A stranger walks into an elevator. I say “how about this weather?!” They smirk, or let out a small laugh. It’s easy to think, “I am funny guy!” But: that’s not a joke, it’s not funny. It’s just small talk and politeness in action. I am not, actually, the funny guy in this scenario.
When I was fourteen, I was really into standup comedy. I managed to find a club above a bowling alley that let me do a 2 minute set. The only constraint was that I couldn’t work blue. So I wrote two minutes of jokes, performed it a couple times, got a few laughs, and that was that. I figured out that I could get in front of people and tell some jokes, and I didn’t need to rely on slapstick cursing to do it.
Also, I was fourteen and surrounded by teenagers. Teenagers make a lot of jokes at each other’s expense, because they’re cruel, don’t know better, and aren’t practiced humorists. I had experienced my share of being the subject of those jokes and decided I didn’t want to be that kind of funny. Eventually, I came to the formulation that the best jokes aren’t at someone else’s expense.
As random things in one’s youth go, these two were pretty formative. I decided that if you can’t get a laugh without cursing or making a joke at someone’s expense by punching down, you weren’t actually funny.
Turns out these principles are pretty handy for the world we live in (and have always lived in, but some the future is not evenly distributed, etc.)
You can work blue, you can demean other people, you can say what’s really on your mind, and you can punch down. You may get laughs, but they’re because people are sympathetic to your anger or cruelty. Or, maybe you’ve been bombing so long they’re just relieved you said something almost decent and the laugh to diffuse the situation. But, that’s not funny.
When a joke misses, when a standup flops, it doesn’t mean we’ve become a humorless or prduce society. None of this means the end of humor or satire. It means we’re going to separate the really excellent humorists from those who are merely humor-adjacent.