Falling Off The Edge

What I Wish Every Open Mike Comedian Knew Before Getting On Stage

An audience member punching a standup comedian on stage.
An audience member punches a standup on stage.

A recent open mike comedian gets on stage, and tells the following "joke":

"Yeah, I'm jealous of black guys, 'cause, you know, they've got a lot more going on down there than I do. And by "a lot going on," I am, of course, talking about AIDS."

The room is silent, and only just barely manages to not bubble into outright hostility because this is at an all open mike night, and most everyone in the room is fairly certain this guy doesn't mean to be racist, he just completely fucked up his attempt at being a shocking and "edgy" comedian.

Or how about this "joke," from a different guy on a different night:

"One time my nephew was telling me that every time he takes a shit he pretends he's bombing a city. Now every time I take a shit, I think "Hiroshima.""

Take note, too, that this joke took place in Tokyo, so as soon as the guy said "bombing," everyone in the room knew the "punchline" would be Hiroshima. In fact, part of why this "joke" is supposedly"edgy" is that it's being told in Japan. In some ways, it was a great example of how what's presented as being "edgy" is really just being obvious, except that the only person in the room who didn't learn from it was the person telling it.

I wish I could say that these jokes really stood out as the worst examples, but as a person who organizes open mike nights twice a month, I hear this kind of thing all the time. I've heard more than I could ever want to hear, where each attempt at "edgy" humour competes with the last to be more "shocking" in a never ending race to the bottom. Everything from raping one's own grandmother, sucking on a baby's bloody penis (no, I'm not making these up just for effect), and pretty much every kind of racist statement about every ethnic group you can think of. The most recent being that Indian people smell more in the summer time. That wasn't the topic of the joke, that was the punchline.

In fact, it's become so commonplace to hear this kind of shit that it's become a stereotype that if you go to an open mike night you'll hear lots of comedians throwing concepts in your face like paedophilia, rape, and racism. They are for the new millennium what jokes about air plane food were in the 1980s.

Unlike air plane food jokes, though, these won't go away, because it's not just a particular list of topics that is taboo. It is the act of being taboo itself that is fetishized by these wanna-be edgy comedians. And that's despite the fact that being taboo isn't even edgy anymore. It's mainstream. Every second crappy reality TV show, every other shitty morning radio show "shock jock," countless videos uploaded to the internet every day... there is nothing unusual or "edgy" about being "edgy" anymore. Anyone who is shocked by someone being deliberately "shocking" lives under a rock.

You would think, then, that the deafening silence these jokes earn would be the hint that these comedians need to not keep banging their heads against the same wall. But no. The same comedians will keep chasing the dragon's tail of "edginess" by coming up with different jokes about no less pointlessly vulgar topics.

Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, the pursuit of edginess is spurred on by the very audiences that express revulsion. To the wanna-be edgy comedian, this is evidence that some topics still have the power to provoke. And some topics should. We would lose something as a culture or even as a species if we failed to have emotional reactions to certain topics. But this misses the point. When the wanna-be edgy comedian has failed to make the audience laugh, then they have only given the audience the option of considering the topic in a decidedly non-humorous light, where topics can and should be evaluated on their ethical grounds. By failing to be funny, the audience is disappointed and are now left thinking about some topic they didn't want to think about in a non-funny way, and that's what's offensive. In other words, the audience didn't not laugh because they were offended, they first didn't laugh, and then were left in a serious mood in which they can legitimately become offended.

Before going further, let me state, as I often have to do when talking about these kinds of things, that I actually think that there is no such thing as a topic that can't be funny. Potentially, even sucking the blood from a dead baby's cock (holy fuck, did I just write that?). I refer to these kinds of things as "uranium topics." Handle them wrong, and either the city blows up and wars get started, or everyone gets sick and dies. But if you have to handle them just right, you can power a city. The point being they are extremely high risk, high reward endeavours. Emphasis on the high, high risk.

My problem, then, is not with the fact that these topics are being touched on. My problem is with the absolute mishandling of them, and the misinformed culture of wanna-be edgy comedians who go into comedy thinking that the whole point is to target these topics.

