When skillfully done, jokes add a lot of novelty to both light and dark works. However, many storytellers have sacrificed their stories on the altar of comedy. If you’ve got a funny bone, watch out for these seven problems.
1. Making Characters Annoying
It’s no coincidence that secondary protagonists are both the most likely to be comedic characters and the most likely to be annoying. Comedic elements can sabotage these characters in a couple ways. First, they encourage storytellers to give the character an exaggerated, one-note personality in service to reusing the same running joke over and over again. It’s unsurprising that many audience members simply get tired of this.
Second, if the jokes are told at the expense of the comedic character, that character will end up with too much spinach. Take Dave from Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. He’s a giant insect, and his gimmick is how he rapidly ages, dies, and is reborn again. One of his running jokes is that he’s completely useless. In particular, when he finally makes it to his flying and muscular life stage, he gets too old before he can do anything helpful with it. Unfortunately, this means he rarely contributes to Team Good. For most of the show, he’s not only a shallow one-note character, but also an incompetent one.
How to avoid this
Make sure every member of Team Good helps more often than they hinder. As long as your audience sees them doing productive things that make a difference, it’s okay if they mess up once in a while. Otherwise, just let your comedic character do something other than comedy. Give them serious moments with emotional depth.
2. Alienating Audience Groups
Some types of humor are funny to some audiences but push away others. The most striking example is probably toilet humor, which is funny to young children but a big turnoff to many adults. This became a problem in the animated show Avatar: The Legend of Korra. While the Avatar franchise originated on Nickelodeon, which has young boys as its target audience, the franchise became very popular with adults. For The Legend of Korra sequel series, it looks like Nickelodeon insisted on pandering to their target demographic with Meelo, a young boy who always seems to have snot or drool coming out of his face. This felt incredibly out of place in the otherwise more mature show.
While storytellers will have to make compromises for different audience groups on occasion, choosing something this off-putting is rarely necessary. Kids also love watching child characters being badass, and that can usually be worked in without making adults gag. Unsurprisingly, a child-adult audience divide was also a factor in the failure of Jar Jar Binks, though that was at least slapstick rather than toilet humor.*
How to avoid this
Even if you have to cater to more than one audience, you can avoid making any of them mad by setting appropriate expectations. The Avatar franchise had never used toilet humor before, and the Star Wars franchise had never been a vehicle for slapstick. If you’ll be using immature humor, your audience should know that coming in, and it should be used consistently. If you set the wrong expectations or advertise your story in a misleading manner, you’ll end up with an audience that doesn’t like the form of humor you’re providing.
3. Defanging Antagonists
Social humor often involves the protagonist acting in funny ways under pressure. In particular, they might lie or disguise themself as someone else, but do it badly enough that it’s humorous. These jokes can be great fun, but when they’re used in high-stakes conflicts, they can damage the story. Often, the protagonist has to succeed at these conflicts for the story to continue. If they bumble a lie or disguise badly and the antagonist still doesn’t catch on, it makes the antagonist look incompetent.
For instance, The Orville episode Krill has the ship’s captain and pilot disguise themselves as aliens to sneak aboard an enemy ship. Once aboard, the episode has nonstop jokes about just how bad they are at disguising themselves. Since the aliens don’t suspect them despite all of these flubs, it doesn’t feel like the protagonists are in danger, and the episode’s tension drops.
The Last Jedi opens with a similar joke. The protagonist Poe speaks to General Hux ship to ship. Poe then pretends he doesn’t believe he’s talking to Hux, and Hux is taken in until an underling finally tells him that he’s being toyed with. While Poe doesn’t flub his lines, he’s still pulling off a stunt that shouldn’t work against a competent person. This is done in service to a joke at Hux’s expense, making Hux look useless.
How to avoid it
It’s fine for your protagonist to fumble around a bit while dealing with a villain as long as the villain wouldn’t reasonably catch them. One option is to have a visual fumble when the villain briefly looks away. Maybe the zipper on the back of the hero’s costume has come undone, and they have to awkwardly maneuver to make sure that the villain never sees their backside, but they manage it. In general, jokes in these situations work better when they are based on haphazard concealment rather than on silly falsehoods.
4. Dismissing Consequences
Some jokes require dismissing things that would otherwise be considered serious. That’s often the case with slapstick humor, which can feature injuries that are no laughing matter. Characters who fly into a rage are also often dismissed, particularly if the character wouldn’t be considered threatening by most people. With a story that’s consistently light and humorous, this could be fine. In these stories, injuries or the possibility of getting one are never meant to provide real tension.
However, other stories can give the audience whiplash by trying to package the same thing as both something to laugh off and something to fear. One example is the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series. This murderous tree is originally presented as funny, but by the end of the next book, it’s a serious threat to the main characters. The series also has similar issues with slapstick. The game of quidditch involves balls that knock players off their brooms, which is supposed to be funny. That is, until one of them is enchanted to go after the main character. Then it’s a serious threat.
Many audience members won’t manage the cognitive dissonance of believing the same story element is both funny and scary. This leaves them feeling either bored during otherwise gripping conflicts or aghast at how messed up the story is.
How to avoid it
If you’re planning a story that will have significant stakes, avoid humor that teaches your audience to dismiss important consequences. If those consequences include injury, don’t use slapstick in your story. If they include the villain winning, don’t make the villain’s goals laughable. For the story’s tension to work, the audience must be wary of the consequences you’ve designed.
