Why am I Funny with Friends but Not with Others

Comedy 101: A joke consists of a set up, and a punchline.  Without a set up, the punchline means nothing: it’s just a set of words.  If I think it’s normal for people to walk into stop signs, I won’t think a video of it is funny–it’s only funny because I have the context that it’s not common, that it can be funny (and that my empathy for the person doesn’t over power my willingness to laugh).

The identity of the performer matters as well.  People you just met or are just getting to know better, don’t know who you are.  They don’t have the full context, the full set up, for your jokes: that’s why your jokes might not make sense and why your audience may not laugh.  This is also why you often aren’t able to make people laugh by just copying what you think is the comedian’s verbal set up lines, because what you don’t realize is that implicit within every joke is a play off the joke teller’s identity. If the person who walks into the stop sign is Kramer from Seinfeld, who is known for being clumsy, it’s very funny because it fits his personality.  If the person is your boss, teacher, parent who you typically think of as in control and important, it may be so unexpected that you find it shocking and concerning instead of funny, or you may be afraid to laugh for fear of offense.  If you’re at a comedy club, you’ll be more confident about laughing because you know it’s a joke; if you’re at a dinner party or an event with people you don’t know well, you won’t know if what they’re saying is a joke or not.  You’ll be more reserved about laughing because you don’t want to be disrespectful in case they were serious.  Hence why it’s harder to make jokes with strangers.  Even if it’s with friends, if you don’t normally make jokes, and you don’t prepare them for it, they may not realize that you’re joking.

Finally, not everyone finds the same things funny: it might be that this group doesn’t appreciate a certain kind of joke that another group would–if a joke falls flat, look on the bright side: you’ve learned something about this group of people, which will help you to get along with them better in the future.

To improve at comedy with strangers, understand your joke better, so you can explicitly set up the context with words.  However, I would advise getting to know each other better before you start making deep jokes: start with lighter ones that people from more backgrounds will appreciate, and that don’t require too much context or set up.  In particular, avoid risky jokes like self-deprecation or obscenity early on.
Friends know who you are not going to judge you based on what you say when you make a joke, because they know the real you is not the temporary character you pretend to be when you make that joke.   (See my post on How to Make Friends.  You should avoid risky jokes like self-deprecating humor or obscene insults until step 4 of friendship, after they’ve gotten to know you with step 2 and 3, otherwise they’ll get to know you as someone who is not that great, and insulting.)

To find out when more life education writing is released, subscribe on the side! Follow on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+, on Tumblr.

  • Belinda

    What are some examples of “light jokes”? And I don’t really see how self-deprecating jokes are risky? Is it only risky if it’s poorly executed?

    Well, the jokes won’t work if the person you’re talking to barely knows you, haha, but I personally think you can start using it as soon as step 2, especially since in step 2, people are making a judgement of each other, and if you know your bad habits/any possible bad traits or impression you might have given them, being able to make a self-deprecating joke (centred on that unattractive bit) might alleviate the situation and show that you can make fun of yourself, and are aware of the problem(s) as well.

    Ahaha, well that’s what I figured, but I’m still pretty inexperienced, ehe.

    • AttemptedLiving

      Say you’re meeting someone for the first time, and they mention that they like to cook, so your punch line is “yea, I’m great at cooking!”
      To them, the don’t know that yesterday you almost burned the house down cooking. If you made this joke with your friends who know about your experience yesterday, they would get the irony. When you make this joke with new people, they think you’re actually saying you’re good at cooking: they lack the context of the joke.

      So to make that joke, you should first tell them your cooking story. Then find a way to ease in the punchline.

      I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with self deprecating humor, but it’s risky when the other people don’t know the context. For the above example, they could conclude you’re an arrogant bragger, asserting your superiority at cooking over everyone else when you’re actually making a joke. This is particularly difficult when you are in a group with some people who are new, and some people who are old friends: You make the joke intending it for the old friends, but everyone else judges you inaccurately for it, and it might be hard to correct later.