The two most annoying questions you hear as a comic

1) What is your comedy about?
2) Can you tell me a joke?

I love how Giraldo answers that first one here.

Greg Giraldo - Interview
Big LakeA New Comedy from Will Ferrell and Adam McKayIt's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

As for the "Can you tell me a joke?" question, my usual answer is no. If they insist, I go with: "What did the 0 say to the 8? Nice belt."

The alternative is me explaining why comedy requires an audience and that if I tell a joke here in a 1-on-1 situation it's not going to work because...blah blah blah. And then I go back to the 0/8 thing and just let them think I'm a moron.


Badinia said...

Ha! Perfect. "Say something funny." Don't worry, asshole, I will.

Mike Lawrence said...

I have to disagree with your approach to the second question. Tell one of your quick A bits, win them over and you might get a fan, and someone who's willing to come out to your shows if you prove you funny. Comedy shows have a hard enough time getting crowds in the door and comics coming off as unfriendly or dismissive doesn't help. You're obviously proud to be a comic and are happy with the life you've chosen (This blog seems to be a testament to your passion). And lord knows we've both done enough shows with one or two people anyway.

Sam Morril said...

I like Mike's take on this b/c it's way more mature than mine, but I tend to get annoyed when people ask me to tell them a joke. It seems disrespectul, like "dance monkey! Dance!", especially if they're insistent.

I usually tell them I have stuff online and sometimes I get someone who likes what I do out of that, but I have told one-liners and sometimes they look at me like I'm a moron...

Maybe I need a friend to warm them up before I tell them one of my jokes and it will go over better.

Matt Ruby said...

Mike, what's your % success rate with telling a bit to one or two people in a social setting? From my experiences, it's pretty damn low. Even with A bits that do well in front of real crowds.

After those experiences, I've concluded that leaving it open to some mystery (or Sam's check me out online way) is better than saying something that results in a quizzical "um, that's not funny...whatever" response.

Sharilyn said...

Long before I ever intending to go onstage, I watched my comedian friends get asked question #2 repeatedly. I felt so embarrassed for them, and wanted the floor to swallow me up just from the dread of being an observer.

I'd tell them it seemed like the most horrifyingly awkward thing in the world to be asked, and they'd always reply that they were used to it, or that it wasn't so bad. I didn't believe them.

After a few open mics, it was my turn to be asked it. And honestly, nothing made me feel more like a member of the comedians' club than having to deflect the request for a command performance. It comes with the territory - no matter how little territory you occupy. Which, as it turns out, isn't so bad.

Mike Lawrence said...

If your friends a chef, you'd want to taste their food. If your friends an artist you'd want to see one of their pieces. I understand why regular folk want comedians to tell jokes on command and if telling a joke makes them feel like a part of something I'll do it. We as comedians are bored o sick of seeing other comedians and that magic is kind of lost, but to a lot of people it's really cool and exciting, and there's a good chance you're the first comedian they've ever seen. The novelty is still there for them even if it's been lost on us for years.

I've got a few of my A one-liners that I do based on the kind of person it is. If it's an older person I'll do the family tree has a car wrapped around it joke. If it's a girl I''ll do the "I'm bisexual which means I'm straight enough to notice a beautiful woman but gay enough to treat her like a person" joke. If it's a nerd, I'll do the Batman parents joke. And I''ll let that person believe that one sample is a good measure of what my whole act is like, and then tell them a show I'm doing. The jokes don't always hit, but it works pretty well and leaves them more inclined to be interested in stand-up than no joke at all.

Matteson said...

I agree with Matt at this one. If I met a chef at a party I may want to try his food, but I wouldn't ask him to go into the kitchen and whip something up right now, nor would I ask an artist to sketch me. Granted, comedy doesn't take any external tools, so it's easier to do, but still, it's someone asking you to do something in a setting that's not conducive to it, so I don't think there's any reason to feel bad about saying, "I'd rather not."

