The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe

Writing Funny: How to Target the Subject of Your Joke Without Destroying it

March 10, 2022 Zena Dell Lowe Season 2 Episode 28
The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe
Writing Funny: How to Target the Subject of Your Joke Without Destroying it
Show Notes Transcript

S2_E28. How to TARGET the subject of your joke without utterly destroying it.

What are the principles and tools for comedy writing? This week we look at the "T" in Melvin Helitzer's acronym, T.H.R.E.E.S., which is Target. Humor must have a Target. We think humor is fun. But it isn't. Humor is criticism cloaked as entertainment. It's directed at a specific target. This is why so many people are leery of humor. It can be mean. It can denigrate somebody's humanity. In this episode, Zena shares all sorts of things that can be targets, and shows how some types of jokes might still be acceptable if they're told more from a self-deprecating perspective, even if they target specific people groups.


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S2 E28. Writing Funny: How to Target the Subject of Your Joke without Destroying it.


Published March 10, 2022



INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story. 



TOPIC INTRODUCTION: Last week, we launched into a new series on how to write funny. What are the principles and tools for comedy writing? And this week, I want to dive right into these concepts. And we're going to look at Melvin Helitzer's acronym, T.H.R.E.E.S., and he says that the formulas of comedy can be summed up with six criteria, like ingredients of a cake. And they are: target hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, and surprise. Those are your six. So, they make up the acronym T.H.R.E.E.S. Today, we're going to jump right in to the first one T. Target. 



PRESENTATION: Now, this is partly why people, especially in the Christian community, get a little nervous about comedy. We think humor is fun. But it isn't. Humor is criticism cloaked as entertainment. And it's directed at a specific target. This is why, and rightly so, so many people are leery of humor. Because it can be mean, right? And because it can actually denigrate somebody's humanity. This is why we have things like racist jokes, sexist jokes, ethnic jokes, blonde jokes, you name it. It's because it is targeting a specific group of people. And that's typically what happens. It doesn't have to be a person (we could also maybe target a place), but primarily we're talking about people or people groups. 



So one thing that we have to understand from the get go, is that humor is a target. There is a target. There is no such thing as nice humor in that regard. But it can be used still effectively. 



And I'm going to give you some examples. And they might make you uncomfortable, but I'm still going to give them to you because we need to be more open minded about exploring this topic. And we need to be more candid and transparent about it as well. So we're going to, we're going to go to deep places here, so hang with me. 



But first of all, let's talk about the target of people, right? Well, one of the people that you might be targeting is self. 



Self deprecating humor is very, very popular, and it is the least offensive. Now this is where you basically make fun of yourself. For example, I recently posted something on Twitter that said something like, "I don't think my self talk is very healthy. But what do I know? I'm an idiot." Now, you might not think that's particularly funny. But nevertheless, the point is, it was self deprecating, right? It's self deprecating. Self deprecating humor is the safest in a lot of ways. 



Now, what's interesting about it, though, is that typically, the best self deprecating humor is also inviting others to connect to that self deprecation. For example, I, one thing I've often said about myself, "I have the spiritual gift of offending others. I don't mean to brag, but I'm really good at it." That's self deprecating humor. But when I post stuff like that in my social media, it's amazing how many other people come out of the woodwork and go, "Me too. Me too. Oh, my gosh, me too." So the truth is, you're targeting yourself, but you also end up finding those like minded people who can relate to what you're saying, which should give you a clue of another principle, but we'll get there in a minute. 



Now, President Reagan was a master of this technique. In fact, it's said to have won him the election against Walter Mondale in 1985. Apparently, age had become an issue of the campaign. I believe that somebody had made the statements that now that Reagan was 76, that he wasn't worried that Reagan was going to push the button, he was worried that he was going to keel over and fall on it, or something. So Reagan used that to his advantage. In fact, he put a twist on it, which is part of why this works, which again, we'll get to in another principle, but what he did was, he basically use self deprecating humor to embrace or enter into the realm of ageism. And during the debate, he said, "I am not going to make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponents youth and inexperience." It was a brilliant tactic, it made everybody laugh. And he totally took the inflammatory aspect of ageism out of it. By doing that, he totally just took the wind out of the sails. So it's a very interesting technique. 



Now, there are a lot of comedians that are just really, really good at this kind of humor. I would say Woody Allen is a master of self deprecating humor. Even Zoolander, what's his name? "Who am I?" Even the gentleman who wrote Zoolander and whose name escapes me off the top of my head. I wish I could remember it. I'll come back to it. The point is, Woody Allen is a master of this technique. I mean, his whole shtick is based off of his own angst, and ennui going through this life, right? That's where he draws his humor from. A lot of those comedians that kind of stutter, and "uh, uh..." Bob Newhart, for example. That's based on self deprecating humor. They're kind of making fun of themselves, even in the style of delivery that they're doing. It's a very effective technique. So self deprecating humor is one type. And it's the least offensive. It's the safest, but it certainly isn't the only kind. 



