Most People Aren't Funny
I’ve never considered any kind of career in comedy and walk about the earth with a comfortable acceptance that I’m not a particularly funny person. I’m a good writer, and there are times where those skills come together in a way that produces some funny lines, occasionally an overall funny post. Or so I hope. I don’t, however, generalize out to being “a funny person.” In particular, I’m simply not equipped to do the kind of running banter of endless one-liners and putdowns that so many people seem to see as the natural state of being an adult human. (More on that in a sec.) Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely hire me for the writers room of your new Roku Network sitcom, but I’m not what you’d call a funny guy.
But I did have my day. Most of the people who signed my yearbook from high school focused on how funny I was in class. And there, I’m very willing to say, I was legitimately funny, during class in high school. That was my speed, my groove. That was when I shined brightest. Then high school ended and I didn’t have that anymore. I may have been a little jokey during classes in college, but it quickly became clear to me that being the class clown in college is kind of sad; fundamentally, college is voluntary. More to the point, once I got to college I had pulled myself together sufficiently to see that I actually needed to learn things and that the people teaching me weren’t my enemies, and I didn’t have any desire to show up my professors. I pretty quickly figured out that outside of the weird social architecture of high school, I just wasn’t a particularly funny guy. I’m not exactly known for my great self-knowledge, but this was one of the times in my life when I suddenly and definitively understood myself. On reflection I came to realize that the conditions at high school were never going to be replicated. In particular, being funny in high school classes had these inherent advantages:
There was a captive audience of just the right size, say 12-20.
Within that captive audience were other personalities to bounce off of.
The actual task at hand was usually very dry and boring.
We were teenagers.
Some of us liked school more, some less, but we were all forced to be there.
There was a central authority figure who functioned as a natural and perfect foil, someone to be the butt of jokes.
The fact that we were forced to be there, and that the authority figure’s power over us was to some degree arbitrary, made fighting back with humor feel like a battle for freedom and dignity.
Now, with time I have come to regret just how much of my adolescence I spent fucking with my teachers. For one thing, this was part of my total nosedive in academics that started in middle school, where I went from perfect grades as an elementary school student to constantly failing classes in high school. (Meaning that I performed best when it mattered least and performed worst when it mattered most.) But the bigger issue is that eventually I came to realize that my teachers were, with some exceptions, good people who were doing their best and had an essential task to perform, a task I made a little harder with my constant interruptions and defiance. In fairness, both my bad grades and my snottiness were symptoms of the fact that I was a profoundly wounded person at that point of my life. Still, I only ever gave a handful of teachers an easy time in four years of high school, and those I’m sure were because I perceived some sort of integrity in them that was probably based on entirely unfair and fickle criteria. The trouble was that the sense that the teacher was the locus of unjust authority was somewhat overpowering - it lent a sense of moral struggle to the behavior that was also getting me approval and popularity. I made villains out of people who were just trying to do their jobs, in a way that was convenient for me but felt like noble resistance.
I know this probably all sounds obscure, but I think it connects to broader issues within the world of humor. For example, you’ll find that in comedies the villain is very rarely complex or sympathetic. Comedy is great for exploring nuance but also thrives on having a deserving target. My teachers played that role in my own personal excuse architecture.
All of this windup is for a plainly self-aggrandizing purpose: I find that many people have failed to have the same moment of self-realization I had around college age. I think one of the perpetually aggravating conditions of American culture in 2023 is the feeling that everyone is trying to be a comic all the time. Through cultural and technological evolution we’ve created major social incentives for everyone to act like a comedian as well as digital platforms on which to perform. The trouble, to return to a theme, is that we haven’t and can’t democratize comedic talent. I wrote a piece about a year ago called “Perhaps the Barriers to Entry for Creative Work Have Become Too Low.” Some people got pretty salty about that piece and its title. But I think my main point was sympathetic: the tools to make and share movies or music or writing or video games have become so accessible that people aren’t sufficiently developing their craft before they find an audience. And, yes, the meaner point is that some people just aren’t very good at what they do, but they persist for years anyway because doing so is so low-cost. I think that’s sort of where we are with humor, only at a much bigger scale; many people seem to believe that adult conversation mostly involves people throwing wisecracks at each other, over and over again. As Willy Staley says in this piece on the decline of Twitter, “Who doesn’t want to be the person who can make everyone laugh at a dinner party?”
I’ve often written about the phenomenon of the sneering irony leftist in political terms; I don’t think their prevalence is good for left politics. Set those concerns aside for now, though, and think just in terms of comedy as such, not politics. The sneering leftist style, which experienced its zenith during the 2016 Democratic primary, is in large measure a child of Weird Twitter, which was probably at its peak a half-decade before that. When the Weird Twitter style was the purview of a relatively small coterie of odd ducks who were more interested in playing with the form than in advancing an agenda or getting hired by Netflix, there was a vitality and verve to it all. And when the absurdities of both the primaries and the general election of 2016 dominated news and feelings, the leftist irony rebel was a refreshing figure. But those feelings never last.
