3 Thoughts on Comedy

I have a lot of strong opinions on Comedy, partly from performing for years. These are things I think people miss when they try to be funny.

Today is April Fools Day, and frankly, it’s probably my least favorite holiday.

I LOVE comedy. I don’t just watch Stand Up comedians, I try to dissect their jokes, try to see what about it makes people laugh. I listen to comedy podcasts, like Vulture’s Good One with Jesse David Fox or The Jackie and Laurie Show. So many “comedy” podcasts are really there for you to enjoy, and either have funny hosts trying to make you, the audience laugh, or just play recordings of stand up. Good One will start with playing a bit of stand up, but then after a bit (the end of a series of jokes) it will stop, and the host will actually interview the comic, or comedian, about THAT SET OF JOKES specifically. Not just who they are, how they got into comedy, but what made you write that joke, why did you choose this word, or how many times did the joke change before you thought it was funny enough to record? Then The Jackie and Laurie Show is just a conversation between two comics, but they aren’t trying to make you, the podcast audience, laugh. They are talking about their careers as traveling comedians, doing sets on some late night talk show, and writing new jokes. I’ve also performed Improv comedy (like Who’s Line Is It Anyway?) on stage for years, and practiced weekly to get better at being funny with no preparation.

All of that to say, that I appreciate comedy as an art form, and April Fools Day is the day of the year that everyone thinks they are suddenly comedians. That they can just put on the “Funny” hat and everyone should laugh for them. The jokes that people make have the same comedic value as a clown slipping on a banana peel, or the wrapper joke of a Laffy Taffy.

But, if you want your jokes to be good, and you want to understand what makes something funny, here are a few tools you can use, to actually be funny.

2 Steps to Any Joke

The fastest way to know that someone has missed the point of a joke, is if you ask them “What are the 2 parts to a joke?” and the respond “Setup and Punchline.” This is simply not true. There are jokes that don’t follow this formula. For example, when a comic is telling a story about something that happened to them, and the story is just funny, there’s no punchline, but you still laugh. Or, a negative space joke, which is just the setup, and they let you put in enough context to make the punchline in your head.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

No, the two steps to any joke is “Benign Violation.” When something is wrong, but ultimately okay.

We all learn this is the core to comedy intrinsically when we are very young. When you watch old Saturday morning cartoons, and the Coyote is trying to get the Roadrunner, he inevitably gets seriously hurt. He might fall off a cliff, hundreds of feet high, and create almost an explosion as he gets hits the ground. That is the violation, seeing a character, our Point-of-View character, suddenly having an accident that would lead to an extremely painful death, and if it was his death, then it wouldn’t be funny. If he fell off the cliff, and the shot was his tombstone, it wouldn’t be funny, and frankly many kids would get very upset. But no, it’s a Benign Violation, ultimately it’s okay, because the next shot is him setting up his next trap. Nothing bad actually happened, everything is still okay.

Every joke you hear, whether or not you think it’s funny is if you think it is wrong, but ultimately okay. This is where a lot of people get hung up on when a comedian makes a joke that is “too far” or “not okay.” Offensive comedy relies heavily on the “violation” part, and knows that only the people that think it’s “benign” will like it, and they trust that they will find the audience that agrees with them. However, now that every comedians content is available to everyone, regardless of their views, that is why there is such an uproar, and some people saying “comedy is dead,” because people that don’t find their jokes “benign” are finding them, and getting upset.

Let’s look at the ultimate “You couldn’t make that today” movie, Blazing Saddles. This Gene Wilder film has become the poster child of a comedy that would be outright banned by modern audiences at large, even though it has such a strong following. The movie mostly makes racist jokes, about a Black sheriff in a racist Old West town, but also makes a series of homophobic and sexist jokes as well. While the movie was a huge hit then, making $120mil on a $2.6mil budget, many of the jokes now would not be considered “benign” due to the current common viewpoint about what is acceptable to joke about, and what is not. An argument for why a joke about Jewish people would be funny to some, but not to others, is because you might “not care” about Jewish oppression and anti-Semitism. But it’s not actually the jokes themselves, that are the sole arbiter of what is benign and what’s not. It’s who is making the joke, and whether or not you trust them.