In terms of winning over a comedy fan, I still think not telling is the right move. Not telling a joke may not make them more likely to come to a show, but it's not making it less likely, and if you're nice and organically funny they might want to check out a show. On the other hand, if you tell a joke in a situation that is stacked against you being successful, you might turn someone off with a joke that doesn't go over well b/c the situation isn't perfect for it. And there's a ceiling to how great a joke can be in that situation, so I don't know how often one good joke in a social situation is making up someone's mind about going to a stand up show.

Mike Lawrence said...

How many shows that we do are perfect for comedy? All the empty crowds and ambush shows that we willingly book ourselves on? There's a lot of shows where the odds are ridiculously stacked against you (I'm not even factoring the rough and tumble nature of open mics here).The only difference in the one person situation is that they're asking for comedy and want to laugh. Why not oblige them? If any of us only did shows where the odds were in our favor, our calendars would be a lot more sparse.

And there are a lot of auditions out there where being funny in front of one or two people with no momentum going in will help decide how far your career goes. You can't go into a Last Comic Standing audition and ask for them to fill the room before you go up so that you have a better chance of killing. It's not a bad skill to be instantly funny on command.

myq said...

I say go into crowdwork. Either ask them what they do (and if they say something like "dentist," you say something like "pull me a tooth"), ask where they're from (and before they can answer, say "gay-town?"), or just tell them that their shirt is ugly (timing is important--e.g. make sure they asked for a joke first).

Sincerely, I don't believe there's a right answer here. If you're not comfortable telling a joke or joking around, then don't. If you are, then do. If you're a chef and you want to carry samples around in your pockets just in case, do that also.

I do think that someone saying "tell me a joke" is either aggressive and/or naive, and thus often not as conducive to the actual telling of a joke. There are very few jobs where this model is actually used--no one meets a lawyer and asks for one line of legal advice, to see if they want to hire them for a later court date. Drug dealer is probably the one where it works the most--one free line and then you pay.

And I know, comedy isn't necessarily the same kind of "job" as dentist or lawyer or drug dealer... but that's what makes this potentially even worse... "Oh, you're a poet? Pour out a tiny portion of your soul for me on the spot, would you?"

PS I think everyone should print all of this blog (plus comments) out and carry it around on cards, to be handed out to people ask for a joke.

PPS That "PS" is not totally a joke.

Jay Welch said...

My preferred response when someone asks for a joke is to amiably say "I don't dance unless someone is pointing a gun at my feet." It usually gets a laugh, and while it's a prepared line, it's more organic to the situation than any material would be. Plus, I think it gets across the idea that demanding a joke sample creates a bad atmosphere for laughter.

I totally agree with Matteson that getting them to laugh organically is a good way to intrigue them. But I'll do prepared material if they press the point and aren't being rude or bullying about it.

@myq--I think the 'free sample request' happens to more professions that we might think. When I was a lawyer I occasionally got asked by people I had just met for legal advice. I do hope it doesn't happen to strippers.

myq said...


Regarding people asking you for advice as a lawyer, what was the etiquette for answering? Do you think most lawyers give such advice when strangers ask them, or do they tell them to make an appointment? (A sincere inquiry.) Or do they give them a prepared line, a street legality maybe, in order to entice them to come into their shitty office later? (A less sincere inquiry.)

Anonymous said...

My response, unless I'm feeling clever enough to whip something up on the spot (which is never), is an adapted version of a joke that I tell onstage about childhood introductions:

Growing up as a funny kid I always got that "oh this is joe, he's funny. joe, say something funny" and that's bullshit because nobody else ever got that. Athletes were never asked to run up and down the hallway, nerds were never asked for the square root of the year the Magna Carta was signed, and fans of The Cure were never asked to demonstrate their razor-wielding abilities.

Now I present this in a ranting way and some people laugh (good) and some apologize (not as good but still funny to me) but the best response is nervous laughter from the ones who don't know whether I'm serious (now that's an impression--discomfort that stays with them all day).

Unknown said...

