With the death of Michael Jackson at 50 years old, the question of appropriateness of humor has been brought, once again, into the spotlight. Through the many years following Jackon’s crazy antics from the laughable plastic surgeries to the skin whitening, the baby dangling, the failed marriages to Lisa-Marie and Debbie Rowe, the incidents with sleep-overs and feeding wine to 9-year olds, Michael has been the butt of thousands of jokes. So many jokes, in fact, that the total is equal to almost half the jokes written about former President Bush and Bill Clinton. Think about that. That’s a lot of damn jokes!
But is it too early to make jokes about Michael Jackson considering his death is still so fresh in everyone’s minds? My answer to that isn’t as clear-cut as it would be to a question like: Was Michael weird? The answer to that question would be a simple and resounding “YES!” And that’s if you directed that question to his mother!
When it comes to appropriateness of humor however, the line is blurred. It really depends on how you tell the joke. There’s an old saying: As comedians we’re only guessing…the audience is the judge.
I was fired from writing for Jay Leno because I wrote a joke about the Pope John Paul II’s death. Fired! I then sold that same joke to Letterman and he did it on the air and got great laughs. Here’s the joke:
“Well the Pope died today…(imagine the audience’s response…nervous , tense, “Oh my goodness he’s talking about the Pope!”) I was reading the article in the Times and it said that tens of thousands of people were praying for the Pope…What are they praying for? That he’ll go to Heaven? Because if the Pope needs that kind of help to get into Heaven, the rest of us are SCREWED!”
The audience laughed! Why? The joke really wasn’t about the Pope it was about getting into Heaven and it was not degrading the Pope’s integrity or his commitment to his faith. Appropriate? It got a laugh! The audience’s response determined it was appropriate. It was the structure of the joke that made it appropriate.
For a professional humor writer, death often introduces opportunities to write humor. We must be careful though. I think right now, any joke that attacks Jacko will result in groans, boos or a kick in the Hee-hee…The good news for humor writer is that on the heels of the King of Pop dying, Billy Mays the huckster that sold stuff on T.V. (like Oxy-Clean), also died. With all the people’s energy going to the sadness of Michael Jackson dying, you could get away with a dig at Billy Mays. It could go something like this:
Well, I have some good news and some bad news: The bad news is Billy Mays died. The good news is his ashes make an excellent stain remover—but only if you CALL NOW!
Appropriate? Well, I performed it last night and the audience laughed…
Humor in Contrasting Elements
by Jerry Corley, founder of The Standup Comedy Clinic
It’s called a “sense” of humor for a reason. Just as human beings possess a sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste, we humans also have a sense of humor in that our sense is capable of development and improved sensitivity. Also keep in mind that just as our other five senses are unique to each individual, so is our sense of humor. You’ve probably had the experience of laughing out loud at something you seen, heard or read and someone else close to you doesn’t laugh at all and when you say, wasn’t that funny? They just stare at you. That is a perfect example of your sense of humor being unique to you and your experiences. Comedy is subjective and therefore everything doesn’t make everyone laugh.
I like to follow this adage: “We’re only guessing…the audience is the judge.”
You can, however develop your sense of humor to be much more acute to everyday situations that have the possibility of making people laugh. All jokes or funny situations do have particular elements that occur regularly, which are responsible for making them funny. What if you could make sure that your material contained these elements before trying them out on others wouldn’t that help you in preparing the best set possible?
One of the simplest formulas in comedy theory is what I like to call a juxtaposition of contrasting elements. It’s basically putting two things together that don’t usually go together and playing them out as if it was totally natural and common. For example: “scuba diving” and “fast-food drive-thru”. Your choice of target or subject is important too and will impact the way somebody laughs at your joke. Since comedy is a veiled attack the subject should be someone or something that appears to deserve the said attack. If you choose something or someone who is innocent or as yet “undeserving” of attack or criticism, then an audience will wonder why you attacked them for no reason. So be sure you set up someone as a villain or choose something or someone who needs the rug pulled out from under them.
So, for this example of humor my target is the social networking site, “MySpace” and the women who send you photos of themselves eager to meet a new “friend” when, in reality, they are advertising their porn website. This immediately conjures up an attitude in me of annoyance, which, to me, makes the subject worth attacking.