Obviously, we know that there are times when we target certain people groups. Now, here's the thing. It naturally begs the question, when is it okay, and when isn't it? Or is there... is there a time that it is okay? Well, I'm going to tell you a racist joke right now. I'm going to tell you a racist joke. It's my favorite one. And I think you'll see why in a second. 



What do you call a black man in a cockpit? A pilot, what are you, racist? 



Now, I love that joke because it turns it on its head, right? You start it by setting up what we think is going to be a racist joke that makes fun of a people group. See, that's the thing. Usually the target is the people group. And that's why we're all so sensitive about those types of jokes. But in this particular case, I set it up that way, but then the punch line actually turns it around and makes it about the person who's listening to that joke. And it's convicting, but in a way that makes the medicine go down, in a way that makes it palatable. Usually people laugh when they hear the punch line, because they're so uncomfortable with the potential possibility that they're about to hear a racist joke. They don't even want to hear it usually. Right? Most of us are at a place where we really don't want to hear those kinds of jokes. Which is a good thing, by the way, we're enlightened a little bit. Nevertheless, when you turn it around, and you don't denigrate that particular people group, that's good. However, part of the charm... let's see, how do I say this? But here's the thing. There is a balance here. And this isn't a science, and I can't tell you what that line is. But I can tell you that in my experience, when there is a sexist joke or a racist joke that sort of falls into self deprecation rather than a true assault on the dignity of that particular group, I think it's okay. The question is, where is that line? For example, why can't Norwegians tell good jokes, timing? It's a Norwegian joke. I'm making fun of Norwegians, but not in a way that's denigrating their value, their humanity, their inherent worth, right? Or how about, why does it take three women with PMS to screw in a lightbulb? It just does. Now, any woman that's out there is probably going to laugh along with me and that joke because it's self deprecating. And we can do that. We're not actually denigrating our worth. We're making fun of something that happens to us as women and we're acknowledging it. And it's funny because of that. It's not truly saying that women are less than in any way, and that's the key here. 



The truth is, Humor has targets. You have to have a target. But when you target a people group or a sex or a gender or whatever the case may be, and you are actually telling the joke to denigrate the value of those in that particular group, I think that's crossing a line. 



When it is more perceived as self deprecating, or cliches, right, there are some cliches that are true, but it depends on what the cliche is. For example, I have a lot of Jewish friends. They love Jewish jokes because it's based on the cliches. And they know that they're true. I mean, some of them, I don't know all of the Jewish jokes that are out there, of course, but some of them that they tell each other, they're hilarious. You know, the ones about the Jewish mother, and, you know, this type of thing. This is a cliche that they laugh at, because they all know, "Yes, that's how a Jewish mother is," and they're not offended by it. They think it's funny, but it's actually not denigrating the Jewish mother. It's not relegating her to a lower class of society. It's just acknowledging the cliche, and that is self deprecation, in a lot of ways. 



So I don't know what the line is. I just know there is one. And I know when you cross it, and you probably do, too. You probably do, too. You probably feel it in your spirit when it's something terrible. 



Let's talk about sexual identity. All right, there are gay jokes that put down homosexuals in a way that denigrates their humanity. And there's others that can be self deprecating and humorous. For example, I remember one of my nephews telling me, "Hey Aunt Zena, what do gay horses eat? Ha-ay," which I thought was funny. But it's not actually denigrating the value or the humanity of homosexuals. It's just funny, because it's kind of a cliche, "He-ey," right? Snap in a Z formation. 



These are dangerous, these are dangerous. This is dangerous to tell, I don't know if I want these out there, I could be canceled. I'm scared to tell these jokes. But they have a purpose, they have a value. And I'm trying to show that there are some things we're overly sensitive to. And we shouldn't be. We have adopted a situation of over sensitivity because we don't understand where that line is. Or because there is even a line. We just think it's all or nothing. And I think that's wrong. I don't think we have to be so dang sensitive that nothing can be on the table. And the key is trying to find the thing that isn't denigrating the actual value, the thing that isn't demolishing the worth and value and dignity of a human being. 



People have inherent dignity. When we attack the dignity, we've crossed the line. 



So again, the point is, humor has a target. It has a target. It is criticism cloaked as entertainment that is directed at a specific target. But there is a way to do it that falls into the realm of self deprecation rather than true attack, true assault, true dismissal or devaluation of a person or a people group. 



You know, one of the things that terrifies me is the idea of ever being a part of some sort of celebrity roast. Not that I'm a celebrity, that's stupid, I'm not. But the idea of being part of a roast.... You see these things about celebrity roasts, and they are mean, man. They are mean, they go for the jugular. And I don't find that funny. In fact, I'm terrified of that kind of thing. I would hate that. I have a lot of isms that can be made fun of. But when people take it and they make it mean, it hurts me. It hurts my soul. So that is not the kind of humor we want to do. We don't want to hurt people's souls with the kind of jokes that we tell. 



