You can’t control if your kid is good looking or smart; you can’t make them 7-feet tall or decide they’ll serve like Serena Williams or throw a football like Aaron Rodgers. Those things are left to genetics and, no offense, but yours aren’t likely to make for a Hall Of Fame athlete. But if you want to make a real impact on the world, teach your kid to be funny — because the world needs laughter.
Nobody believes that more than a comic, and no comic believes that more than Joe Matarese. The New York standup made it through a few rounds of America’s Got Talent last year, but he’s been in the comedy trenches for decades, with appearances on Letterman, Howard Stern and his own Comedy Central special.
Matarese has a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, both of whom provide plenty of gold for his act, but he tries to repay the favor by teaching them how to work a room. “I don’t want my kids to be annoying,” he says. “That’s my biggest fear.”
He doesn’t want your kids to be annoying either. Here’s his advice for how to make them funny, instead.
Any first step in raising a funny kid starts with making sure they smile and laugh as much as possible, as young as possible. This is a fun part of the parenting gig — no payoff is better than a wee person caught up in the giggles — but can require some perseverance. Not every kid is an easy audience, Matarese says. His oldest, for example, was a tough nut to crack, but don’t get discouraged because their tastes change quickly. “You just wait for the switch,” he says. From there, always be looking for ways to share laughter.
Ages 1 – 2
Smiling and cooing is great, but to turn those into full-on laughs go for big contrasts. “The younger they are, the more over-expressive you have to be to make them laugh,” Matarese says. Quiet, quiet, quiet … loud! Blank face to cartoon happy. It’s one reason peekaboo works so well — literally a game of nothingness (hands over eyes) to somethingness. Sing. Dance. When things die out, little tweaks to the same routine can add real milage. If you’ve been popping up from behind a chair and shouting “Boo!”, but that’s suddenly not working, do it from the left side instead of the right. Try not to judge them for being simple minded.
Meanwhile, watch for signs your child is doing something specifically to be silly, whether mimicking you or using household objects in a way slightly different than intended. Reward that creativity with all the enthusiasm you can muster; you can teach them about heckling next year.
Ages 2 – 3
“Word substitutions are the funniest thing for them at this age — replacing words with an unexpected word,” he says. “We used to sing, ‘Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer … popcorn! They would do it over and over, replacing the last word with something new every time and never get sick of it!”
To clarify, you will get sick of it, but they won’t.
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Ages 3 – 4
Embrace the inevitable: gross works. “Farting is universal to kids,” says Matarese. “That’s the funniest thing in the world. And when you make a big thing of it – ‘Did you fart?!’ – it gets even funnier. All the gross stuff; showing food in your mouth, my daughter would do a lot of that and thought it was hilarious.
This isn’t just about poopie bubbles, though (that’s what farts are called in the Matarese household). At this age, scatological humor is a form of subversive, and comedy is at it’s root about being subversive. So, if your kid shows a propensity for gross-out jokes, it’s only because they have a sophisticated sense of humor.
Besides, fart jokes are hilarious.
Ages 4 – 5
This is the age when kids start realizing what it means to “play the room” and chase a laugh the same way a standup might. You’re going to give it to them, because they’re yours and you find them adorable, but whenever possible validate the creativity behind the funny. Maybe they’re intentionally using the wrong word, or they’re being clever with a prop – point out that you see them working. Conversely, if they’re flogging a bit beyond the point of funny, don’t be afraid to guide toward something else.
This is also a good age to introduce knock knock jokes. They’re a treasure trove of puns and word play, and they also help teach the basic structure of jokes from setup to punchline. The ones they come up with themselves won’t make a particle of sense, but that’s funny in it’s own way.
Ages 5 – 6
At this point, your kid knows the satisfaction that comes with making people laugh, but they’re also old enough for some real talk. “I don’t think my wife or I would ever fake a laugh,” says Matarese. That’s not to say he withholds them, though. It’s just that the goal is to get your kids thinking about silliness and creativity more than simply trying to make grownups laugh.
For example, Matarese’s son managed to take the classic knock knock joke about the interrupting cow and turn it into one about an annoying butt that makes fart noises. Matarese has never been more proud of the kid.