Category Archives: Comedy

Bill Clinton on His Gift from Ellen

Hello Subscribers! I am the new head of Comedy Analysis here at AttemptedComedy and my role is going to post comedy and analyze it!  If you enjoy comedy, are curious about how it works, this is the place for you!  If you see a bold word, it is likely to be a tag with which you can search for other posts on this website if you want more.

Here is the youtube link to today’s clip:

Context: Ellen is a talk show host whose job is to promote the guest of the show while making the guest feel comfortable and entertaining the audience.  Bill Clinton is the guest.

Let’s talk about what was funny about each Joke!

The Opening Joke by Ellen had 3 Parts:

  1. “Let’s get to something very important. I gave you a picture of myself when you were here last.”
    • Within the context of the show, the important topic is whatever Bill Clinton is there to promote: the spotlight should be Bill. However, Ellen does the opposite here and uses Bill’s time to promote herself. This is an example of Irony.
    • Another tool Ellen uses in this joke is Misdirection. She sets up the joke with the context of “something very important” which misdirects you into expecting something important when she is actually going to talk about something not important. Misdirection is commonly used in Irony.
    • Exaggeration is also used to give the joke more power. If Ellen had said “let’s talk about something. I gave you a picture when you were here last” then there would not have been a misdirection to set up the irony. If Ellen had said “let’s talk about something important. I gave you a picture when you were here last” then there would have been a set up and we would have got it, but the emotional response would not be there because the misdirection was not there. I told you I was going to tell you something and I did, no misdirection. When Ellen says “let’s talk about something very important,” she is setting up a strong misdirection and it is that strength which is the source of the joke’s power. She said she was going to turn left but then turned right, the complete opposite, the furthest point away from where she told you she was going. This exaggeration creates a contrast which creates the emotional response that can trigger laughter and humor and comedy when used correctly.
  2. “And I was just wondering which room you hung it in?”
    • Here she is drawing on the Absurdity of her question and exaggerating it by continuing along the line of thought, increasing the degree of misdirection to absurd levels.  The absurdity is funny because it is both inappropriate given the context that she shouldn’t be talking about this, but also appropriate given the context that it is harmless empty language that isn’t hurting anyone.
    • What also makes this funny is that it puts a visual on the joke, and visualization is an important tool in drawing the audience into the joke so that they can more fully experience with the joke and engage more with the joke. This is effective because the more connections you have between the joke and the audience, the stronger the impact of the comedy will be because now you can communicate across more channels than before.  The advanced concept at play here is Layering, and what separates the great comedians from the not so great comedians is exactly this ability: the more layers you create, the better the comedy.
  3. The photo is shown to the audience.
    • This is again funny because it further visualizes the joke, and we’ve now moved from the realm of verbal comedy and situational comedy to visual comedy because the portrait is ridiculously oversized and uses Irony to portray Ellen as something she is not in an exaggerated, absurd fashion that is harmless and appropriate yet inappropriate.  This adds another layer to the comedy, strengthening the delivery of the joke.

The follow up joke is that Bill Clinton is in on this joke and provides visual comedy of his own by pretending to go along with this.  He presents a picture of his office with Ellen’s self portrait on the wall.  “There it is yes”

  • This is funny due to many of the same devices as before: layering, absurdity, exaggeration, and visualization.  He builds upon the joke by agreeing to an absurd request.  This expands the joke from just Ellen talking about an inappropriate topic and making an absurd request to Bill actually granting that absurd request which itself an event that is funny because it is absurd (unrealistic) and Ridiculous (exaggeratedly over the top).

Ellen then makes the joke of saying “No, you just hung that for the photo [and] it’s not really in there.”

  • This is a joke because it is rude and inappropriate, but it isn’t rude and inappropriate because it’s so blatant that it is funny.  Ellen is doing what is blatantly rude and inappropriate: calling Bill Clinton, her guest who is supposed to be the center of attention and who she should be promoting, a liar.  Ellen is doing blatantly the exact opposite of what her job is, and the irony of that creates humor and the humor is why Bill Clinton is not insulted.

