Monday, February 06, 2012

What not to do when trying to be funny

On numerous occasions during my current trip – hello from Auckland, New Zealand, where I'm happy to report no volcanoes have erupted today – I’ve taken various tours. Some of the guides have been delightful and very funny, while one was like being trapped in Comedy Traffic School. And there is nothing worse than being locked be in a room for eight hours with a bad comedian – and I say that after surviving a cyclone two days ago. Bad comics doing routines on speed limits is worse.  Just show the grisly films. 

So as a public service, and to maybe spare myself some needless grief (I have another tour today), here are some tips of what not to do:

Don’t laugh at everything you say. Had a guide yesterday who occasionally did say something funny but killed it every time by chortling like an idiot after every punchline. Amuse us, not yourself.

Don’t try to be funny every second. Even if you are funny it’s excruciating. Girls? How many first dates have you been on where the guy tried to impress you with his dazzling wit and by the salad course his chance of sleeping with you was less than a gargoyle’s?  Don’t be constantly “on”. You’re not hilarious. You’re desperate.

Don’t wind up before the joke. Or, as we like to say – telegraph it. Our guide in Hobart was genuinely funny. Every so often she would just slyly slip in a zinger. We drove by a McDonalds’ and she said, “Over there is the American Embassy.” Jokes are funnier if you don’t see them coming.

Puns may be clever but they’re rarely funny. And worse than no laughter, you run the risk of groans. Save puns for pithy prose or titles of blog posts. 

If you do a joke about a subject and it doesn’t get a laugh, don’t do six more on the same subject.

And finally, don’t steal material from Robin Williams. First off, it’s already been stolen and second – you won’t be able to do it as well.

If you happen to be naturally funny, heed this advice. You will become funnier. But if you’re not funny by nature, that’s okay. I’m sure you have other gifts. It’s no crime to just describe when settlers first arrived here or what exactly constitutes a legal U-turn. Not only will we love you anyway, we’ll love you more.

Thanks. I gotta get back on the bus.   We just passed a golf course and the guide said golfers weren't allowed to wear socks because they might have a hole in one.  DON'T DO THAT!


Kurt said...

I don't get the "don't laugh at your own jokes" thing. If you're a comedian who's said it one million times then I can understand it, but if you're an ordinary person making it up on the spot, how can you not laugh?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Played golf and got paired up with a young guy on farm team comedy circuit. He subjected me to a blabfest from hell. It was the second time I walked off the course in the middle of a round. Un-freaking-bearable.

The first time: I caught my golf partner cheating.

The comedian incessant comedian was worse.

Bob Summers said...

That's like many judges. One time, a judge really was funny.

A guy had on a generic "All State" sports shirt, much like you'd see one that just said "Baseball" or something. When he went in front of the judge, the judge asked him "Did you make All State this year?"

The defendant was oblivious.

Johnny Walker said...

"Don’t be constantly 'on'."

Oh god, it's excruciating when you meet someone who's always on. It drives me up the wall. Hold it back until you think of something really funny, or focus on amusing yourself instead of desperately trying to make others laugh.

And if you're a tour guide, and you don't have something genuinely funny to say, just impart information. That's perfectly enjoyable to listen to, as well.

"We just passed a golf course and the guide said golfers weren't allowed to wear socks because they might have a hole in one."

I really feel for you, Ken. Do you have an iPod?

I remember doing the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland and finding plenty of genuine laughs. I don't know how scripted it was (it was probably entirely scripted, I suppose, knowing Disney) but the girl was wonderfully deadpan.

As we were returning to 'shore' she said, "Thank you for joining us today on our exciting adventure into the jungle. I hope we'll see you again in the magical and enchanting place I like to call... work."

BigTed said...

Have any big-name comedians taught Comedy Traffic School? I imagine it's difficult, in part because they have to stick the jokes between about six hours of required DMV material about how many feet you have to stop behind a railroad crossing.

For that matter, have any stars actually been discovered guiding a Universal Studios Tour?

