Jokes that work in one place but fail in another

Topical jokes have a short shelf-life. Ya can squeeze a few months out of 'em but then ya gotta throw 'em out. That's a big part of why I avoid them. I'd rather spend my time crafting something evergreen. If I'm gonna come up with a great bit, I want to be able to get as much life as possible out of it.

There's another kind of limiting joke: one that's funny only to a specific area. I remember seeing a comic in Chicago one time who was really killing. Great set. But I started to notice something. Every single one of his jokes was Chicago-specific. About riding the el train, going to Wrigley, etc. Funny to the people in that room but what happens if/when this guy ever goes on the road or tries for a TV spot? He had crafted a great set that was worth nothing outside of his hometown.

Ya see it in NYC all the time too. What the hell are those conductors ever saying on the subway? People from Jersey are stupid! And you won't believe how tiny my apartment is... Those topics can get laughs here. But the relatability of 'em is gone when ya go somewhere else.

Helen Hong interviewed by The Comedians:

“When I first started playing outside New York,” says Hong, “I was so surprised when I found how many of my jokes didn’t work there. Even when I went to LA, a place and go at least a couple of times a year and try to get some spots; there are some jokes that are very New York-centric that only work in New York, which is my fault for writing them. Even outside of LA, there are jokes that are too socially edgy that they don’t get it. They don’t get apartment living. If you have too many jokes about going out with your black friend, gay friend, and drag-queen friend, they’re going to be, like, what? So it’s great to have that mix.

That socially edgy thing is something I just heard from someone else too. Apparently, edgy jokes (like something with racial overtones, but not actually racist) will get big laughs in NYC but fall flat on the west coast where people seem to be more sensitive. Curse you, people who are sensitive!

So time and geography are two joke ghettos. I guess the other one would be topic-based. Being overly niche-y. Like I have a new bit I'm doing about Tom Waits. Fun in an alt room where there are hipsters or musicians. Tougher in a room in midtown filled with people who are, um, not in a Tom Waits demographic.

Some may argue you should stick to whatever material you want to do regardless. Eh, I'd rather take it on a show by show basis and deliver the jokes that will work best in that room for that crowd. I see part of the job as being able to read the room and know if one joke's gonna work better than another.


Abbi Crutchfield said...

From a business perspective, you should make sure your material covers a wide range of relatable topics (read: human truths, not just pop culture phenoms) so that you can play a larger number of venues and make more money.

From an artistic perspective you should stick with what's true for you. I know I'm young in the game, but I say a good comedian can make a region-specific joke funny no matter where s/he is, and it's worth keeping if it's part of your growth as a comic.

Bookers don't think so, and tell all NYC comedians to omit NYC material when abroad. I've worked the road with people who collect info like, "What's the poorest part of town called? What's the most popular gay bar here?" and insert the new names into their material like mad libs. Their jokes are unfettered, and suddenly they're "relatable" to that region.

A more experienced comic should chime in here. I'm not advocating keeping your region-specific stuff and risking the chance of it failing outside that region, I'm advocating going through the regular process of writing what you know and then learning to adapt your experiences to what a wider range of people will understand. For connection's sake, not for money's sake. For money's sake get a puppet.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Excellent article about Helen! Thanks for posting.

Mo Diggs said...

Hilarious way to learn this lesson: buy Andy Daly's Nine Sweaters and listen to Track 3 (Shooter's Bon Voyage Set) which has all these absurdly specific LA references.

The locals in the crowd get the references of course but the greater joke is that Shooter is going to try this LA-specific jokes all over the world.

Matteson said...

A while ago I was reading a book by Laker's coach Phil Jackson and there was a quote in it from Tex Winter, who's an adviser to Jackson that's applicable to this discussion. He said, "You are only a success at the moment that you do a successful act." He was talking about basketball, but it really resonated with me because of how well it translates to comedy. You are only a funny at the moment you make someone laugh.

There really aren't inherently and unfailingly funny jokes or people, there are just jokes and people that are funny a high percentage of the time. Take any comedian or any joke and there is a situation where they won't work.

myq said...

