How honest do you feel a comedian's act should be?

Reader question:

How honest do you feel a comedian's act should be? Have you ever found yourself unable to enjoy someone's set because you knew they were lying? Not something that was an obvious exaggeration or a goofy statement but something that appeared to be the truth, such as claiming to be single when they're actually in a relationship (or vice versa).

I'm fine with lying on punchlines. Going somewhere ridiculous is kinda the point there.

And little white lies are ok too. Like "I saw a crazy thing today" when it was actually weeks ago. Always surprises me how that can actually make a difference in a joke too. Immediacy helps.

But I dislike when premises are big lies. If you pretend that someone did something crazy and then you make fun of that fictional act, it just seems hollow to me. Or you make up a silly "this guy said to me" line and then mock it...well, what's the point? There's no there there.

The worst of all is when a premise is just clearly false. Like clearly that NEVER happened. Totally takes me out of it. When that happens, I can't even pay attention to the rest of the joke. It's like watching someone try to dance with a dead horse.

That's for me and my jokes and my p.o.v. If you're an absurdist comic or going for something else, making shit up is fine. For example, almost all of Steve Martin or Zach Galafianakis' act was/is made up of lies. And that's why they're funny. Different recipe for a different cake.


Peter Cianfarani said...

All comics lie ... it's by what degree that varies. I have no problem with it insofar as it is the truth for that comics character/personae. For me, the bottom line is not writing what you know but KNOWING WHAT YOU WRITE; if you can give it a life of it's own and the audience accepts it, then run with it.

myq said...

Matt, I completely disagree with you--trying to dance with a horse sounds like it would be hilarious.

myq said...

PS Whether it's truthful or not.

PPS I also don't necessarily agree that "all comics lie."
Unless you're saying that any form of exaggeration or misleading misdirection is deceitful, say.

Eugene Mirman has a great joke about the difference between joking and lying. Anyone have access to it either in memory or electronic form of some kind?

Also, like Matt says, I agree that if a punchline contains words that are not strictly the truth, that is not the same kind of misrepresentation as having an untrue setup.

But again, remember, dancing with a dead horse is something that never happened that would be funny in a punchline OR a setup.
OR over and over again as a callback. Hopefully?

Seriously, dancing with a dead horse. I'll go do it for real if necessary. (Not one killed specifically to dance with, that would be inhumane. And inequine.)

Hank Thompson said...

Dangit. I was gonna make jokes about dancing with a dead horse but Myq beat me to it. Ole 'Fast Fingers' Myq does it again!

The trick is to dance with the dead horse while it's still warm.

Another fun dead horse activity is beating it. This is a lot more common than dancing. It's happening right now, in fact.

There's a fundamental truth underlying most jokes, the element of it that audiences relates to instantly, the part they connect to that earns you their trust. This is the only truth that needs to be there. "It's funny cause it's true!" is a phrase that exists for a very good reason. Lying isn't the right word to describe made-up details that support a greater truth. Books of fiction are made-up but they aren't considered lies.

When that truth isn't there, either via performance deficit or dishonest/implausible writing, the audience quickly loses trust or gets bored. Audiences have excellent bullshit-dars.

That said, more honesty is always better than less, especially in the premise. Plus, honesty is easier. You only have to remember the truth.

For me I'm still trying to learn how to write for the voice I haven't yet discovered. Don't feel as honest as I know I could/will be.

Time to get back to dancing with dead whores.

ECNielsen said...

Personally, I rarely if ever care about any comedy that can be "related to" on a straightforward level. I mean, maybe if the comic is telling a literally true story from his or her life, and the viewer infers some kind of identification with the comic from that...

But that's a special case.

Usually when people talk about "relating to" a comic's material, they're talking about listening and saying, "hey, that (person/group of people/activity/etc.) is in fact (good/bad/annoying/etc.)! That (guy/woman/etc.) is right!"

Well, hell, if you already know it, why are you even watching the damn comic? I don't want to see someone echo things I already know. I want to see something I couldn't have thought of on my own, whether it's a novel observation, a clever line of reasoning, a brilliant choice of words, etc. Sympathizing is cool, relating is a bore.

And literal truth is (if anything) an obstacle. If I want a comic to show me anything, it's the way his or her mind works. And you can certainly do that through true stories or observations on real things, but it's easier if you untether yourself at least a bit from them.

Nobody has ever experienced reality realistically -- the human experience is always shot through with hypothetical wonderings, fantasies, and irrational fears. It's like how Louis CK's earlier, more absurd work is both funnier and more honest than his post-Lucky Louie material.