There are two self saving rationalizations in the face of failing jokes that I see all the time in the world of comedy. One is that sometimes, some people room in the laugh, and so the comedian takes that to be an indication that there's some merit in the joke, they just haven't tweaked it enough yet. In other words, the problem is simply one of degree. That's completely wrong, of course, because it ignores not only that there are different kinds of laughter, it also ignores the fact that the comedian's job is to get the whole audience to laugh as groups, not make the random assortment of individuals that make up the audience laugh for random individual reasons. However, as you can imagine, the concept of group laughter and listening to its qualities is a massive topic involving a lot of analysis. Maybe even a whole book.

In any case, we can put that issue aside for the purpose of this little essay I'm writing here. Even if a joke like the ones above gets absolute stone cold silence, it's fairly routine for comedians to pull out the other self saving rationalization, that the audience are just too sensitive to handle their raw, edgy, and honest material. I can't tell you how many times I've heard comedians proclaim, in so many words, "maybe I'm just too edgy for them..."

This is by far the hardest rationalization to shake a comedian out of, because the very act of trying to tell them about it can be taken by them to mean that you, the person advising them about why their act sucks, is just being overly sensitive on behalf of the audience. As a show organizer, when I tell people their "edgy" shit sucks, no matter how I try and couch it in diplomatic terms, I can see by the glazed look in their eyes that they regard me as part of the system that feeds the sheep of the mainstream and keeps raw and honest voices like theirs down.

That's why I find advice, like the one in this recent article about not doing "blue" material, to miss the mark. The thrust of the article is that you will find more work the less you rely on swearing and X rated topics.

Which is true. Without even getting into any kind of complicated analysis of the culture of comedic performance, we can easily see that a comedian who can perform without blue material can perform at venues that allow for that, as well as at venues that don't. Comedians who can only perform blue can only work where that's allowed. So if you're goal is to make a living, then it seems rational to develop at least some non blue material, and potentially double the number of performance opportunities.

For the wanna-be edgy comedian, though, this is completely unconvincing. For two reasons, the first being that this is just evidence of how the mainstream audience are all just a bunch of over sensitive pussies that aren't ready for their in-your-face hard edged comedy. Has any truly great artist, in any art form, ever become better by trying to be more mainstream?

But even in purely career advancement terms, can't the wanna-be edgy comedian look to people like Louis CK, who routinely talks about things like drowning women in cum or offhand cracks about Chinese babies, and think that there is obviously a lot of success to be had while still being on that all important edge? Louis CK might not be as rich as Jerry Seinfeld, who doesn't work blue, but there isn't a comedian alive who would not be happy with being where Louis CK is.

And here's where we start to get some insight into the problem. It's not just that these wanna-be "edgy" open mike comedians can look to someone like Louis CK to merely excuse away their attempts at edginess. It's not that the wanna-be edgy comedian happened to have this particular outlook first and use the success of Louis CK - or Patton Oswald, or Chris Rock, or Bill Hicks, or whatever comedian has ever said something genuinely "shocking" on stage - as a defense when coming up against resistance.

No, it's that the current generation of wanna-be edgy comedians saw those successful comedians do genuinely great edgy material, and they wanted to be like that. Which, in some ways, is fair enough. A lot, if not most comedians, were inspired to do comedy because of a great comedian they saw some time in their lives. The problem is that these wanna-be comedians learnt the wrong lessons from those comedians. The impression the wanna-bes took away was that this genuinely entertaining comedy about darker topics is real comedy. The wanna-bes don't want to merely be funny, they want to be funny about the things it seems it's hard to be funny about, just like their idols. To be... edgy.

Without getting into details, yeah, it is true that you can make a huge, and hugely funny, impact if you can make a joke about something like rape work. When a comedian can go into some uncomfortable territory, like rape or paedophilia, and make it work, the payoff can be so huge precisely because of the impact of taking something that "shouldn't" be funny and making it acceptable to laugh at. (Again, and I'm sorry to sound like such a promotional whore, I think I've got a reason for how that works in my book... I know. I'm sorry. I won't mention it again for the rest of this article.) At risk of over-extending my uranium analogy, the uranium doesn't give you useful power by just sitting there in the same room as you. You have to build just the right kind of system around it so that its power can be drawn out safely.

