The Serious Business of Being Unfunny July 15, 2010Posted by Danjamin S. Meow in : humour, serious business , trackback Someone once told me I’m only ever 9 months away from making “Dad” jokes constantly – we all know a dork who happened to have a child or three, thinks they’re hilarious and enforces their humour on their poor kids’ friends. This would be true of me if I were a breeder and told terrible jokes ALL the time. Raised by three parents of mixed backgrounds has made awkward situational humour my first language, and sometimes I can’t resist telling an intentionally bad joke. Some of these jokes have survived and been passed down through several generations. Like “You’ve lost your job? Where did you see it last?” or “What are you getting Grandpa this year? Something memorable?!” (The second one was passed around, more than down, when we thought he might have Alzheimer’s). Our humour wasn’t always so distasteful; I just don’t remember the “before” times. I don’t even remember the change; it was gradual. I just remember putting off coming out to my parents so I wouldn’t have to hear my stepfather’s jokes about Perth’s gay bars again.* Then when I did, my mother said she was renaming me “Gav” : her gay, atheist vegan. At the time I thought, this would make a great Singles’ column acronym. If only other GAVs read singles columns.
If sense of humour is genetic, I’d like to think I’m here I because the sperm cell that won the race to the right Fallopian tube killed the competition with laughter. It certainly wasn’t because he was fast at swimming. But there definitely is an environmental conditioning required to hone your jokabillity, as I like to call it. I also like to make up words for fun and laughs. If your childhood wasn’t spent with wisecracking parents in front of The Simpsons, Seinfeld and The Glass House, surround yourself with funny friends who will give you honest feedback about your jokes. Blank stares may be brutal but they’re a good sign you’re on the wrong track. You might want to try another tack and install a laugh track. That way, when you make a joke and finish with an expectant grin, you don’t hear crickets. Your friends will have their cue to laugh politely then say things like “Too far. But good one about redheads in power. Next time you tell it you can change Julia Gillard to Pauline Hanson so it won’t sound like you’re trying too hard to be topical.”
Your third option is to teach yourself to tell jokes. Late nights watching 30 Rock or Eddie Izzard’s stand up comedy alone will get you started. As will DVDs of Margaret Cho’s or Wil Anderson’s standup if you’d rather nail the “inapropriate” jokes. Once you can remember a whole series’ (or DVD’s) worth of quotes to interject into conversation, you’ll have absorbed enough of your chosen comic’s genius to steer you through most conversations. But it’s important to understand why a joke is funny before trying observational humour. Dissecting jokes often kills them (or that might just be frogs) but it gives a good understanding of how they work. Puns are the foundation of many “Dad” jokes as well as many funny ones. Taking a word (A) that sounds like another word (B) and substituting A for B in a sentence is the first step in many, many jokes. Alternatively, when you mishear what someone says, repeating back what you think you heard is an off-beat way to score cheap laughs without much work. Amongst my circle of friends this is known as a “Cuban Dinosaur.” No one knows why, and attempts to reverse engineer the original term have failed.
Often jokes will be based on an expectation being built up, and then deliberately going against the buildup. The rule of three is a nice example of this type of humour: You set up, confirm and then destroy in the name of humour. Describing a cooking show where the host looks like he’s spent too many years on drugs? His technique might involve being broiling, lightly oiling and then rolling the dish in pure crack. This works on two levels, because both “broiling” and “oiling” are common steps in food preparation, and they both rhyme. Having the host roll a chicken breast in crack after doing the first two breaks the set-up you’ve created for the third. Which might have had to be “soiling” the chicken. Good thing he chose the crack.
Observational requires pointing out how something (a current news topic, deeply-held belief system or Justin Bieber) is already funny, or taking a premise to its logical but absurd conclusion and then speaking as if everybody else believes this conclusion. Not for amateurs is the kind of paranoid schizophrenic conversation based on Jesus watching you from an air vent on the train (God is “everywhere” and sees everything, after all). Another use for generally understood stereotypes or a “pre-existing” buildup is to contradict them. Quite often a joke in my house will involve nothing more than a healthy dose of irony. My housemate and I once left a ridiculously bad painting of a matador up in our lounge, which obviously clashed without our ethical vegetarianism and sense of aesthetics, and told people that came to visit we chose it because it matched our lounge’s colour scheme. Thankfully we didn’t buy the painting, we found it discraded outside a picture framing business. (This housemate and I had progressed to the stage where one-word references to in-jokes and puns would have us in tears from the effort of trying to laugh.)
Once you settle into your funny groove, you can then purposely disregard the rules of funny humour and move into “Dad joke” territory with an audience knowing that you do have a finely-tuned sense of humour and are stepping outside the bounds of taste to make a bad joke. Until then, it’s best to leave bad jokes in the category of things you know better than to try. A category I’m only ever borrowing from the natural hypocrites: Dads.
* For those that have had the great fortune of avoiding jokes like these, he used to say that he’d have to walk backwards into Connections so that everyone would recognise him.
And never failed to bring up the following list when something “gay” entered conversation – things a straight man should never say in a gay bar include:
“Can I bum a fag?”, “Can you push my stool in?”, “Let’s blow this joint!”, “Toss you for the next round.” and “Bottoms up!”