The former is an honest document of the workings and vicissitudes of a very funny person's brain. Nobody else could have done that material, or even thought of it. The latter is still very funny, and still honest, but all too frequently gets bogged down in CK's overly earnest attempts to recast himself as some kind of suburban everyman dad figure. Man, we don't want to see that guy! We've seen that guy too many times already! We want to see Louis CK!

Unknown said...

I agree with ECN that the literal truth is not always important, and I also agree that the form of "relating to" a comic that he describes is not ideal comedy. I think that there's a deeper (for lack of a better word) kind of "relating" that the audience can do with a joke rather than just celebrating an accurate statement of fact. For example, a joke I have always felt hit really close to home is Hedberg's: "I don't have a girlfriend; I just know a girl who would get really mad if she heard me say that." It's a joke that tells an emotional/social truth even if it's not factually accurate.

The kind of inaccuracies that really bug me are when comics present a setup that is clearly false without any sense of awareness or whimsy. Something like: "When I go to the DMV, I like to bring a keg of beer, and then give it to everyone." No you don't. Maybe you -would- like to do that, so say what you mean and stay credible, is my stance.

Anyway, that's enough out of me!

Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ Hank Thompson, LOL.

@ ECNeilson, If I want a comic to show me anything, it's the way his or her mind works. And you can certainly do that through true stories or observations on real things, but it's easier if you untether yourself at least a bit from them.

I agree that it is entertaining to see how a comic's mind works, but that's the "impressive" side of comedy. I've said before here that if your goal is to impress your audience you should get over yourself.

You can stimulate me intellectually, but my gut laughs come from the "relating" side. I wouldn't sell relatability short. Our society has so many taboos and social norms in place (e.g. we can't fart during meetings, we can't show blood in a tampon commercial, we can't double-dip at parties), that saying something blatantly true, mundane as it might be, can resonate with the id--our buried consciousness, or just our deep-rooted opinions that form the decisions we make without us knowing. We don't tap into that often because of all the rules we have for ourselves.

myq said...

Don't you guys hate it when you're not allowed to double-fart blood at a party?

@Abbi: I don't know if you guys are talking about the same kind of relating. (I don't know if you are relating to relation in the same way.)
It seems like Erik's point is anti-jokes like "remember Nintendo?" (audience cheers and laughs due to relatability).
Obviously, being able to talk about relatable concepts and activities in new and innovative ways is potentially even more impressive than talking about unrelatable stuff. (Though it's also impressive to connect with people on unrelatable stuff.)

Erik's example of former Louis CK vs. current Louis CK is a great one. I honestly love his older stuff as well, though I love watching him now too, not because I relate any more or less, just because it's all funny.

I like watching Stanhope because he's hilarious AND he's talking about real things, important things, in ways that I haven't always thought of, from angles and perspectives that are uniquely his own, even if the things he's talking about are topics that other people could potentially address as well.

And that's the thing--IF you're talking about real stuff, you have to start with the truth. If you're talking about current events or social issues or political happenings or the state of the world, if you start with a premise that I know to be false, I'm probably not on board. Whereas if you start with something that I didn't know about that COULD be true, and I believe you (because hopefully it IS true), then I am.

Louis CK's older stuff, all of Steven Wright's stuff, Galifianakis, etc., all of this is being presented as a true look into the mind of a guy that thinks like this. This is their honesty. It doesn't matter that Steven Wright didn't really get arrested for scalping low numbers at the deli.
The truth is: this is funny from his brain.

I think a major difference is whether the comedian really wants you to think what they're saying is the truth or not. If they want you to, and it's not, that can be a problem.

Plus other things.
Long response!

ECN said...

Well, Abbi, there's the difference. As an audience member, my gut laughs rarely (if ever) come from "relating." And as a comic, I have to admit I rarely have any interest in creating that sensation.

In fact, one of my main interests as a stand-up (phrased a little pretentiously here, sorry) is trying to extend the gap between sympathizing and relating as far as possible. I don't want to get anything from people agreeing with me -- it just feels a lot like cheating, and a little like insulting their intelligence.

And honestly, I don't know what you mean by "impressive". Yeah, i want to be impressed by a performer's skill at comedy -- by their timing, by their phrasing, by their command of the stage, by the ideas they have. By everything. Is that not what you want?

And no, I didn't JUST mean "hey, remember Nintendo?" type stuff. (Though that is ONE thing I meant.) I meant "hey, my wife does this!" (response: "hey, OUR wives do this too!") I meant "this band is bad!" (response: "hey, I also don't like that band!") I meant "what's the deal with racism?" (response: "yeah, racism IS stupid!")

