I was scouring the web the other night searching how to become a better joke writer.
While I was disappointed in myself (only slightly) for thinking the internet would answer all my career questions like it’s the Magic 8 Ball of our time, I came across an interview with Jermaine Fowler on CBS This Morning. I guess sometimes you get what you ask for?
Fowler produced his own Showtime special in 2015 called “Give ‘Em Hell, Kid” and is currently the executive producer and star of Superior Donuts. Needless to say that he’s doing pretty well.
During the interview he was asked by one of the hosts “what is at the heart of a good joke?”
Fowler said it very simply: “honesty.”
According to Fowler, “even if people don’t like it or don’t agree with you it’s just the earnestness and honesty of it that makes it endearing.” He also made an effort to pay homage to late Patrice O’Neal, one of the most polarizing comics in the industry who always made a point to be honest.
This made me think about honesty in comedy and how Fowler is right on point about when it comes to writing a joke.
Honesty showcases the ridiculous nature of topics
As comics, we often poke fun at what seems outlandish or illogical in our own personal way like the stalker who realizes your personality isn’t likeable or the fact that not everyone is going to care about that AMBER alert (so why do we all need to receive it?).
Every type of joke whether it is topical or your own experience needs you to be honest in how you feel with why something is ridiculous. Doing this will allow you to display a part of yourself and the audience appreciate you being real as opposed to being superficial about the subject.
Honesty makes you vulnerable
It can be very daunting for a comic to get up on stage and bear their soul to a room full of people they don’t know. Comedy isn’t someone’s else’s script you’re reciting or a teleprompter you’re reporting. It’s your experiences and opinions you are sharing to be either loved or ridiculed in a matter of minutes. However, we still have a job to do on that stage.
The audience has this uncanny ability to decipher whether you’re truly being honest and when it’s more of an act. This is typically why people roll their eyes when a comic talks about politics, Trump, or their drunk Long Island girl nights because it’s merely a veneer. Yes, you might make them laugh at the joke, but it’ll likely be forgotten by the end of the night.
One of my own jokes centered around a breakup was probably my rawest display of honesty to date. I had kept the emotion internalized for a couple of weeks and performed it at one of the Comedians on the Loose open mics. I remember telling that joke with the exact same emotion I felt when the breakup occurred and it was almost too well received. Co-producer, Sonja Savanovic, even asked me “are you okay?” after that open mic.
For a new joke, you’d think it would just get a few chuckles but what made the difference was being honest and showing vulnerability. To put it bluntly, I was pissed (with good reason); however, it was real. Every time I tell that joke, I have to go back to that same place of rage and pain because regardless of if I look crazy, people are able to see the honesty and relate on some level. Sucks for the guy I broke up with, but hey...it’s comedy.
Especially on the open mic scene, I’ve seen many comics hold back with how they really feel trying to tiptoe so they don’t offend anyone, but in the end it comes off as inauthentic.
Not really “going there” will only hold you back with your joke writing and in the end holding back will limit your success with a joke and possibly your career potential.
At the end of the day, it’s a comic’s job to make the audience think and honesty is the base requirement to do that. Even if you are uncomfortable being completely honest because a topic is very deep or too dark in your mind, going there and experimenting with it will pay off in the long run.
It really can’t be said enough: the truth will set you free.
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