Too Soon

You can't get funny if you don't accept when you're not funny

A silhouette of a standup comedian.
"Too soon...?"

Hey shitty standup on stage whose current joke just bombed. No, it's not "too soon." Your joke didn't shock or surprise the audience. Your joke wasn't too close to some sacred topic that we think you shouldn't have poked fun at. Do you really think a modern audience at a comedy show is shocked by anything anymore?

No, you just weren't funny. Your joke just wasn't that good. It was poorly written, poorly delivered, and you capped it off by completely misreading the audience reaction.

"Too soon?"

You're the fifth comedian tonight to have said that. As if, somehow, there's been this incredible string of visionary comedians pushing the boundaries of what it means to be funny, all crossing over the edge beyond what the audience can handle. All of you, here, tonight. Amazing.

What's weird, though, is that your hard to follow joke about the non specific interaction you had with the opposite gender where you said the clever thing in response to the awkward statement that in reality no one ever said because it sets you up too perfectly for your punchline... yeah, that "joke." What's bizarre about you asking the audience if it was "too soon" was that your joke has no relation in time, space, or the universe to any other point of reference that we have, so... too soon after what? Too soon, as in, you're just that much ahead of the curve of the shifting zeitgeist of social norms? "Too soon"? What the fuck are you even talking about?

I don't think you even mean it. I think somehow in the years you've been working up the courage to be a comedian and watching other comedians perform, you've seen this phrase used as a way to deflect when an audience makes that "ooooh" sound at an edgy joke... you know that sound, right? It's that one people make when they are made slightly uncomfortable and it's sort of a way that everyone in the room verifies with each other that maybe the comedian went too far. You might recognize it as the complete opposite of the deafening silence your joke just got.

Anyway, maybe you've watched comedians who are pros that legitimately push boundaries, and they've used that phrase to deflate tension that they didn't mean to create. In other words, when they said it, it was for reasons, real reasons, not just some kind of ritual catch phrase.

Which, I think, is probably what it already was by the time you first heard it. I can't think of the last time I ever heard a comedian, a real established comedian, in a situation where "too soon" might actually be called for, and then they actually said it. Any half decent comedian these days can see that it's now become a meaningless reflexive utterance.

The irony of the statement is that you actually have kind of offended the audience. Not the way you think, assuming that you, like every hack comedian, think you're presenting yourself as this comedian willing to "go there," and maybe you're just too much for this audience that can't handle the topics you're unafraid to tackle. No, we out here in the darkness beyond your spotlight are offended that you are not fucking listening to us, not acknowledging our genuine reaction. When you said "too soon," you steamrolled over the actual moment and painted the audience as if we're somehow to prudish for you, and so it's our fault your shitty joke failed. So not only were you not funny, you blamed us for your joke not working. You insulted the people who paid to see you perform, with our time and attention that you desparately need, if not our money. So, like, fuck you.

So why are you doing it? You're doing it because one day you decided to be a "standup," and in your head, the definition of a "standup" comes with a form and shape of what that means. You almost certainly didn't consciously decide on it, but you picked up on the phrases and mannerims that you saw in people getting the attention you'd like to get, and some part of your brain figured that the same attention could be got from exhibiting the same behaviour.

And you learned the completely wrong lesson, which is that standup is a way of doing comedy.

It's not. It's so not.

Standup has no form, it has no rules for how you get laughs, it only has the one unifying objective that you make an audience laugh. Genuine, sincere laughs that make them want to come back and see you again. Give that some thought, that bit about wanting to see you again. The world is filled with mediocre comedians who can get a few laughs on stage, but how many of them have the audience leaving the show thinking, "I'd love to hear more!" And how can they think that if they've heard your words before you've even said them? Do you want to be a funny you on stage, or just some transmission device for an unspecific concept of comedy that just kind of exists in the world?

There are tips and tricks and techniques and skills and advice and all sorts of ways of looking at standup that can help you be a better comedian. But those skills are like what grammar is to an author, they help give shape to what you do but say nothing about what words you choose.

Imagine an author saying to an aspiring writer, "somewhere in this book, you need to put the phrase, 'too soon' in there. Everyone loves a book with those words!"

That would be fucking stupid advice, but that's exactly what you're doing when you regurgitate "too soon." You've taken words you've heard comedians say before, you've carried them with you, away from their original context and purpose, sterilizing them in the process, and you've thrown them at an audience like they should fit the situation because they're supposed to fit.

Stop it.

If you want to be a good comedian, you've got to start speaking honestly with the audience, from your fucking heart and not from the framework of a definition of "standup."

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Whether improvised or pre-written into your set, if you can find any phrases that you can identify as being said before, throw that shit out. Any set phrase, any usual response, any standard. It's not you, and the audience doesn't want to hear it.

"This guy gets it!"

"Who's with me?"

"How's everyone doing tonight?" Which might be an okay thing to say if any comedian ever even remotely seemed like they gave a shit about the answer and wasn't just saying it because that's how comedians start sets.

Everything you say on stage should be material that represents you, not anyone else. Every comedian knows that stealing another comedian's jokes is the highest crime in comedy. But stealing an act from comedy as a conceptual whole should be just as reviled.

Which, by the way, the audience already knows. Every time you say cookie cutter phrases, you put that much distance between you and them, and when they say to you, "yeah, you were funny" when you talk to them after the show, that's just polite fiction because they're kind of embarrassed for you and don't want to hurt your feelings. Yeah, you'll need to learn how to read all audience reactions, not just figure out when the silence didn't mean your joke was "too soon."

If you're ever saying "too soon" on stage, the only thing that's too soon about it is you being on stage.