A woman sent me a picture of herself climbing a ladder, wearing scantily clad shorts, her bulbous ass sticking out of them. Her expression was that of a woman trying to be sexy…either that or her best impression of a dyspeptic terrier. The comment attached to the photo was “Don’t be a stranger…God Bless!”
The implication here is that a bimbo exploiting herself for sex is sanctioned by the almighty. To me that’s funny!
But this joke isn’t completely fleshed out yet. This particular joke lends itself to the idea that one or many tags could play off it.. The tags would focus on other things one could say or do with God’s blessing…You might say something like: “What if other entities used that same approach? Porn sites featuring intro pages like: “Enter here for the hottest hardcore porn on the Internet! Enjoy and God Bless!” Budweiser could run their typical ad where two average guys crack a bud and the Budweiser Twins show up in bikinis rubbing up on the two guys… “Hi Boys!” Then the tagline: “Drink Responsibly— God Bless!” “A cigarette commercial: More Flavor, Less Tar—God Bless!”
The possibilities become endless of putting two contrasting elements together that normally don’t go together and playing them as if they do. Try this yourself and see how many you can come up with!
Jerry Corley is a professional comedian, actor and writer and teaches comedy writing and performing at The Standup Comedy Clinic in Los Angeles.
I was driving today listening to the radio loudly (it hides the strange new noise coming from my front end–I mean who needs to pay $600 to a mechanic, right?) and a commercial came on. It was that Dos Equis commercial; “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” I like this commercial. It’s interesting. It’s funny. It has a nice film-quality, tension-building score, and when you’re listening to a radio commercial who doesn’t want a nice film-quality, tension-building score, right? Bottom line: I dig the commercial. I doesn’t get me to buy the beer but who cares? Well, besides the marketing folks doling out the mil to pay for it…
Anyway, you’re probably asking what this has to do with comedy being easy? What I mean by that, is sometimes–if you fine-tune your ‘sense’ of humor you can see things funny that other people don’t necessarily see as funny, with practice and a lot of work, (you knew there was a catch, huh?)–then comedy can be easy. In fact sometimes comedy just writes itself. I’m a big structure guy when it comes to comedy. Formula and structure win out all the time and they are time-tested and ageless. No matter how you slice it, or what comedian you are talking about. Structure wins. Because with structure you can create surprise and since surprise is the number one trigger to produce laughter in humans, you create comedy. Watch any comedian who was on top for a while, then suddenly they aren’t. They can’t seem to turn it around…they aren’t funny. It’s usually because they lost their structure or they never knew what it was in the first place. I won’t mention any names because it would be indiscreet–‘Dice’ Clay.
Back to surprise. There are several ways to formulate surprise in humor. One of them is to use incongruities; match two things together in a relationship that normally don’t fit together, (ie: Brittany Spears and motherhood) and you have surprise…surprise creates laughter. You have comedy! Easy? The key is, it takes a lot of work to hone that sense of humor so that you can more readily recognize inconguities not recognized by the masses and present them. (Otherwise known as observational comedy)…
Back to the Dos Equis Commercial…the humor in this commercial is evident in the body of the commercial. But, to me, it’s not as funny as the stuff that shows up that they didn’t plan to be funny. In this case it’s the product tag at the end. The announcer says in his announcer voice: “Imported by ‘Cervezas Mexicanas’… (here comes the incongruity..), White Plains, New York.” Of course he utilizes the spanish accent on the words “cervezas mexicanas” and goes back to the professionally-trained announcer voice on: “White Plains, New York.” The incongruity of something so authentically Mexican would be imported by something so white-bread that it even has the name ‘White’ in it, strikes me as funny! It’s like seeing a sign on a restaurant: “Authentic Chinese Cuisine…Se Habla Espanol.” Again: Incongruity.
In fact, with “Cervesaz Mexicanas…White Plains, New York,” you can actually imagine Conan O’Brien using that and then plugging in the running gag…”White Plains, New York” throughout an entire show; “…and later on the show, we have George Clooney paying us a visit, (pause for applause). He’s coming all the way from…(Conan flips his hair) “…White Plains, New York.”
Like I said…comedy is easy!
Jerry Corley is the founder of The Stand Up Comedy Cinic in “White Plains, New York”…just kidding! Burbank, CA.