How to Be Funny Without Being Mean

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Photo Source: Photo by Matthias Wagner on Unsplash

It’s alarming the number of comedians complaining about audiences being “too PC.” Isn’t comedy about performing for audiences and making them laugh? If no one buys your books, watches your movies, or sees your show you don’t blame the world. But has cancel culture gotten a bit out of hand? Maybe so. Is there an overwhelming sensitivity in our culture? Totally. But the sensitivity in our culture is way more symptomatic for large systemic issues and conflicts we’re finally addressing.

Standup comedy and comedy in general is an art form about truth-telling. It’s about using comedy to address darker, uncomfortable, or even taboo subjects. But it’s also about making an audience laugh. As I tell my students, the audience is your mirror and your BS-detector. If you’re attacking audiences because you can’t do the work, that’s funny but in a “laughing at you” kind of way. Times are changing. We’re making space for other people’s emotions and experiences. In the same way comics research pop culture and edit our jokes for pacing, we should look at what’s happening in society and edit them for tone. I’m a die-hard believer that anything can be funny, but the margin of error for offensive humor is razor-thin. Here are a few ways to be both PC and funny. 

1. Think about what you’re making fun of

Who or what is the subject of your joke? If you’re adding levity to something your audience also struggles with they’ll be grateful. If you make them feel worse, why should you be getting paid to do comedy? Why not try drama?

2. Comedy is not therapy

Comedy is therapeutic. You get to laugh at your inner demons and mock the things that haunt you. But that doesn’t mean you subject your audience to all of your sad, mean, and painful feelings, stories, and memories. As a comedian, you have to do the work to strike a balance between therapy sessions and standup comedy sets. Yes, you can take people into the darkest parts of your life but it’s your professional responsibility to guide them out. They paid to laugh, not listen to your daddy issues. If you just get onstage and unload all your baggage you’re probably not doing “the work,” both comedically and emotionally. You have to deep dive and really look at why you’re saying what you’re saying. As we edit our jokes we edit our thoughts. 

3. Educate yourself

Comedians will scour news and pop culture to find something to joke about, but some comedians still feel the need to make dated offensive cracks. Why not invest the same energy to understand different points of view? Comedians will tour all over the U.S. and sometimes the world to get their jokes to a place where they’re perfect. But part of that is honoring multiple points of view. Telling a joke that leaves random people in your audience not just not laughing but uncomfortable is a fail. Everyone has to do the work to make emotional space for other people to survive in our society. It’s easy to hold space for people from different communities and their trauma or oppression if you aren’t wasting valuable emotional space with resentments, unexpressed emotions, and ego.

4. Check your privilege

Anything can be funny, but you have to look at how a joke sounds coming out of your mouth. You may have to do multiple drafts to get it to a place where it no longer sounds offensive. It’s easy to take someone for granted when they feel uncomfortable. Their discomfort is not from sensitivity; their discomfort is that they’re a paying customer and they’re being attacked in a situation where they cannot clap back or they’re listening to you making nasty comments about people they care about or respect. If you need to attack people that much, maybe you shouldn’t be in the business of making people laugh. There’s a huge difference between the laughter that will get an audience to follow you around the state and tell their friends their favorite jokes and laughing uncomfortably because they’re stuck in a room listening to your racist diatribe. Meanwhile, they know you’re really just mad at your dad and counting the seconds until your set is over.

5. Punch up, not down

Comedy, especially standup comedy, is best when it’s punching up. It’s about attacking the larger things we cannot control like death, depression, trauma, corruption, and Karens. It’s about addressing social issues and what’s giving a voice to what’s unfair. What gets the audience on your side is they know how you feel and they feel the same way. What gets funky is when you punch down. What does it serve? It doesn’t only become like bullying. It’s a turn off to your audience and a show of weakness. If you need to take up your valuable stage time, and more importantly, the time of your audience to take cheap shots at people it only makes you look uncreative.

6. Avoid generalizations

This is just communication 101. An easy trick to staying out of trouble is to not make blanket statements. In public speaking, being a bit hyperbolic can make you sound more confident or aware. But making generalizations onstage could turn people off. As a comedian, you get more traction with specifics, expressing your perspective, and sharing your stories versus presenting your opinions as facts.

7. Don’t forget the levity

There’s a difference between heavy and deep. We all feel things deeply, but we aren’t all weighed down by a ton of emotional baggage. Sometimes you have to lighten up. Focus on how you can lighten your emotional load and you may be able to help people lighten theirs.

Times are changing and so is a comedy, but you don’t blame audiences when Facebook jokes become dated. So why should you blame them for drawing lines at certain topics? Many standup comedians shoot for getting their own special. Why not try and get your jokes to a place where everyone can laugh?

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Christian Cintron
Christian Cintron is a jack-of-all-trades, master of fun. He’s a writer, comedian, actor, and psychic. He’s written for, Queerty, The Authentic Gay, and Ranker to name a few. He created Stand Up 4 Your Power, a spiritual, self-improvement standup comedy class. It uses concepts from standup comedy, spirituality, and psychology to help pivot your perspective, change limiting narratives, and roll with the punchlines. IG/Twitter @SighKickScream Facebook:
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