In Comedy, Context is Everything
Every joke carries its own baggage.
This week, the right-wing satirical website The Babylon Bee published a post making the joke that former president Donald Trump had given vanquished opponent Vivek Ramaswamy a position “running the White House 7-Eleven.”
The joke, naturally, riled a lot of people online, which is the best way to get attention for your work. Its detractors claimed it is both racist and outdated - making fun of Indian Americans for owning convenience stores is a relic of the 1990s, so applying it to a tech millionaire is pretty groan-inducing.
But then again, what if the joke is actually on Trump? Maybe they are making fun of the fact Trump is actually both racist and stuck in the 1990s, which is why he would offer Ramaswamy a job in a convenience store.
Just because the latter explanation is more palatable, it doesn’t necessarily make it funnier. The antidote to being accused of racism or sexism or whatever is to make the joke funny, and this fails the test.
Another way to pass the test is to have a history of being able to deftly handle controversial topics in a humorous way. If your publication has an established viewpoint and has demonstrated a way to lampoon racial issues successfully, you are given the benefit of the doubt. (As the saying goes, “art is anything you can get away with.”)
The Babylon Bee hasn’t established that ability in the way, say, The Onion has over its 30-year existence. It plies us with a decent joke every now and then, but they are still on comedy probation until their hit-rate gets better. If they were more consistently funny, sites like Snopes wouldn’t continually face-plant by attempting to “fact-check” their posts.
As always, comedy is entirely subject to context. If you hate The Bee, you’re never going to find anything they do funny. If you’re a fan, you’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt even on material that is middling.
This context also applies the biggest comedy flop of the last few weeks, comedian Jo Koy’s brutally unfunny monologue at the Golden Globe awards a couple weeks ago. When a comedian is throwing his writers under the bus after a handful of jokes, you know you have entered comedy armageddon.
But Jo Koy failed because the Golden Globe show producers don’t understand context. You can’t have a comic who is unknown to large swaths of Americans stand up there and attempt edgy jokes skewering the beautiful people in the audience. With an established host - someone like Ricky Gervais or the team of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler - the people in the room know whatever barbs come their way are in good fun. They trust their presenter.
But without that trust, the whole thing seems mean and off-putting. Take a joke Jo Koy told about the Barbie movie:
"The key moment in 'Barbie' is when she goes from perfect beauty to bad breasts, cellulite, and flat feet. Or what casting directors call... 'character actor.’"
Now think of the context. Jo Koy is a relatively unknown male comic ridiculing a movie about sexism. Not a great look!
If that same joke had been told by Poehler or Fey, on the other hand, it would have killed. People trust that they know what they are doing. We trust that they feel the pain of being judged by their looks in Hollywood. They are in on the joke, while Jo Koy is definitely out.
(This brings to mind one of the great awards ceremony jokes of all time, in which Poehler and Fey summed up the movie Gravity by calling it “the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age.")
You will no doubt have people who say funny is funny, no matter who is telling the joke or when they are telling it. But that’s just not how it works. I now watch Saturday Night Live professionally - maybe jokes about Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior were hilarious in 1981, but they aren’t now. It is all time and place.
And the context bug can bite the funniest people on the planet. Over the new year, Netflix released two comedy specials, one by Ricky Gervais and one by Dave Chappelle. Both have pushed boundaries in challenging ways - but in each case, their new specials fail to really offer anything new. Gervais keeps telling the same “oh you’re going to be offended by this one” joke over and over again while throwing in a few amusing twists. Chappelle now sees putting his hand in the fire as the whole joke, but we have seen him do this for four specials now.
These are people we trust, who time after time have gotten away with it. But now they expect to keep getting away with it without offering much new. Maybe their new specials would have been bangers if they had been their first specials, but we have seen it all before. Again, context.
The inability to navigate context is even harder for individuals online, who don’t have the benefit of agents or publicists or other people to guide them in the right direction. You can always tell someone posting to Twitter X who fashions themselves a comedian, but that designation has not been granted by anyone but themselves.
This guy (and it’s almost always a guy) will make a joke that will only fly in a comedy club, where people pay money knowing they will be offended in a safe, cloistered space. He then expresses shock that people are outraged at what he said, suggesting the problem is with the reader - they simply don’t recognize the danger endemic to his rapier-like wit.
In this case, the context is entirely wrong - from the audience to his personal trustworthiness. Intent in a joke matters, and if you don’t know someone well enough to gauge it, it is hard to tell whether they are really joking. (I somewhat ashamedly admit I see a line on Twitter that is pretty good, then when I realize I detest the person who said it, I retroactively declare it unfunny.)
Context can also work to your benefit, too. In the past, I have been asked to give speeches to certain trade associations, and sprinkling those talks with even moderately successful jokes can get good laughs. This is because the National Association of Water Meter Checkers Convention isn’t expecting anything funny - so they are extra appreciative if you give it to them. Suddenly, if you tell a one-star joke, they think you’re Jerry Seinfeld.
(The expectations game can work against you, too - if, for instance, you are a newspaper columnist who uses humor, you can be quite funny. But if you are a newspaper’s “humor columnist,” people expect too much from you and you almost always fall short. This is why “humor columnists” are universally dreadful.)
When deciding whether someone is really worthy of a laugh, the answer is always “it depends.” This is why you laugh harder spending a night having drinks with friends and telling stories than you do even at the funniest movies. You are with people you trust, who you won’t judge for making off-color jokes and who won’t judge you for laughing at them. (And, of course, there is nothing funnier than laughing at something you know you’re not supposed to be laughing at.)
It is all context. And when it’s just right, there is nothing better.
If you want to judge whether I know what a joke is, I have a book still available for sale. It is funny, many people are saying it.
I’ve been a Mitski fan for a while now (check out “Your Best American Girl” from 2016), but her newest album, infused with a laconic country twang, is by far her most accessible. Here’s “My Love Mine All Mine.”
(Bonus note if you made it this far: This 1997 video on how to have cybersex on the internet is absolutely mesmerizing.)