Am I Funny? (How To Answer That Honestly)
Welcome to Cracked's Comedy 101, where we offer comedy coursework without adding all that much to your student loan debt. Today, we'll be covering how to self-reflect on your humor.
When we were sitting around the office tossing around ideas for this Comedy 101 series, the title of this piece was pitched with three simple words: “Am I Funny?” Catchy title, let’s run with it! So, I sat down, opened a new document, typed in those three words, and wrote nothing else for the next ten days. All I did was stare at the title and spiral into existential dread. How on earth am I supposed to suggest how to objectively look at something that’s completely subjective?
After much-soul searching, plus an intervention from my friends and family, I emerged from the abyss renewed (and twelve pounds lighter) to share with you the insights I discovered while surviving on nothing but carrots.
Understanding Why People Laugh in the First Place
Science has always struggled to understand the exact nature of laughter. Why do humans laugh? Well, I met with dozens of leading experts in the fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, and sociology, and they all told me nearly the exact same thing: “I told you to call my office and set up an appointment. Can’t you see I’m having dinner with my family? What is wrong with you?!?” Fine. I guess I’ll do my own research, thank you very much.
First, there’s the theory of incongruity, which states that we laugh when faced with two or more mismatched concepts uniting in an unexpected way. It’s the element of surprise. It’s basically the setup and punchline to every joke. It’s the bartender talking to the man who just walked into a bar. It’s the plot to every sitcom episode. It’s every viral clip online where you wonder why you’re watching some guy just walking around… and then you see the soccer ball heading straight for his nuts.
Plato had a narrower and more dickish take on the matter. He believed that people laugh out of a sense of superiority over whoever is the butt of the joke. By this logic, we laugh because A) that’s not happening to us, and/or B) the person it is happening to is someone we think is beneath us. Essentially, every joke has to have a victim, but at least it’s not us, right?
There is a 21st-century version of Plato’s theory in wide use today, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with actually being funny. The “joke” itself can be absolutely horrible, but it’ll still get a laugh if you just make certain people think it's aimed at someone they don’t agree with. Let’s call it the Bill Maher/Greg Gutfeld Method.
It’s not exactly bullying because they’re only making fun of an abstract caricature that lives rent-free in their heads. It’s like they’re tapping the glass of an empty fish tank and saying to their audience, “Look at them all swim away! They’re so triggered!” No one is angry, you’re just wrong - ”Oh, man… so triggered…”
Sigmund Freud’s theory about humor was that we laugh out of a need to release pent-up psychic energy. We laugh at cute jokes because we need that comfort. We laugh at dark humor or dirty jokes because societal norms make us feel like we’re not supposed to laugh at it. We laugh at awkward situations because… it’s freaking awkward! It’s either laugh… or let that stress manifest as a panic attack.
Freud’s theory does explain why different people laugh at different things. Individual life experiences shape how their brain processes the joke and based on the people around them, they’ll either try harder not to laugh or they can’t help but laugh. The only thing I don’t like about this idea is that unlike most of Freud’s other theories on psychoanalysis, this one didn’t provide a perfect setup for a yo momma joke.
But of course, these are all just theories. The simplest explanation as to why people laugh is: they just do. Out of every study I’ve found trying to figure out why we find jokes funny have two things in common: 1) they’re all written like they’re deliberately trying to suck all joy out of your life, and 2) all of their conclusions boil down to a resounding “Hell if I know!”
If you’re looking to figure out if you are, indeed, funny. The only way to find out is to just tell the joke and gauge the audience’s reaction to it. If they’re not laughing, you change your approach, rewrite your jokes, and try again. Or, you could narrow your audience down to one and…
Have a Good “Bounce Person
A good bounce person is someone you can, well, bounce ideas off. Sorta like a beta tester, troubleshooter, sometimes therapist, and uncredited writing partner rolled up in one person who hasn’t gotten totally sick of you. It doesn’t even have to be another comedian. They just need to be someone you can trust, someone who knows how you think, how you react, and (cannot stress this enough) they need to be able to give you constructive criticism. Not just brutal honesty. Not blanket you with validation. Constructive criticism; to be able to recognize a problem and offer possible solutions.
A good writing partner needs to be a good friend, but not all good friends can be a good writing partner. For example, my wife is my best friend. She is absolutely amazing and I love her with all my heart. That being said, she is a horrible bounce person. She absolutely hates it when I run new jokes by her. We’ve been together for nine years now, and she’s completely over my comedy. I still try, though. This article alone has elicited twelve I dunno’s, seven blank stares, and one attempted strangulation.
Not that she doesn’t support what I do for a living, she just hates it when I bring my work home with me. Lately, she’s been doing this new thing I like to call weaponized fact-checking. She knows my comedic timing, so she’ll let me start the joke. But as soon as she can see that I’m about to launch into the punchline, she’ll say something like, “Wait, that’s not true!” Yeah, but for the purpose of the joke- “Well, how am I supposed to know that was a joke?!?” Her tactic here has actually been very helpful because now I know exactly where the hecklers will want to strike.
