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What Is Dry Humor?

Malcolm Tatum
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Often referred to as deadpan humor, dry humor is a comedy technique that is characterized by a calm and straightforward delivery by the performer. This is in contrast to such comedy art forms as slapstick or sketch comedy, which often relies upon broad gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, or an emphasized tone or tenor in order to heighten the comic appeal of the joke or remark. Often, dry humor is associated with what some people refer to as highbrow comedy, as the style requires a degree of restraint in order to be effective. However, good dry humor usually employs words that are easily accessible to persons of just about any educational level and often makes use of everyday terms as part of the content.

With dry humor, the focus is on the actual words that are used, rather than the use of various devices that call attention or emphasis to parts of the delivery process. The construction of the joke or script may in and of itself be slightly mocking or sarcastic in nature, although the vocal delivery will tend to limit the use of inflection or tone to convey those qualities. Instead, the delivery of the humor tends to be in normal casual tones, sometimes accompanied with a slight smile or look that is allowed just a hint of irony. This helps pull the attention of the audience to the words themselves, rather than distracting them with movements or expressions.

The double-entendre is a very common verbal device used in the delivery of dry humor. An excellent example of this device is found in British comedy. Considered by many persons to be masters in the art of dry humor, many British comedy presentations over the years have employed the use of a common term that in fact could have more than one meaning, often one that was considered to be slightly racy. When delivered in a perfectly serious and deadpan mode, this dry humor device can produce riotous responses from an audience, and seems to stay fresh over an extended period of time.

Many successful comedic performers, both British and American, have built careers based on the successful employment of dry humor. Along with stage, television, and movie performers, many writers make use of dry humor in novels, magazine articles, and newspaper columns.

Dry Humor Examples From Renowned Comedians

We all use dry humor from time to time. It can be fun to keep a straight face when situations otherwise call for big reactions. There are many comedians considered legends for this sort of deadpan comedy. Here are three prime examples.

Norm McDonald was famously fired from Saturday Night Live when he was told to stop making such serious jokes about O.J. Simpson. Even after he was warned, Norm still got on the air, looked right into the camera with a straight face, and delivered his punchline about, "you guessed it: O.J. Simpson." He stuck to his comedic principles, though his stoic deliveries cost him a job.

Tig Notaro is notoriously deadpan. She shocked the world during one of her Netflix comedy specials. Early in the show, she removed her jacket in a mundane way. The audience suddenly started whistling and howling as if she were doing a striptease. Without flinching, Tig dryly played along with the escalating catcalls and ended up totally topless for a part of her show. This comedic fearlessness was in part to demonstrate how she holds no shame for being a survivor of breast cancer.

Hanna Gadsby takes dry humor to a whole new level during her renowned show "Nanette." Shortly after taking the stage, Hanna states she is quitting standup, and the show quickly becomes a blend of the meta-awareness of her comedic process and a recounting of personal traumas in life. Her brand of confessional, dry humor evokes tension-breaking laughter from audiences.

Hallmarks of a Dry Sense of Humor Personality

Some people seem to be born with a personality suited to dry humor. "When you have a gift, you give it." That's what my little brother always told me, but only whenever he wanted what I had. Whenever I complained, though, Mom always had my back. She would say, "He's not going to stop pestering you. Make it easy on us all and just give him what he wants." My mother taught me a lot about life and parenting.

If this sounds anything like your sense of humor, then you may be naturally deadpan. Perhaps people cannot tell when you are being funny versus serious. Maybe you find that you are the only one laughing at your joke. Maybe sarcasm is like a second language to you. Here are some signs that you have a personality suited to dry humor:

  • Darker humor is your favorite.
  • You have an excellent poker face.
  • You are quick-witted.
  • Cynicism is a part of your worldview.
  • Nothing phases you.
  • You easily find the funny parts of a bad situation.
  • You use intelligence to dissect incidents.
  • Mainstream humor isn't funny to you.

Differences Between Dry Humor vs Sarcasm

If you have read this far, congratulations, you now have a basic grasp of the subject. You should make yourself a certificate that says, "Yay! I completed an analysis of Dry Humor!" You could hang it in your office. Put it up next to the many other certifications, credentials, diplomas, accolades, and awards that you have surely achieved by now.

The preceding is simply to demonstrate the subtle difference between dry humor and pointed sarcasm. The statements shifted from adopting a seemingly serious mentality about awarding your efforts to insulting you for the number of achievements in your life. Both are delivered in a straightforward way, but the sarcasm at the end is targeted at an individual. Both suggest something with seriousness but only one is an insult.

