Being Funny Or Being Nice: Choose One

You can’t be both.  I guess you could always make sure your jokes are exclusively punny, but I think I would prefer jumping in front of a train.

I know.  Ridiculous, right?  After all, there are probably plenty of great comedians who are nice people.  Conversely, there are tons of really nice people who are funny.  

Any reasonably intelligent person is capable of compartmentalizing their talents and the demeanour that contribute to these talents. That is why I am not making the claim that “funny people” cannot also be “nice people”, or vice versa.  The real question is whether you can be funny AND nice at the same time.   You can imagine what I think the answer to this question is.

It’s helpful to define what we are talking about, here.  By “nice”, I mostly mean “non-offensive” or “safe”.  That is, “nice” humour (I’m not convinced that the following qualifies as “humour”, but that’s for another time) happens when no one is targeted, no belief is trivialized, no concept is made fun of, but STILL results in the audience laughing and/or finding the material funny.  Being “nice” does not include being empathetic or generous or anything else that’s often tied to the non-humorous definition of “nice” that I am working with.

Another preliminary objection that you might have is that humour is mostly subjective.  If you agree (which you probably should), you must also concede that movie tastes, book tastes, music tastes and theatre tastes are similarly subjective.  It’s been my experience that people are much more willing to believe in the subjectivity of some kinds of art than in others (usually because they practice one or more of these arts and do not at all like associating it with meaninglessness).   In any event, this shouldn’t (and doesn’t) preclude every attempt at objective analysis.  I don’t think that total relativity explains why certain routines/bits are remembered and modelled for centuries and others are quickly forgotten/discarded.  

Now that the problematic caveats have been dealt with, my thesis is this: all humour is an attack on someone/something/some situation.  At its bare minimum, comedy attempts to make something that is capable of being laughed at.  At its most robust, comedy creates something that we cannot help but laugh at.  Laughing at something inherently demeans it.  It removes gravity, it de-emphasizes importance and it brings the subject down in sophistication.  Being able to laugh at a situation instantly minimizes it.  

With this in mind, another universal truth must be grasped – every single idea/concept/person/situation is held sacred by SOMEONE out there.  I don’t care how obscure it is, how seemingly harmless your joke is or how irrational it may seem.  Someone, somewhere is offended and there is nothing that you can do about it (short of never being funny, again).  Attacking people’s over-sensitivities is not likely to help you and it usually lands you in an even more uncomfortable situation.  Believe me, I know.  

Try as you might, you will not find a brand of humour or a genre of joke that is immune to the conditions that I have laid out.  What about self-deprecation?  Are you immune from offending someone by an attack if the attack is directed against yourself?  Ignoring the psychological/existential question of whether you can offend yourself through your own volition, there are other problems.  Namely, self-deprecation humour falls victim quite frequently to the “I’m allowed to say that, I have a friend who is x” syndrome.  Knocking yourself by making light of your problems (which are probably not at all unique to you) does not preclude others from being offended on your behalf (as silly as that may seem) or being offended at how you treated your problems (i.e. their problems).

Besides ceasing your promising-looking comedic career, what is to be done?  Luckily, I have a solution.  It’s “nothing”.  You don’t need to censor yourself, you don’t need to convince anyone to “stop being so sensitive” and you certainly do not need to convince yourself that you should be both nice AND funny.  What might be helpful is simply accepting (and, dare I say it, even embracing) the fact that you are not being nice when you are being funny.  Or, at the very least, accepting that niceness is at its very lowest amount when humour is being practised.  It may seem that this advice is particularly callous, but it is actually fairly empathetic.  If you rightly realize that you are attacking SOMEONE (or their pet cause) each time you are making a joke, you just might find that you think twice before launching into that hilariously funny, off-colour joke that all your senior-citizen aged uncles find delightful.  

 

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