Jokes are only funny if you get the joke. Some jokes are built around the intention that some people not get the joke. Is that funny?
Laughter Is the Best Medicine
Over the weekend, I was out of town for an area conference. Not far out of town, just in the next state over. But, still, it was out far enough away from home for me to feel away from home. It’s been a couple of years since I visited this state, so I was pleasantly surprised at how similar the culture was.
In fact, during one of the events, the speaker told a joke from a tradition that I was familiar with from back home. I’m not going to repeat the joke here, partially because it was pretty long, partially because it wouldn’t really make sense written out as opposed to being heard out loud, but mostly because readers from outside of my region of the country almost definitely wouldn’t get it.
(Just to clarify something that’s going to come up later: This joke wasn’t racist or told at anyone’s expense or anything like that. It had to do with the sound of a regional dialect in my part of the country, which is why most readers wouldn’t get it and why it needs to be heard. Most jokes told at someone’s expense are easy to “get” but not everyone thinks they’re funny. More on that soon.)
Being from this region of the country, I got the joke. Not only that, because I knew I was out of town, hearing a regional joke made me feel better about the people that I was with. They got the same cultural cues that I got so they clearly had some of the same life experiences – and sense of humor. It made me feel like these people weren’t that different just because they were from another state.
I think it’s really beautiful that jokes can do that. And, the cultural distance doesn’t have to be a physical geographic distance. This can play big into ideas like “meme culture.”
Memes: The Magical Fruit
There’s a whole branch of science dedicated to “memes” – units of culture spread through repetition and adaptation – and how they spread. Someone could also probably write a history of memes by now. The etymology is up for debate, but I think it has to do with “meme” being French for “same” and the fact that a meme is built from reproduced images that mean different things in different contexts.
If you’re old enough (or young enough) to remember Rage Comics – arguably the beginning of the modern internet meme – you may also remember the trade-off between reproducibility and understandability.
There were whole websites dedicated to providing the images and frames that made these comics very easy to create. Some of the images didn’t require text or caption, provided that they were familiar enough to the reader. This meant that there were also whole websites dedicated to providing the information necessary to understand the images in the event that a wild meme format appeared.
Communities built up around these webcomics partly because they required on-hand information to understand, which made people feel like part of a group. With later evolutions of memes, the reverse occurred: groups with similar on-hand information began creating memes internally with the knowledge that “outsiders” wouldn’t get it without seeing a certain show, reading a certain book, &c.
These kinds of jokes are great precisely because they strengthen communities – whether those are ethnic communities, cultural communities, or geographic communities. This is what happened with me at my conference – I had the insider information required to get the joke, which eased my discomfort at being away from home.
When No One Laughs
Not everyone is going to laugh at every joke. But, two bad things can happen if most people don’t think a joke is funny.
The first is the opposite of the positive interactions described above: the people who don’t get the joke can feel separated or distant from the person that told the joke – and even the people that got it. The second is more serious: a group may “get” the joke, but not think it’s funny – usually because it was told at their expense.
Looking at these various scenarios, we can start to classify humor. “Inclusionary humor” is meant to funny because it requires information that the audience is keen to – and if the audience isn’t keen to that information it is provided. “Exclusionary humor” is meant to be funny because it requires information that the audience doesn’t have, or has but won’t find amusing.
The hard thing about using inclusionary humor and not using exclusionary humor is that these kinds of jokes require a community. That means that you either need to really know your audience, or you have to rely on shortcuts. Just like stereotypes and profiles make for dangerously fast assumptions, they make for dangerously fast joke opportunities. But, you don’t have to go there.
Using Community, Inclusively, in Humor
There are two big ways to use community in your audience without knowing them super well or relying on pre-baked assumptions. These can be handy frameworks for great jokes, but they can also avoid a lot of the problems with making jokes at someone else’s expense.
Joke about the Community You’re in
The first tool is to tell jokes about the community that you’re in. This is largely what the speaker at my event did. Many of the people in the room spoke with the regional dialect that his joke drew on. This provided a number of advantages.
First, it gave people the opportunity to laugh at themselves. When people hear about themselves in a joke, they feel included in the event. But remember – this requires that the joke in question not be offensive, mean-spirited, &c. Showing up and making fun of people isn’t funny and it isn’t how you make friends.
If you’re a member of the community that you’re joking about, there can be a little flexibility here. For example, I’ve mentioned in earlier articles in this series that I’m a member of AA and that AA members are hilarious. We tell a lot of jokes about alcoholics. Do you know the kinds of jokes we tell about drinkers? The same ones that everyone else does.
Now, back to the speaker and the joke that he told. The second thing that joking about the community that he was in was that even if people wouldn’t have gotten the joke before the conference, they would have by the end of the second day when he told the joke. He didn’t need to know his audience so intimately because his audience was building community and he could rely on that knowledge instead.
You don’t have to rely on pre-made cultural communities to pull off inclusionary humor, and even inside jokes. Inside jokes among friends, family, and other existing cultural groups are difficult to form and can take years (or generations) to enforce. The fast and easy version is the “callback.”
Build the Community that You Joke About
A “callback” is a joke that you establish once and then repeatedly allude to or refer back to. The callback is a great tool because it allows you to establish your own little micro-community around that joke – you create an immediate inside joke. A simple callback can be good for a guaranteed quick laugh, but it can also establish a theme throughout a routine or throughout an evening.
The tricky thing about callbacks is that the initial joke that they build on has to be a winner or the whole thing falls down. That makes callbacks a dangerous gamble if you’re trying to write a routine because you’re gambling on the initial joke landing.
When I use callbacks, I only use them socially. I say something, it gets a laugh, and then I know that I can probably use whatever that line was again in a callback throughout the rest of the evening. This is handy for me because I’m bad at predicting what people will think is funny. With a callback, I don’t need to predict.
Once, I met with some old friends from high school that I hadn’t seen in a while. I mentioned that I had a good relationship with my dad because I was his only child – which they knew wasn’t true. When they asked about it, I explained that all of my other siblings had been disowned. They thought that was hilarious. So, for the rest of the evening, I sprinkled in being an only child. Instant comedy.
During these articles, I haven’t been using callbacks because I don’t know what the readers find amusing. I could guess, and for some readers it might be a winner, but what I guessed might not have resonated with most readers and there’s nothing worse than desperate callbacks.
Get Some Laughs
I think a hidden theme of this article was that comedy doesn’t have to be a routine, it doesn’t have to be a professional endeavor, and it doesn’t have to be about you. Humor can relieve tension and make people feel closer -as long as that humor isn’t designed to leave anyone out or make them feel bad.