As we all know, I spend a lot of time watching horror movies, and arguably more watching horror documentaries. And it’s a truism of both horror and humor that a large part of what makes them work is surprise.
But if that is all you have, then it only works once.
The thing that makes humor work on a deeper level is that you have to surprise us with a deeper truth.
The South Park movie was hilarious the first time I saw it.
The second time I saw it, it wasn’t all that funny, because the writers relied almost exclusively on surprise and shock value for the majority of their gags. You’ve experienced the surprise/shock once, and it will never be a surprise again.
That’s also why horror movies that rely on jump scares fall flat for me. Yeah, it works once. But I’m never going to see it again, because it isn’t scary once you know what’s coming.
But, give me something like Cujo, or the Exorcist, or the original Nightmare on Elm Street that is fueled by deeper societal fears, and that will be scary on repeated viewings. As long as that societal fear still exists. Child killers/molesters, nightmares, out of control adolescents, car breakdowns far from help, and rabid animals will pretty much always be societal fears, so I’m pretty confident in their staying power.
Humor’s like that, too.
You have to tap into deeper fears and emotions, which, sadly is why racist jokes will always be funny to a certain unenlightened subset of the population.
But for the rest of us who are pulling our heads out of our asses, they aren’t funny. Because those jokes only speak to people who truly believe a bunch of racist shit that isn’t actually true.
It’s why dumb woman and rape jokes aren’t funny if you aren’t a misogynist.
It’s why most queer jokes aren’t funny unless you’re a homophobe.
Because when you know something isn’t true, it isn’t funny anymore.
It isn’t the jester speaking truth to power, it’s the powerful making fun of the ones they get to victimize. It’s mean, it’s vicious, and it’s a means of control.
So I guess think about what makes jokes funny to you. It’s like feminists started doing in the 90s. If someone tells you an offensive joke, ask them to explain why it’s funny because a lot of people haven’t actually thought about the jokes they tell. They know it startled a laugh out of them, so it must be funny, right?.
The ones that get mad at you when you ask them to explain it are the ones who know why it’s funny to them, but you just called their bluff on why their joke isn’t actually “just a joke.”
This is what we mean when we talk about comedy that doesn’t age well. At least partially. There are two types of comedy that don’t age well: Hateful comedy, and comedy that relies far too heavily on “current” pop culture to be understandable by anyone who didn’t exist as a conscious being in that time and space.
Joe Piscopo is both of these.
Another thing about shock humor is it tends to land better with people with, shall we say, minimal life experience. Which is why 12 year olds find “dead baby” jokes hilarious, but they rapidly lose their “charm.” And sometimes “shock” humor can actually trigger people because it relies on the shock of joking about things “no one jokes about,” because they’re too serious.
Granted, your mileage may vary. As I told my boss once, “Dark humor is kind of my brand.” Because sometimes you have to laugh at things, or you’ll cry. Sometimes humor can be used to defang things that want to kill you. This is why women joke about rapists.
1. It shocks the shit out of a lot of men.
2. It defangs the things that hurt us.
When I joke about my teenaged years in Idaho by saying, “Well, it’s the only place I’ve lived where Date Rape was a Varsity Sport.” A lot of times I can shock a laugh out of men, and women just nod and chuckle along, because they get it.
Man, one of these days the Idaho Chamber of Commerce is gonna get mad at me for that joke.
Also, it’s not true.
I’ve also lived in Ohio.
See, that joke punches up at rapists and at the systems that allow and tacitly encourage that behavior.
The humor in Cards Against Humanity is shock humor. And it’s been a successful product because you’ll almost never get the same combination of cards twice. And the game changes substantially depending on who you play with. So it’s pretty much just a random shock generator. Much like Apples to Apples, which predates CAH, and also doesn’t include blatantly offensive cards.
The fact that Apples to Apples predates CAH, and is still selling well in spite of the existence of CAH means that you don’t have to include all that offensive content to craft a random joke generating game.
Hell, depending on who we’re playing with, we’ll occasionally change the rules of Apples to Apples so that you have to use the cards to craft porn titles. Which works alarmingly well, and much better with Apples to Apples than CAH.
So, I guess, the takeaway here is think hard about why you find things funny. And maybe if the core of that humor is at the expense of a marginalized group of people, work on changing that.
Oh, and shock humor never ages well. It really doesn’t.