Make them laugh and land the job: mastering the art of humor in an interview

Dec 26, 2022

4 mins

Make them laugh and land the job: mastering the art of humor in an interview
Molly LaFlesh

Writer, comedy writer, and HR leader based in New York City.

It’s time for the big interview. You’ve ironed your shirt, you’ve polished your resume, and you’ve woken up in an anxious sweat worrying about tripping on your way to the conference room. You need to dazzle the interviewer with your hard skills, professionalism, and sense of decorum—and definitely not with your zippy one-liners. Right?

Believe it or not, appropriate humor in a professional environment can help you with every aspect of the interview process, from creating a strong first impression to winning a job offer, and could help you settle into your new role. So whether you’re a comedy club regular or a quick-witted individual, using your funny side could stand to benefit you in the recruitment process—let’s see how.

Does humor really have a place in the job interview?

Michele O’Brien, a comedy writer, director, performer, and LinkedIn podcast producer, says yes. Humor, says O’Brien, “is what makes us as humans like each other instantly. The job interview is all about connecting with a prospective employer.”

And research agrees. For their book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and in Life, researchers Dr. Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas found, “when we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of hormones that make us feel … more trusting [among other benefits]. By working humor into our professional interactions, we can serve our colleagues this powerful cocktail, and in doing so we can literally change their—and our—brain chemistry on the spot.”

It’s not magic, it’s science!

Humor is also a powerful tool for boosting others’ perceptions of you. One study Aaker and Bagdonas held in conjunction with the famed comedy theater, The Second City, compared two sets of fake testimonials—one straightforward and serious, and one identical but with a quick joke thrown in at the end. Their research found, “the humorous testimonials were perceived as 5% more competent, 11% confident, and 37% higher in status.”

Aaker and Bagdonas go on to say that although “some believe that gravity and levity are at odds, the research tells a different story. When we refuse to take ourselves so seriously, we relieve the stress standing in the way of serious work, create more meaningful connections with colleagues, and open our minds to more innovative solutions.”

They also detail studies on humor as a tool to leverage more money out of negotiations, be a more effective leader, communicate better, and more. From their findings, there’s no aspect of the workplace where humor doesn’t benefit you and those around you.

How can I tell if my humor is appropriate for a professional situation?

“Start by listening. Step back [and] read the room,” O’Brien says. “It’s [like] getting to know a friend; you may start a little bit slower, and then reveal your true self as you go.” Joking around with colleagues, O’Brien continues, is “the fastest way, in my experience, to bond with people, particularly people on your same level.”

“On your same level” is an important consideration. A workplace contains every imaginable level of status—manager vs. direct report, new hire vs. salty vet, popular employee of the month vs. mysterious Devon who always has their camera off. The rule of thumb to make humor land comfortably, O’Brien says, is to “acknowledge your positionality in whatever space you’re in. Make sure the person or thing that is the butt of your joke is not someone of a lower status or a marginalized group.”

In comedy, this rule is commonly called “don’t punch down.” According to O’Brien, “[let’s say] you are the person in charge. Consider that people you’re talking to may feel higher emotions, they may be scared of layoffs, they might be worried about money in a different way than you are. Make sure that you’re not making light of someone else’s potential trouble.”

And of course, O’Brien cautions, “there are certain things that are just off the table, like language and inappropriate jokes. I’m not gonna make fart jokes in the office in the same way that I would necessarily in a [writers’] room.” Alas!

What if my joke doesn’t land?

Well, so what? You’re in the interview seat to make a human connection, not to get a Netflix special (unless that’s what you’re interviewing for, in which case, it’s a little troubling that you’re reading this article.) The same rules apply in your job interview or in the office as they do in a comedy club, O’Brien says. Humor can be so subjective … [don’t blame] your audience when something doesn’t feel right.”

However, a good way to avoid feeling like you’re going to get heckled is to “[not] leave these first meetings to chance. Look for clues that will help you make a personal connection—about their passions, unique experiences, and if possible, their sense of humor,” say Aaker and Bagdonas. Being able to read the room and adjust your light-hearted comments accordingly is key.

Other ways to brush up on your humor skills and nail your next interview are by analyzing what makes you laugh (you can learn more about your own humor style on the Humor, Seriously website), by practicing your storytelling, or by taking an improv class, a form based in finding agreement and truth first, not being “naturally funny.”

No matter what, as long as you follow the “don’t punch down” rule, Aaker and Bagdonas say, “even humor that people don’t find laugh-out-loud funny still leaves us better off if it’s regarded as appropriate—increasing others’ perceptions of our confidence.”

So get out there and knock ‘em dead! Worst case, you’ll have a funny story to tell at dinner.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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