If you go see a comedian that you don’t know make a joke about something that you don’t think is appropriate, like sexual assault, for instance, if you think that sexual assault is wrong, you might not think that joke is funny. However, if you hear the joke from someone you trust, or you think understands the gravity of sexual assault, then the same joke, told the same way, might become benign, because you trust that they aren’t actually advocating for sexual assault.

Louis CK built his career on this idea, and then it died on that idea. He had extremely graphic comedy, about topics that any smart comic would avoid. However, when he did these graphic jokes, they were still funny, and he was one of the biggest comics in the country, because he would spend more time building trust in the audience before a joke, than on the joke itself. He wanted to make sure that you were on his side, and that you trusted him, when he said he did something terrible. Then, during the #MeToo movement, Louis CK was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault. Now, we don’t trust him, because he IS actually doing the terrible things he was joking about. Now when you look back on those jokes, it loses it’s “benign” status.

While he does make fun of wounded soldiers, he first says he agrees that it’s a tragedy, as an attempt to earn your trust. So when he makes the Violation (it’s your fault), it feels Benign (He supports our troops).

So, when you want to make a joke that is inappropriate, you need to know if your audience finds it benign, and if not, how you can build trust that you are on the same side of the issue. Then, and only then, can you make the violation of the joke, and it will be much more likely to succeed.

The Rule of 3

So much of the human brain identifies and appreciates things in groups of three. Almost every environment in our life has a Rule of 3.

  • “Omne trium perfectum” was a popular Latin phrase meaning “everything that comes in threes is perfect”
  • In photography, imagine a 3×3 grid over the field of view, and place your subject along that grid, and it will be visually appealing.
  • Western storytelling has a Beginning, Middle, and End
  • Past, Present, and Future
  • You can survive, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food
  • Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion
  • Famous groups
    • Three Little Pigs
    • Three Muskateers
    • Three Stooges
    • Captain America, Thor, Iron Man
    • Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman
    • Luke, Han, Leia
    • Harry, Ron, Hermoine
  • Famous phrases
    • Truth, Justice, and the American Way
    • Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
    • I came, I saw, I conquered
    • Stop, Drop, and Roll

Well, in comedy the Rule of 3 is also perfect for a recurring joke. If you make a joke that works, and everyone laughs, you’ll have a natural tendency to want to make that joke again, or a joke that is a callback, which is an easy win. However, if you try to make the joke a THIRD time, there needs to be a twist, something that is still clearly based on the first two, but crucially different in some way. This will defy (a violation) the expectations of your audience. However, once you hit that third time with a twist, the joke is now dead. If you then try to make the same joke a fourth time, you might get some laughs, but it will be diminishing returns, each time will be less and less funny than the time before.

Again, this is something you might intrinsically know, and you can learn to use intentionally. So many jokes use this trope.

  • A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar…
  • There’s a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead…

So any time you notice that you’ve made a joke twice, find the twist for the third time, and then don’t make the joke again.

Also, this article gives you 3 tools for jokes.

Extra Details (expand or delete)

The last tool I have to make something mundane funny, is to add extra details that aren’t necessary. It’s hard to exactly describe what it is about very specific extra details. John Mulaney is really good at this in the bit below:

By the way, Detective JJ Bittenbinder wore three-piece suits. He also wore a pocket watch. Two years in a row, he wore a cowboy hat. He also had a huge handlebar mustache. None of that matters, but it’s important to me that you know that.

He did not look like his job description. He looked like he should be the conductor on a locomotive powered by confetti. But, instead, he made his living in murder. He was the weirdest goddamn person I ever saw in my entire life. He was a man most acquainted with misery. He could look at a child and guess the price of their coffin. That line never gets a laugh. But once you write it, it stays in the act forever.

John Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous

There is something about extra details that can make a joke so much better. Often times the details don’t actually need to be true to be funny. What might help is if the details are adjectives, descriptive in nature, things that can really let you see what the joke is about, without being necessarily rude about it. If your details are just insulting the subject, it’s not going to land, as much as just making the subject a realistic depiction. This is something you will know if it works, but something fun to keep an eye out for, that might not be obvious at first.

Taylor Tomlinson is great at this.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t come off as too entitled about jokes, I just really love the art of comedy, and wanted to share some observations that might make you funnier than a clown slipping on a banana peel.

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