All of which can in fact have jokes attached to them, but man, I don't care. Even if the joke is good, I just do not care at all any more. You lost me when you told me something I already knew.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Erik, yeah, maybe we have different tastes. But I bet you laugh at relatability more than you're willing to admit. It's great that you're pushing yourself to become a comic that gets laughter from unconventional sources. It sounds like one of Steve Martin's goals in the 1970s (in "Born Standing Up" he talks about wanting people to not know where the joke ends so they choose when they laugh without being signaled to), and something Andy Kaufman made his life's work.

By "impressing your audience" I'm not referring to your overall skill as a performer. I mean when a comic makes it his or her goal to intellectually impress the audience. When the goal is to have the crowd go, "Aha," or "Wow," instead of "HAHAHAHAHA! YES!" The audience remarks at their inability to have thought of something rather than remarking at how funny it was to them.

Of course you can make someone laugh by saying something smart/different/obscure/unusual/absurd, but are you getting the gut laugh or are you getting the head laugh? Both Relatability Jokes and Anti-relatability Jokes can yield applause breaks of appreciation and not actual howls of laughter. Norm MacDonald said he'd rather have the latter.

Josh agrees with you, and I agree with Josh's added point that relatability implies a deeper connection. But like myq says we have to be talking about the same relatability.

And in keeping with the topic of this post, I am put off by obviously untrue statements intended for quick laughs in comedy. They create what Judy Carter in The Comedy Bible calls a "disconnect". Those are usually just a sign of a newer comic, so it's not worth dissecting since it's an ephemeral stage of their art.

ECN said...

Harrumph. "Obviously untrue statements intended for quick laughs" is my ENTIRE MODUS OPERANDI.

That last statement is untrue. But not obviously. I mean, I would say it's a pretty crucial part of what I do, and a pretty crucial part of what I find funny -- taking a nonsensical premise and approaching it with the seriousness it would demand if it WERE true.

And I actually love structure, and have little or no use for anything Andy Kaufman ever did. (Except "Taxi".) I just prefer to keep the audience up by overwhelming them, as opposed to (in your Martin example) throwing them off balance. I hate to be off balance, I like to be overwhelmed.

Of course, no matter how you set up the crowd, you need to come across with the actual joke at the end.

And personally, I don't distinguish between what you (and/or MacDonald) call the "gut laugh" and the "head laugh" -- that always seemed to me to be more MacDonald's self-justification for being so lowbrow and lazy than any actually useful system of classification. (Not that he's not a funny guy... he's very funny, but he's also a major underachiever, and I strongly suspect he's defensive about that.)

A really good joke, to me, engages everything. I mean, if I accepted the dichotomy, I could make a pretty good argument for considered appreciation over the kind of dumb reflexive laughter that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. But I don't accept the dichotomy. The comedy I like is funny immediately, and it stays funny when you look at it again. There's no either-or.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Maria Bamford admittedly exaggerates her family and mental health problems and it's hilarious... but I guess she'd fall into the absurdist category.

If a comic can pull from experiences they understand or want to explore - though they may have to fabricate things - and make it funny, I say go for it. What I CAN'T get behind is pandering. If a comic is pulling things out of his or her ass just to tackle a subject they know is an instant crowd pleaser, or to affect a painfully inauthentic persona... it just comes off badly. And audiences are smart and can sniff out BS. Which isn't the same as exaggerating or inventing situations and exploring them from your unique point of view.

About impressive vs. relatable comics. I get the distinction, but don't think the two are mutually exclusive. I can relate to a lot of what Paul F. Tompkins and Patton Oswalt say - who doesn't hate untrained dogs jumping on them? Or think depression is THE WORST? - but their turns of phrase and word choice often elevate their topics from what lesser comics may have rendered banal, to comic genius.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Erik, I am going to murder you.

Kaufman had structure, and was in control of everything he did. To borrow your phrase, he "untethered himself" from convention, but was clearly influenced by what came before him. Praising his performance on Taxi without appreciating his entire body of work is like awarding Cosby for his Jell-o commercials.

You don't have to make the distinction between gut laugh and head laugh for there to be one. Hack comics don't make the distinction between any of the laughs they get. Laugh is a paycheck.

I could make a pretty good argument for considered appreciation over the kind of dumb reflexive laughter that doesn't hold up to scrutiny

Laughter, even the "dumb reflexive" kind, needs to be your first goal. If you're not getting that you probably have a nice career ahead of you in motivational speaking.

Rebecca, I agree with you on the pandering. When I referred to "quick laugh," I meant what you mean by "instant crowd pleaser". An easy laugh is something you should work towards moving beyond.

Erik, I am not going to murder you.

myq said...


I think you and Erik are talking about the same (or at least similar) things with the terms "dumb, reflexive laugh" and "quick, easy, instant crowd pleaser" type of laugh...

I will say this--Erik makes me laugh with my whole self: head, gut, mouth (mostly mouth, with help from vocal chords and diaphragm, etc., but certainly brain, too).
And my guess is that he would make you do so as well.