A good bounce/writing session is a lot like going to a sex dungeon for the first time: the only way you’re gonna get the most out of it is if everyone agrees to some ground rules first. It's a collaborative process. Stay focused on the task at hand. Be open-minded. Don’t get too aggressive. Don’t shoot down any ideas, just suggest a different approach by finishing the sentence, “But what if instead…” You know what? I probably shouldn’t have gone with the sex dungeon metaphor because now this whole paragraph just feels dirty now. If only I had run that idea past someone else first. See how a good bounce person might have helped out here?
For these sessions, it is best to do these sessions in person. Zoom calls and video chats are a close second, and phone calls work in a pinch. Just don’t work on this stuff through DMs or texts. You need to be able to read each others’ reactions, to see their faces and hear the tone of their voice. Reading text on a screen might help with the wording of the jokes, but not the delivery. And for the love of all things holy, don’t rely on social media posts too much for trying out new material because…
Social Media Sucks for Honest Feedback
I know this is gonna make me sound like a total hypocrite given that title just now, but Twitter is my absolute favorite comedy writing tool, for one reason only: the 280 character limit. It forces me to be brief. The first draft of nearly every joke I write for my stand-up act gets typed out in my Twitter app. I don’t always post them on Twitter (my drafts folder is a freaking mess), but I type the ideas out in the app because if I can’t get at least the point of a new joke across in less than that amount of characters, I know I’m not gonna communicate the idea well when I’m on stage.
I only post jokes on social media if I know the joke is going to have a very limited shelf life. Because once you post a joke on social media in any way, it kinda no longer belongs to you. All it takes is one clout hungry hack to repost a screenshot with your name cropped out (cough, cough, Elon) or copy/paste the text into a meme and BOOM, the joke is in the public domain.
And even if I do post a joke on Twitter or Facebook, the extent to which I take likes and comments seriously depends greatly on how much I know and/or respect that person. And even if I do know them, it can be a little iffy. Because nothing on social media is real. The entire business model is built around everyone putting up a false front. And if you’re thinking, “Not me! Everything I post online is the real me, unvarnished and unfiltered!” Well, in the words of my dear departed southern grandmother, “Oh honey, bless your heart…”
Even if someone strives to be as authentic as possible on social media, they’re still trying to highlight only the most interesting parts about themselves. Even the people who say they don’t give a damn what people think about them want to be remembered as the person who didn’t give a damn what people thought about them. And the order in which these things pop up on our feeds is determined by an algorithm that grades each post’s relevancy based on how often people didn’t mindlessly scroll past it.
But every hateful, hurtful, harassing, abusive or otherwise shitty comment you see on social media takes so much unnecessary energy. That person had to tap or click on the comment field, type everything out (with a delete button there the whole time), and it only posts when they hit that specific button. They had so many chances to not post that hot garbage in the first place, not to mention they have the option to delete it at any time, but the only reason they put it up and kept it up was because they knew the person they were talking to can’t punch them in the face. That’s not “keeping it real”, that’s just being a coward with too much damn time on their hands.
And if people have nice things to say, that’s great! If I post a joke that gets lots of LOL’s in the replies, I appreciate the hell out of that person taking that extra five seconds out of their scrolling to let me know… even though I‘m kinda skeptical about how much they actually laughed out loud.
Learning to Look at Your Own Performance Objectively
One piece of advice for comedians, or any performer in general, is to try and record every one of your performances. You never know when or how that footage will come in handy. You might need to submit a recent clip to try and get booked somewhere, there might be a little gem in there that would make for a great promo clip, or you might need the timestamp to establish an alibi. You never know! It’s always better to be able to delete the footage if you don’t need it than to need the footage and not have it.
The toughest part about having to review said footage is getting used to seeing and hearing a recording of yourself. Your own self image never stands a chance against the cold, objective truth of raw video. Has my voice always been that grating? Has my posture always been that bad? I know the camera is supposed to add ten pounds, but holy hell…
The best way to get over your own self-consciousness about watching a recording of yourself is to, well, get the hell over it. No one ever conquered their fear of heights by staying on the ground. I know it’s gonna be hard, but every time you cringe while watching yourself doing comedy can be a teachable moment. The tricky part is learning how to categorize them into things you can control, things you can’t control, and things you could use to your advantage. Who knows, if your natural awkwardness is getting laughs, you may want to consider leaning into it.
Now, here’s more bad news: If you really want to get a greater perspective on what you’re doing wrong, you’re gonna have to go over that video footage at least three times. The first time, you should only play the audio. Listen closely and take notes on not just what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it. Now, step away for a bit and clear your mind. Then come back and play the video again, this time on mute. Now you’re gonna take notes on your body language. The third time, watch the clip with sound and picture to see how your words and body language work together.
Once you’re done, don’t sit there and dwell on what you observed. Go outside, touch some grass, pet a dog, have some ice cream, do whatever you need to do to get your mind off the whole thing for a bit. Then you can come back and apply what you’ve learned.
Another trick that can be useful is to hire someone else to transcribe the video of your performance, and have them transcribe everything. Every um, er, stammer, lip smack, everything. Seeing all of the little verbal tics in your jokes in written form like that can really put what you’re doing into another perspective.
Good luck, I don't ever want to see another carrot.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter (https://twitter.com/FritschieComic), and he thanks you for your time.