Most people are able write a good joke, but not everyone can deliver it in a proper fashion. Timing in comedy in terms of calling out the elephant in the room is always a grey area. Being a professional comedian, James Hesky knows this too well. James was kind enough to write an article for this site to express his views on the “too soon” joke and its after-effects.
Please enjoy this article by Philadelphia Comedian James Hesky on comedic timing:
Never Too Soon
By James Hesky
I have a 9/11 joke that I tell every once in a while. I told it at a show recently in a dive bar in Delaware and about half the audience started yelling “Too soon!” before I could even get to the punchline. The thing about the joke is that in the end it isn’t just about making fun of a tragedy and trying to get a cheap laugh, it actually has some substance to it (Well, as much as a joke entitled “9/11 Party” can have anyway.).
By their nature, jokes are supposed to shock you. The only reason anyone laughs at a joke is because something out of the ordinary takes place. The humor is in the surprise of what is out of place and doesn’t really belong. Even “knock knock” jokes only work because they present some sort of completely socially inappropriate situation that under normal circumstances would cause you to demand that the person leave your porch before the authorities are called. So comedians are always shocking the audience, it’s just a matter of degree.
That degree continually changes and in the age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the 24-hour news cycle there always seems to be an audience where there is no such thing as “too soon” and comedians will rush to appease that crowd just to get 12 “Likes” on their status. There is nothing wrong with going after a touchy subject, but it seems that comedians will often rush to make the first joke rather than the best joke.
Writing a shocking joke should be no different than writing any other joke. You need to spend a lot of time working it out on and off stage to figure out what works and what doesn’t and really perfect it. If it’s a good enough joke, the joke will end up with a longer shelf life that will last well beyond whatever tragedy you are trying to poke fun at.
That’s the real dirty secret of comedy. Comedians spend a lot of time at open mics telling jokes over and over again so that they can appear like it is coming off the cuff when they are on stage. When they go for that immediate shock value joke they lose that ability to try it out a bunch of times because by the time they work out the kinks it won’t be shocking anymore.
Recently, Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the Aflac Duck after making a series of Japanese tsunami jokes in the days following the disaster. I understand why he made the joke and I understand why they fired him. Getting an audience to laugh at something that offends them at the same time is one of greatest feelings in comedy. However, the more a comedian tries to push that line, the less likely he is going to be able to keep that high-paying gig as a goofy, lovable character for a company like Aflac.
That’s the line that comedians constantly walk. They want to be lovable enough to get gigs but edgy enough that they could get fired from those gigs at any moment. After they have made millions of dollars, at least.