Why You Should Tell Bad Jokes

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Let me clue you in on this from the very beginning: this is another business metaphor. I’m telling you up front this time so you can begin to think about the connections from the moment you start reading it.

I was strolling through the National Comedy Center in Jamestown the other day, taking in with delight the many funny people who have entertained so many for so many years, when a thought struck me. Why do good comedians tell bad jokes?

When a comic sits down to write gags, it becomes an exercise of no-holds-barred brainstorming. This is by necessity. You don’t know what’s really funny while you’re creating it, so you don’t want to restrict yourself in any way.

James Mendrinos, in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Comedy Writing, writes: “You have to force yourself to stain the pages, even if you think the jokes aren’t your best work. I’m not saying that bad jokes are better than no jokes. I am saying that if you write something, even if it’s bad, you have something you can manipulate, edit, correct, and tinker with until it’s funny.”

This ideation process requires you to take chances. Granted, to be funny on stage, you first have to believe you can be funny. But there’s something else you need.

“The other, far more important, element is the will to risk,” says John Vorhaus in The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You’re Not. “To my mind, the will to risk is a tool, and like other tools, it can be learned and understood and mastered… the will to risk is really the will to fail. We’re taught from early youth to abhor failure, but odd as it may seem, a willingness to fail is one of the most valuable tools in your comic toolbox. It makes all of your other tools easier to use, and use well.”

No stand-up comedian wants to tell a joke that flops. That’s why the best usually test run new material in safe places such as small town circuits before opening in big city palaces.

Judy Carter explains this in her book The Comedy Bible where she writes, “Professional comics want to know why a joke didn’t work and how to fix it. They’re willing to expend the time and energy necessary to perfect their craft and solve the problem… Pros don’t take bad jokes all that personally – it’s about the material.”

If you’ve ever seen a Marx Brothers movie, particularly the first two The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), you’ll witness the fruits of this firsthand. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice the boys pause for a moment after a particularly hilarious joke. The pause is just enough for the movie-going audience to finish their laugh before the next line of dialogue is spoken; thus, ensuring your laughs don’t cover up their lines.

How did the Marx Brothers know to do this? Those movie scenes were practiced in front of live audiences as part of their regular tours. Through this, they learned to instinctively know just how long to pause after each gag. They also perfected not only the timing of the jokes, but the punchlines as well.

Throughout their vaudeville run and even into Broadway, they had regularly tested out new jokes, throwing out the bad ones and honing the good ones. That, along with their non-stop ad libs, meant no live Marx Brothers performance was the same.

Robert S. Bader, in his book Four of the Three Musketeers, relays the story that George S. Kaufman – who wrote The Cocoanuts – told in a 1939 lecture at Yale: “Morrie Ryskind and I once learned a great lesson in the writing of stage comedy. We learned it from the Marx Brothers… We learned that when an audience does not laugh at a line in which they were supposed to laugh, then the thing to do was to take out that line and get a funnier line.”

Audiences packed their venues even though the Marx Brothers hadn’t (technically) changed their shows. They were, however, constantly tinkering to see what worked and what didn’t. People laughed at the familiar and were happily surprised by the new and different.

Unless it was a bad joke.

But, if you watch the movies, you’ll notice a peculiar thing: there are plenty of cringe-worthy jokes. The Marx Brothers purposely kept these in. They often used them to break the fourth wall by coming out of character and speaking directly to the movie audience.

The joke might have flopped, but the reaction to the joke was pure comedy gold.

Groucho Marx introduced Johnny Carson as the new host of The Tonight Show in 1962. No doubt Johnny read Groucho’s book. This is meant both in the literal sense, (Carson admitted to reading it during Groucho’s surprise 1965 appearance on the show), and in the figurative sense as demonstrated by the way Carson handled his own bad jokes.

This didn’t go unnoticed. In his July 26, 2020 New York Times story on Johnny Carson (“As a Teenager, I Hated Johnny Carson. Then Came the Pandemic.”), Jason Zinoman wrote:

“His monologue jokes are OK, steadily mediocre if sometimes corny constructions with amusing word choices (‘topless kazoo player riding a yak’) but never as funny as the way he self-deprecatingly recovers from ones that bombed. He lingers on those, holding a pause or leaning forward ever so slightly, goosing the audience for more laughs at his expense. David Letterman admired this about Johnny Carson, and you can see the influence. But whereas Letterman brooded over his flops, Carson never seemed angry for more than a moment, or for that matter, particularly thrilled.”

Why would a comedian’s routine intentionally retain a joke bound to displease the audience? Well, as seen in both the Marx Brothers and Johnny Carson (as well as countless others), the bad joke itself can lead to genuinely funny jokes.

But there’s another reason. It’s implied in the comedy secret involving the standard “Rule of Threes” we see in just about every other genre.

Mendrinos gives you a better sense of this. He says, “Things in threes is the classic comedy twist. Most stand-up comics have used this twist, as well as authors of books and sitcoms… Most old-time comedy writers will tell you that three is the only way rhythm works. Two is too short; four or more will just bore the audience.”

You most often see this in simple lists. According to Carter, “Three is a magic number in comedy—there’s a rhythm that just naturally works. In the list of three the comic sets up a pattern on the first two ideas and then turns it on the third.”

In more elaborate acts (like the Marx Brothers and Johnny Carson), you’ll hear a sequence of three jokes – the set-up (some laughs), the build-up (more laughs), and the payoff (huge roaring laughs and often applause). Sometimes these jokes occur in order. Sometimes they come in the form of callbacks with other jokes separating them.

This is where the deliberate bad joke comes in, right before the payoff. The bad joke needs to be sufficiently bad to prepare the audience for the massive laugh they’re about to experience. The difference between silence (or groans) and riotous laughter only augments the effectiveness of the payoff joke.

Think about when you really need to impress someone. How many times have you led with a bomb only to make your great idea come across as, well, great? That’s the power of a strategically timed “bad joke.”

So, the next time you’re too afraid to fail, think again. That might be exactly what you need to do.

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