Jokes That Fail

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Once upon a time, you were a four year-old. You tried mightily to tie your shoes with chubby little fingers and limited motor skills. Your frustration mounted steadily as the best you could do is twist your laces into a nice, fat knot that your mother ended up cutting with scissors.

Today, you can tie your shoes. Does your failure and frustration so many years ago matter to you now?

All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, but for some strange reason, the SEC investigators are not buying that answer.

Humor Fail
When we tell a joke that, by intent and universal right, should be hilarious, occasionally failing to get a laugh is… Wait for it! …part of the game. It’s normal that a percentage of joke recipients will not get certain references, or not be inclined to laugh on that particular day, or at that particular time, or in their particular mood.

Unconscionable! How could they do this to you?

Actually, your audience is not doing anything to you. Whether readers or a live audience, they are merely following the same standard that you followed when writing your joke. That is, their own sense of humor.

Humor writers prefer to consistently write good jokes. (What a surprise!) However, even the best ammunition has an occasional dud that fails to fire. There may also be other considerations:

The Lovely Two-Percenter
You may know in advance that not everyone has a good chance of understanding your joke.

Operator, may I have Avogadro’s number, please.

While the percentage varies somewhat when talking to humorists, a Two-Percenter is a joke that only about two percent of your audience will understand. This does not detract from the quality of the joke itself, nor should it give you reason to avoid using it. We all have a different understanding of the world; we all miss both humorous and non-humorous references in everyday conversation, and frankly, nobody’s perfect. To be clueless in some circumstances, however modest, is simply human.

I’m phenomenally adept at stating the obvious, so I’m considering writing an advice column.

Mass Appeal Is Not De Rigueur
Writers are under no obligation to only write material with mass appeal. The people who do get a particular joke, appreciate it. Those who don’t will get the next one.

Or Maybe, It’s Just Bad Juju
One secret that the best standup comedians and comedic actors know: Audience response is never 100% or always easily readable.

Book Cover image

“Earned 5-Star Review!”

Many years ago, I performed a very solid standup routine at a local club. The audience was either asleep or dead, and I honestly don’t remember hearing much laughter. As you can imagine, it was a very disappointing night for me. Yet two days later, I ran into the MC from that club who told me, “You killed Monday night!”


Apparently, after I left the club, more than a dozen audience members mentioned my act to the MC with such erudite critiques as, ‘That fucker was funny!’

His Majesty has decided not to have you beheaded. High praise indeed.

As a standup or a comedic actor, you can have a wonderfully crafted act and still run into an audience that gives you little or a lukewarm response. This does not necessarily mean the audience did not enjoy your act. Then again, even the best performers occasionally bomb.

Tough crowd. The most common stage direction was, “Duck!”

As a writer, you rarely get to see your reader’s response to your material. Most often, you rely on reviews or online comments. And yes, some material does fail. However, evaluate carefully. Sometimes, simply NOT being beheaded is high praise indeed.

Parting Funny: If you ever see me getting beaten up by the police, please put your video camera down and help me.Bobcat Goldthwait

Next Up: No One Respects Cowardice Anymore

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