by Chris Bucholz
So you told a joke, but instead of the expected gales of laughter, you’re greeted by naught but silence, or perhaps a long, mournful record scratch. In the back of the room, someone coughs. A baby begins crying. Somewhere in the world, a dove falls from the sky, dead.
What happened? You were sure that joke was going to kill. How did it go wrong? Is it someone else’s fault? That’d be super. It’s not, but boy, wouldn’t it be great if it was?
It’s still not.
As someone who’s heard more than his fair share of chirping crickets, I do have a bit of wisdom to share on the subject of failed jokes. Below I’ve enumerated four of the most common manners in which the comedy bed can be shat, as well as some helpful(ish) tips on how said bed may be discreetly unshat.
#4. They’d Heard It Before
There have been a few theories on what makes things funny, and if you want to read about them, go right ahead. (I’ll warn you in advance, though — this isn’t very funny stuff, and is in fact some of the driest, chalkiest shit ever written.) Problematically, most of these theories are badly incomplete. It’s usually quite easy to think of hilarious jokes that the theory doesn’t capture, or to construct jokes within the theory that are actually pretty terrible.
The theories aren’t completely worthless, however, and one condition that shows up in many of them is that for a joke to work, it needs to be surprising. The audience can’t see the joke coming. If that seems obvious to you, consider that it applies to more than just jokes repeated verbatim; it applies to formats and structures as well. Which is why, if you’ve watched sitcoms your whole life, you can turn to … well, nearly everything on CBS, and see all the jokes lumbering slowly toward you like sad, hilariously doomed dinosaurs. The jokes are still original, and funny in their own way, but because they follow the same structure and rhythm sitcoms have used for the last 50 years, they’re a lot less enjoyable to watch. A human being can tolerate only so many misunderstandings based on the different definitions of the word “poke” before they snap.
How to Do Better
The lesson is for you to try to tell jokes that people haven’t heard before.
Telling completely original jokes is actually a pretty lofty bar to reach all the time, but you can do yourself a favor by at least filtering out the first joke that pops into your head about a subject. Twitter is awful for this, especially during widely watched events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards, when something prompts millions of people to trip over themselves, all making the same joke at the same time. (I’ve been guilty of this myself a couple times, actually.) When we finally close the book on human civilization and tally up our accomplishments, it seems unlikely that one of our proudest moments is going to be our attempts to one-up each other by being the first to post obvious jokes in a venue that we all read in reverse chronological order anyway.
#3. They Didn’t Have Enough Information to Get It
So let’s say you’ve told a joke that is pretty original, but it still didn’t get much of a response. Did it require specific knowledge to understand? Like an inside joke, something only people who work in your office would get?
And yes, you get that, too; inside jokes aren’t funny to people who aren’t inside. But remember that there are subtle degrees of insiderness that we tend to overlook. Consider humor based on a reference to some piece of pop culture trivia. This is a huge crutch in the comedy industry, one I’m all too guilty of using myself.
To illustrate this, let’s look at Rocky IV, and even though we’re only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure this is one of the most exciting sentences I’ve ever written. If you haven’t seen it, Rocky IV is, on the surface, a movie about boxing. Beneath that mundane surface covering, however, is a film jam packed with completely preposterous things, to the point that many people forget that the film has a talking robot in it, because that’s among the least preposterous of those things.
Consequently, Rocky IV is a very funny thing to talk about, and I think I’ve mentioned it in my writing about 12 billion times now. Basically any time I’m discussing topics like montages, training to win, arrogance, friendship, montages, fighting to win, the Soviet Union, montages, or winning to fight, I will probably mention Rocky IV.
Now, that’s fine and that’s good, and I wouldn’t feel bad about dropping references to Rocky IV the rest of my life but for one problem: This movie came out 28 years ago, and a huge percentage (possibly even the majority) of my audience has never seen it. For example, the montage references I dropped above will be mostly indecipherable to you if you haven’t seen the film and don’t know that one-third of it is literally montages.
How to Do Better
Have an audience in mind when you think of a joke, and be at least somewhat mindful of the fact that they might not have the exact same interests and knowledge and experience you do. If you need to make a reference to something external, explain it if possible, or cut out the reference entirely. Understand that a joke only Battlestar Galactica fans can understand is probably less valuable than a joke about someone getting violently injured in the groin, which everyone can enjoy. Your goal as a funny person is to injure more people in the groin.
#2. It Was About Something They Won’t Laugh About, Ever
There are some things you take very seriously, topics so important to you that you’re unlikely to ever want to joke about them. I won’t and can’t tell you what issues are particularly important to you, but rape, or the death of a child, or genocide are pretty common ones most people have. You’ll have more, though, as colored by your personal experiences, or the experiences of your loved ones.
The problem is, these “extremely unfunny issues” are not universally held. What could be a reminder of a horrible tragedy to one person could, to another, be a brilliant example of slapstick humor.
