A few nights ago I went to the Krater Comedy Club at Brighton’s Komedia. I’d seen other acts, the Maydays for example, at Komedia, but had thus far avoided the Krater Comedy Club, figuring its humour would be targeted at pissed-up hen and stag parties. But my brother was in town, and we wanted to see something on Saturday night, and that was what was on.
So we went, and it was okay. (In fact, the compare, Stephen Grant, was actually pretty damn good – I bought his DVD afterwards). But one of the acts came up with an anecdotal / observational sequence that I didn’t much care for, enough that it got me thinking exactly why.
It offended me, and I didn’t find it funny. But it’s not enough for me to just say that. After all, that a joke offends you doesn’t in itself make it offensive, and that you didn’t find a joke funny, doesn’t in itself mean that it’s humourless. I need to be able to say exactly why I think it’s a poor example of humour – especially given that I write humour myself. It’s not so much that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, more that if you’re accusing someone else of living in a greenhouse you really ought to check out your own accommodation first.
But rather than deconstruct that exact joke, I’m going to take a step back and work on a hypothetical example instead. So let’s come up with our own supposed anecdotal / observational joke that we can deconstruct, a joke whose bonnet we can raise and who engine we can strip down. How about this:
I often go into the gay bookshop that’s just round the corner. I don’t want to buy any books, I just like slapping gay men in the face with a copy of Penthouse. Of course, I run away afterwards. If any of them try to follow me I just shout, “That’s what testosterone smells like!” [Mimes a gay man, feebly and pathetically running after him].
Okay, I’m hoping that pretty much all of you would find that both offensive and unfunny. But why? Well the whole point of humour is that you should be coming up with, well, actual humour. Twists where you go in an unexpected direction. Insights that the audience didn’t see coming. Creating links between things that aren’t obviously links. But the key thing is that it should all be built upon clever wit and underlying truths. While the audience is laughing you want them to also be thinking, “Good point!” or “That is so true!”
So let’s look at the first element in this sequence:
I often go into the gay bookshop that’s just round the corner. I don’t want to buy any books, I just like slapping gay men in the face with a copy of Penthouse.
The core of this piece is an unexpected twist. When you say you were going into a bookshop, the audience will assume that it’s because you wanted to buy a book. When you say that it was actually because you wanted to assault one of the book shop’s inhabitants, that’s obviously pretty genuinely unexpected. But is there any cleverness or underlying truth to it? None that I can see. And the bit with the Penthouse creates a linkage between the assault and the fact that a gay man wouldn’t be terribly interested in a magazine containing pictures of naked women. But again, no real cleverness there.
How about the second half of the sequence:
Of course, I run away afterwards. If any of them try to follow me I just shout, “That’s what testosterone smells like!” [Mimes a gay man, feebly and pathetically running after him].
That section is built upon the tired, and untrue, stereotype of gay man being weak and effeminate, a stereotype that has historically been used to denigrate and marginalise them. (If your opponents’ arguments are more logical than yours, the best way to attack them is to instead turn them into figures of fun so no-one takes what they say seriously).
The key point here is that this joke will only work with an audience who have homophobic tendencies. Or to put it bluntly, you’ll only find it amusing if you find the idea of someone causing intentional distress to gay men, for no other reason than that they are gay, funny.
Tell that joke to a homophobic audience and you’re probably have them rolling in the aisles; tell it to a non-homophobic audience and you’ll bomb, very badly. Because it doesn’t actually contain any real, genuine humour; it instead achieves its laughs by leveraging prejudice and stereotype. A comedian telling such a joke isn’t providing insight or wit; he’s simply encouraging the majority to exalt in the bullying mockery of a minority.
As a rough rule of thumb, I’d say that if your joke is genuinely funny, then it should work on the people who are actually its subject. I’m not expecting them to laugh uproariously, but you should at least be getting a wry smile, a joking groan, and a roll of the eyes. But if you receive a stoney silence from them, that’s a strong indication that you’re laughing at them, not with them.
I know this kind of humour is the way it’s often been done. I just think it’s a pretty lazy way to get your laughs. I’m not saying I’ve never strayed across the line into genuinely offensive territory. It’s perhaps an occupational hazard if you write humour. But I’d rather get my laughs by coming up with something genuinely funny, rather than by telling 5% of my audience that they’re shit and getting the other 95% to laugh at them.
(It’s true that there are cases where the targets of a joke deserve to be ridiculed and insulted: nazi war criminals; Foxtons the estate agents; the man who invented indestructible clamshell packaging. But while such a joke might not therefore be offensive, if it contains no real actual humour, I’d still call it lazy. Just because it’s okay to insult someone doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still try to come up with an actual joke.)
So what was the joke I didn’t like? And did the audience appreciate it? Well here it is (this is from memory, so it might not be word-for-word perfect):
I often go into the healthfood supermarket that’s just round the corner. I don’t want to buy anything, I just like hitting vegans in the face with a steak. Of course, I run away afterwards. If any of them try to follow me I just shout, “That’s what burning protein smells like!” [Mimes a vegan feebly and pathetically running after them]. You know Heather Mills? She’s opened a vegan cafe round here. Every time I drive past it I want to throw a leg of lamb through the door.
I’ll leave it to you guys to deconstruct this sequence. But the audience certainly loved it, if the volume of laughter was anything to go by. I’ve often said that I love Brighton because being an alternative kind of place, it’s somewhere where I feel at ease in my own skin. I didn’t feel like that on Saturday night.
While I’m actively looking for comments on all of my posts, I thought it might make sense to pre-empt some potential questions.
1.At its core, veganism isn’t about health and it isn’t a diet. While there are some people who describe themselves as vegans purely on the basis of eating a vegan diet for health reasons, veganism is actually a moral and ethical philosophy first defined in London in 1944, whose participants attempt to eliminate the exploitation of animals by avoiding as far as possible the use of animal products (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, honey, wool, silk and leather). No-one who’s seen the unhealthy shit I put down my throat on a very regular basis would ever think I was doing it because of health. I could write several pages on why I’m a vegan, but it basically comes down to this: when I think about cows going into one end of a slaughterhouse alive and coming out the other end dead I feel like crying. I’m not expecting other people to share that sentiment, but I don’t think I deserve to be publicly ridiculed and insulted for feeling it.
2. A vegan diet can include lots of protein and if a vegan is unhealthy and unfit it’s not because they’re a vegan, it’s because they’re eating unhealthy (albeit vegan) foods and not exercising. I know plenty of fit and healthy vegans, including my friend James Southwood, a two-times British champion at Savate (French kick-boxing).
3. The “heathfood supermarket” referred to in the joke is Brighton’s excellent Infinity Foods, a workers’ cooperative with a commitment to eco-friendly practices. We go there to stock up on vegan chocolate buttons, vegan cheesecake, vegan ice cream and vegan Chelsea buns. (We can buy healthy food in any standard supermarket).