Ellen then adds more layers to the joke by following this path of blatant humor and trying to get Bill to admit the it is a ruse.  “Tell me the truth, it’s not in there all the time”

  • This is funny on two levels. One because of layering by following along the same line of thought and joke to build it up through absurdity and irony.
  • Two because we know it’s a ruse since it is on TV and we are aware that it is a comedy show.  Thus we are playing along now wondering if he’s going to admit it or not. By calling attention to the artificial construct of this story, Ellen is connecting to us the viewer by addressing our point of view. This is the most effective form of layering and connection you can make to drive home a point and a joke.  Remember for earlier that the more connections the joke has to the listener, the more the listener is engaged in the joke and the stronger the listener’s reaction to the joke will be.  Ellen has, over the course of this set up, grown from some TV show you’re watching, to a funny conversation you understand, to a funny situation you can visualize, to a funny banter that you are involved in and participating.  The world of the joke has gone from only encompassing her and her guest to encompassing your verbal and visual senses and finally to encompassing your self awareness.  This is the tool of Immersion at play.

There is then some laughter as Suspense builds on whether or not Bill is going to admit that this is all a ruse and a lie, which calls attention to the whole situation as a ruse and a lie and turns into humor for two reasons: one that Bill has been caught lying and Ellen and us the audience were the ones who caught him (and this is ironic because Ellen should not be trying to prove her guest to be a liar, she should be promoting them positively) and two because it’s self deprecating in that she’s calling herself a liar too because while she has thus far been pretending to care about this issue (starting off by saying ‘this is something very important’), she actually doesn’t because it’s just a ruse anyway.

This conclusion is particularly poignant because they finish the joke as honest people.  “It’s not in there all the time” says Bill.  Bill has confessed and Ellen has confessed.  Through lying, they have actually succeeded in convincing us that both of them are honest, and that Bill is a good person because he was being a good sport in humoring Ellen’s joke.  They also gain our trust because they end up being authentic and genuine, and that is an important comedy trick: Authenticity.  Fake humor is held at arms length: you know it’s a ruse.  The best humor is the humor you can connect with, and you connect much better with honesty than with dishonesty. 

That is the end of Ellen’s well constructed joke. Now let’s talk about why Bill’s follow up joke didn’t work as well.

“I don’t have enough wall space.  You need to get me a smaller picture and I’ll have it all the time.”

We have already established that we are going to be honest and genuine now, and then Bill goes on to continue lying.  Sure it’s for a joke and we get what he’s doing: he’s reasoning in reality to pretend like he’s honestly trying to find a way to have Ellen’s portrait in his life, but we are not convinced because he never explained the context as to why he would want to have Ellen’s portrait in his life.  Because we the viewers believe him as someone who would not want that portrait because Bill has a wife and we have no understanding as to them having a close enough relationship (family, etc.) for that to be plausible, we do not like this joke as much.  You can tell by the volume of the laughter in the video that it is more of a curtesy laugh than a real laugh, and most of the humor in this new joke comes from the previous one. It is drawing more energy out of Ellen’s joke than it is adding to it, and that is what happens when you try but fail to use the tool of layering.

Ellen, as a polite host, entertains this idea and says “I’ll give you a smaller one” and ends the topic. Notice that there is NO laughter in this case: Even though it is building upon the absurdity of the situation and request and layering as before, the context has changed and we the viewers are no longer engaged with the joke because the joke has ended.  These comments make up a separate topic called transitions which will be a segment on this website under Communication someday.

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Observations from The Debut of The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon

I just finished watching Jimmy Fallon’s debut episode (link at bottom), and a lot of thoughts came to mind.

First off, the moment Jimmy Fallon came out, I could instantly see the bags under his eyes; and from experience, I knew it meant he’d been working non-stop with little rest. Obviously. The Tonight Show is a big deal.  It has for decades been, the winner by viewership of late night television.  It is important for the reputation of The Tonight Show, and for the success of Jimmy and NBC’s careers, for him to do well.  But winning isn’t easy.  We saw how difficult late night TV is to win when Conan O’Brien was ousted because he couldn’t keep the ratings: Jimmy knows that this is no joke.

As if that wasn’t enough, late night television is a big deal.  It is an institution that many Americans depend on to get through the day, by giving them something to look forward to at the end of the day, a reliable way to end the day on a happier note.  Late night television doesn’t just serve the viewer, however, it also serves the entertainment industry: countless careers are launched and made on late night television, and it is a critical part of any large scale advertising campaign.  Without ratings, the return on investment won’t be good enough to justify the time spent by the stars to promote their movies, or musicians their music, or artists their art, so they won’t show up.  And if they don’t show up, then we all miss out on the unique opportunity that the Late Night Talk Show medium allows: a conversational setting for celebrities, artists, and public figures to humanize themselves in a more relaxed environment than the high energy, dramatized advertisements or sensationalized red carpet interviews we normally see them in. 


