Be Funnier with Scotty Meltzer: That’s Still Not Funny!

Last month Katrine and I did trade show presentations for an audience of cancer doctors. (I wrote about how we dealt with that in my previous article: “That’s Not Funny.” This month, I pick up where we left off.)

The main tactic Katrine and I employed in our comedy writing for this gig was: Attack the periphery. Rather than making jokes about cancer, we made jokes about machines that are used to fight cancer.

This flanking attack allowed u­­s to be funny about a topic that most people would consider out of bounds and to do it without offending our audience or our client.

And while it’s possible you will never have to do a comedy show specifically about cancer, at some point you will have to be funny about a situation that is equally sensitive, so here are some suggestions from your comedy juggling pals on how to make jokes about things that are definitely NOT FUNNY, like cancer, genocide, hypnotists, or poi:

  1. Establish the right context
  2. Establish your right to the context
  3. Give the audience permission to laugh
  4. Attack the periphery
  5. Apologize in advance
  6. Never apologize
  7. Be ready to take the heat
  8. Play the fool
  9. Don’t be an idiot
  10. Just don’t do it

I created this list with the help of Greg Dean, Thomas John, Mark Hayward, Frank Olivier, Jon Wee, Scot Nery, Dan Holzman, and of course Katrine Spang-Hanssen, to ensure that most of the information below would be wrong.

Why deal with taboo subjects?

Sometimes, as with the cancer jokes Katrine and I performed last month, that’s what you’re being hired to do. Other times, like Frank Olivier learned in his story later in this article, your show would be inappropriate without it.

But there’s an another reason: it’s funny. Taboo subjects create tension, and releasing that tension leads to bigger laughs. John Cleese explains:

But these bigger laughs that Cleese promises come with bigger risks. The remainder of this article is intended to help you navigate those risks.

1) Establish the right context

When the audience understands why you’re dealing with such a charged subject, they’ll give you a lot more leeway.

For Katrine and me, this was simple. The fact that we were performing at a trade show for cancer treatments automatically created the context for our jokes about that subject.

But sometimes you have to do a little bit more work than that.

Picture the scene. It’s the week before Christmas. A company has just laid off 15% of its workforce. Everyone who’s left knows another 20% are about to be laid off. They’ve already scheduled their annual holiday party, and while it’s going to be weird to do it, they believe it’ll be even worse to cancel. They decide they need an entertainer who can take some of the stink out of the evening.

I know what you’re thinking: “Who books that?”

Of course they want to hire a juggler. Who wouldn’t? But these are smart people. They don’t just hire any juggler. They hire Frank Olivier.

Frank knew he had to address the issue early and set the right tone:

FRANK: There’s a bunch of uncertainty here, and as a juggler, I live with uncertainty. In fact, I’m sure we’ll probably be coming back to that theme whether we want to or not.

This simple statement established the right context for later inside jokes that would have seemed cruel if Frank had not first acknowledged the difficult situation his audience was facing:

FRANK: (Reacting to the audience’s laughter while he frantically deals with a dropped club) Oh ha, ha, ha. You don’t understand. I don’t even know how much longer I’m going to have this job if it keeps going like this. (TAG reacting to their laughter and discomfort.) Okay, maybe some of you DO understand.

The joke and the tag both killed. Neither was planned or written before the show. Frank says he works best while he’s onstage, in the moment, able to push forward or pull back depending on the audience’s immediate reactions.

Frank’s mantra: “Adrenaline is your friend.”

2) Establish your right to the context

The audience wants to feel that you’re the right person to deliver this material. This is why racial jokes delivered by an African American land so much differently than the same jokes coming from a white guy.

When it comes to cancer comedy, this couldn’t be more true than with the set Tig Notaro performed at Largo the day after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The audience accepts, even loves, Tig’s cancer jokes because she’s being so open and real, talking about her own problems, not making jokes about someone else’s:

TIG: How am I going to date? […] Do I go online and just make a profile? I’m single and I would love to meet somebody, but this is just weird timing. And just … Profile? Just, … I have cancer. Serious inquiries only.