There was a great example of this recently, during this year’s Academy Awards. In the opening, Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy fame, burst into song with a catchy little number called “We Saw Your Boobs.”
For the video-impaired, this was basically an up-tempo summarized list of famous actresses and the movies they’d appeared in naked. The joke here is straightforward, and if you’ve ever been a 13-year-old boy, you’ll get it immediately. Seeing boobs in a movie is a pretty big deal to a 13-year-old boy, and more than one sweaty lunchroom conversation has centered on which films these fabled mammary treasures could be found in. The gag, then, is in the juxtaposition: We have an adolescent discussion delivered not by two pimply teens, but via an old-fashioned song and dance number on Hollywood’s biggest stage. Juxtaposition like this is an excellent formula for making jokes, and has been used to great effect on Family Guy many times now.
But Family Guy has a slightly different audience from the Academy Awards, doesn’t it? Indeed, a sizable portion of the audience that night wasn’t a 13-year-old boy, and had never been a 13-year-old boy, and in fact might privately be a little annoyed at the amount of influence 13-year-old boys’ tastes seem to have over the movie industry. For an actress whose ability to find work is indeed quite distressingly tied to how nice her boobs are (instead of, you know, how good she is at acting), this isn’t a funny thing to talk about.
Without meaning to be venomous or mean-spirited (probably), MacFarlane stuck his foot right into a very big problem the movie industry has, one it hasn’t come even close to addressing yet, and one at least half his audience absolutely did not want to hear any jokes about.
How to Do Better
All too often in cases like this I hear that the answer is for an offended party to “get a sense of humor.”I hate this. I hate how it puts the blame for the failed joke on the audience, and I hate how it’s almost always used by crappy comedians defending crappy jokes. If someone takes something really seriously, they have reasons for it, reasons that they can’t ignore. Don’t mock them for that.
The solution then is to understand at least a bit about what your audience is not going to find funny and adjust your jokes accordingly, even throwing them out entirely. Can you live without that Holocaust joke? Yes of course you can. Idiot.
Now, I understand it’s not always possible to know what everyone who hears your joke knows and thinks and believes, and to know what issues will set them off. This is why many people feel that they’re funny around their friends (people they know quite well), but struggle when trying to be funny in a larger group. If you have a large audience, you’ll have to make educated guesses, based on what little you know about them, what they’re there to see, and what’s worked for you in the past. You might still end up cheesing off a couple people. But, if you can avoid the most obvious pitfalls (like insulting half your audience), you’ll be well ahead of the game.
Even then you’re not completely out of the woods if …
#1. Your Audience Changed
So let’s say you’ve got the hang of reading your audience. You’ve told a joke that was flawless, perfectly pitched to your target audience, and they laughed and laughed and gave you all the accolades, so many accolades.
But then, a few days go by, and you get an angry email. (Your joke was on the Internet, by the way. You’re basically always on the Internet now, right?) Someone else has read your joke and they think you are a monster.
Which you might be. But not because of this joke. So what went wrong?
Your audience shifted.
I have, on occasion, thought of really hilarious, really inappropriate jokes. I have also, on occasion, told these jokes to my close friends, friends who know my general moral views and know that I regularly speak in jest. So when I suddenly express an interest in social Darwinism, or sexual deviances, or sexual Darwinism, they know I’m not speaking genuinely, and will react accordingly.
Now, I’ve got a pretty good handle on you regular Cracked readers. You’re cool. You’re here for baffling facts about history and jokes and good times, and would probably accept my thoughts on how to rank the races based on ass size in the spirit with which they were intended.
But I’m not going to share these jokes with you, because this is the Internet, and if something goes either horribly right or horribly wrong, the audience for any given joke could increase massively, and suddenly include many people who, although they might possess excellent senses of humor, will also have different hang-ups from the typical Cracked reader.
Or they might be humorless idiots. That happens too sometimes.
How to Do Better
The good news is you don’t have to play things completely safe. Audience members have to take some responsibility for where they go. If you attend the Academy Awards, you should probably be ready to hear jokes about the movie you just made (but maybe not jokes about your entire gender). If you go to a satirical news website, you’re not allowed to feel shocked when you read satirical news. And if you come to Cracked, with our reputation for sometimes using big-boy language, don’t be surprised when some filth splashes on you.
So play within the boundaries you’ve established, based on the jokes you’ve already told or the venue you’re telling them in. And when you need to push those boundaries back, do it slowly. Tenderly. Get your audience laughing a bit first at less-edgy material. Lube ’em up a bit.
If you need an example, consider this very column. By my evaluation, the most worrisome topic I joked about here was social Darwinism, which is, ha-ha, actually pretty despicable. So, when editing the piece, I pushed that material toward the end, when everyone reading it would be nicely warmed up, and then cut out the 20 or so other race-sorting jokes that were littered throughout.
Much like I have to do with every column.
Read this article in Cracked
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