I have been performing stand-up comedy for 8 years. I’ve tried a lot of styles, I’ve performed to a lot of audiences, but mostly I’ve dedicated a not inconsiderable amount of my idle brain power to writing, dissecting, and thinking about stand-up routines and jokes. This hobby has left me with some thoughts about what makes jokes funny and what makes them offensive, or rubbish, or boring. And, seen as how it is my turn to write the blog post, I thought I would attempt to distill some of them down on paper (or screen if you haven’t printed this post out to read on the tube like a normal person).
Before we get started I think it’s worth pointing out the obvious: comedy is subjective. Not everyone finds the same things funny and everyone has personal preferences, be that of performers (I’ve never really liked John Bishop) or genres (nor the American style of stand-up which involves telling ‘jokes’ one after another). But I think there are two things that inform our personal preferences and they have a lot less to do with the joke that’s being told (by which I mean the literal words coming out of the performer’s mouth) and a lot more to do with who is doing the telling and what we think about them.
So, what do you need to make a joke funny? I think it boils down to the following: trust and respect.
A lot of the funny lives right next door to offensive and often people talk about there being a ‘line’ between the two. Jokes get funnier as they approach the line and become less funny when they hit it and pass over to the other side. I’m not a fan of this metaphor because I think the same joke can be funny or not funny simply based on who is telling it. The line does not exist in the same space for everybody and, if that’s the case, what’s the point in there being a line at all? (Admittedly the metaphor works better in some non-Euclidean geometries but this post is not about maths or about this metaphor, so who has the time?)
Here is an example, if my friend X makes a joke about how he is included on poster for diversity purposes, I will probably laugh. This is, in part, because X is very funny and he would make the joke in an interesting way, but also because I know that X has dedicated a lot of his time to raising the profile of BAME Scientists in a way that doesn’t involve just sticking them on a poster. The fact that he must navigate the world of institutionalised racism on a daily basis and actively pushes back both explicitly and implicitly in all of his research and hobbies adds a layer of irony to the joke which makes it funny. But it’s not just that. When I heard the same joke told by a white friend in reference to a black person they know (“my friend went to a conference and immediately put her on the poster”) I did not laugh, even though it may be just as ironic to use her as a token PoC.
The difference between these two jokes is that I trust X. Specifically, I trust that the joke he is making is “it is ironic that this institution is using me to look more diverse when they could help me actually make them more diverse by giving a small amount of support to one of my projects” instead of “there aren’t very many black people at STEM conferences no matter who is on the poster”. I trust X to be making a joke about structural discrimination and institutional incompetence, not about a lack of PoC and so I can laugh without worrying that I am condoning racism.
If you don’t understand why I don’t like it if you joke about me hating men because I am gay but still make jokes about hating men because I am gay, this is why. I don’t trust you to not be laughing at me and I don’t trust you to not be buying into that stereotype. If you are a cishet person that I do not know very well (or perhaps one I know too well) I don’t trust that you’re not queerphobic and that you don’t contribute to the hatred of the LGBTQ+ community. But, I do trust myself and many other queer performers to be able to explore and criticise the queer-women*-are-man-haters stereotype using irony and, where possible, puns. I think, in order to make a joke, particularly one that features a marginalised community, you need to have earned the trust of your audience so that they know you are not a perpetuator of the circumstances that made that joke. Otherwise they don’t feel comfortable laughing.
How much you trust the person making the joke will, most of the time, be entirely subconscious. Either you will feel comfortable laughing at the joke or you won’t and I am arguing that the level of comfortableness you feel will be based on the assumptions you make about the person. When the joke has more than one potential punchline, how much you trust them to be making the joke that you think is funny is a factor in whether or not you laugh.
But, that’s enough about why white, cishet, able-bodied men aren’t funny. Let’s look at marginalised groups now as the next bit, I think, explains why many people “just don’t find them funny”.
There is a difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. When you laugh at someone the object of laughter is entirely passive, they may have fallen over or said something stupid or done a fart but they didn’t choose to do or say that thing that made you laugh. When you laugh with someone, they need to have actively engineered the thing so that they are also outside the joke looking in.
What does this have to do with respect? I think a large part of seeing a joke is thinking that one is being made in the first place. In order to presume someone has made a joke, you have to think they are clever enough and funny enough to do so. In other words, you need to afford them a certain level of respect. This is particularly important in those ambiguous situations where a comment might be a joke or it might be serious remark, where the person making joke might be saying something clearly stupid for comic effect or actually doesn’t understand the situation, where you have to decide the intentions of the person before working out how to respond.
Here, our subconscious biases about the intelligence of those around us play a big part in which intentions we presume. I think this is one of the main reasons why a lot of people “just don’t think women are funny”. Women make jokes all the time but if you are more likely to assume that a woman is actually angry at your throw away sexist comment as opposed to trying to diffuse the situation with a sarcastic joke or really doesn’t know what the word deception means instead of pretending to be an idiot for the amusement of her Twitter followers, then that is exactly what you will see.
But aha!, humans have the capacity to change their tone and body language to inform others of what they mean. Well, for starters, if you have the ability to do that then, congratulations, enjoy a life of people not always presuming you are a sarcastic robot. More seriously, from my experience, the deeply entrenched subconscious biases that make people think women aren’t capable of running companies or doing maths also blind you to the body language and tone that screams “this is a big fucking joke, dumbass”. It also doesn’t help that we learn to process the meaning of tone through exposure to scenarios and, if you are told a woman, takes herself too seriously, if you never see people laugh at her sarcastic comments then you learn to process a sarcastic-I’m-clearly-joking tone of voice as a deadly serious statement.
The impact of this isn’t just binary, either, a lack of respect for a performer doesn’t guarantee you won’t find them funny at all, instead it might change the way you appreciate a particular comic’s style. Audiences might view a female performer who focuses on sexism as an “angry feminist who doesn’t even make jokes”. Or maybe see a performer with a disability to be doing “just observational comedy” instead of giving credit to their ability to navigate “the line” or appreciating how difficult it can be to bring on board an able bodied audience and make them feel comfortable and willing to laugh at their jokes. They presume every story actually happened and don’t consider the creativity drawn upon to exaggerate, enhance, or create from scratch tales to make you not only laugh but also think about your own life. Whereas, we all know Stuart Lee’s a genius, right?
Ok, I am now over my word count and should be concluding. I can’t say I really have a conclusion though (just watch my stand up, you’ll see I’m terrible at endings). Perhaps I can finish by saying, to performers, consider whether or not your audiences can trust you to make the jokes you want to make and, to audiences, perhaps finding large proportions of a particularl group of people not very funny is an indication that you have some prejudice buried somewhere? Or maybe I’ll instead finish by saying that I don’t think jokes are funny because of the words that we say but because of who we are, how we say them, and the connection we have with the people we say them to.
*Carefully places microphone on ground and exits, hopefully not pursued by a bear*