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.
Like if your parents died when a dildo factory exploded, you're going to find this caption much less funny than everyone else reading it.
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.
(singing) "Thought you were bringing out your characters' inner lives? Nope. Boobs! That's why you're here. HEY!"
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.
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"But I was being satirical!"
Yes of course you were.
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 ...
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.
Forced chuckles and slowly backing away from me, typically.
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.
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Forced chuckles and slowly backing away from the computer, I imagine.
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.
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"Everyone in the first three rows will have their boundaries pushed."
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.
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"Who's ready for a journey to a place you might not be ready to go!?"
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.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist. His favorite race, based on ass size, is the wood elf. Join him on Facebook or Twitter if you agree, disagree, or have no strong feeling about anything he's written here.