Misdirection

While I'm bitching about types of jokes I don't like, add misdirection-without-a-point jokes to the list.

I know, misdirection is a key tool in the comedy toolbox. Any good comic will use it once in a while. But when a comic's entire arsenal is misdirection jokes, it's a snooze.

These jokes always remind me of a shell game. The guy moves around the shells and you pick one but hey, guess what, the ball's actually underneath a different shell!

Yeah, it can be an easy way to get laughs, but you're not really saying anything. The whole joke is that you managed to fool people. Um, congrats?

(Just kidding, misdirection jokes are the best! Can't believe you fell for that!!)

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19 Comment(s)

Blogger Abbi Crutchfield said...

You mean like Rita Rudner? Brett Butler? You mean when the comic's punchline is unpredictable, or when the comic is a woman in her fifties with a weird voice?

6/23/10, 3:31 PM  
Blogger Sam Morril said...

We've talked about this before. I think some people are great at it like Anthony Jeselnik, for example. I mean would you consider Rodney Dangerfield to be all misdirection? Henny Youngman? I mean, that's what one-liners are most of the time. There's an art to that kind of wordplay. I don't think the point is to deceive the audience (like a shellgame), but to show them that these jokes are written and that work went into them. Each word is so important in misdirects that when I see it, I am impressed over a comic that just rambles.

6/23/10, 5:00 PM  
Blogger Matteson said...

Jokes like the ones Matt's talking about always make me think of this exchange from Fight Club:

Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it's very clever.
Narrator: Thank you.
Tyler Durden: How's that working out for you?
Narrator: What?
Tyler Durden: Being clever.

Yes, I get it. Yes, I understand that it takes craftsman ship and talent to write and perform these jokes. Yes, they're funny and get a laugh. But my emotional response is always, "That's clever, but why should I care?"

6/23/10, 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Jerry said...

Here are the only two types of jokes that are important:

1) Funny
2) Not Funny.

6/23/10, 6:37 PM  
Blogger Matt Ruby said...

@Sam: Rodney is his own beast. He's got a whole persona behind his one-liners. Jeselnik's got that a bit too though not as much. A misdirection is better than rambling for sure. But I'd hate to watch almost any non-Rodney misdirection guy for longer than 5-10 minutes. After that, the whole thing starts to fall apart and it just seems like all formula.

@Matteson: I've always loved that exchange. Sums up so much.

@Jerry: I disagree. That's like saying there are only two types of songs: 1) Those that sell. 2) Those that don't. I agree that funny is def the most important thing in standup...but it's not the only thing. Having a point matters too (to me at least). Bring the Pain is more artful than a pie in the face. Both are funny, but not the same.

6/24/10, 12:07 PM  
Blogger myq said...

Depends whose face the pie is in. And why. I think you're being unfair to pie artists. Like what it's Chris Rock getting hit in the face? "Bring the Pie"?

Also, Jerry, I'd say that the only important jokes are funny ones, and that not funny ones are unimportant. Or maybe they're important because they show us a comparison to base funny ones on. Or not. Or yes. Or pie. Face!

Honestly, if someone's great at these kinds of jokes, it can be fun to watch. The answer to "why should I care" is "you don't have to, but isn't it awesome?" if it's awesome. Brian Kiley and Emo Philips both have a ton of amazing jokes like this, and to go back to the analogy of comedy to music that we've seen before, I just feel like these guys (and anyone else great at this style of joke) are virtuosos, and the value is in simply that they're doing what they're doing, same as if you watch an amazing trumpet solo from The Amazing Trumpeter (or a specific person who makes this example work), even if it doesn't touch you emotionally.
(Plus, I would say that different things affect different people in different ways... going out on a limb. Honestly, really well-constructed logic CAN get me on an emotional level, same as a really cool rap lyric, like Eminem's "magic trick"/"go go Gadget dick," that sort of thing.)

Everyone doesn't have to like the same things! The end for now!
(Or is it?
Yes.
Misdirection.
Pie.)

6/24/10, 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Jerry said...

Matt, I think a better analogy to music would be: 1) Great songs 2) Not great songs. You somehow twisted it into sales, which makes it seem like my logic implies Carlos Mencia is better than Todd Barry because he sells more albums.

Also, a joke having a point probably makes it funnier to you than one that doesn't have a point. So I think the funny/not funny line still holds, it's just that having a point affects whether you do find it funny or not.

And if you laugh really hard at a joke that doesn't have a point, do you retroactively not like it as much?

6/24/10, 1:12 PM  
Anonymous thefakemarkgonzales said...

its passion.

I get bored when im watching somebody chuck one-liners when theres no substance to it.

I love Dangerfield because he had a clear negative opinion that anybody could understand.

now where a comic goes up & says random one-liners, I dont feel he really cares what hes saying because I dont feel hes emotionally attached to them at all, therefore I disconnect.

