Afternoon Inquisition

AI: I’m skeptical that you’re funny

Last weekend, the Chicago Tribune ran and article on how to fake being funny.  I’ve been described as a humor snob, and maybe I am, but I thought the advice was terrible, at best.

First they say to laugh when other people laugh. That’s fine. And it’s a good idea if you want to blend in with the crowd. But it doesn’t make you funny. It makes you agreeable.

Next they tell you to memorize a few jokes. Don’t do that. Unless they’re really great jokes that are hysterically funny and no one else has heard, you’re not going to seem funny. You’re going to seem like a guy who heard a couple of jokes. No one thinks that guy who rattles off jokes is actually funny anyway.  And if you don’t have good comic timing, your joke can flop… making you seem even LESS funny. Canned humor is not funny.

Their next advice leaves me conflicted: Limit retelling jokes from sitcoms. Though I’d also add movies, stand-up routines, and SNL (unless it’s a recent meme). No one is impressed that you can work in quotes from Monty Python or Police Academy or the Simpsons or “the early days” of SNL. Those jokes stopped being funny before Pluto stopped being a planet.

However, I disagree with their advice that “That’s what she said” is only funny on The Office. This is wrong. “That’s what she said” is almost always funny. It’s a great go-to joke.

Their final advice is to use self-deprecation. Funny when done right. Annoyingly emo and passive-aggressive if you can’t pull it off. If you’re not funny, this is NOT the way to make people think you’re funny.

Even humor needs to be looked at skeptically!

What would you add to the rules of humor? What humor delusions do you see people harboring regularly?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. Unless what you’re saying is seriously the funniest thing even you’ve ever heard, try not to laugh so hard while saying it that nobody understands you. Chances are when you repeat yourself, they’ll be disappointed.

    Also, I have delusions of being funny, myself. Sure, from time to time I get in a good zinger, but mostly I’m the one who stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

  2. Never follow someone else’s joke with a joke. It just seems like you are trying to compete.

    I think the rules of improv can apply generally to social situations. If you want to keep a nice flow of humor going don’t gainsay someone. Going with the tried and “Yes, and…” is much better. For example:

    A: I think my face is handsome
    B: Your face is hideous

    (Conversation stops)

    A: I think my face is handsome
    B: Yes, and it keeps an excessive number of women from wasting your time with dates.

    (Laughter and mirth prevail.)

  3. Can I complain here about people outside of the skeptic community making the “I’m skeptical” joke when I try to describe what we do? I’m pretty sick of it.

  4. I quote from things that most people who are in my circle don’t know about.

    “If your friends were named cliff would you jump off them?”

    Also I most make funny statements simply to amuse myself. This is good because they rarely amuse anyone else.

    Also I agree with@Kimbo Jones: teasing someone who is uncomfortable is mean, not funny. If you can’t be funny don’t be a jerk.

  5. @Jen: OH MY FREAKING GOD I HATE THAT. I think I snarked about it on Twitter recently, as a matter of fact. Seriously, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves.

    Some people inside the skeptical circle do it as well. But they only do it in very public places like, for instance, Phil Plait’s facebook status’ comments. In fact I’ve noticed a whole lot of seriously lame humor used in comment threads lately.

  6. I’ll actually add that retelling ver batium as in “This is what happened on the Simpsons” is wrong, using the material in ways that is relevant and seamless to the situation should be valid.

    IE, getting the flow and feel of say Groucho Marx’s brilliant casual word play should be encouraged (always go to the masters to learn an art) and even openly mimicing the style or joke in a line might work if it fits well enough.

  7. I am skeptical that you can tell someone they’re not funny. I bet someone in the world finds them funny. I for example, love ‘Dad jokes’, lame puns, people who explain the joke (“oh ho ho! Is funny because…”), Bazinga! etc.

    I think the key is to find your audience. I think that The Beverly Hillbillies was the most unfunny show ever, but as I understand it, it was quite popular. So I assume there was a significant group of people who found it funny. Or maybe it was the only tv show on at the time.

    So if your co-workers think your jokes are lame, don’t worry maybe you’ll find a kindred spirit in the ‘Mork and Mindy was actually really crap’ chat room.

    Oh yeah, and definitely don’t tease/insult/practical joke people who don’t like it. Find someone who does and have consentual fun with them instead.

  8. @jsg: My dad is my comedy hero. He and I were picking up some Chinese food, and we are standing at the counter when this guy comes up to us, and seeing another white fella, proceeds to tell a horrifically racist joke to us. My father keeps it together, and our food arrives just at the punchline. He looks the guy right in the eye and says “my wife is black,” and we walk out.


  9. @Ing213: I would agree, but then I tend to use Monty Python bits when it seems appropriate :-) It has been said that there are no new jokes, anyway (kind of like clothing fashions), so in the future all those old bits will be funny again. Unless that’s the same future that religious types say that scientists will arrive at the Truth and find that the religious types were there all along.

  10. I would add: Don’t try to be funny all the time.
    There is nothing better than when something hilarious pops out of someone unexpectedly. That’s the kind of thing that is most likely to lead to squealing, crying laughter from me.