And has anyone ever successfully launched a career at Disneyland? (Other than Steve Martin, anyway.)

Greg Ehrbar said...

Quite a few Disney park performers have gone on to very impressive careers, especially on Broadway. Few have become big stars, if that is the only measure of success.

Leanza Cornett played Ariel before she became Miss America and a TV host. Paula Pell is a head writer on Saturday Night Live who performed for years at Pleasure Island in the Adventurer's Club. There are certainly many more.

Steve Martin, if I remember correctly, worked as at the Magic Shop and hung out at the Diamond Horseshoe where he was mentored by Wally Boag, but I think Martin actually performed at Knott's Berry Farm at the Birdcage Theatre.

It's important to know how many hundreds of people work in shows and parades in Theme Parks, many of them making a long term career of it -- finding some security in a largely insecure field.

But there is a stigma about being a park performer, as if they're not up to a perceived level. You would not believe the incredible versatility of some of these folks, playing different roles at different parks and hotels in the same week.

Even more challenging, they interact regularly with park guests and conventioneers -- largely improvising -- and have to be funny without crossing the lines. Few "stars" could do that.

Thomas said...

"If you're an ordinary person making it up on the spot, how can you not laugh?"

There's a difference between doing it well or badly. If you say a cracker and get your friends to laugh, you're allowed a coy smirk or a chuckle, to fan your vanity.
But if you say something and then laugh the loudest, you lose the game.

Trixie Malone said...

Like it's pretty funny when a guy you're out with tucks his sweater in his pants and it causes a bulge in the front. But the bulge in the back is overkill.

Eric J said...

Bill Engvall laughs all the time in his stand up routines. He starts giggling during the set up and right after the punch line. Sometimes he overdoes it, but often, it is such an infectious laugh, it helps draw the laugh from the audience. Few can do it effectively, though.

Tom Quigley said...

I remember the late Steve Landesberg (Detective Dietrich on BARNEY MILLER) used to appear on the Dean Martin show occasionally and would inevitably start laughing at his own jokes in the middle of his routine. Whether he actually thought what he was doing was that funny, or in his head he was thinking of stuff that was a lot funnier which he couldn't do on TV, I don't know -- but I understand from people who knew him that he was a much funnier comedian than he ever came off as being in his TV appearances.

Kirk said...

I think comedians are more likely to laugh at their own jokes when they're ad libbing. Bill Maher, for instance, will say something that's been prepared beforehand with a straight face, OK, straight smirk, but when he's zinging a guest on his show who's just exhibited a bit of hyperbole, he'll crack up as he does so. Then there's David Letterman, who'll say the joke with a straight face, and then, a beat later, laugh along with the audience, as if he's surprised they actually found it funny.

Years ago Billy Crystal and Robin Williams were on Oprah for some reason, and Williams repeated one of Crystal's jokes about ten minutes after he had said it, much to the latter's consternation. Williams' version was actually funnier.

Alfred Hitchcock once told Dick Cavitt that a pun is the highest form of literature. He said it with a straight face, so I'm not sure if he was joking or not.

Ref said...

Laughing at your own jokes works if you don't overdo it and, like Engvall and others mentioned, the way you do it is physical comedy in itself.

DyHrdMET said...

is it hard to write for a character/actor who speaks a different dialect of English, say British English? Working with a few authentic Brits, I know they say things differently than we do (and I don't mean the accent), and hearing Walden's new (British) girlfriend on Two and a Half Men, her lines sound authentic to the actress's background.

Pat Reeder said...

When I'm writing topical one-liners for radio, I sometimes laugh out loud at one I suddenly thought of, and I'm all by myself in a dark office at 3 a.m. I explain it by using the punchline to the old "Little Johnny" joke: "I was just sitting here telling myself jokes, and I told one I hadn't heard yet."

If you're a tour guide repeating that joke for the 10,000th time, though, there's no excuse.

