Deadpan Comedy Demystified: Embracing Dry Humor

Have you ever known someone who said things in a serious tone who wasn’t to be taken seriously? It can be confusing when someone does this. Are they joking? Are they a little bit odd? It’s possible they are using dry humor.

This type of humor, also known as deadpan humor or dry wit, is known for its understated body language and facial expressions. Learning about dry humor can help you understand and appreciate it in the future. 

What is Dry Humor?

A dry sense of humor doesn’t rely on silly mannerisms or voices to convey a humorous point. People with this style of humor are often considered sarcastic or perhaps a little odd.

If you have this humor style, someone might tell you, “I never know if you’re joking!” 

It’s easy to be misunderstood when your humor is on the arid side. However, it can be a very funny moment if someone is savvy enough to catch your meaning. You either understand dry humor, or you don’t.

Dry Humor Examples

Here are a few examples of dry humor from comedians and actors known for their skill with it. 

“If you think nobody cares about you, try missing a couple of payments.” – Steven Wright.

“I’ve never been married, but I tell people I’m divorced so they won’t think something is wrong with me.” – Elayne Boosler.

Elements of Dry Humor

Some important aspects of dry humor include:

  • A fairly calm facial expression and demeanor.
  • It requires a good sense of timing.
  • It can be structured like a long, rambling joke with a twist at the end. 

Dry humor greatly differs from slapstick or sketch comedy, which often uses big movements, exaggerated facial expressions, or a louder tone or voice to make a joke or comment funnier.

Dry humor is often linked with what some call “highbrow comedy” since the style needs some reserve to work. But good dry humor usually uses words that are easy for people of any level of education to understand. It also often uses daily words as part of the content.

Dry Sense of Humor Vs. Sarcasm

It’s important to note that not all sarcasm is dry humor, and not all dry humor is sarcasm. It’s not the same. We wouldn’t need a different description if that weren’t the case.

Sarcasm is often used to express the opposite of what someone really means, usually with a tone of irritation or mockery. It may not always be intended to be funny, and sometimes, it can even come across as mean-spirited.

Dry humor, on the other hand, is a type of comedy that relies on subtle wit and clever puns delivered in a deadpan manner. It may seem serious or even absurd, but the goal is always to make people laugh.

In short, sarcasm can often be negative and harsh, while dry humor is more light-hearted and clever.

Video Examples

Many successful comedians and comic actors have a dry sense of humor. Seeking out the comics and actors most famous for using it can help you understand it better.

If you’ve ever watched Parks and Recreation, you’ll recognize the style in Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson character.

Check out this YouTube video for some of his most iconic deadpan moments. 

Norm McDonald is also a perfect example of someone who was often criticized for how he said some truly absurd things.

He was renowned for drawing laughs out of apparently mundane situations.

On SNL and in his many stand-up specials, Macdonald showed that deadpan humor can flourish in the hands of an astute and creative mind. Here’s an example of one of his meandering jokes on an episode of Conan on TBS. 

Bea Arthur’s biting comebacks and “straight-man” performance as Dorothy on the Golden Girls are other examples of dry humor.

Her legendary prominence in the annals of comedy is attested to by her memorable parts in television classics like Maude and The Golden Girls, in which she skillfully manipulated her audience with clever retorts and raised eyebrows. 

Dry Humor Comedian Examples

Some of the world’s most famous comedians use dry humor to make their audiences guffaw. Here are a few of our favorites. 

Mitch Hedberg 

Mitch Hedberg was one of the best wielders of non-sequiturs. His casual, deadpan style captivated audiences as they waited for his next joke.

His famous comedy specials, like Strategic Grill Locations and Mitch All Together, show how he can make people laugh even when they don’t expect it.

Even though he died too soon, Hedberg greatly impacted the comedy scene. He inspired many comics to accept the unpredictable nature of deadpan humor.

Aubrey Plaza

Another Parks alum, Plaza is renowned for her sarcastic, dry, and deadpan delivery of jokes.

As April Ludgate, her demeanor is played against Chris Pratt’s loveable golden retriever of a character, Andy. 

Johnny Carson

The original leader of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson was famous for his wit and charm, often deployed with dry humor.

He delighted guests and audiences alike with his one-liners. 

Dry Humor Movies Examples

If you’re not into Home Alone or movies that use slapstick physical comedy to get laughs, maybe you’d enjoy something with more dry humor. 

The Royal Tenenbaums

Released in 2001, this movie is about a family reunion of a mother, father, and their three talented children. However, it’s much more complex than that, as you’ll soon discover. 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

An oceanographer is trying to get revenge on a shark that ate a crewmate. This movie features one of the kings of dry humor, Bill Murray. 

Shaun of the Dead

The zombie apocalypse happens. The movie follows a lovable underachiever, Shaun, played by Simon Pegg. 

Hot Fuzz

Two small-town English cops discover a weird cult in their quiet village. Hijinks ensue. 

The Big Lebowski 

A laid-back bowling enthusiast, Jeff Lebowski, is mistaken for another person with the same name and ensnared in a series of surreal mishaps in an attempt to have his rug replaced. 

Final Thoughts  

Those blessed with a quick wit and a good poker face may find dry humor comes to them naturally. Others, who are naturally more expressive, may have to practice.

But if you study the masters of the art we’ve listed in this article, you will have a good start to learning how to snark with the best of them. 

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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