Is this thing on?
Why aren’t readers laughing? Why isn’t your comedy working?
You get a ton of likes and LOLs on your Facebook posts. Your tweets have been re-tweeted dozens of times. People are always picking themselves up off the floor when they are with you, but when it comes to writing comedy, you may only hear crickets.
Six Big Reasons Why No One Is Laughing At Your Humorous Writing
1. You may not understand the nature of comedy.
This sounds absurd in a way, who studies comedy? We’ve all laughed, we’ve all told jokes, we’ve all repeated anecdotes and received various forms of happy feedback. And even an LOL on Facebook isn’t a true indication that you understand what’s funny. I hate to break this to you, but you just may have gotten lucky a few times. Comedy is harder than you think.
Comedy, according to this theory, comes from benign violations. According to the Humor Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado (this is a very real place with very real studies) humor comes from the Benign Violation Theory.
Humor comes from the unusual. That means that there’s a twist somewhere in the things that you have written. The joke, the visual image, the phrase outside the scope of normal or predicted. A funny punch line is a violation to the normal and the expected. YES, you’re saying to yourself. You’ve violated right and left, you’ve violated so many times that you’ve hurt yourself. But this is the other half of the coin: the violation must be benign. That means that the thing you said that was just a little bit off was not in the position to hurt, offend or cause pain for the listener or the reader. The best comedy is when the listener or the reader doesn’t think that the joke is on them.
Two cannibals were eating a clown. One said, “does this taste funny to you?”
Let’s look at the above joke. Is this a violation? Yes! We all believe that cannibalism is outside the scope of normal. And a clown! Clowns are comedy gold. Haven’t you wondered how they tasted? The punch line “does this taste funny to you” is a pun! And whole package, the set-up and the punchline is right smack in the dab of a benign violation. It’s funny!
It’s also benign. This joke is outside the scope of normal. But the average listener is certainly not hurt nor offended. It’s benign because none of us are cannibals and only a few of us are clowns. We can laugh safely because the oddity of this mental image is odd, but not offensive. Because it meets both of these requirements safely, it can be funny, and it is!
2. You may not know what’s benign.
In your comedy antics, you may have crossed a line maybe not even knowing it. Your audience won’t laugh because your “violation” may not benign to them. You may have clowns in your audience. Worse, you may have cannibals with a tendency to retaliate. Yikes! This is often why some humor writers or joke tellers fall flat. They don’t have enough of a violation and they aren’t safely in the place of benignity. (That’s really a word. I didn’t just make it up to sound smart!)
The solution to this is to know your audience. If your objective is to get the attention of a particular group of people, then you should look at your words — no matter how funny — as a chance for connection. Funny people are often welcoming and attractive! You want people to want to laugh at you. The least you could do for this relationship — which could be a fickle one — is to look for common ground.
3. You may have the wrong agenda.
A benign violation may not work for you because in your heart of hearts, you don’t want to be benign! You want to get people riled up! You want them to be offended! I would argue that if you call yourself a humorist, a comedy writer, a joke teller, a stand-up comedian, if you brand yourself as someone that is associated with humor and you deliberately choose not to be benign, then you are setting yourself up for failure. To promise one thing and deliver another is the fastest route disappointing or alienating your audience. This is especially important if you are just starting out in your career. Don’t look for ways to offend, incite or antagonize if you want to be seen as fun.
4. You may play it safe on the wrong things.
A few years ago on The Last Man Standing I saw a stand-up comedian hopeful enter a room to meet a nun. (This sounds like the set-up for a joke, doesn’t it?) His task was to get the nun to laugh so he could move on to the next level. Now, if he were humor savvy, he would have realized that because this woman took her faith very seriously that her definitions of what was funny would be vastly different from what a typical club goer would have. If he had been humor savvy, he would have said something that from her viewpoint, something that would have not just been a violation, but a benign one, then he would have had a loyal fan. He could have made fun of Protestants, priests, or people who had not taken a vow of poverty.
But that’s not what he did. Here he is, with five minutes to make a nun laugh and what does he do? He tells her the dirtiest, most sexually explicit jokes he had in his arsenal. Did she laugh? Nope. The more he talked, the more offended and upset she got. The more he talked, the more she crossed her arms and frowned. Now, he probably thought it was funny — telling dirty jokes to a nun! He chose to lean heavily on the violation part of humor, which was probably something he was comfortable with, and ignore the benign part and it cost him dearly.
Because the nun not only refused to laugh, but grew angry at his attempt, he lost the round. If he were a fool, he would have blamed the nun for being humorless. But he should have blamed himself. His nationally televised opportunity was dependent on being savvy responder to his audience. He did everything but that. I wonder if he regrets it. I wonder if he’s learned.
5. You may also lose a lot in translation.
This is a grim reality. Just because you are funny at the water cooler and at the family reunion doesn’t mean that you can capture those same reactions in writing. Comedy is not universally the same across various mediums. This may seem obvious to you, but then it may not. The most successful comedians, comic and humor writers know where they are the strongest. Some write situation comedy, some write stand-up, some write newspaper columns and someone has to put the jokes on the Laffy Taffy wrappers, right? If you are finding the jump from telling funny jokes to writing funny pieces to be too difficult and you’re getting unfavorable results, it may be that you just shouldn’t go there. Play to your strengths. It feels a lot better when people are laughing.
6. You may cut corners, using puns, profanity or catchphrases instead of inventive wit.
This is my least favorite form of comedy and it’s going to be tough for me to create a clear argument for this one: but the most common types of comedy are take-offs, references, puns or the attachment of a catchphrase to a common thought or meme. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Humor of this nature is a far cry from thoughtful, well-sculpted wit. Those self-appointed “comedians” who shout-out to The Most Interesting Man In The World aren’t looking for substantial material (and may risk copyright issues).
Instead, they are going for the cheap laugh, the predictable laugh with dated and trendy material. Anyone can slap together the latest internet meme or rewrite the words to a popular song. It takes real talent and commitment to the art of comedy to consistently write jokes and sustain a solid reputation. If you are a hit among friends with your “are you telling me?” graphics and your photoshopped dancing Nicolas Cages, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t expect to move into the world of professional comedy writing unless you can up your game.
What does this have to do with writing?
Humor writers are not stand-up comedians. We also don’t have the luxury of being in the same room with our readers, listening for their snickers and guffaws. We often don’t get feedback from what we read. You really can’t know what’s funny unless you understand your audience. Therefore, the bar is raised pretty high in humor writing. As a result, good comedy and humor writers have a lot to think about.
This is where the hard work comes in. You need to figure this out.
To sum up, to really be funny, you need to spend time narrowing down your typical reader — your market — so that you can set yourself up for the best communication and success. You may also need to study your material for its benign violations, understand that humor is tough to write and requires nuance and delicacy. Most importantly, you need to work extraordinarily hard to be seen as original. Originality is gold in the comedy world, not stealing ideas from others.
You can kill. Now work hard for it.
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.