Dry humor uses seeming sincerity, often acting straightforward or even bordering on obliviousness. Sarcasm is often delivered the same way but is actually a falsehood, a reversal of truth spoken in irony. This implicit falsehood is a feature that can be used to disparage another. Eager agreement given too readily can be transformed into denigration by maintaining the over-eagerness.

Signs You Have a Sarcastic Sense of Humor

You might have a sarcastic personality if the following ring true:

  • You like saying inappropriate things for a laugh.
  • Social media evokes a desire to poke fun at the thoughts of others.
  • You battle others with your wits and words.
  • When you are trying to be serious, others may not realize it or don't trust you.
  • When you actually dislike someone, they may not know since you verbally pick on everyone.
  • Sentimental or emotional moments inspire you to make jokes for a sense of balance.
  • You treat new people nicely since you aren't comfortable enough to jokingly barb them yet.

There is another way to tell if you have a sarcastic sense of humor: You found this article tedious because you think you understand humor better than the experts.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By jessiwan — On Jun 27, 2019

I guess I must have the taste of peasants, because I personally find slapstick comedy absolutely hilarious. For example, I was just watching someone's parodies of some popular songs on youtube, and they nearly killed me.

I guess I am able to enjoy dry humor (if I can understand the joke. Sometimes I can't). I realize, consciously, that it's clever, and I appreciate the thought process that went into creating it. However, it just doesn't elicit "riotous response" from me nearly as much as the crude, dumb, over-the-top stuff.

By anon957841 — On Jun 23, 2014

I can't believe there are people on here who are so bored, so sad, and so self-absorbed in their lives that they have to try and turn this topic into an Anti-American situation. Tend to your own yard.

By anon931551 — On Feb 09, 2014

The best part of British, Scots and south Asians is that they can laugh at the smallest and pettiest remarks and control the laugh whenever they like.

By anon355259 — On Nov 14, 2013

Is Larry David considered dry humor? I think the guy is the funny and very entertaining. A few people have said the words dry humor when referring to him. Someone please clue me in!

By anon317499 — On Feb 02, 2013

My friend claims to have dry humor, but she is more ignorant then anything.

By anon291510 — On Sep 14, 2012

If you enjoy dry humor, I greatly recommend "Parks and Recreation", specifically, Aubrey Plaza. Her monotone delivery and telling smirk are priceless.

By anon283488 — On Aug 04, 2012

I've been told that I have a lovely dry sense of humor. This mostly by the same person that complains about my uncalled for sarcastic quips.

By anon259381 — On Apr 05, 2012

Good article. The anon poster on post 52 who said that Monty Python is "dry humor" probably doesn't understand fully what the term means.

All of Monty Python's stuff is over-the-top slapstick-style. Granted, there is a little bit present in his films, but for the most part it is purely slapstick, black comedy, irony and parody. For the record, I love "The Life Of Brian."

By anon254001 — On Mar 12, 2012

To the guys in Post 50 and 51: he did call British a race, but he was American, so he is excused.

By anon238103 — On Jan 02, 2012

I agree that dry humor is the best kind of humor, in that it isn't so much "dry" as it is "fresh." Nothing beats a witty remark or sarcastic statement, particularly from the likes of Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill. Also, I would agree that humor in America is insufficiently evocative, as it is overdone and far too deliberate. British humo(u)r trumps all.

By anon220488 — On Oct 07, 2011

I've doing dry humor since fourth grade. I do believe it's mostly used by the shy or socially awkward, as well as more intelligent people. I was shy growing up and when I would actually say something, it would be funny, straight forward, and delivered expressionlessly.

A kid once said to me he thought it was hilarious that everything I said was said with a straight face. My current boyfriend and I like to watch comedies, but his idea of funny is slapstick, Will Ferrell-type routines which never get so much as a smirk from me. Stuff like Monty Python, or Woody Allen's drier humor.

By anon211142 — On Sep 01, 2011

To the guy from post 50, I don't think he actually called the British a race.

By anon190841 — On Jun 27, 2011

I think that most people here are suggesting that certain nationalities, especially Americans, cannot do dry humor (or humour for you Brits) because random stereotypes that you have that are actually not really based on anything but probably the observations from the Jersey Shore or something similar. And in fact, if you are getting your opinions of all Americans from watching bad TV, then you are probably no better than the Americans who watch said show.

Also, if you think Americans are dumb, I would like to point out that "British" is not a race, it is a nationality. "White", however, is.

By anon185711 — On Jun 13, 2011

I think, Mrs. Slocum's often used two words in "Are you being served?" is a very good example of British dry humor - "My pussy".

By anon184926 — On Jun 09, 2011

I think the dry humor of the Brits is hilarious. American humor however, can't really fit a proper word to describe it; it's somewhat overdone and simple. And that's coming from an American.

