Humor Is Serious Business

Remember the running gag in Finding Nemo when Marlin the clown fish (whom others keep thinking will be funny) painfully tries to tell a joke? “Okay, a mollusk walks up to this sea cucumber, well he doesn’t actually walk, he’s just there, and he turns to the sea cucumber, and. . . Well, wait, there’s a mollusk and a sea cucumber and . . . Normally, they don’t talk, sea cucumbers, but in a joke everyone talks. So the sea mollusk says to the cucumber. . .”

When speaking in public, it is usually best not to tell set-piece jokes. (“A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar . . .”) As Marlin discovered, they are hard to tell well without sounding artificial. Such jokes can all too easily fall flat, especially since these jokes make the rounds and it is likely many people in the audience will have already heard them. A winning way to any audience’s heart is, rather, to be (in the fashion of Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor) humorous. (More on that in a future post.)

But if you feel compelled to tell a set-piece joke, here are some guidelines.

Structure. Put the funny part at the end of the sentence.

I was having breakfast one Sunday morning before church with my two youngest sons, Phil and Dave, who were eleven and nine at the time. In our morning stupor, munching on our cereal, no one was saying anything till the older one, Phil, said, “Dad, don’t you think we should tell Dave?” My other son Dave and I looked at each other uncomprehending. So Phil repeated the question more insistently. “Dad, don’t you think we should tell Dave?” Once again getting no response from his bewildered breakfast companions, in exasperation he turned to Dave and said, “Dave, this morning in church, you’re going to be sacrificed!

What is the funniest word in the punchline? Sacrificed. So that word should be at the end of the sentence–not in the beginning (“You’re going to be sacrificed this morning at church”) and not in the middle (“This morning you’re going to be sacrificed at church”) but at the end, as the climax.

Volume. They call it a punchline because you are supposed to punch it. Don’t let your voice drop at the end. Make it louder. Your volume should steadily increase throughout that last sentence, hitting the last word or phrase with extra emphasis.

The Set Up. Think about what you need to say before you get to the punchline. What can you reasonably expect your audience to know and not know. For example, telling a joke about Dave and Phil to my extended family needs little set up. Others will need to know they are my sons and what age they were at the time.

Timing. Don’t talk over laughter. Listen to the audience reaction. Start talking again when it has almost completely (but not completely) died down.

Recovery. What if they don’t laugh? Don’t ignore the failure. Acknowledge it by being ready ahead of time with a recovery line. Stand-up comics do this all the time. For example:
* “I told my joke-writers that one wouldn’t work.”
* “I’m sure what made that joke so funny was all the practice I put in.”
* “My mother always told me not to try to make a living on stage.”

Practice. Just as with any public speaking, practice the joke with friends or in front of a mirror. Know exactly what you are going to say and how. Then you’ll end up rattling it off confidently, just as Marlin finally does at the end of the movie: “. . . and the sea cucumber turns to the mollusk and says, ‘With fronds like these, who needs anemones?’ “

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “Humor Is Serious Business”

  1. How could you go wrong with humor when you have kids like yours….ours? Your expectations are too high for your readers who do not have funny kids like Steve, Susan, Philip and David!! Oh yes, and YOUR wife!

  2. You are interesting mood! Muppets in the cover concept meeting. Nemo jokes in the blog. But it’s a helpful piece. Please do one on why “preacher stories” don’t work in books next.

  3. Something worth considering is how much humor is culturally bound (and often untranslatable or inappropriate). While American culture tends to elevate humor in conversation, with people constantly trying to outdo or top each other’s stories, in other cultures, this is viewed as demeaning to one’s honor or dignity. Thus it might be more valued to say things that are profound that will make people stop and think, rather than to say things that are funny that will make people laugh.

    Another challenge is that on this side of the fall, a significant amount of humor is done at someone else’s expense. Stand-up comics routinely get into trouble offending some group or another because humor almost inherently requires ridiculing someone. The best humorists are those that can identify the humor in a situation without alienating potential hearers/readers, or turn their humorous critique on themselves.

    Another danger of using humor is that it’s so subjective. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to others. Every joke is situated in a particular social location, and every teller and hearer has their own contextual framework. This is why jokes are usually most effective when teller and hearer share the same social location – which is also why so many jokes make ridicule of those outside their community group.

    At any rate – humor is fraught with peril. Some are gifted and can do it well. Many can’t and shouldn’t even try.

  4. Al

    As the headline says, humor is serious business, and you have certainly underlined that. Your cautions are very appropriate.

    You are right that humor is often culture bound, and that is important when addressing a mixed audience. At the same time, American sit-coms are often the most popular American TV shows overseas.

    Your are right too that self-depricating humor is often the best, especially for winning over an audience. That’s one of the reasons Brian Regan is a favorite stand-up comic for me.

    There are a few people that really have a hard time with humor. So that is why practice is important (as with any part of public speaking) as well as testing out the humor with friends.

    Overall, however, I think your tone is too cautious. I think people should be encouraged to keep your concerns in mind and the proceed with trying out some humor rather than not do it at all.


  5. The mere fact of American sitcoms being popular overseas says less about the universality of American humor and more about the juggernaut of American cultural imperialism and commercial power. Far better, I think, when societies and cultures develop their own contextually and culturally appropriate shows, as when Chinese networks create a show that is loosely modeled on “Friends” but is authentically Chinese.

    And you may be right that I’m being overly cautious, but don’t overlook the power dynamics of humor. A humorist wields enormous power and influence to declare something to be reality or normative or abnormal or subhuman, and far too often that power is wielded in ways that inherently privilege a dominant class and belittle and oppress the marginalized. It only takes one off-color or racial joke in a movie or sitcom to poison the experience and set back social discourse.

    I remember absolutely hating the movie As Good As It Gets. I understand that Jack Nicholson’s character was meant to be a bigoted lout, and his crass attacks on women and minorities were not meant to be emulated. But sitting in the movie theatre and hearing the laughter of the audience was an oppressive experience, because people were not merely laughing at Nicholson’s idiocy – they were laughing along with his bigotry and, I would argue, complicitly and tacitly reaffirming and giving social approval to his prejudices.

    All that being said, there’s also a place for humor as social protest. The archetype of the jester or trickster may indeed use humor to speak truth to power, to say via comedy or satire that which cannot be said (or is not received) through other avenues.

    At any rate, humor is a fallen human enterprise, as is reason or imagination or speech or art. That doesn’t mean that we can’t use it appropriately. But it means that Christians need to steward it carefully and use it redemptively, not indiscriminately or uncritically.

  6. I was actually thinking a lot this week about the function of humor. In my case, I’d been called in to help write some skits and organize a program for our pastor and his wife’s going-away party.

    It occurred to me that humor can actually be a form of grieving or an entree to it, for it begins to surface the issues in a way we can accept and even embrace. This kind of humor actually comes from very deep places. And the depth and the “double-edge” of pain and joy are what make it work.

Comments are closed.