This one night’s performance was so groundbreaking that it instantly transformed Tig’s career, skyrocketing her to a media darling, a sought after headliner, and maybe soon a comedy superstar.

Cancer was Tig’s bounce piano.

In other news, Wally Eastwood just got a double mastectomy.

3) Give the audience permission to laugh

Mark Hayward points out, “The audience needs permission to laugh at an over-the-line bit.”

Dan Holzman does a beautiful job of giving them that permission in this routine, which if performed by a lesser juggler would be child abuse or worse. (By “worse” I mean it would be stealing material.)

Dan throws a hat onto a coatrack. He then points out how easy this is because coatracks don’t move … Unlike children … Who are always moving.

Dan then brings up a child volunteer, throws his hat at the kid’s head and misses, hitting the kid in the face. Dan proceeds to throw his hat at the kid over and over again, hitting him in the face every time. Each time he hits the kid with his hat, the kid laughs, and the audience laughs even more!

Finally the hat flies onto the kid’s head. The audience cheers. The kid is a hero.

One of the things that makes Dan’s routine work so well is that the kid is laughing the whole time. The kid’s laughter gives the rest of the audience permission to laugh, so to make his bit work, Dan needs to make sure to pick a kid who will laugh, not cry, when hit in the face.

One way Dan could ensure this would be to hit a bunch of kids in the face before each show and then, during the show, pick the one who didn’t cry. Magicians call this: “pre-work.”

Dan doesn’t do that, but he is very careful to pick kids who are not too young . “I try to pick kids between about 8 and 10. And I’ve never picked a girl, per se.”

My cell phone battery ran out before I could ask Dan exactly what he meant by “per se.”

4) Attack the periphery

When dealing with a subject that’s much more taboo than just hitting a kid in the face, aka “good parenting,” instead of tackling it head on, you can approach from the side.

This was Greg Dean’s number one suggestion for dealing with dangerous or objectionable topics.

This is what Katrine and I did with our cancer material last month.

This is what The Daily Show does all the time. Instead of making jokes about a school shooting, they make jokes about the media’s coverage of that horrific event.

Thomas John suggests this specific approach: Instead of writing jokes about the taboo subject, attack the people on the wrong side of that subject. For example: You make jokes about racists instead of jokes about race.

5) Apologize in advance

The day after the space shuttle Columbia exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard, The Passing Zone had a theater gig booked for their full show, including their big, NASA themed, Jugglenaut finale.

Unlike Ivan Pecel, who hadn’t yet heard the news and wondered why his audience booed when he compared the gas for his torches to “space shuttle fuel and a little experiment that didn’t go too well,” Jon and Owen knew in advance they were in trouble.

They addressed the potential controversy by acknowledging the sensitive situation and asking the audience’s permission before continuing:

JON: Our final piece has a NASA, astronaut, spaceflight theme. We considered not doing it tonight because we didn’t want to be insensitive about what happened yesterday. However, it’s an exciting piece that audiences really like, it’s the way we usually end our show, and we’d love to share it with you.

OWEN: So, with your permission, and your understanding that we’re aware of the sensitivity of the theme, we’d like to perform it for you tonight.

No jokes. Just setting the scene to try to make it okay.

It was. Several people even came up after the show and expressed their appreciation for how Jon and Owen handled such a potentially awkward moment.

More people came up to Ivan and expressed something else.

6) Never apologize

Some comics prefer to approach dangerous topics straight on, balls-to-the-wall, ovaries-to-the-edifice. If that’s what you want to do, then you can’t back down. You can’t apologize. The only time you should say “sorry” onstage is when you’re setting your audience up for a denial capper.

For example, in Anthony Jeselnik’s “Sacred Cow” segment on cancer, no matter how far he pushes his audience, he never backs down.