He's not talking out of his ass, at least not alone.
He might be using his whole ass, heart, AND mind.

Abbi Crutchfield said...


But sincerely, from what I've heard him say about his comedy, I can't wait to see him live. Sounds like he puts a lot of thought and hard work into it. Too bad he doesn't live on the East Coast (ECN sips fresh fruit smoothie in the California sun, "Yeah...too bad...")

Not to beat Hank's dead horse, but I really like the point Rebecca made. I would only point out that when I was talking about comics that seek to impress, I am referring to comics who haven't made it yet, who enjoy sharing their intelligence more than making people laugh, and by settling for that result, it hinders their ability to be both impressively intelligent AND hilarious a la PFT and Patton.

soce said...

I mostly only laugh out of my fingers. If you tell a joke and I start doing jazz hands, then that means I found it hilarious.

Last night, I told a joke that was 100% true, but it seemed like the audience didn't believe me at all, that they thought I was making it up. Which leads me to wonder what truth really is in the first place.

ecn said...

To me, quality needs to be the goal in writing. Laughter is the step beyond the goal -- it's feedback. You can write into performance, you can perform into reaction, but you can't control reaction, so it can't be the goal.

You can observe audience reaction, and use it to build stronger material and a stronger performance, certainly. If you don't focus on the concrete effectiveness of what you're doing, you end up like... well, like Andy Kaufman much of the time. (I didn't mean that Kaufman rejected structure, I just feel like a lot of his work is self--indulgent, badly paced, and not that funny. Personal opinion. And seriously, seriously, DeVito and Lloyd were BOTH funnier in "Taxi." Harrumph.)

But as much as audience laughter is the first judge of success -- and audience appreciation the second judge of success -- it can't be the goal, because it's not within the comic's power to give. The goal is to deserve laughter... do that enough, and people will be glad to grant it.

(And I absolutely HATE the sun. Can't stand it. THE SUN.)

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Just to demonstrate that I don't know what I'm talking about and should probably shut up, I'm going to backpedal on what I said about "inauthentic personas"...

I remember listening to a podcast (maybe it was We're All Friends Here? I don't really remember.) with David Cope as the guest and wondering why he seemed to have so much energy. Then he addressed his stage persona and I was SHOCKED to discover that he wasn't monotone and deadpan in real life.

Not to nullify what I said before, but if the persona works, I guess the ends justify the means. I say that as a person who finds David Cope VERY FUNNY.

So basically, disregard everything I have to say on this topic. There are no rules.

ECN said...

Well, there are rules and there are rules. Like, my act involves a lot of shouting. Do I shout much in real life? Not more than normal people -- I occasionally lose my temper, but I wouldn't characterize myself as unusually angry. But growing up, I was FURIOUS. ALL THE TIME. (My therapist once told my mother I was the angriest child she had ever worked with. Granted, I don't think she dealt with a lot of seriously deranged people in her practice. But still.)

So that's part of my experience, and I can call it up with accuracy, even though you probably wouldn't know it to interact with me.

I don't know David Cope or his act, but maybe it's the same way for him -- even if it's not the way he lives, maybe he does sometimes get overwhelmed, or sardonic, or whatever it is that he does.

Whereas if I (for example) tried to do stand-up as some kind of exuberant party guy, it wouldn't ring true, because I've never been that guy. Or a relaxed guy -- I'm naturally high-strung, and that's going to come out. Or if I played a heartless jerk -- not that comics who play jerks are necessarily jerks, but they have to have that capacity in them. I can handle "mischief-maker", I can handle "obsessive", but "jerk" is a couple steps beyond my range.


You can definitely draw disproportionately from a facet, but you can't make anything up out of nothing. If you did, you'd either be an obvious fake, or the act would somehow change you.

myq said...

Everyone here is being way more electronic than they are in real life, and I deem it inauthentic in everyone but myself, who is a robot.

Beep boop.

ECN said...

Myq isn't a robot, but he was a cyborg for three years in the mid-'90s. So he can draw on that and sound authentic.

Unknown said...

Hello. My name is Greg and I've been doing stand up for two years. I've learned more from these comments than I have reading comedy books. I get laughs on stage but I still don't feel like it's really me. I feel like Im protecting my personal thoughts and opinions due to fear of not getting the same reception I get from random silly material. Is it important to show more of my personal thoughts, or is a laugh a laugh no matter what?

Unknown said...

Hello. I've been reading the coments and I very learned a lot from different perspectives. I started comedy here in Virginia two years ago. I get laughs on stage but I feel like I protect my true thoughts and feelings due to fear of no getting the same reception. I'm I making a mistake or is a laugh a laugh no matter what?

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