4 Things People Mistakenly Think Are Automatically Hilarious
There's no shortcuts to being funny, unless you are a cat. I guess we're all naturally lazy, and we like to believe there's a simple formula or catchphrase we can count on for a laugh without putting in any effort or taking any risks. "That's what she said," I'm looking at you.
Now, people can do a lot of the stuff below and be very funny, but that's because they're not doing just these things. They're adding something, like a point, or a performance, or an observation, or a fart.
Again, I am not saying these things are never funny. I am saying these are things that some people think are an "easy" button they can push to automatically be funny. It is like trying to bake chocolate chip cookies with only the chocolate chips. Chocolate chips are great and pretty important in a chocolate chip cookie, but if you try to make cookies using only chocolate chips, as opposed to adding eggs, butter, flour, sugar or anything like that, you will get a pan full of burnt melted chocolate.
And that looks very similar to another substance I would use to describe these one-ingredient jokes.
(Hint: It's poop.)
Every one of these misconceptions comes from hearing actual jokes and taking away the wrong lesson. In this case, the humor in a lot of jokes comes from an unexpected twist or an incongruity or a mismatch. Like the most depraved sequence of sex acts imaginable being titled "The Aristocrats."
Having brought up "The Aristocrats," which sort of sucks, I should note that a lot of the "good joke" examples I list might not be funny to you, or even me, but the reason I put them in the "good joke" category is that you can at least see a reason why it is supposed to be funny instead of having no idea how it could be a joke. Like if aliens kidnapped you and threatened to kill you unless you explained why the joke was supposed to be funny, you would be able to come up with something for them, even if you disagree with it. As opposed to going "Oh God please don't kill me I swear I don't know."
Which is what would happen if you had to explain "RAWR moo zombie dinosaur mustache Lady Gaga I'm craaaazzzy! I like turtles!" I probably should put "randomness" in quotes, because it's hardly ever truly random. Most of the words consist of quotes from memes ("tiger blood," Chuck Norris, "over 9,000," "ceiling cat"), current names in pop culture (Justin Bieber, Ke$ha, a Kardashian), and this weird little list of words that almost everyone seems to pull from when trying to be random ("monkey" or "chicken").
I don't know why primates are the most popular go-to animal for instant humor. I mean, they seem quite dignified to me.
Anyway, the aliens would ask you why they are supposed to laugh at this, and even with your own life at stake, you would be able to come up with nothing and get shot.
The reason a lot of people think randomness is funny by itself is that they've encountered jokes or funny scenes where something random happens, like a naked Asian man bursting out of a trunk and running away in The Hangover, or King Arthur running into a bunch of knights who say "Ni" and demand shrubberies in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Demand shrubberies and get them.
What they're missing is that there's more to those jokes than just "randomness." There is a lot of physical comedy in the Hangover bit, starting from when Ken Jeong, or his stunt double, jumps crotch-first into Bradley Cooper's face (or his stunt double's face), and just escalating from there. Someone didn't just write "naked Asian" and dust his hands off and go to lunch. Someone wrote a ridiculous set of lines that Zach Galifianakis' desperate character uses to plead for his life, and the four actors added their comic performances and reactions.
And, let's not forget, tiny penis.
And the Monty Python bit wasn't just "random," either. Like most of the movie, this scene was getting its humor from the fact that the King Arthur legend is traditionally serious business, with Graham Chapman playing King Arthur as a straight man on a holy quest who is constantly exasperated by the silly adventures that get in his way. The Knights of Ni aren't just appearing out of nowhere and saying "Ni" to nobody, they're saying "Ni" (and later "Ekke Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptangya Ziiinnggggggg Ni") and demanding shrubberies when a legendary king is trying to pursue a quest to find the holiest artifact of Christendom. They're silly words and silly demands, all right, but it wouldn't be very funny and memorable if it wasn't frustrating the shit out of poor King Arthur.
Negativity and Violence
A lot of very funny stuff out there is criticism or complaining, and there's reasons for that, reasons that are talked about to death. There's nothing wrong with lots of funny things being negative, but the problem is that tons of people only take home the lesson that being negative must, by itself, be funny. They don't notice that the comedian complaining about his marriage is a very good storyteller, or making some interesting observations, or tapping into universal experiences that ring true with his audience.