What makes Hedberg different is that his jokes were him. thats the way how he thinks. his jokes are him. thats how he thinks. thats the connection with him & his material. therefore I'm connected.

Jeselnik, is one of the best joke writers living today. his character on stage is almost there. hes a sick fuck. i want to know how & why he got that way. I think thats the only thing thats missing.

just like you I can get annoyed by one-liners, just as long as its being used properly. if ya break down any comics act, you can break it down into one-liners. thats what jokes are, it just depends how its used.

god i hate comedy.

6/24/10, 2:06 PM  
Anonymous Mike Lawrence said...

You should be happy there's comics who do mostly misdirection or comics that do a lot of pop culture stuff. Most of the shows your doing now are in the showcase format and the more variety, the better. I like when there's someone who's really political on a show I'm doing so that if there are people that want that I have no fear or obligation to give it to them.

I like the comedy that I do, but thank god not everyone does it. And I've been in rooms where a storyteller can follow a misdirection guy who follows a musician who follows a guy who does a lot of act outs and they can all kill. Shows are better when they're balanced.

6/24/10, 2:25 PM  
Anonymous odinaka said...

I resonate with Matt and thefakemarkgonzales about having substance behind misdirection/one liners as that's what makes someone's comedy stick to my ribs. If one can somehow tie those jokes into their life story/persona then I'm in if not it's more like, ehhhhh.

There's a 2004 Richard Pryor interview I remember reading where he expressed a similar sentiment:

"BW: When you were coming up, your stand-up was considered cutting edge. Where do you think the cutting edge of comedy is going these days? Do you like or dislike where it's going?

RP: Only a few comics are being really honest and daring, and not just going for the okee-doke..."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/aug/09/comedy.edinburghfestival2004

This was one question after he was asked about truthfulness in comedy. So for whatever that's worth...

6/24/10, 3:22 PM  
Blogger soce said...

Looks like some of y'all have misdirection hostility. That's what you got, see! (thanks 311!)

6/24/10, 3:51 PM  
Anonymous thefakemarkgonzales said...

@odinaka man thats amazing. i'll agree to that. i used to enjoy watching live comedy but comedians arent what they used to be anymore. Pryor is right, truth is missing in comedy & people like me can smell bullshit.

if a comic says "i have herpes" or "i fuck hookers" then he better have herpes because he fucked hookers and not just be saying it because "its funny".

i hate having to say "man i hope thats true because thats funny if it is" after i watch a comic. takes away everything I laughed at.

Hate to change the subject but i think the real problem with comedy right now is people are trying too hard and think their the next Bill Hicks.

Hate to start a new topic Matt, have a blog about this subject? Not sure how it is in NY but over here in LA, we've got lost children who think there Sane Man.

6/24/10, 4:18 PM  
Blogger myq said...

"i used to enjoy watching live comedy but comedians arent what they used to be anymore. Pryor is right, truth is missing in comedy & people like me can smell bullshit."

Really? What about Louis CK, Stanhope, Bill Burr, Marc Maron, Jim Norton, Patton Oswalt, Partice O'Neal, David Cross, Maria Bamford, Ted Alexandro, Paul F. Tompkins, Lewis Black, Greg Proops, and any number of less high-profile types?

I mean, there always have been and always will be aspiring comics who emulate the style of the greats without the substance (be it Hicks, Pryor, Attell, Hedberg, etc.). But that doesn't mean that there aren't quality comedians doing it right, striving for originality and achieving it as well. (Whether they're of the truth-teller school or other. Or both. Have you seen Nick Griffin? From what I recall, he's got mainly one-liners that are FULL of truth.)

There might be more comedians today than there have been ever before, which means that there's probably more bad ones statistically speaking, yes, but also more good ones as well.

Off-topic response!
(Where the topic is misdirection, so maybe this counts?)

6/25/10, 3:45 PM  
Anonymous thefakemarkgonzales said...

@myq CK, Stanhope & Burr are in my top 5 but im talkn about overall. theres a lot more bad comedy than good these days (in my eyes).

6/25/10, 4:44 PM  
Blogger myq said...

@ the fake mark:

i understand what you're saying, which is why i brought up the fact there are just more comedians today, period. which means that even if the ratio of great comedian to not-great comedian remains the same over time, the QUANTITY of not-great comedians increases (so you're right, most likely, numbers-wise). but that's not taking into account the fact that the number of GREAT comedians increases as well, plus the fact that great comedians from previous generations are still out there a lot as well, so to simply say "there's a lot of bad comedy out there" seems to disregard the fact that there's a shit ton of great comedy out there as well, maybe more than ever before.

i think another factor is the ease with which ANYONE can get their stuff out there today... with youtube, myspace, etc., there's a lot more of everything readily available, which i think ups the perception that there's more crap today than there used to be... but i'd say there ALWAYS was this kind of stuff, just we never used to know about it all.

not that that's a great consequence of technology, but i think the good at least balances out the bad, and more to the point, i'm sorry that you KNOW about all the bad stuff that's out there (from the internet or seeing it live), but that doesn't mean just as many great things are happening as well.

optimist patrol complete!