Central to the problem with comedy in the internet era is a very banal reality: once funny people do something, unfunny people will do it too, and it will be unfunny, and in some sense ruin the funny thing even in retrospect. This was no doubt true when you were in elementary school and the poor uncool kid did the thing that the popular kids were doing and it became suddenly, legitimately, not funny. As it does with all social behaviors, the internet scales this dynamic up enormously. Social media is such a wasteland in part because you have to live with the pale imitations of once-funny things for years afterward. Staley references Stefan Heck’s badgering of Scott Baio as a funny part of Twitter history. And it was funny. The trouble is that the events Staley describes are, what, twelve years in the past now? Something like that. And yet if you look at the basic style of engagement that people like Heck were using in the early 2010s, to a very large extent it remains the lingua franca of a big slice of that site’s users. Most of the people once celebrated as the heart of Weird Twitter moved on long ago. Those who are still doing it are mostly just sad to me now. But even they’re worlds better than all of the sad imitators who came after, saw people use that style of blank sarcasm and were jealous of the way they were rewarded, and spun up a drab facsimile of it themselves. Forget the politics; it’s all just so relentlessly unfunny. I cannot understand why so many people still Do Irony in 2023. For what purpose? Why bother?
The phenomenon is a lot broader than social media, though. When I was self-harming by constantly looking at Facebook Reels I was floored by the sheer varieties of bad comedy there was out there, such as skits with terrible acting and no payoff. (You wouldn’t think that acting would really matter for goofy skits, but I find that it does.) Tumblr and Instagram are festooned with lousy webcomics. There’s an entire phylum in the podcast taxonomy made up of shows where three dudes meander over various topics, blandly imitating Chapo Trap House or Cum Town or Pardon My Take without a basic understanding of why people like those podcasts. Memes that were funny five years ago still get circulated and iterated on endlessly. Making things worse, I’m of the opinion that the speed with which memetic comedy grows stale has gotten faster and faster over time, to the point where something that made me chuckle in the morning makes me roll my eyes in exasperation by evening. (Remember the “Bernie sitting in a chair” thing?)
The fan trailer above prompted what might be the quintessential example of this broad dynamic. It’s a recutting of The Shining into the form of a trailer for a very recognizable type of schmaltzy dramedy. I think it’s really funny, but it prompted a ton of similar recut trailers, just about all of which were terrible. And it’s really easy to understand how it went down: people saw this trailer, thought it was clever, and wanted to be clever too. The trouble is that making this trailer surely required both a good idea and good execution. The Shining is one of the most self-serious movies ever made, so turning it into a comedy creates an amusing tension, and crucially, there was sufficient material in the movie to actually pull off the conceit. A lot of the attempts that followed in this genre simply didn’t have the visuals necessary for the concept to make sense. If The Shining was missing just a few key shots, like the one where Jack Nicholson is smiling as he drives the family in their little car, the recut wouldn’t work. I think that’s a microcosm of the bigger point, misunderstanding what makes something funny and what it takes to achieve good comedic work.
Near the top I referenced the vision of adult life where everyone is constantly telling terribly cutting and funny lines to each other all the time, as happens in almost all comedies these days. You know what I’m talking about, the constant banter in movies where everyone always has a ready response to everything everyone else says, a sharp and disdainful response. Most people, I’m sure, understand that all of these cheeky putdowns have been written by a team of writers and polished over a long period of moviemaking. Most people get that almost nobody is that fast or sharp. But I do, more and more often, observe people essentially trying to interact in that way without the benefits of professional writers, and the results make me cringe. There’s an inauthenticity to some conversation now that, I suspect, stems from a false sense of just how constant humor is supposed to be. (I do like jokes, just not all the time!) That also comes from listening to podcasts, which are usually unscripted but structured in a way designed to facilitate this dynamic, or by looking at the top 1% funniest people who have advanced to the top of the comedy world. The sad reality is that most of us will never be that consistently quick and funny. Indeed, the fact that those skills are so rare is precisely why they’re perceived as valuable and why the Chris Rocks and Jerry Senfields make so much money, why a professional comedian’s podcast might make money where most don’t, why Howard Stern got a $100 million deal decades ago. Value chases rarity.
Incidentally, I watched My Cousin Vinny not that long ago and was reminded how great it is. It was so refreshing to watch a comedy that didn’t feel like it needed a punchline every thirty seconds, that let moments stretch out and picked its spots.
Look, the stakes here are very low. Unlike when I talk about the relationship between talent and the labor market, nothing is really at risk here. Most people have a good apprehension of their talents and just sort of cruise along look for their moments, cracking a joke here or there. I’m not really even writing this to complain about people’s behavior. I do, however, keep coming back to this theme of the way that the internet has shrunk social distance and in doing so created the perception that certain things are more attainable than they really are. I’ve lamented the way that, for example, Instagram and TikTok are no doubt warping people’s perception of what real women’s bodies actually look like, in ways that hurt the self-perception of women and the expectations of those who desire them. The YouTube finance guru phenomenon has caused real harm by making people think wealth is attainable for them when it isn’t. And I’ve pointed out that when you can create and share various kinds of artwork so easily, it’s also easy to overestimate your odds of success in a given field. The old gatekeepers in the creative industries had a lot of bad functions, but one good element was that the presence of those gatekeepers helped demonstrate just how high the bar for success sits. Trying to make people laugh is a natural and perfectly healthy human impulse. But like so many other things in contemporary culture, I think being funny may appear to have been democratized when it really hasn’t been. And that can create conditions that ultimately hurt people, and leaves me in the position of constantly gritting my teeth as yet another person, online or off, gives me their best material. Sometimes I’d prefer a little less humor.
Personally, I blame Judd Apatow.