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The only thing that makes a joke successful

Something happened the other day that got me to thinking, “When should a comic ignore the advice of another person (with regards to their jokes)? I was sitting at the bar the other day with a friend getting a little slizzed up, and we came across this guy (non-comedian) who had worked with many successful comedians in the past in a different capacity. We’ll call this guy Peter.

Peter was older. How old, I’m not sure, but he had considerable more gray hair than me, and all of my 80’s and 70’s references seemed to land with him. A sure sign of an aging man. Anyway, my friend and I (who is also a comic) were in the midst of talking about some joke she had told on stage. The non-comedian guy butted in and said, “You need to do better than that joke. That joke is hacky and unoriginal.” Advice from someone who had never told a joke on stage.

This guy had been giving us non-solicited advice the whole time. Naturally, my blood started to boil, as this is one of the most annoying things you can hear.

I had actually heard that that particular joke and tag before, and the fact was that it worked.

Why did it work? Because it got laughs.

This is a classic example of why you should take the reaction of any one or two people to a joke with a grain of salt.

Laughs Are The Ultimate Barometer

This is why you never actually know if a joke is successful or not until you tell it to an audience of 20+ people. Your friend, or even worst a stranger, is NOT a good barometer for knowing whether something is funny or not.

There are a number of things going on here:

  • Any one person could have a shitty sense of humor
  • Any one person could not like you, and hence not want to laugh at you.
  • Any one person could be in a bad mood, and hence not laugh

An audience of 1-3 people is not a good sample size. This is why open mics with less than 5 people aren’t a good use of your time. Crowds have a weird way of forming a consciousness of their own when they scale in numbers. An audience of 6 people that like you won’t be nearly as satisfactory and worth performing to as an audience of 20 people that have a mediocre opinion of you. Your job as a standup is to sway them to your liking and make them laugh.

If you can get considerable laughter from a larger sample size then you are doing your job. But if one jackass at a bar doesn’t like your joke that shouldn’t deter you from telling that joke on stage. Our job as a standup comedian is to find out if a joke works in front of a crowd, not in front of individuals.

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