As mentioned previously, Ebert wrote a blog post containing the rules of joke telling. It’s not necessarily 100% applicable to all comedians, since most comedy these days is either story or performance-based, (few are joke tellers, like Stephen Wright or the late Mitch Hedberg and Rodney Dangerfield). Ebert retells a conversation he had with Buddy Hackett, a portion of which states: “The people want to idealize a singer. They want to feel superior to a comic. You’re trying to make them laugh. They can’t laugh at someone they’re looking up to.”
I think this is true, to a certain extent every really popular stand up comedian provides a sense of inferiority to the audience. It’s difficult for a comedian who is arrogant and lords it over his audience to succeed (though David Cross and Bill Hicks are the exception, Norm MacDonald, Lewis Black, Patton Oswald and others make a schtick out of it, in as much as their arrogance attributes to their downfall in life). You have to provide a sense that it’s okay for the audience to laugh at you. Scott Thompson (from the Kids in the Hall) said in an interview I did with him back in university that some of the best humour comes from the darkness, from pain, and it’s not surprising that many comedians have a very bleak world view or come from a painful background. That so many comedians die so young isn’t surprising once you know this. It’s a universality, those dark things, and comedians try to find the humour in them, to share that it’s really okay to laugh at the bad things, but some are only so strong and succumb to it.
Coming across a comedian on the Comedy Network the other day who was going on and on (in vulgar tones) about the funny things his kid does with his penis, it dawned upon me that comedians who tell stories about the “funny” things their kids do are lazy and it’s simply the cheapest form of comedy. Last night Eugene Mirman had a brief comment on this, stating, in effect, that of course kids are funny, you’d be that funny too if you had no education. You can tell jokes about being a parent, no problem, because invariably it’s highlighting how inept/careless/crazy you are as an adult who should know better, rather then talking about a child who doesn’t. The other thing about telling stories about your kids is everyone with kids has stories, and there are buckets of commonalities between those stories. There’s humour in shared experiences, but there’s also a “so what?” sense to stand-ups telling stories about their kids as in “Yeah, so what? This one time my kid…”
It’s the same with telling stories about interactions with foreigners who aren’t aware of the customs of the land. One stand-up who I’ve seen far too many times locally tells stories about his ESL class, and it’s painfully unfunny. He’s not making fun of his students, but at the same time, everyone who’s learning a new language will have problems with it. It’s anecdotal, something you might tell at a dinner party, but not worthy of a mass audience, certainly not if they’re a paying one. It’s just not funny, that is unless you’re the foreigner, misunderstanding the culture or language.
I love stand-up comedy, I love humour, I love puns and wordplay, silly comedies and bawdy jokes. I have a good sense of humour, and although I don’t necessarily study or practice the art of the funny, I’m trying more and more to understand what it is that makes something funny and something not. Everyone’s sense of humour is subjective, as individualistic as their fingerprints. Two people may laugh at one joke, but only one may laugh at the next, and the other at the next. Some people have no sense of humour about themselves, some can only laugh about things they understand. Some people only like dirty jokes, while others only like them clean. There’s no such thing as universally funny, but there are rules (a whole lot of rules) that make some people and things funnier than others.