I've been idly thinking about humour over the past couple of days. I've recently been looking at the old sketches from the Radio 4 golden years1 and trying to work out why it all fits together and why it's funny.

Obviously, that's a bad idea. On the face of it, these things are hilarious. Then you go deeper into the rabbit hole and think "Oh. That's actually...not funny". But I've recently been trying to work out what I find funny and why I do.

Stand Up

Stand up is something I quite enjoy. Most people do. I really wish I had the talent for it, but it's interesting to see the difference in perception of musician compared to the perception of a comedian.

When I've spoken to friends who've given it a shot, something that's always come across is the fact that comedy is so bare. Everything that I do as a musician is sort of disconnected from me. I'm hidden behind a guitar, a song, a tune. I interact with it, and the audience interacts with it, but at no point is there a direct interaction with me2.

On the other hand, comedy isn't like that. There's hiding behind a character (Al Murray isn't actually the Pub Landlord for example), but if someone doesn't like a stand up routine, what they're really saying is: "I don't like you". A stand up routine is, by definition, an extension of yourself. If you're an observational comedian then your routine is things you observe. When that bombs, people are telling you that they don't like you.

It's the reason I have a bunch of specific styles I'm a big fan of.


Tim Minchin and Bo Burnham (Both are NSFW. Seriously - NOT SAFE FOR WORK). These range from the blackest of comedies, to the cleverest of lyrics. If I were to build a song about a word that has "A couple of G's, an R and an E, an I and an N", you would not be expecting the word to be GINGER3. Then we have great people such as Paul and Storm who can make a stupid pun about men of the sea4 build and build.

Stand up

I've had very differing tastes over the past few years, which is mostly informed on what Spotify recommends to me and what sort of thing I manage to catch in odd bunches when I infrequently watch TV. I'm a big fan of Surrealist comedy, so Maria Bamford is a big hit for me.

Then you have people such as Ross Noble, the master of stream of consciousness. I've always loved how surreal and ridiculous he gets. Especially when I manage to get ahead of him by about 3 jokes.

On the more traditional side of things, I found that there's a real joke style that I can always appreciate. I currently listen to Christian Finnegan and there's a great joke where the joke isn't really where you expect it to be, but still works as a joke.

Ed Byrne and John Mulaney5 do it as well, where the joke goes something like this:

  1. Typical set up
  2. Build up
  3. Punchline
  4. Quick throwaway

They're blink and miss it - but the funny bit is not just the punchline. It's actually the quick throwaway right after. They're really obvious in comedy albums when the people start laughing at the punchline and you can hear the throwaway in the break which tends to be funnier.

It's the interesting thing about laughter tracks. There are several studies6 that state that shows with laughter tracks tend to be enjoyed more since you know where the joke is. It's one of the reasons why shows such as The Big Bang Theory (which I used to like, then got bored of) do well, but Community and Arrested Development (which are really clever and meta with a lot of running jokes) get cancelled.

Speaking of TV shows...

TV Shows

I have a weird taste in TV shows. I really like clever and self-referential TV shows. So, although I used to be a fan of The Big Bang Theory, I kind of got tired of jokes that were meant to be cool references to the geeky things I really love but were a bit...shallow.

Then you have things such as Arrested Development which has a running joke like this:

I have no idea why that's so funny.

Then you get things like Community where there's a episodes which take one stupid pop culture reference and make an entire episode out of it. For example, an entire episode which takes Die Hard and puts it at a community college paint ball game.

So why!?

It's a really difficult thing. I've basically tried to distill comedy I like and I'm not entirely sure that it's possible. I'm a fan of such a wide range of stuff - sometimes I like political comedy, sometimes I really don't - that I'm not sure what should be the framework for what I like.

Of course, inherently distilling comedy is pointless. One of my favourite jokes in the Reduced Shakespeare Company production isn't even funny. It's just a beautiful crafting of a joke which is put into the open7.

But artfully dissecting things is what you should do to get better at things. I dissect guitar arrangements and songs that have been written to understand the craft that goes into them and make my songs and playing better. I learn comedy to make my patter in the bits between playing/singing more interesting.

  1. Things like I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue etc which I mostly grew up on. I had the best childhood. ↩︎

  2. There's exceptions to that rule. When I sing Deep Blue Sea I have a habit of nearly bursting into tears at the end of it because I bare my soul and everything I have. ↩︎

  3. I am ashamed to admit it took me a week to get this joke. Mental anagrams are hard. ↩︎

  4. You're on your own. ↩︎

  5. The best bit he does is this one. It never fails to make me cry with laughter ↩︎

  6. Apparently, I never really looked deeply into it ↩︎

  7. This is the bit at Hamlet where they call all the audience participants Bob. If you listen closely, whenever the actors talk to someone who isn't one of them and call them by name, they call the Bob. Even the sound man. It's not a funny joke until it gets put out into the open but it's beautiful crafting. ↩︎