Even with a joke like this told in front of a group of cancer patients:

ANTHONY: What’s black and white and will be red in six weeks?
ANTHONY: Your will.

Jeselnik doesn’t back off or apologize. This shouldn’t surprise you. “Never Apologize” was Greg Dean’s number two rule, and Anthony Jeselnik was one of Greg’s top students.

BTW, If you want to get your own weekly show on Comedy Central but can’t get to LA to take one of Greg’s classes, you can now do the next best thing. Greg just released a series of five new workbooks on writing and performing comedy. I’m only halfway through workbook one, and I’ve already learned some valuable new stuff about first story and second story that I missed when I first read Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy, the book Greg’s workbooks are based on. (That’s the advantage of a workbook over a book. The exercises keep you from glazing over stuff you don’t fully understand.)

7) Be ready to take the heat

If you’re going to attack head on, you have to be ready to take the heat. You’re going to get complaints. There will be venues you won’t be able to work, at least not more than once.

Then again, nobody ever became a comedy star by trying to please everyone and cater to every venue.

Lots of top comics take an in-your-face approach to subjects that others consider off limits. Along with Anthony Jeselnik, there’s also Jim Jeffries, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Dave Attel, Doug Stanhope, and Frankie Boyle who have all built careers saying the unsayable.

(PARENTAL WARNING: Googling any of the above comics will lead to material with explicit language, on subjects many will find offensive, with multiple uses of the f-word, c-word, s-word, and even ü-word, so kids remember: clear your browser history.)

It’s rare for a juggler to take this approach. Scot Nery is the only one I can think of who does it regularly.

“I like to explore the tension, to dive into the darkness. As an artist, I have a responsibility to challenge people and push them towards progress. I think commercialism is about comfort, but art is about discomfort.”

Scot accomplishes this with an aikido comedy twist. He’ll position himself on the wrong side of a subject and then jujitsu his way to the other side, leaving his audience completely turned around.

SCOT: (Referring to an overdone pancake he’s just cooked and is about to juggle) It’s dark, but not unemployable.

The audience’s laughs turn to boos as the liberal side of their brains catches up with their more limbic comedy cortex.

SCOT: (Responding to the boos) Oh I get it. You guys are racist.

Scot then extends his laugh with this tag:

SCOT: Look. The black people are laughing extra hard now because all the white people are so afraid to laugh.

Scot explains why he is so interested in subjects that others consider offensive: “I want to be the audience’s best friend. Friends are bold and open. They’re unguarded. And real friends aren’t afraid of offending each other. I like to go where people are uncomfortable because that’s what friends do.”

8) Play the fool

Scot’s technique leads us to another direction of attack and another way to make jokes about taboo subjects. Instead of attacking a sensitive topic head on or from the side, you can attack in reverse. This means having  your character take a position that is 100% wrong. The jokes then become about your inappropriate reactions to the sensitive situation, not about the situation itself.

This is what Tig Notaro and Amy Schumer did in this cancer sketch from Amy’s show. This is the approach that Stephen Colbert and Sarah Silverman take all the time.

Irony like this has a long tradition in comedy, dating back to Jonathan Swift and before. That’s why I believe that in 2014, Andy Kaufman will reveal that he’s been playing a fake character named Rush Limbaugh for the past 30 years.

The danger of this approach is that your lines can be taken out of context. People may think you actually believe the nonsense your idiot character is saying. Sarah Silverman has had to deal with this many times. Ask Penn Jillette about this and you’ll get a 90-minute rant on the difference between theme and thesis (unless he’s got to catch a plane, then you’ll only get 20 minutes).

Even if you’re not famous, there’s still a risk. Rich Ross and I used to do a bit where I spoke Pigeon Spanish:

SCOTT: (While putting a mousetrap on a board) Yo puto el trapo on el boardo …

RICH: Don’t say: “Yo puto.”