BTW, we spent Christmas in New Orleans and took a couple of tours. One guide was more the scripted type with groaners. Another was a woman who was also funny, but very spontaneous, interactive and witty, not forced or rehearsed. I gave her a much bigger tip.

VW: "Nesoctom" - The worst part of your anatomy to have a doctor insert a probe into.

jasa pengujian said...


Johnny Walker said...

DyHrdMET: I'm a British person who's currently re-watching Frasier, and I can tell you that it must be tough, because Daphne is frequently being very un-British. Her accent, for example, is weird. The words and phrases she uses can be totally incorrect (in one episode she calls an umbrella a "bumbershoot", and is chastised for her British words -- the phrase is actually 100% American). In another she marvels at the fact that Americans have toilets (foreigners are backwards!).

And all this while the actress playing the part is British in real life! (I'm guessing she wasn't about to stick her neck out and get a reputation for being negative or difficult, especially when, to a US audience, it all seems perfectly realistic.)

So I'm guessing it can be as difficult as the writing staff want to make it: You can use stereotypes for jokes, or you can work harder and be more realistic.

FWIW, I think Daphne seems to be getting more realistic as the series goes on. Plus jokes seem to be more about her family or her idiosyncracies, instead of her race.

Johnny Walker said...

That wasn't in lieu of Ken's possible future reply, of course! Just 2c from a Brit.

SteveM05 said...

A non-comedian laughing at their own joke is the equivalent of a person ending a Facebook or Twitter post with 'Lol!'. Desperate try-hards.

Speaking of American tour guides, I'd appreciate it, Ken, if you would pass on some long overdue feedback when you get home. As an Australian and a frequent visitor to your golden shores, I feel that your tour guides, hotel staff, taxi drivers and the guy standing behind me at the post office need to stop making references to:

Crocodile Dundee
Shrimps on the Barbie, and
Friends they know who loved it when they visited Down Under in 1992

These-days, it is the cultural equivalent of referring to America, using:

Got Milk?
Friends we know who's father went to a conference in St Louis in 1992, and brought them back a Cardinals cap

I cringe a little whenever I hear 'Down Under'. I understand that you guys don't have access to the wealth of Australian references in the same way that the rest of the world has long had access to yours. Even a good humoured attempt at a 'G'day, mate!' when meeting one of us, comes across as slight mimicry, rather than welcoming. It is less like performing a Vulcan hand greeting to a Vulcan, and more like waving a banana at a monkey and saying 'Oo-oo, ah-ah!'

No doubt other foreigners would have similar experiences.

Of course, this won't ever stop me visiting America. I LOVE your accents! Lol!

Ken Levine said...


I'm writing my travelogue and will post it next week. Hint: I loved both Australia and New Zealand. No shrimp on the barbie references will appear, nor will the Outback Steakhouse be mentioned. But for you Kiwis -- yes, I mention sheep.

HD said...

I was a tour guide for many years and I can tell you, we're not cracking jokes for the tourists. We're amusing ourselves, doing anything we can to make a miserable repetitive job a bit more bearable.

And really bad puns or jokes like the hole in one/sock jokes are typically meant to get groans, as it's fun, in a twisted way, to torture the tourists.

Imagine an absurdly well paid television writer critiquing the humor of minimum wage earning tour guides. -- uh, don't do that. -- but do leave a good tip

VP81955 said...

Whenever you have visitors from another country, say something referring to their country that shows you know more than the obvious. For example, last fall, I was on a D.C. bus with two British ladies, and when I told them my favorite EPL team was Wolverhampton, they were impressed that I went beyond the usual Man U/Chelsea/Arsenal stuff. It would be like a Briton saying he or she is a fan of the Houston Astros or Jacksonville Jaguars.

Andrew said...

Like any good rules, there are exceptions. For example, puns can be funny when they're used for trolling rather than their own sake. I've been known in my day-to-day interactions to use bad humor, where the punchline isn't the joke itself, but myself... in other words, it's a form of self-detrimental humor, almost at a meta level since it's a step beyond the more immediately visible joke.