6/25/10, 5:14 PM  
Anonymous mike sanders said...

Myq,
Let me take the pessimist angle here if I can. Fuck comedy. Technology has ruined comedy. The prevalence of new comics, heartland comics, underground comics, whatever this "myspace/youtube lot" once to call themselves is a plague on comedy. Originally comedy was a select club; a group of borderline personalities united in a non official fraternity. Now its a bunch of unfunny yahoos that believe if they make funny faces they can be in the next taco bell commercial. Also they theory that more quantity is good can be summed up as such. Do you think it would be a good idea to have as many brain surgeons as comics? Probably not. Thats why there are so many tests and classes. Residency and malpractice insurance! Any asshole with a punchline and a dream can book a bringer show. So please, do NOT encourage the dreamer, the C student, alt-comic. Stanhope and Burr are not steering the new comedy oceanliner to the brave new world, instead they are the band continuing to play as the comedy titanic sinks to the bottom of the coca-cola doritos ocean, brought to you by allstate insurance.

6/25/10, 5:43 PM  
Blogger myq said...

With all due respect, Mr. Sanders, I disagree with a few things you're saying.

Are you saying that there were no unfunny comedians in the history of comedy before now?
In my understanding, after the boom of the '80s, the whole reason the system came crashing down is because it was so easy to make a living doing standup that ANYONE could just "become a comedian" because the demand for comedians was so high. So, a glut of aspiring, inexperienced types in comedy is nothing new. That's always been the case. It's easy to look back at all the talent that existed years ago and disregard the untalented from that time period, because it's gone, unmemorialized, we don't know who they were or are, and that's that. But with today's talent pool and untalent pool, we're IN it right now. Surrounded by it. So that's why it seems more prevalent. But the cream can still rise to the top, I'd say.

And sure, lots of people are taking to the internet to become the next big whatever. But that doesn't affect you or me doing standup in live venues or advancing in the business either; or if it DOES affect it, it's positive, because it's keeping those people on their computers OUT of the clubs. Sure, folks in the industry might be finding some new youtube phenoms, but they're still also out watching live shows and learning who the next wave of talented comedians are, plenty.

You're welcome to be pessimistic, there certainly are lousy things about the business. But don't look back through rose-colored glasses and ignore the fact that there have always been lousy things about it. It's easy to reminisce about the good old days by glorifying the good and forgetting about the bad parts of them.

Still directed away from misdirection,
Myq

PS I don't know what bringer shows have to do with the technology issue. I agree, most bringers are not great for comedy, in that people and their friends can be exploited, and some audience members might come away thinking that that's what a standup comedy show is. But I don't know why you think I'm supporting that concept or encouraging people along those lines.

PPS The comedy Titanic has sunk and risen and ebbed and flowed a ton over the years. I think it's doing fine right now. The human society Titanic is another story, most likely. But that's probably good for the comedy ship.

6/25/10, 6:01 PM  
Anonymous ECN said...

"Originally" how so? In the 1980s, when derivative chumps with no material were not only doing open mics, but making a living touring the nation?

Disregarding my opinions about Stanhope (harrrrrrumph), or for that matter a half-dozen of the acts Myq named...

I'll say this: over the last 10 years, the market for comedy has expanded in a similar way to the expansion in rock music in the 1980s and early 1990s. (Which has also been accelerated by a lot of the same technologies, but that's another matter.) Funny comedians actually have a chance of being seen by audiences across the nation and beyond, whereas in the '80s or whatever, they had to tour, acquire regional fame, and grind themselves down.

And I don't know what you mean by "a group of borderline personalities united in a non official fraternity", but if you mean a bunch of misanthropic jerk-ass road chumps from the Nineteen Eighties, well, those guys can stay in the Nineteen Eighties.

(Though the good news for you is that a lot of them have not stayed there, but have continued to perform to this day -- and their example has fostered the jerk-ass road chumps of the modern world -- a prematurely grizzled lot who you may see, if they are from your town, or if they have garnered a sufficient following for their misanthropic tales of chumpery. Or, you know, if you look them up on the Internet.)

6/28/10, 6:36 PM  
Anonymous ECN said...

Or to put it differently: say what you must, but how is Dane Cook not Howie Mandel? Is it because he's not bald?

Because I'll grant you Dane Cook's hair is a thing that is real. (To say nothing of Dane Cook's goatee.) But can you even imagine the kind of bringer shows they had in 1986? It's estimated the average American paid 3% of their income to support friends' delusional attempts at comedy during the Reagan administration. It affected the national economy. To say nothing of the price of all those microphones. Harrrrrrrrumph.

6/28/10, 6:42 PM  


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