5. Encouraging Problematic Behavior
We’ve already covered how jokes can lead to exaggerated character behavior and dismissing things we would otherwise consider serious. Combined, this means that characters often do seriously problematic things for the sake of jokes. In these cases, the storyteller usually expects their audience to laugh off the problem like they would for slapstick injuries. But for many audience members, some problems hit too close to home to be funny. Not only that, but if society already doesn’t take harmful behavior seriously enough, depicting that behavior as something to laugh off will only make the issue worse.
An extreme example is how The Orville employs consent-violating jokes. First, season one frames an employee’s sexually harassing the ship’s doctor as a joke. Then, it has an entire episode where an alien that secretes a date rape drug arrives on the ship, causing several non-consenting people to have sex. Even the episode where a robot temporarily removes a human coworker’s leg as a practical joke doesn’t look great. While leg theft doesn’t really happen in real life, the joke still involves violating someone’s body.
Lest you think this problem is limited to crude shows like The Orville, Stranger Things also has this issue on occasion. In season 3, Hopper intimidates his daughter’s boyfriend, Mike, by locking Mike in a car with him. Mike is only about 13 or 14 years old, and his look of terror is supposed to be funny. This scene doesn’t even have the usual sexist excuse that Hopper’s trying to protect his daughter; he’s actually using Mike to control her.
How to avoid this
It’s not always easy to guess what things will hit home for other people. But storytellers should learn what sensitive points are common, because these issues can appear anywhere in a story, not just in jokes. Any behavior that has impacted many people and isn’t being fully addressed by society is probably sensitive. That includes any type of abuse, harassment, or sexual assault.
Practical jokes often involve laughing at someone else’s stress and pain, so they need to be double-checked. A Rickroll is a harmless practical joke; putting someone on live TV without their consent is cruel. As standards for respectful behavior go up, audiences will find cruel jokes less and less funny.
6. Undercutting Meaningful Moments
Storytellers have to choose how they want their audience to experience any given moment in the story. That feeling may have nuance, and it can change during a scene, but storytellers can’t expect their audience to feel two contradictory emotions at the same time. That’s why even a dark comedy will have some moments designed to be serious and other moments designed to be funny. Unfortunately, some storytellers prone to making jokes will not leave their serious moments alone.
The Dragon Prince clearly has one of those storytellers onboard. The episode The Book of Destiny in season two provides a great example. In this episode, the character Callum has just used dark magic out of desperation, and he’s ill under its influence. He falls asleep and undergoes an internal conflict in his dream. There, he has to resist another version of himself telling him that he should use dark magic. Immediately after this meaningful conflict, the episode starts undercutting it with jokes. Characters repeatedly remind him that since this is his dream, he invented everything, and he goes sailing with a comical pirate that hoists him up like a sail. This calls into question whether his choice to resist temptation means anything.
Naturally, The Orville also has this intruding-joke problem. In the episode Pria, the leg taken as a practical joke was hidden on the ship, and it reappears at the worst possible moment in the story. The Captain has just discovered his new love interest has betrayed him and hijacked the ship with everyone onboard. They are having an intense confrontation over it when the leg falls from the ceiling, bringing the moment to an awkward halt before it picks up again.
How to avoid this
Place your jokes during moments that aren’t pivotal for the high stakes or emotional arcs of the story. If you will be placing jokes in important conflicts, it’s better to have the jokes first and then get serious. This avoids making the conflict feel anticlimactic as it proceeds or trivializing the conflict after the fact. You can put some jokes at the end of the conflict’s falling action, but they should convey a sense of relief that the conflict is over. They shouldn’t subvert what just happened.
7. Mocking Marginalized Traits
A common way to generate jokes is by using character stereotypes. Not all stereotypes are equal – some aren’t actually harmful – but they are always harmful when they are associated with a marginalized characteristic. Making fun of any marker of marginalization is kicking people who are down.
Unfortunately, this is something that even socially conscious shows like The Good Place often get wrong. The show features diverse characters and discusses ethics in depth, yet somehow it still mocks one of the protagonists for being unintelligent and in season two, brings in a short guest character just to make lots of short jokes. Similarly, Stranger Things has jokes targeting a character for his baldness.
Sure, the white men being mocked for shortness and baldness probably have lots of privilege, but the shortness or baldness itself is still an inherent physical trait that gives them a disadvantage. Not only that, but making jokes about inherent traits is just one step away from mocking someone who is more marginalized. In the case of shortness, there is a clear connection between mocking short men and mocking little people.
How to avoid this
Instead of memorizing a list of marginalized traits to avoid mocking, examine your characters for markers of marginalization. To start, don’t make fun of anything a person cannot change about themself. That includes traits like fatness, which technically could be changed with lots of energy, expense, or surgery.
It can be a little harder to identify marginalized characteristics that aren’t inherent. However, if the trait is important to someone’s identity and it’s not actively harmful, but having it puts people at a disadvantage in society, it’s probably a marker of marginalization. So, for instance, following a minority religion is almost always a marker of marginalization. That is, unless that religion is a cult, because cults are harmful. On the other hand, stories use a lot of lawyer jokes, but being a lawyer is an advantage, so a little mockery is harmless.
When using jokes, ask yourself what exactly your audience will be laughing at. Then consider if you want them to treat this target dismissively. If the butt of the joke is important to the story or laughing at it will be hurtful, take the joke out or point it at something else.
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