Storytelling

Seven Ways Jokes Can Sabotage Your Story

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

A giant cartoon insect stands on two legs, looking up at his human friend.

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.

Other comedic characters that are notorious for being annoying are Neelix from Star Trek: Voyager and Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace. Like Dave, their incompetence is also played for laughs.

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

A young boy with a snot bubble on his nose.

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

General Hux frowns during The Last Jedi

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

Whomping willow endangering students in Harry Potter

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

A man looks in terror at his missing leg.

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

A pirate hoisting up a young man like a sail

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

In The Good Place, Tahani looks unhappy as a short man holds her hand to kiss it.

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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Comments

  1. Innocent Bystander

    #3 makes me wish that there was more comedic yet intimidating villains like GLaDOS or Bill Cipher. I know why there aren’t; balancing comedy and being a legit threat is difficult. But I feel that would solve the problem if it’s the villain making jokes at the hero’s expense.

    As for #5, my general rule of thumb for pranks (both real and fictional) is to ask if the person being pranked will laugh about it afterwards. If they won’t, then it shouldn’t be done.

  2. Ace of Hearts

    …I fell for it. Oh come on. This shouldn’t be as funny as it is.

    Alright, Chris, that was a really clever rickroll, I’ll give you that.

  3. Em

    There is one thing that scene from The Last Jedi did right, though.

    While it does start off pretty annoying, the brilliant part of it is that Hux stays calm, even though he’s clearly quite irritated – up until Poe mentions his mother. Only then does he fly off the handle in a split second.

    Now, not everyone wants to read tie-in novels, but I did… And that moment was great when I watched it the first time. Hux is an illegitimate child, his mother is just some kitchen worker, and somehow the Resistance got hold of that information, most likely through Leia.
    So this isn’t just Poe refusing to take things seriously – it’s a cold, calculated move on his part, intended to humiliate Hux and knock him off balance. “I have a message from Leia about your mother” basically translates to “Hey, want me to remind your entire bridge that you’re a bastard?”. He knows it’s Hux’s weak spot, and it’s a savage move.

    Now, the rest of the movie is still pretty weak, but I loved that little continuity nod. They could’ve done a lot more with it.

    • Adam Reynolds

      While I used to read the Star Wars tie in novels back in the prequels, and I loved this sort of thing then, it truly is bad storytelling if people have to read another book to get the joke in a movie. The idea that General Grevious was secretly imposing in Revenge of the Sith if you had watched the original cartoon series and read the books doesn’t really hold up when you’re talking about the movie itself, which is what most people have been exposed to. Audiences shouldn’t have to do homework to enjoy a work of fiction. Those details need to be for those who want more, not as a way to duct tape over the flaws in the story itself.

      For The Last Jedi, In the context of the movie alone, the scene doesn’t work as written because it undercuts Hux as a competent leader. Even if we accept the idea that it shows Poe’s intelligence rather than Hux’s incompetence, it still doesn’t work because a villain needs to be competent for the story to have stakes.

      • Em

        True. They probably should’ve given Hux more attention to make it work – perhaps shown a bit more of the actual personality he shows in the tie-in material. Also, probably… not played that scene as a joke, and more straight instead. Hm.

        The sequel trilogy had a lot of promise, but ultimately they messed up most of it.

  4. Tony

    Height jokes can also veer into transphobia if at the expense of a short trans man or a tall trans woman. They can also connect to racism if related to perceptions about a given ethnic group’s average height–for example, with stereotypes of imposing Black men and shrimpy Asian men.

    On the topic of mocking cults, that one can also be thorny because I’ve seen marginalised religions smeared as cults.

    • Rose

      There’s also the issue that a lot of cult members are marginalized in various ways (poor, mentally ill, shunned by mainstream society), which is how the cult gets its claws into them.

      It’s easy to accidentally cross the lines between mocking cult leaders and practices, and mocking the victims of those leaders and practices.

  5. Silverware

    Ooooh, i can’t stand it when serious moments get spoilt with humor. That’s one of the many reasons i dislike MCU.

  6. LeeEsq

    As a short man, I’ve noticed that even many allegedly body positive people just can’t help themselves when it comes to making fun of short men. The ideal is that men should be tall and lots of people go for this ideal. Many tall men naturally like the fact that they are seen as winners and leaders simply by winning the genetic lottery. They aren’t going to give up on this privilege because they aren’t going to wake up short one day while everybody could loose other aspects of conventional attractiveness rather fast.

  7. LeeEsq

    I think many writers use comedy to intentionally sabotage their stories. The end up writing something deeper, more complex, and more sincere than they originally wanted and rather than just go with it, they just put in a cheap joke to remind themselves and the audience what they wanted to write. It is a way for the writers to tone down the dial on themselves.

  8. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    “While leg theft doesn’t really happen in real life…”

    I think wheelchair theft is a thing. Or jokes about moving someone’s wheelchair so that they can’t move. And I’ve actually heard about stealing prosthetics before. I physically cringed away from the photo at #5 because I thought it was actually about someone’s prosthetic leg being hidden. It genuinely seems like a realistic situation.

    On a less serious note, I FULLY agree with comedy ruining serious moments. Younger shows really tend to fall prey to this, as if the age range watching is going to zone out if things are too serious for too long. But even the MCU can have a touching character moment followed by a weak punch line.

  9. Justin

    8. When they’re not funny.
    Many authors use humor for characters and situations that are supposed to be funny. However, to the reader, they aren’t. Telling us that all your characters are sitting around a pub table yukking it up about something that wasn’t even marginally amusing to the reader doesn’t make the story (or the joke itself) funny. It makes the characters (and the author) obnoxious.

    If you’re going to write jokes into your manuscript at all, PLEASE for the love of God and all that is holy – run them past beta readers first!!! Preferably people who are FUNNY themselves to make sure the humor is humorous.

  10. Erynus

    Actually i think that the point on the leg theft in the episode was that the human put a groucho nose on the robot first and then told him that it was ok to change other people features for the laughs. Then the robot changed the human’s features by taking apart the leg (He even did it painlesly and prepared a way to revert it once the joke was over). I think the show actually advocate against that kind of mockery by giving the character a taste of his own medicine.

  11. Bellis

    I think having heroes make jokes at the villain’s expense trades in suspense for satisfaction. I often love those moments if they’re done in a way that seems satisfying – after all, a character I identify with just got in a cool one-liner against a (previously) intimidating asshole! I wish I could do that in real life!

    It is good for storytellers to be aware of the costs of jokes so they can make better decisions. Is it worth it? Is it necessary? Or can I have the joke and keep the villain threatening at the same time? Sometimes just changing the timing can do that.

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