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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

All jokes are not created equal.

A long time ago on a road gig somewhere in Washington State, I was standing in the bathroom after a show when one of the audience members struck up a conversation with me about comedy. As we stood at the sink, more people from the show filed in. At some point, another man listening to our conversation said, “Don’t you think you are taking comedy too seriously?”
I had to swallow the impulse to yell at him. Instead, I asked him, “Do you take your job seriously?”
“I’m unemployed.” He said and left the bathroom.
It is true that you can take your job too seriously. We have all seen the fellow employee that freaks out about everything broadcasting tension in to the general workspace.
But comedy, like anything you do for the money and the love, is a job. You have to take it seriously and sometimes that blows.
I can vividly remember driving to gigs when I did it full time with no other thought in my head than, this gig is for the cell phone bill. Or, this gig is the PG & E bill.
It really sucks the joy out of it.

I have written many times of showing up to gigs I would rather not be at, but because I needed the money I did them. After awhile, you realize how many of these gigs you are doing. You start to see the impact on whatever artistic integrity you thought you had. Playing to drunks who are mad at you because they can’t play Fooz Ball during the show is not exactly the crowd you feel comfortable taking on challenging subject matter.

In a bar in Great Falls, Montana once, I had the experience a lot of us have had. Two guys came up to me at the bar and said they didn’t like what I said about religion.
I don’t remember the joke. It was early in my career so I have no doubt that it was an imperfect attempt at going in the direction I craved.
Bill Hicks, comedy legend and all around idol to any stand-up wishing to expand the definition of comedy, has a classic story about such a situation. After a show, two men approached him in the parking lot.
“We didn’t like what you said about religion.”
He paused, took a breath and asked, “Are you Christians?”
They spit the answer out with naked aggression. “Yes!”
Calmly, right before he walked away he said, “Then forgive me .”

These guys ended up buying me way too many shots of something that night. It ended well. But I remember how upset they were in the beginning. Not at what I had said, but that I had even brought religion up in a comedy show.
This goes to the heart of several issues that fascinate me.
The idea that anything is above being poked fun at is ridiculous. It’s also contrary to what America is supposed to be all about.
I don’t think they had Stand-Up Comedy in mind when they added the first amendment, but I honestly can’t think of a better use of free speech than a talented comic using humor to point out the inconsistencies a lot of people don’t want to see in their "truth". Not just in faith, but on any topic.
Anyone with confidence and dick jokes can make an audience laugh. That’s no secret at all. Hell, the best-written joke will always be blown out of the water with a fart.
What I’m getting at is the, comedy is subjective idea.
Of course it is. I know intelligent, highly skilled people who work as leaders in their industry that love the three stooges. I also know out of work friends who read Noam Chomsky and think Lenny Bruce wasn’t hard enough on society. I personally have a friend and comic that thinks Larry the Cable Guy is amazing! But the plain truth is, not all punch lines are created equal.

Sure a fart is funny, or a song parody or a done to death premise on dogs and cats. But a joke that gets a big laugh on religion or politics is just superior.
It has to be.
In a business flooded by the Larry the Cable Guy-Dane Cook mentality, a joke on tough subject matter that destroys is just better for a hundred obvious reasons.
Judging anything so subjective as comedy is almost an oxymoron. But to say that a guy playing song parodies is in the same category as a guy making you laugh at beliefs you might hold dear is not fair.
But then again, maybe I take this too seriously.
Here are three facts I know are true about comedy:

1.The audience is never wrong.

2.They only laugh at what is funny.

3.People who are in a position of judging should know comedy and know what has been done and what is more difficult to pull off.

I remember doing a few different competitions in my time. I remember losing out to a guy who wouldn’t argue that he was basically doing dating material. That’s not to say that he wasn’t funny or that he didn’t performed it beautifully, but jokes about 9/11 that shed light in places the country was not yet willing to completely look at yet, cannot be judged the same way. Especially if they are both getting laughs.
Did each comic get big laughs?
Yes.
Did the comics push the envelope successfully?
Well, in my not so humble opinion one of us did and one of us didn’t.

If we are going to make comics compete against each other, then let’s put things in proper perspective. Lets be honest about what is artistic and what is pure entertainment.
I would add one more rule to what I know is the truth in Stand-Up.

4.All jokes are not created equal.

It seems funny to me that I will cite the first amendment, yet I write the sentence, not all things are created equal. It's not something we like to hear, the truth, but comics know it. If they don't, they should. Of course the crowd is going to laugh at dick jokes. They always have! I'm not the first guy do strive for something more out of making people laugh, nor am I the best-but I try. It is so easy to go for the easy laugh or the shock value outrageous laugh. To put something out there in front of a crowd that is part philosophy and part punch line, is a little more difficult.

The Bit, I am probably best known for is the pigeon homeless guy one. It's a good bit. It's clean, funny and gets laughs. But the bits I am most proud of are the ones about religion. I think they are personal to my experience yet universal in there logic too. I think that's a great indicator of a quality joke; will people who do not share the same opinion laugh at it? In the final analysis, if it is a well written well performed joke, they will. They have to. It is constructed so well that there is no other response. Jokes are like little mathematical proofs. 1+1 will always equal 2.
That is probably the mathematical equivalent of a dick joke, 1+1. The algebra of comedy is talking about politics, religion and sex without being dirty. That's the real trick.

So if you ever find yourself in the delicate position of judging comedy, remember that anything about dating, or the phrase, being married is weird, is a red flag that screams EASY! But a joke on something you are not use to hearing about, a joke that gets just as big a laugh as, whats up with black guys doing it one way and white guys doing it another, is simply superior. Think of it like this, those jokes have to work twice as hard as those other jokes.
That's why I am all Animal Farm on this issue; not all jokes are equal.


3 comments:

Dean said...

I'm reading the blog AND relistening to the Mike and Ian podcast... it's Klocek in surroundsound!

Matt Gubser said...

I could not agree with you more Joe. Your post completely mirrors a conversation I had after bombing last night. We packed a little bar, and all they laughed at all night were jokes about sex and drinking. That's a problem when you're material is primarily religious and political satire. Coming up with something funny is not difficult. Having something worth saying, and making that funny, that's the challenge.

Joe said...

Dean,
Get out more. I'm good, but a Joe Klocek self induced multi-media event might lead to all the scars I have!
Matt,
Thanks. It is a debate that will rage on long after either one of us is gone. The first rule is so obvious I didn't even write it down; make them laugh. Sometimes in my effort to speak from the heat, I forget that I still have to come up with a punch line.
There is also one other rule that should be listed in the book of comedy kept under lock and key somewhere in the crypt that Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks share; DON'T STEAL JOKES!
That is NOT how showbiz works.
You steal jokes and pretty soon no one wants to work with you.
All right, I am climbing down off my soap box to go sit in a cafe and wait for more people to entertain me!