My book about how humor works in the human brain.
I wrote a book about the science of humor. Please check it out.

In a sense, when a capable comedian makes a joke about a topic like rape work, it's because they constructed a funny joke, a funny premise, and the fact that it was about something like rape comes in second to that. Of course it's too simplistic to think of a joke's construction and its content as being two completely separate entities, but bear with me for the purpose of making my case. The idea I'm trying to get across is simply that the audience goes to a higher place because they are standing on a platform of a good joke, and derive extra energy from being confronted with the fact that they are laughing about something maybe they shouldn't be. Joke first, shock second. The problem is that most starting out comedians put the cart before the horse - they assume it was funny because it's about rape and that's shocking.

Of course, most audience members don't walk away from a funny joke about rape, performed by a professional, thinking in terms of how the joke was constructed. The same way most people who plug in their lights don't think about the atomic reactions that led to the power being sent to their house (hmmm... maybe the uranium analogy is played out now...). No, most audience think "I can't believe I laughed at a joke about rape!"

Which is fine, for an audience. As long as they laugh, mission accomplished for the comedian. But the wanna-be edgy comedian takes that experience and thinks "that was awesome how that comedian was able to tell a joke about rape! I wanna do that!" The emphasis of their experience, just like the audience, is on how rape was made funny, and so that's what they then try and recreate on stage. What they've failed to grasp is that if you want to go from being audience to performer, it's no longer good enough to only comprehend the experience in the same terms the audience does. Just like you can't be a doctor only by knowing what it feels like to be ill.

So, all that said, I think it's fine to try and be edgy, just so long as you do it right. In that light, here's some pointers to try and help comedians who want to be edgy actually become edgy comedians and not merely the next shitty open mike falling off the edge.

1. Don't assume that just because you're on the stage behind the mike stand that everything is excused. The stage is not a magical place where the audience gives you the benefit of the doubt just because you're there. You have to earn your credibility. Every comedian you have ever seen earned that credibility, and knows how to present themselves to get it again with every new audience. No matter how famous a comedian is, when they get on stage, their reputation only gives them so much grace before they have to re-prove themselves. That's comedy - it's ultimately democratizing.

2. Get us to like you first, then"go there." The reason your friends laughed at your shitty in-your-face joke is because they know you and know you're not really an ignorant bigot. The rest of the audience, however, doesn't know that, nor should they be expected to. They shouldn't be evaluating you in terms of what you're like when not on stage. Everything they know about you is right here, right now. Your job as a comedian is to invite us into your world, not kidnap us and force us to go there.

3. Don't even listen to your friend's laughter. Your friends are not your audience, unless you want to make it your goal to personally and intimately know every single person you will ever perform for. It's awesome if you have friends that come out and support you. That's good for you and often good for shows. As a show organizer, I'm all for comedians bringing your friends. But you have to discount their laughter because it is completely uncorrelated to being genuinely stage-funny.

4. Above all else, what you really need to do is develop the ability to listen. Really listen to the audience reaction. For every comedian, not just wanna-be edgy comedians, the audience is always telling you how your joke is doing. But truly understanding their voice is an art and a science. It's a science in that you need to learn to distinguish between the different types of laughter, and even the different types of silence. Sometimes an audience is laughing at the situation, as in, they can't believe you are such a clueless twat as to have thought the stupid shit you are saying was even remotely funny and so they're laughing at the collective experience of being in a room with a person as comedically retarded as you. That happens. A lot. Listening is also an art, as in, you need to develop an openness to honestly accept the reality of what the audience is saying, and not look to recontextualize how they respond in a way that makes you feel better. Getting funnier is a process that will bust you down, and if you're not ready to be busted down, you will never get funnier.

Of all the above points, that last one is the real difference between comedians who suck and comedians who don't. The willingness to accept the responses they get for what they really mean.

That's hard to do, of course, so I wouldn't expect any miracles on that front.

But if reading this can inspire even just one comedian make the realization that the goal is to just be funny, and not to be shocking, so that I don't have to sit through another three minutes that feels like a thousand years, then I'll consider that a victory.