By anon171230 — On Apr 29, 2011

Some people are always trying to seem smarter than the rest of the human race. I agree potty humor is absurd, but there's nothing wrong with a few Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell's exaggerated moments (although sometimes they go a little towards the gutter). Doesn't make Brits a superior race because they laugh at dry delivery of jokes more than anyone else. That seems to be all foreigner's "argument".

By anon167308 — On Apr 12, 2011

I feel you have to actually be educated to a degree to enjoy dry humor. Also, it is really straightforward and does not need absurd gestures to supplement the joke. That is why I truly enjoy dry humor, and it is done much better in Britain. Americans are just much too dumbed down by the media to even understand this form of comedy.

By anon155063 — On Feb 22, 2011

I think the Americans in these comments are a prime example of why Americans in general don't get dry humor. Unless there is some "canned laughter" and they don't have to think, they don't find it funny.

By anon151549 — On Feb 10, 2011

at least the brits don't need a laughter track to tell them when to laugh.

By anon150268 — On Feb 07, 2011

I think it should be acknowledged that the term "dry humor" is not very well defined. There does not seem to be a consensus as to what precisely 'dry humor' is.

Many of the examples cited here (e.g. Monty Python, Steven Wright, Leslie Nielsen in some of his comedic roles) seem to me to be better described as absurdist humor. When I think of 'dry humor' - vague a concept as it is - I usually think of the sort of sarcastic quips Sean Connery or Roger Moore's James Bond character occasionally made, or the sort of 'witty' remarks the early Beatles were famous for in their interactions with the media. It's not really something you usually see as part of a comedic act; it;s more understated than that.

I can see where it might occasionally overlap with absurdist humor or 'deadpan' (the latter being more of a verb - a means of delivery - than a style of humor), but in the end it is just not well defined enough to debate its merits.

By anon147393 — On Jan 29, 2011

I think Jack Dee is a good example of dry humour. check him out online!

By anon124184 — On Nov 04, 2010

I didn't really read everyone's comments but a big mention for Steven Wright, surely? I know we British do it better than anyone but his is the epitome of the dry one-liner.

By anon113824 — On Sep 26, 2010

Dry humor, (or "humour", for you damned foreigners), is mainly about what isn't said.

This is why Latins are not known for their dry humor, since no Latin can ever leave anything unsaid.

(Several times over, in fact.)

And then there are Germans and their ilk. It is to be sincerely wished by many, both far and wide, that they would aspire to become the "Jedi masters" of the art.

By anon113104 — On Sep 23, 2010

@29: Leslie Nielsen: Canadian.

Bill Murray: definitely not Canadian. Grew up in a suburb of Chicago, went to college in Colorado, then worked at Second City Chicago before moving to NYC.

By anon101282 — On Aug 02, 2010

This cyber-conversation just flat-lined. You have all ruined humor for me. Why aren't any of these comments funny? Why? Dry humor has never been, nor will it ever be, a political stance!

By anon93744 — On Jul 05, 2010

Oh I do love a good Brits-hating session.

By anon88510 — On Jun 05, 2010

To whomever said Leslie Nielsen and Bill Murray were good American comedians: you sir (or ma'am) have an excellent sense of dry humor. For those who don't know, both men are Canadian. Canadians tend to have a rather British appreciation for humor.

By anon79012 — On Apr 21, 2010

OK so if dry humor is: With dry humor, the focus is on the actual words that are used, rather than the use of various devices that call attention or emphasis to parts of the delivery process, then how can you say Monty Python utilizes dry humor? Their skits are so over-the-top and slapstick, their is nothing subtle about it.

The Search for the Holy Grail and other Python skits are delivered serious and deadpan as to hide the joke in the words? come on, really? are you people blind?

By anon77541 — On Apr 14, 2010

The Brits do dry humor better than anyone else. Monty Python has never been equaled in that vein. Further, the post-Python work by the individual members such as John Cleese and Michael Palin makes for a long, funny list.

A contemporary Brit paradigm is Hugh Laurie (the eponymous doctor of "House, M.D." TV series), who does an American accent so well many people don't realize he's a Brit and was a long-established comedic performer, e.g. Fry and Laurie team, before he became an "overnight" TV star in the US.

A few negative opinions expressed above contain a distinct element of hostility. Possible reasons: 1) They resent having to think a little bit more than they're accustomed to in order to get the joke; 2) They can't think fast enough to keep up with a rapid delivery pace; 3) Frustration over their inability to get it, period, for lack of prerequisite knowledge.

I would bet those people are great fans of, say, Dane Cook. Not much knowledge or thinking required with his type.

