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tricky jokes

As a humorist, I am well aware of comedy pitfalls. Not pratfalls, mind you. Those are still funny. No, I’m talking about jokes that are trough to pull off.

These are types of jokes that may work some of the time, but be careful! When you overuse them, or use them with the wrong emphasis, they’re really bad. For some reason, I see people trying them more often than they should. These types of jokes may not even be worth telling anymore, unless you’ve got a really innovative way of doing it. “Never say never,” they say, but they also say “stop beating that dead horse.”

The joke where the person explains the joke. This is different from a poorly-written joke that needs a paragraph of explanation afterwards. No, here the joke is that the character is saying everything out loud that should remain silent. It was used extensively in the Will Ferrell movie Anchorman. Don’t get me wrong; I loved that movie. But in the wrong hands, this kind of joke can be deadly. An example: “I’m talking in a funny voice right now because my hand is stuck in a toaster. My hand hurts and I am sad.” This would be said by a character who has his hand stuck in a toaster. Or: “This is very ironic. I’m being ironic by calling attention to this situation.” Haha!

You can be sure this joke works better on film (or in person) than on paper. The thing to do with this kind of joke would be to make another reason for the character to be saying everything out loud. (“Because he’s a stupid character” is not a good reason.) Maybe the character is uncomfortable and feels the need to over-talk. This is closer to the Woody Allen approach. Make the character so nervous that everything he says just compounds the awkwardness of the situation. The tension builds and builds.

Self-referential humor. The Simpsons does this a lot, and generally it’s effective. That’s because everybody knows the Simpsons. They know Homer’s catchphrases, they know Marge’s sad grunt, they know Bart is a troublemaker. After building an audience, they began to exploit people’s knowledge of their characters. They’ve made jokes about the Simpsons being on t-shirts and CDs (because, in real life, they are). This isn’t simply character-driven humor, it goes one step further into self-awareness.

Most comics, sadly, are less popular than The Simpsons. Therefore, if you’re going to wink post-modernly at yourself, only a small number of people will get the joke. Which is fine – some of the time. If you overuse this it will more likely turn off potential new readers.

I’ve always been wary about comics that make a joke about the comics. This is like Hollywood movies about Hollywood movies, or books where the main character is a novelist. There’s something a little desperate inherent in this concept – if it’s the only one you’ve got. Of course some really funny jokes can be made in a comic about a comic. There are a few memorable Calvin and Hobbes strips about the state of the comics. It’s nice to have an insight only a true practitioner can articulate. But if you repeat it too much, the novelty wears off and all you’ve got is a statement about the medium you’re working in. It’s sort of like navel gazing.

I’m definitely guilty of using this type of joke more than once. After all, my mountain lion character Melissa is a sculpture artist and javelina Pam writes novels in her retirement. When I make jokes about art, I try to make them broader than my personal experience. What I’m aiming for is a statement that even people who have done one artistic thing in their lives would still be able to relate. Or I make the setup about art, but the punchline could be about something else altogether.

Then there is the silent penultimate panel. This is the second-to-last panel, usually in a three or four panel comic strip. The characters pause before the punchline. Its supposed to indicate a bit of time elapsing before the tension-breaking joke. I don’t really have much to add to this, because most cartoonists are already aware of its dangers by now. When there’s a website devoted to it, you know it’s been overused.

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