The good news is people are not the only thing that we can target. We can also target things like places. For example, North Dakodan jokes. When I grew up, we always told North Dakotan jokes. We usually attack the state next door. The idea, then, is that you sort of make fun of something in the place, but that can be done in a way that again does not denigrate the place. 



For example, one of the jokes I like to tell (and I apologize for the bad accent) but why do the Irish only put 239 beans in their soup? Because one more [pronounced "mar"] would be two forty [pronounced "too farty"]. 



Now, that's a joke based on their accent and it makes it funny: because one "mar" would be "too farty", right? So we get that it's a play on words, in addition to the fact that it is also about the place because of the accent. So things like that. That's kind of funny. There's a great joke from Austin Powers. "There are two things I hate: people who are intolerant of other people's cultures. And the Dutch. It's actually Austin Powers' dad who's making that joke. And I love that because it actually ends up making fun of himself, because he doesn't get that he's violating his own rule and so that's part of the comedy, but also, the Dutch. It's just funny. But really, what are we making fun of? Nothing in particular, it's just, "the Dutch." It's a funny word. It's a funny sound. And it's funny that he has an issue with them. But it's not actually denigrating anybody. 



We can also target familiar sites or popular places with reputations, for example, Lovers Lane, or maybe Cleveland, or Detroit, or a particular maybe an NFL team or something like that. West Hollywood, I mean, we can target specific places. We can target things. What do I mean by that? Well, we can target things like sports or buildings or automobiles, you name it, we can target it, we can target fruit, you know, bananas, or whatever the case may be. We can even target animals, certain types of animals. I remember, when I was little, we would tell an Aardvark joke, but I can't remember what it was. On Saturday Night Live, they had the ongoing joke, "Da bears," if you remember that. "Da bears," right. So that is targeting a thing. 



You want to make sure that your target is a common bridge between you and your audience. You wouldn't want to tell the sheep joke to a room full  of North Dakotans unless you change the targeted group to Montanans or South Dakotans or something like that. You want to make sure that it's supposed to bridge the gap between you and your audience. So know who your audience is when you're writing that joke. 



But for example, I often tell a joke to my artists, friends, I'll say something like, how many abstract artists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Banana. You want to find the jokes that makes sense for that particular audience. But you can target things.



You can also target ideas. Now, here's the caveat here. When you're targeting an idea, a lot of times people will try to make this a moral issue, like, an opportunity to show that they're opposed to something. But here's a freebie for you: it is usually better to do the opposite. It's usually better to be for something than against something. For example, Woody Allen said, bisexuality immediately doubles your chances of getting a date Saturday night. So he's for it. Now, you can turn it into something absurd or turn it onto it's head or whatever. But the truth is, it's better generally to be for something than against something. A lot of times when you target ideas, you can, you run the risk of sounding a little dogmatic or preachy. So you have to be careful in that department. But you can certainly target ideas. And I would encourage you to practice. 



CALL TO ACTION: So your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to start thinking of some jokes that target specific people, or a specific person, or a theme or an idea or a place and sort of catalog those, kind of keep a record of it. Just keep track of it, maybe write a couple of them down and maybe share them with me. Share them with me, that'd be amazing. Would you share some jokes with me? You can send me an email to Zena at the storytellers mission dot com. I would love to hear some of your jokes, the ones that are not actually denigrating these people groups, even if they're targeted. 



CLOSING REMARKS: So, what we have to remember is that humor is fun, but it isn't. It has a target. So as we continue this series, we will of course, keep looking at things like the target, and we'll keep exploring this. What are those lines? When do we cross it? When have we gone into the realm of that's not okay, that's not okay. We should be aware of these things and we shouldn't be afraid to explore it. 



So this is very scary for me because I'm making a video for you where I'm telling you some of these jokes and I know that there are many people out there who are going to be offended. Please know that is not my intention. In fact, it's the exact opposite. My intention is to really evaluate joke telling, really evaluate these types of issues, and I ask you to just keep an open mind and be graceful towards me, because this is scary for me simply because I don't want to offend. But I have to use examples that will hopefully make sense. And let's keep it a dialogue. 



Alright, so this has been number one, that's it: target. And next week, we'll jump into the H in the acronym threes, which is hostility. So again, we go to more dark places. 



INVITATION: All right. Thank you for joining me. I hope that if you have issues or questions about this that you will reach out to us on The Storyteller's Mission website, or you can email me at I'd love to hear from you. If you have questions, feedback, critique, anything like that, please do reach out. We'd love to hear from you. This is a really good topic for people to dialogue with me about.



OUTRO: Alright, thank you so much for joining me on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.