"Some may argue you should stick to whatever material you want to do regardless. Eh, I'd rather take it on a show by show basis and deliver the jokes that will work best in that room for that crowd. I see part of the job as being able to read the room and know if one joke's gonna work better than another."

I think there are a lot of factors to consider here.

One, of course there are going to be times that someone writes great jokes that are very limited in geographical scope. Helen says "my fault for writing them," and I don't think it's a matter of fault. I think it's just a matter of knowing if the references for your joke will be lost.

Jimmy Carr's book has a good example of a joke that works perfectly in England but can't in America, because we don't have the same product names that they do. It's not his fault for writing a joke that isn't understood by EVERY English-speaking person around the world; it's just important to know which English speakers CAN appreciate it.

Doesn't mean it's not a good joke.

However, I don't think it necessarily makes sense to treat issues like dialectical differences and local references the same as you do "socially edgy" material.

I don't think it's necessarily a comedian's place to pre-judge a crowd as "potentially too sensitive." A lot of comedians might actually take that as a challenge to make palatable the material they think the audience might be sensitive to.

And plenty of comedians do just that. I've seen Nick Dipaolo in front of crowds that differed from him politically, and he certainly doesn't go out of his way to "deliver the jokes that will work best in that room." He does his act, because he is who is he is.

I've read that Birbiglia didn't take out any of his anti-Bush jokes while on tour through areas where Bush was popular; he did his act to some adverse reactions, some booing, I believe.

Because sometimes you're working on something bigger than just one show for one audience for one night.

There is no one right answer, I think.

Marc Maron talked on his podcast about bombing at the Chevy Chase roast, then referencing the fact he was bombing (being in the moment and honest, like he's good at), which went over well and his set went better afterwards... But he got reamed by an old-time roast veteran, saying a comic should never let on that he knows he's not doing well.

And I think those are both fine and valid positions, and both have their place at times.

Sometimes you should just do your act uncompromisingly.

Sometimes you should adjust to the moment.

It's the difference between performing a classical symphony and playing jazz. It's all music, it's all art, but it isn't all governed by the same rules.

At least that's what my gay, black, drag-queen friends tell me while we're riding on the el train to Wrigely Field in the poorest part of England.

Matt Ruby said...

Something I think about sometimes too: Have you earned the right to perform a certain way? Dipaolo and Birbiglia are vets who maybe have won the right to go up onstage and make an audience uncomfortable. (And they're good enough to get 'em back even if they do lose 'em.) But does that mean everyone should take that approach? The newer you are, the more I think you should focus on getting laughs and winning the room over. Also, things are different when you're doing an 8 min spot vs. a 1 hr headlining set. Less margin for error then.

myq said...

Agreed, Matt.

Certainly the amount of time you're doing can be relevant.

But I would say that I don't think it's ever too early to think about being yourself and saying what you want to say as compared to ONLY thinking about winning the audience over and getting laughs. (Because as has been discussed before, if you only focus on the latter, that can lead to pandering, hackiness, or thievery at worst, obviously.)

Obviously the main goal for most of us is to be our uncompromising selves AND win over the audience and get laughs with original material.

And certainly, people starting out might not have as clear an idea of who one's self IS, which might make it harder to know what self to be true to initially.

And eventually, when your self knows who it is, you can be it as much as you want.

Unknown said...

Sometimes the issue isn't the subject matter at all, but how well you frame it. For example, if you tell a joke about your drag queen friend, you've got to make that person relatable to the audience instead of assuming that they understand your point of view.

Example: John Mulaney's bit about following a girl in the NYC subway contains some NYC specific info, but he weaves it into the story instead of using it as a punchline.

Just my two cents. I don't mean to quibble with Helen Hong's personal experiences.

Anonymous said...

Seems like an age old marketing question. How commercial do you want your product? Or how commercial can you product be?

But on the other hand when you make a product that fulfills a basic need and is sold for generations, it's kind of the holy grail in a way. LL Bean boots or a Filson bag. These are product that relate to everyone but are kind of a one in a million circumstance.


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