What he said after he came out, completely surprised me.  Jimmy Fallon opened with a very genuine and sincere toned introduction about himself, his background, family, the band The Roots, his side-kick Steve Higgins, and addressed the seriousness of the whole situation directly.  This was an extremely good move.  It shows maturity, composure, and creates rapport with us the viewer.  It also shows insecurity: Jimmy recognizes that if he doesn’t do well, he may lose his job.  As he put it, “I’m your host of The Tonight Show…for now.”  Compare this with Conan O’Brien’s Open

which centered around the self deprecating humor of him forgetting to move to LA from NY.  Self deprecating humor is, at its heart, a way of building confidence. If you are nervous and unsure of yourself, you will use self deprecating humor to deflect attention and give yourself the confidence to be present.  It’s also a mark of strength: it takes confidence to say bad things about yourself, just like it takes confidence to be able to take insults, which is basically what self deprecating humor is: insulting yourself to prove both to yourself and your audience, that you are better than the image you portray.  By opening with confidence, Conan O’Brien is a lot like the opening of Spiderman 3, which opened with the often criticized line “It’s me, Peter Parker. Your friendly neighborhood–you know.”  It assumes that the audience knows who you are, and respects you enough to allow you to be self deprecating–as I’ve learned from trying to build friendships and relationships this way, it doesn’t work.  Jimmy Fallon learned from this mistake, good for him.

The next part of the show, his Monologue, Late Night Superlatives Sketch, and Hip Hop Dance Video with Will Smith, was a showcase of the unique talents that he brings: impressions (voice) and dance.  All were executed very well, which impressed me because juggling all those details, managing and choreographing each of those comedy projects must have been very difficult.  I thought he did a good job and was impressed–and it made me realize just how hard his job must be.  Just last week, hulu had made available Jimmy Fallon’s first ever comedic attempt:

and I remember thinking, wow.  That’s the start of his career.  Skinny, nervous, rushing off the stage immediately after completing his set.  Compare and contrast that with now, he’s gained muscle mass, in a suit, and his excitement and giddiness is very much controlled and intentional.  I then looked up his age, and found that he is now 39 years old.  Twenty-two years it took him to build up his career.

A lot of times we look at someone’s success, and want to emulate it, but we never really realize or appreciate just how long it takes to get there.  22 years.  All the more reason to make sure what you’re doing is what you really want, because you’ll be doing it a long time.  If success is what you want, and it’s going to take a long time regardless of whether it’s something you like or not, you might as well make it out of something you like.

At the end of the show I wasn’t entirely sure what to think, how to articulate what I was feeling, so I took a look at some Facebook trending statuses and links and I came up with Mark Evanier‘s article that said the lack of ad-libbing and spontaneity detracts from the essence of late night television, which is supposed to be imperfect and therefore more relaxed and entertaining.  And I found the words to describe my feelings about this show.

The Job Security of being a Tonight Show Host used to create a relaxed environment for genuine, sincere comedy, which is the most appreciated comedy of all.  A laugh at the expense of a fake character is nice, but a laugh at the expense of someone’s honest character has a richness that can’t be emulated.  Since the oust of Conan and that whole debacle, there is a lot of attention and pressure directed towards Fallon.  As a result, he was too safe with his first show, too planned, too cautious.  Most of the show was spent sending the message: Jimmy will do a good job, he deserves it, he’s great, everyone love Jimmy.  There was a clear a lack of authenticity: he over did his “this is great” reaction, making it too obvious to us viewers that it was scripted, as was the approval and praise of all his guests.

Compare this with Leno’s first guest interview with Billy Crystal: an unscripted event with authentic and honest reactions.

Not only did it have authentic and honest reactions, but it had authentic and honest friendships: you could tell that Leno and Billy were and are friends in real life.  I did not get that impression from Will Smith and U2: they were obviously just the biggest name stars they could find to open the show with, and there’s only so much you can do with star power.  You can attract initial interest with it, but then you have to deliver substance, and substance comes from authenticity.

Themes within Fallon’s opening and show are an emphasis on family (he had several back and forths between his parents as he introduced them to us) and on having a good heart and having good friendships.  Both of these are clearly borrowed from Jay Leno, for whom those are his signature traits.  This further serves to make Jimmy a stranger to us.  The only real moment we had with him was at the start of the show–for the rest of the show, it is all too clear that he is playing a character.

Jimmy, you’re not on SNL any more.  The Tonight Show Host is a person, not a variety of characters.  Show us your real self, that’s the way to go.  Or, perhaps, you can make it work, in which case, good luck.

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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.)

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