4 Reasons No One Laughed at Your Joke

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.

Comstock / Jupiterimages / Photos.com / PhotoObjects.net / Getty Images
"OK, everyone, take your places. I've done the math, and this one should be 5.8 +/- 0.4 Couliers worth of funny."

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.

Comstock / Jupiterimages / Photos.com / PhotoObjects.net / Getty Images
"OK, in this joke, Priest, you and the Farmer's Daughter are going to quietly study the Bible, respecting her father's reasonable demands for putting you up for the night. Banana Peel, I'm going to need you to watch from the shadows and beat off. Aaaaand ... ACTION."

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?

Michael Blann/Lifesize/Getty Images
"Remember? Bob and the fax machine? Right!? Classic Bob. What's that? No, it never healed properly. He still walks funny to this day."

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.

Rocky, seen here training to montage.

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.

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Chris Bucholz

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