“You Must Be Fun at Parties”: The Virtues of Questioning a Bad Joke

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A family is gathered around the dining room table for Thanksgiving dinner. While pouring an extra glob of gravy on his turkey, Dad announces, “hey, how many genders does it take to change a lightbulb?” He pauses to build tension. “Just two!”

You map your next move out in your brain. Here’s how it plays out:

You say, “What’s funny about that?”

Dad says, “It was just a joke.”

You say, “Can you explain the punchline?”

Dad says, “Because there are only two genders.”

Mom says, “Honey, your dad was just joking.”

You say, “No he wasn’t. He just said there are only two genders.”

Dad says, “You must be fun at parties! Learn to take a joke.”

Next thing you know, the turkey is growing cold while you and Dad argue about whether or not transgender people deserve equal rights. Mom is crying in the bathroom. Thanksgiving is ruined. All because you “couldn’t take a joke.”

So instead, you keep your mouth shut as everyone else politely laughs. Dad crowns himself the king of zingers, the turkey is cleaned to the bone, Thanksgiving is saved.

Of course, Dad wasn’t “just joking.” Rather, he was espousing his actual toxic beliefs about an oppressed group of people. The veneer of a “joke” doesn’t make his views any less harmful.

I want to be upfront about my own views on comedy. I strongly believe that no subject should be off-limits to joke about. I have a number of friends who work in the stand-up scene, and I think that sometimes, great jokes can be derived from controversial subjects. Transgressive comedy thrives on experimentation. It’s possible to craft a great joke that plays off racism or sexism or homophobia or even rape. One need not look further than Hannah Gadsby’s absolutely brilliant Netflix special, Nanette, to see how controversial topics can be mined for gold.

So when a comedian makes controversial jokes that I don’t find particularly funny, or even disagree with the sentiment behind, I still fully support their freedom to explore those topics in their routines.

But the difference is that professional comedians understand the craft of comedy. Comedy isn’t just an excuse to say shitty things. Comedians realize that they are always at the mercy of their audience. If a comedian makes a bad joke, if their joke doesn’t land, if their audience throws rotten tomatoes, then they’ve failed their mission. Moreover, comedians are subject to the opinions of other comedians. A comedian who gets onstage and makes bad jokes won’t get the bookings and opportunities that a better comedian might.

In short, comedy has consequences. Comedians know this. Their success depends on it. “I was just joking” is an admission of failure.

Your dad, or your aunt, or your oh-so-edgy cousin doesn’t seem to grasp this. They don’t understand that thinly veiled phobias and “-isms” don’t suddenly become okay just because you put them in joke format. There is no practical difference between your dad’s “lightbulb, two genders” joke and your dad just shouting, “transgender people are weird and wrong!” Neither are funny or well-crafted, and both are expressions of the same genuine sentiment that your dad actually holds.

When a comedian makes a joke that doesn’t land, they need to go back and confront their joke. Why didn’t it work? What am I trying to say? How can I make this resonate with my audience? In the same vein, when a friend or family member says something shitty and tries to write it off as a joke, they should absolutely be confronted with those same questions. What are they really trying to say? And if what they’re really saying is indeed shitty, they need to own it or go back to the drawing board. That’s how comedy works.

If someone isn’t willing to confront their own humor, the sentiments behind it, and what makes their jokes “funny,” then maybe they shouldn’t be making jokes at all. Otherwise, they need to accept that while they have every right to make bad jokes, the people forced to listen have the same right to question them.

That being said, nothing makes me more tense than the idea of ruining a family dinner over a silly little joke. So as a solution, I prefer to respond with jokes of my own. Here are a few I’ve been working on:

“What three things do the majority of mass shooters and domestic terrorists in the US have in common? They’re straight, white, and male!”

Dad might not like that one, but if he doesn’t, I have this zinger lined up:

“What do you call a guy who votes against the best interests of himself and his family because he believes conspiracy theories over actual facts and statistics? You call him Dad!”

Okay, now Dad’s pissed. But seriously, he needs to grow a sense of humor. So I have one more, and if he doesn’t like it, I don’t know what to tell him.

“Did you know that less than 10% of sexual assault reports turn out to be unfounded, and that only 35% of sexual assaults even get reported in the first place? And do you realize that means when someone says they were raped, the overwhelming statistical likelihood is that they’re telling the truth? And did you know that in court, victim testimony actually counts as evidence, so saying we don’t have evidence after a woman testifies she was raped is verifiably false? Because I certainly know that.”

To be honest, I’m still working on the punchline to that one. Hopefully Dad won’t get too mad, though. After all, I’m just joking. Right?