In general I find it uncomfortable to do one of my own jokes on command.

What I usually do is say: It's weird for me to just launch into my own material, but I will tell you a joke by a comedian I love that I wish I had written.

That way I can be funny and give someone a sense of what I like without making it awkward with personal details or having a stake in the success of the joke.

Hank Thompson said...

Building on Matteson’s thought, the only way I’d ask a chef to impress me with his chefness is if I was at his restaurant and about to order something. Only then is it appropriate.

"Oh, you're miner? Make me some gold."

(Or zinc)

If I meet at chef at a BBQ, I don’t tell him to make me a quiche. If I meet a surgeon I don’t tell him to make an incision. If I meet a dentist I don't ask for advice about a sensitive molar (Ok, I've done that and she didn't bang me.)

But there is something about comedy that speaks of access. You say, “I’m hilarious and I charge money for it.” It’s a logical thought to say, “Oh yeah? Prove it, funny boy." Cause there's sort of an implicit contract that our trade is conducted for the pleasure of anybody, or at least in front of rubes. "I'm funny." is a declaration that is implicit in our willingness to be listed on a bill so it makes sense that random shitheads expect instant funny without any appreciation for the factors of performance. How could they possibly be aware of the nuance?

I’m friends with lawyers and dentists (one dentist (not the one who didn't bang me)) and they’ve all been berated with questions up front. I’ve had conversations with them about this. Happens all the time. Also, my day job invites similarity (fish tank cleaner). So I've learned to roll my eyes without rolling my eyes while indulging some idiot about some idiotic thought about why their stupid fish keep dying. I'm an expert in hiding that I don't care.

Except people aren't thoughts, people are reflexive hard drives. They seek to validate pre-existing information. Which is why telling a joke that they don't laugh at is a bad idea cause it checks off a box that comedians aren't funny. Best to tease them to come see you.

When I make the mistake of mentioning I’m a comic, something I’m doing with much less frequency lately, and someone tells me to tell them a joke I always say this: I perk up and say, “Alright. What did the moron say to the comedian? … Tell me a joke.”

I do it because it's clever, in the moment, and completely horrible.

Please adapt to your own situation. It’s usually met with uncomfortable chuckles or shrugs but occasionally to a decent laugh. Either way it communicates what I want: that the request was inappropriate and that I’m so funny I’m arrogant about being funny. Hence, they should come see me. Or they laugh, in which case I’m glad to have earned a new fan.

Rescue me, Doctor Who!

Love you all.

londoncalling said...

You wouldn't ask a proctologist to give you a rectal exam as you chit chat near the cocktail nibbles would you ?

A simple " check me outline " should be enough without you sounding aloof or dick--ish .The notion of doing my material one on one gives me the heebie-jeebies

Gonzalo said...

I once had some drunk guy at a bar ask me to tell him a joke. I did, no one laughed and he was like, "You suck." I told him to tell us his favorite joke. He did. No one laughed at it and then I made fun of him for a few minutes which was fun. The thing I learned is that on those one-on-one situations, you have to be able to riff, aka, have a normal conversation as a human being who is also funny.

I do think it's worthwhile telling a joke if you're willing to make fun of yourself if it does poorly afterward too. I think a lot of the skills you kind of naturally have in a funny conversation are the skills you should have on stage as well.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I have a friend who is a voice coach and teaches dialects to actors. I asked her to do a 1930s voice for me, and she said, "No, but you can set up an appointment if you'd like to learn." Then I said, "Oh come now. Don't be a stick-in-the-mud. Give me the straight poop. Be my girl, Friday!"
-That's good.
"Ah, see? Playing hard to get, see? Don't be cruel Johnny. Can't you see I need you? Hold me dahling..."
-Ha ha.
"Newports taste good like a cigarette should!"
-(points at me and walks away)

Danny Solomon said...

When someone asks you to tell them a joke, just go: "Suck a dick, asshole." When they go "What the fuck?" You say: "That's one of my bits, retard."


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