  11. @Jen: @Chelsea: I get the “I’m skeptical” joke all the time and it’s ONLY funny when done ironically, like by someone who’s also a skeptic and knows it isn’t going to be funny but says it anyway. The timing has to be perfect though.

  12. Whatever makes you laugh is funny; that does not mean if you tell the same joke or story it’ll be funny to anyone else. My advice is that unless you know your story or joke is funny or that you’re funny, just enjoy the conversation and tell your stories because they’re interesting or amusing and sometimes funny happens.

  13. The first time you play a particular practical joke on someone, you might get a chuckle.

    The second time you play that same joke on the same person, they might laugh and get a look on their face as if to say, “ok, wasn’t that funny the first time…”

    The 10th time you play the same joke on the same person in the matter of maybe 2 hours (not the most complex joke in the world) you are in serious danger of getting kicked out of that person’s house and might never be invited back again.

    In fact, unless you can think of a really good one, just don’t play practical jokes at all.

  14. If you want to be funny act like a 15 year old boy. No one is as funny as a group of teen boys. They hone their skills putting each other down and topping stories. Hands down the masters of hilarious nicknames, too.

  15. One big rule that Roger Ebert mentioned lately (either in a movie review or on his blog) that needs to be mentioned: it’s not funny if you act like you know it’s funny. If you want to be funny, you have to act like you’re completely oblivious to the fact that what you’re saying is funny or intended to be funny, otherwise you come off as not only unfunny but like you’re trying to hard.

    So remember to play it straight!

    @Akiko: That explains my skill at put-downs. I was once a 15-year-old boy. Some would maintain that I still am.

  16. Humour is hard though, cos people are subjective in what they find funny. Humour needs to be targeted. If your audience doesn’t “get” the joke, then it’s no better than telling a really lame joke.

  17. It is said that comedy is tragedy with timing. Heinlein wrote in Stranger in a Strange Land that it was incredibly difficult to find a truly funny joke that didn’t involve some sort of tragedy or pain being inflicted upon someone else.

    Just because it’s mean does not indicate that it’s not funny. I knew a kid who, when I first met him, I thought deserved a bit of sympathy. Later, I discovered he wasn’t sheltered and in need, he was really mysogenistic, racist, and generally craptastic. Ridiculing his stupidity showed at least two things: (1) Don’t bring that crap around me, or the people laughing. (2) Those ideas are laughable.

    Almost no one likes being the butt of jokes, so my jokes at his expense were mean. They were also hilarious, judging by the reactions.

  18. Humour is contextual. My husband and I think our 4 year old’s mangled jokes are funny, but I’m betting most of the rest of you wouldn’t.

    We also think there is no limit to the humour in Monty Python. Repeating Python jokes is very funny to us. Every time my husband wears the “My hovercraft is full of eels” shirt I bought him for Christmas, I am amused. I’m betting that many of you here would also not find that funny. And to you I say, “NI!” Heh heh heh…

  19. @Mark Hall: Are you serious or is this some clever meta-joke meant to fool people like me? :P My experience with the “skeptical joke” has been this:

    Person known to be skeptical makes claim, statement, or even comments on the weather. Friend (who has possibly said some rather unskeptical things in the past) goes “well, I’M SKEPTICAL of that hahahahahahaha”. They think it’s hilarious every time.

  20. @Kimbo Jones: An expansion on the “joke”: people also seem to think it’s funny to say “Well, I’m skeptical of the skeptics!” But it’s not just that they seem to think this is funny; they seem to think that they’re the first person ever to string together such a trenchant bon mot.

    I know I’m not the first to complain about that lame phrase, and I won’t be the last, but it needs bitched about every once in a while.

  21. Alright, anyone claiming that Monty Python is no longer funny should be subjected to poking by the soft pillows, and if that doesn’t work it’s off to the COMFY CHAIR for them!

  22. It’s not that Python isn’t funny anymore, it’s that there’s a difference between a joke and a reference. There’s an entire segment of the population that has gotten the two entirely confused, and they’re called nerds. It’s often stuff that’s not even funny in the first place that will get those folks tittering away. I used to be pretty bad about doing it myself but [british accent] I got better.[/british accent]

  23. The key to humor, or at least joke-telling, is the punchline. If you remember nothing else about the joke, remember the punchline – all other details leading up to it are fungible.

    The is *nothing* worse than someone that stumbles while telling the pre-punchline story. Remember – those details don’t matter!

  24. @killyosaur:

    I never found Monty Python funny. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not.

    My point is that while Monty Python is funny, you using and reusing lines from Monty Python is not. Especially when these lines have been used over an over again by everyone else.

    Referencing something that is funny is not the same as it being funny.

  25. @Ing213:

    I’ll actually add that retelling ver batium as in “This is what happened on the Simpsons” is wrong, using the material in ways that is relevant and seamless to the situation should be valid.

    “Should be valid”… valid? Sure. Relevant? Sure.

    But funny? Not really.

  26. @Elyse: Referencing something that is funny is not the same as it being funny.

    Isn’t necessarily the same as being funny… timing and appropriateness plays a lot into it. General principle, yes, but I like to nitpick.

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