SCOTT: No? No se yo puto?

(SCOTT pauses, not understanding why Spanish speakers in the audience are laughing at the word “puto” which is not a real word, but if it were, it would be a very dirty Spanish gender pun.)

SCOTT: Si. Yo puto. Si? Yo puto el trapo … (pauses again, confused by their laughs) Que? No se yo puto? Si. Yo puto …

Performing at a fair on Hispanic Day, the Latinas in our audience laughed more at this bit than at anything else in our show. Unfortunately, a paternalistic Anglo, who thought we were insulting those Hispanics, complained to the Fair Manager: “Some of my best friends are Mexican, and they would be offended by the way those jugglers were making fun of their language!”

We tried to explain that we weren’t making fun of Spanish or Hispanics. We were making fun of my stupidity and inability to speak their language. It didn’t help. Even though the Hispanics laughed, an Anglo complained, and we didn’t get hired back.

So …

9) Don’t be an idiot

Jon Wee gave me this advice.

Many times.

But Jon’s advice doesn’t just apply to me. It applies to all of us.

Before Mark Hayward performed his show for a Burn Camp, he purposefully reviewed his show, intending to remove any lines that could offend an audience of kids who had all survived fires. I say “intending” because, of course, that’s not what he did. If it were, I wouldn’t be including his story.

Mark instantly regretted it as the words he had said so many times before: “risk of permanent disfigurement,” flew out of his mouth like moths to a … well, you know.

This time it turned out fine. The kids laughed. The councilors thought it was hilarious. And the parents weren’t there.

But I think we all know how this story would have ended if they had been.

Because it’s never the person who gets offended. Just like in my Pigeon Spanish story above, the problem is always someone getting offended on someone else’s behalf: “My best friend suffers from alopecia, and I don’t think she’d find your alopecia jokes funny.”

I always want to say to that person, “Well your best friend was at my show last night, and she told me she LOVED my alopecia routine,” but then I remember Jon’s advice: Don’t be an idiot.

And just like Mark, I usually remember that advice immediately after the words leave my mouth.

10) Just don’t do it

Dan Holzman’s advice for dealing with objectionable topics? “Don’t. You’re a juggler! You don’t have to do edgy, topical material. You don’t have to deal with controversial subjects to get big laughs.”

He’s not wrong. No one HAS to do jokes about rape, cancer, pedophilia, racism, genocide, 9/11, or the Holocaust—especially not a juggler.

The nature of our medium means we don’t have to do potentially offensive jokes to create the anxiety John Cleese refers to at the beginning of this article. We can build that same sense of danger and tension with our tricks.

Plus, most of the venues we jugglers play: fairs, festivals, cruise ships, corporate events, walk-around gigs, even pseudo street performing at privately owned malls, aren’t appropriate for it.

So why do it?

Why should a juggler ever deal with taboo subjects? It’s because sometimes bad things are too big and too present in everyone’s mind for a comedian, even a comedian who juggles, to ignore. Sometimes, the subject that everyone believes you should never make jokes about is exactly what they need to laugh at.

I hope that some of the admittedly contradictory advice in this article will help you deal with those taboos better, more effectively, and without getting complaints.

  1. Establish the right context
  2. Establish your right to the context
  3. Give the audience permission to laugh
  4. Attack the periphery
  5. Apologize in advance
  6. Never apologize
  7. Be ready to take the heat
  8. Play the fool
  9. Don’t be an idiot
  10. Just don’t do it

I can’t guarantee that all this advice will work, but I can guarantee that if it doesn’t, and your show goes down in flames, if you post your story in the comments below, I promise you’ll make all of us laugh!

Homework assignment

Write a joke about a subject that you personally feel is off limits. Think of a way or a situation in which you’d be willing to perform it.

Extra credit

Perform it.

Scott Meltzer would to convince Google that he is the world's most experienced trade show juggler.

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