They just notice that he is complaining about his wife, and assume that all they have to do is complain about their wife (or the comedian's wife if they are really literal) and presto, instant laughs. They go, "My wife asked me to mow the lawn this weekend. What a dumb bitch!" Then there is an awkward silence and they wonder why nobody is laughing.
Least of all the wife.
Or maybe someone reads a funny blog review about how awful The Words was, and the conversational tone fools them into thinking that this reviewer just sat down and typed down the first thoughts they had after watching this turd, and it just came out naturally funny. So they sit down and basically type-blurt out some stream-of-consciousness rant about Battleship that is nothing more than a bunch of synonyms for "bad," and where a good scathing review might offer funny analysis or insights into why it was uniquely bad, they have none, and just fill in the blanks with self-centered talk about their own reactions (they vomited, they left the theater, they went into the projection room and pooped on the reel and everyone in the theater applauded).
When a person's got nothing to say other than to rephrase "It was bad" about 20 times, and they're out of self-aggrandizing stories about their reaction to it, the last resort filler is violence. If you tried to be funny during junior high and high school, you're probably familiar with this. I'm ashamed to say I am.
Back then, it was pretty much to take something well known and just add violence, and it was automatically funny and showed what a "twisted mind" you had, and this was your idea of biting satire or something. Like, you would do a parody of A Christmas Carol where instead of learning a lesson about Christmas, Scrooge blows up. Or you would draw a picture of Ariel from The Little Mermaid getting stabbed.
I mean, that's what the margins of notebooks are for, right?
And for teenagers, the concept that something you normally think of as innocent and wholesome being not innocent and wholesome is very mind-blowing, because three years ago or whatever, you thought a mermaid was something you could be when you grew up. As an adult, though, you kind of go, "And ...?" because you want some kind of point, like the violent thing happens to an annoying celebrity everyone wants to shut up, or the violence is ironic (Wile E. Coyote blown up by his own bomb), or just has some kind of context.
But you can't take a complaint as pedestrian as the difficulty of opening plastic CD wrappers and automatically make it a joke by saying you hope the inventor of the wrapper "gets ass-raped in prison." Maybe if you wished that one day he has a heart attack and the defibrillator is wrapped in the same kind of package he designed, and nobody can open it, maybe you could do something with that. It's pretty mean, still, but I guess at least there's a point!
Forced Quirky Language
Certain funny people have a way with language that really adds to how funny they are, and slow, unobservant fans often get confused and think that these language quirks are what makes them funny.
For example, Seanbaby's writing is usually sprinkled with metaphors and analogies no one else would have come up with, like:
He was a nerd in every direction. He moved like space squids hollowed out a sex offender and were drunk driving him. (link)
She claims to be a supermodel and an actress, but she looks like someone tried to recreate their grandmother out of Turtle Wax and she's in fewer movies than Bigfoot. (link)
If the Special Olympics had a comedy writing event, this would be the only entry that didn't win a hug. John M. Byrne is so tragic that breast cancer walks to end him. (link)
"Wait a minute," you might be saying. "Are you trying to fill your column with quotes from Seanbaby, hoping it will make it automatically funny?" Well, I would if I thought I could get away with it. Damn tight-assed editors.
I would do a LOT of things if I thought I could get away with it.
Anyway, the point is that there are a lot of people out there who do not know how hard it is to come up with an insulting analogy that is actually funny. They just figure that if they compare something to poop, disease or sexual deviancy, then bam! Joke magic! "Watching the Raiders-Dolphins game was like watching a polio patient rape a piece of poop!" No! You are not doing it right.
Movie or book reviews have a special subcategory of wannabe-funny language, like when people give every character a wacky nickname. Like if they're making fun of Twilight, they might call Edward "Darkness McEmo" and Jacob "Abs McGee." You could get off to a worse start, but it's always incredibly depressing when you realize that this is the extent of the humor the person has brought to their review and that it's basically a straightforward plot summary with the names replaced and nothing else. Again, the funny names are the sprinkles on the cupcake. People like it when you give them cupcakes with sprinkles. People do not really enjoy having handfuls of raw sprinkles thrown at them sans cupcake.
