) If you haven’t defined your target audience yet, we have a handy guide on how to do that!

Start by making straight-forward observations.

Instead of trying to go for a joke right away, Joel and his team get their brainstorms going by making as many obvious observations as they can about something. So say you’re stuck trying to come up with a clever caption for social media, get your mind working by just describing the picture in as many ways as you can. Take the random photos below for examples.

Say it straight. Then surprise.

Once you’ve come up with a bunch of straight observations, it’s time to riff. When the set-up (your observation) and the pay-off (your punchline) come as one line it’s known as–and this is surprising–a one-liner. One-liners work great as captions or memes because they’re easy to digest and highly familiar. Here you want to get less literal and instead make suggestions that build off or subvert your original observation.

Joel’s advice: “Make suggestions but leave things to the imagination. What can you hint at that’s not being shown?”

Let’s revisit some of the observations above, only now with the amusing pay-off added.

Use visual structure to convey timing.

Comedians know timing is everything. And they know they gotta give the audience time to absorb their set-up in order to appreciate the pay-off. If you’re creating content for social media, you don’t necessarily have the benefit of captive live audience. Still, you can infer timing using familiar visual structures and even clever use of Adobe Spark’s new animation features (available on mobile).

For instance, your set-up could go at the top of the image, with the pay off at the bottom like the classic meme structure you likely know well.

Create from Template

Or you could make you pay-off statement stand out by emphasizing it with interesting type or even animation.

Create from Template

Sometimes visuals can act as the punchline. This is where animated stickers and text animations can help infuse your content with comedic timing and humorous, relatable flair.

Create from Template

Create from Template

Never create and edit at the same time.

“If you really want to be funny,” Joel told our team, “write 10 things quickly; then come back in an hour.”  You’ll be tempted to get to a solution while you’re creating, but Joel says that can short-circuit creativity and hinder your results. Instead write as much as you can, with others to get to your best ideas. Write down every mundane, un-funny, not-right thing you can think of. Then go on a walk. When you return to your work in editing mode, the refining and editing process will be easier and you will have given yourself the gift of letting your mind create without restriction.

Take a crack at it!

Remix these memes to get your funny bone working.

See more memes!