By anon75855 — On Apr 08, 2010

slapstick is just plain dumb. i mean, i see what the joke is supposed to be, but it doesn't elicit a laugh response from me because it's just so inane and stupid. i feel we are dumbed down by it, and the toilet humor is just, no, not my thing at all. dry humor is often paralleled with situational humor -- laughs from stuff that can actually happen in real life (maybe not everything from the movie something about mary, but some of it! - for example).

By anon68443 — On Mar 02, 2010

To enjoy dry humor it helps to be able to think while one listens. This is often hard for us westerners across the pond who love our toilet humor! I must admit, however, I prefer dry humor over poo jokes any day.

By anon60499 — On Jan 14, 2010

I've always been a huge fan of dry humor, but I never could tell the difference between all the kinds of comedy out there. I would just sit there laughing away and every one else would just sit there with strange looks on their faces.

I finally decided to look up the definition so that maybe I could tell the difference, and you helped me out a lot. Thank you! Jamie

By anon56892 — On Dec 18, 2009

Wow, why are so many people hating on dry humor? lol. I am always told I have dry humor and people love it and I never really knew what it was. I just talk and say what's on my mind with out trying to be really funny and people just laugh. Usually it's about the stuff everyone's thinking but no one is comfortable enough to say themselves.

At least one of you said dry humor and sarcasm is learned over time with age. That's such crap. I'm 21 and have been told I have good dry humor for almost half my life :) And I agree, British comedy is hilarious! :) I was exposed to it on my first British Airways flight a few years ago. I love Brits. :)

By anon56115 — On Dec 12, 2009

People don't get dry humor and mistake it with nonsense and dribble. Most annoying part is that they aren't even ready to understand what it is all about.

By anon55879 — On Dec 10, 2009

i think its all pretty funny. It's the first time i actually saw a debate over whats funny and whats not.

i mean, funny is funny. If it ain't, don't laugh and get over it.

By anon53731 — On Nov 24, 2009

What do people mean by they didn't know that the English laughed at anything. Now, I'm an Australian, making me completely third party and impartial, and if you want my opinion, English comedy is way better than American. I mean, The Peep Show? Hilarious!

By anon49721 — On Oct 22, 2009

I think the article clearly states that dry humor is an acquired sense as you get older, Most young people don't have the life experience to understand it. Same goes for Sarcasm. I hate little b*tches who don't understand sarcasm.

By anon48215 — On Oct 10, 2009

My own humor is dry, or perhaps slightly damp. I love great deadpan comics like Jack Benny, Tim Conway and Bob Newhart. Monty Python combines the dry style with absurd material - brilliant.

By anon45837 — On Sep 20, 2009

Dry humor stinks. Not funny.

By anon45721 — On Sep 19, 2009

I stand corrected, as I was just reminded of several American dry humorists who don't give the audience a hint. Bill Murray, for one. Leslie Nielsen made his career out of delivering humorous lines without seeming to notice that anything he said was funny at all.

By anon45719 — On Sep 19, 2009

The reason why the British are so well known for their dry humor, is possibly the same reason a few people here didn't even know the British were funny. These people probably thought it was all Benny Hill and (the less funny) Monty Python sketches. American dry humor is nearly always with an obvious smirk. The British dry humor doesn't seem to give as many hints that a joke was even told. You have to be listening for it.

By anon38366 — On Jul 26, 2009

wait, you mean the british have comedy, and its not all sunshine and rainbows over there? my mind just blew up.

By anon29364 — On Mar 31, 2009

Actually, it is a known fact that the English had a well-developed sense of slap-stick comedy before the Norman Invasion. Unfortunately, this came to an end shortly before the end of the Battle of Hastings when Harold was heard to quip, "Come on lads, its all fun and games until someone pokes their eye out."

By jasmineamaya — On Mar 19, 2009

The first comment, or rather the last one before mine, is a dry humor joke. I hope you see it. It's hilarious.

By anon25547 — On Jan 30, 2009

I didn't realize the British ever did anything considered comedy.

By anon23328 — On Dec 21, 2008

Would Jimmy Carr be a good example of dry humor? He tells his jokes with a very straight face, and uses the double-entendre a lot...

By anon19310 — On Oct 09, 2008

Because it rains so much over there.

By anon18212 — On Sep 17, 2008

As a fan of British sitcoms, I think they have a well-deserved reputation for dry humor because they their comedy often has such a sense of irony to it. They tend to be able to make fun of their cultural institutions while appearing to be totally serious. Plus, many of their situation comedies employed effective use of the double-entendre, delivered once again with a straight face.

By lemmings — On Sep 16, 2008

Why are the British so well known for dry humor?

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum

Writer

Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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