People have been blinded that way.
Along the same lines, there's a really popular trend to replace character names with actor names, like "The Narnians think all their problems will be solved when Liam Neeson returns." Or you replace a character's name with another character the actor has played, like "In A Walk in the Clouds, Neo returns from World War II to find a series of plot twists that conveniently let him dump his wife for a more attractive woman while still being the good guy."
Once again, people saw this used in a funny way somewhere and took home the wrong lesson. Usually when it's done right, it's done to make a point, like the fact that the actor fails so badly at disappearing into the role that you never see the character because the actor is so obviously himself. Like I don't even remember Arnold Schwarzenegger's character names in half the movies he was in because you just look at him and see Arnold Schwarzenegger. If the writer spent any time or effort writing a personality for the character, they'll probably never make that mistake again, because on screen the character is just "Here's Arnold Schwarzenegger if he happened to be a spy/doctor/scientist."
So when you say, "Here's the scene in Junior where Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to give birth," it's not some forced formula joke, it's an accurate way of describing how the scene comes across to most viewers -- Arnold Schwarzenegger giving birth.
His character was named Dr. Alex Hesse. Anyone who remembers that probably worked on the film.
Asking if People Are Familiar With Something
Many good stand-up routines start out with "Anyone ever notice [something you may have noticed]?" but a surprisingly large number of people seem to think they also stop there. "Ever notice that women enjoy shopping?" they say, or write. Or "Hey, who remembers Charles in Charge?" And then they sit back and wait for the laughs to roll in.
In a perfect world, an impeccably timed tumbleweed would roll by, but first of all, this usually happens indoors, and secondly, and most sadly, people will quite often laugh at these things, so that these people are encouraged and will not stop.
There just aren't enough tumbleweeds in the world for the work that needs to be done.
After you get the audience on board with their mutual recognition of women's fondness for shopping, you are then supposed to make some kind of additional observation, maybe hyperbolically compare it to a drug addiction, maybe tell a funny story about a specific shopping adventure you had with a woman, or one you had yourself, if you are a woman. After you remind everyone that Charles in Charge was a sitcom that once existed, maybe your actual joke would be speculation about why the writers refused to reveal Charles' last name. (Nazi war criminal?)
Reincarnation of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne?
A lot of people accuse Seth MacFarlane cartoons of doing exactly this, just mentioning some pop culture nostalgia item and waiting for a laugh, but I don't know if that's totally fair. Like when a Family Guy character referenced The Facts of Life, they cut to a scene from The Facts of Life where it was revealed that Jo had both male and female genitalia, which, needless to say, did not actually happen on the original show. Is this a good joke? I don't know, you decide. But whatever the result, they put in a little more effort than merely cutting to a Facts of Life title screen and going, "Eh? Eh?"
Anyway, as mentioned before, audiences are often complicit in these awful charades, going "I do remember Pogs! What a hilarious joke!" or "It's true, Asians often get better grades! This man is a comedy genius!" I think it is just a natural human tendency to want to belong. If you do not know what the Safety Dance is, but it is clear that the author/speaker and other members of the audience do, you feel sad, like you are not part of the club. If you do happen to know what it is, you are so happy you laugh almost in relief. It's not so much a laugh of "That sure was funny!" as "Yeah! I'm with it! I know things!"
If you do that, stop it. Print out this Remembering Badge and pin it to your shirt.
See, now you and everyone around you know that you have been recognized by the International Council of Remembering for being good at remembering. You no longer need to be desperate for validation from some cheap-laugh comedian. When he asks if you remember Growing Pains, you can calmly say to yourself, "Yes, of course I remember it, because I am an expert rememberer. Continue," and stare silently at him until he makes an actual joke.
Check out more from Christina in 8 Words the Internet Loves to Confuse With Other Words and 7 Phrases That Are Great Signs It's Time to Stop Talking.