Two punch lines walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a setup?”
I don’t hear you laughing.
Maybe you’re not laughing because the joke isn’t that funny (I doubt that, but perhaps). Maybe you’re not laughing because the joke is funny but the punchline is a bit obscure (i.e. using an old joke format to illustrate the basic structure of a joke). Or maybe we are too socially distanced for me to hear you ROFL-ing.
Whatever the reason, this is a classic philosophical conundrum. If someone tells a funny joke but no one laughs, is it still funny?
I think that in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, civil unrest, a devastated economy, and the questionable return of college football, we need to explore something on the lighter side of life. So, let’s walk into that proverbial bar together. Watch your head. Haha.
I’ve observed comedy all of my life. When I was in high school, I saw David Letterman’s first performance on The Tonight Show. I was mesmerized by his uniquely quirky style of humor. I also saw Steve Martin’s live performance at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He was my favorite comedian, and even though he left the stage halfway through his act due to heat exhaustion, I still felt I had gotten my money’s worth. And then a few years later, when my wife and I were courting, comedy clubs became a frequent date-night destination. More than once, our food was served just before the opening act and I had to avoid spewing chicken wings through my nose as we tried to eat during the show.
To me, there is nothing more fulfilling than the laughter that follows a perfectly delivered punch line. Whether it’s Lily Tomlin, Dave Chappelle, Hannah Gadsby, or Nate Bargatze, I love the way comedians deliver material in their own personal way. For comics, performers, and even those of us who are humorous speakers, laughter is simply, “gold, Jerry, it’s gold.” (If I used footnotes in my blogs, this is where I would reference Kenny Bania, a character on several episodes of Seinfeld.)
Today, however, the laughter is absent from most humor venues. When my wife and I saw Brian Regan several years ago, waves of laughter filled the sold-out theater. It was like, “Haaaaahhhhhhhaaahhhhhhhhh.” But last night, when we were alone in our den watching Dave Chappelle’s 2017 special, it was more like, “Ha…(silent dead space)..ha. Heh, that was hilarious.”
The television performance was just as funny as the live performance but our in-home, socially-distanced, small-crowd reaction was not the same. And with just the two of us in the room, we were careful not to “overlaugh.” We all know someone who overlaughs and no matter how funny the joke is, the reaction is over the top and frankly, it’s just awkward.
Speaking of television performances, have you seen any of the Saturday Night Live episodes done from cast members’ homes? The creativity of the bits and production techniques were brilliant. But there wasn’t any laughter. The comedy formulas were there but the outcome was different. So, perhaps there is a critical third part to the old formula. There’s a setup, a punch line and, there’s laughter. Without the laughter, the rest of the process feels like it loses something.
“Laughterlessness” has a direct impact on my work. As a speaker who is accustomed to generating a few guffaws at in-person events, I have resigned myself to the fact that most of my programs will be postponed until next year. However, I do have a few virtual programs on the calendar. For those, I’ll stand in front of my webcam and try to muster the same humorous delivery that I would normally generate in front of several hundred people during a live program. But it’s very different because I can’t draw off of the audience’s reaction. So, when I deliver a darn good bit of funny (which happens quite frequently I should add), there is no laughter. I immediately start to question my darn good bit of funny or wonder if the participants have actually left the room and just kept their computers logged on to make it appear that they are still there. It’s terrifying to think that no one laughed because, well, they were gone.
But you know what? Having a virtual option for humor is still better than having no option at all. I am forever grateful to the clients who feel that my material does translate to a virtual environment. And I’m perfectly fine sitting in the den with my wife watching a hilarious comedy performance while trying not to overlaugh. But I do look forward to the day when we can once again sit with several hundred people and experience, “Haaaaahhhhhhhaaahhhhhhhhh.”
Whether we laugh by ourselves, in the intimacy of an environment with our significant others, or with a small group of socially distanced friends, I think we need to keep laughing no matter what. Laughter helps us maintain our balance when our world feels like it’s about to tumble. Humor allows us to step back and brush off some of the anxious burdens we’ve been carrying during the past few months. And during that moment of levity, we lighten the heaviness around us.
So, I would recommend that you find a regular reason to watch comedy, to read a funny book or article, or to listen to a humorous podcast. Get a regular dose of humor and let it ease the pressure. It’s healthy and we need it—now more than ever.
And remember what Steve Martin said, “A day without sunshine is, you know, night.”