When Humor Mis-Fires (Part One)

If you’ve ever used humor, you’ve probably missed the target more than once.  I have.  And it’ll happen again.  It may result in less laughter, embarrassment, a lost promotion, a ruined relationship, or may just result in your kicking yourself for a bad choice.  If humor were a science, we could probably perfect the process.  But it’s more of an art.  And as imperfect beings, our humor creations are sure to miss the mark occasionally.

Humor can mis-fire due to poor judgment.  Humor can mis-fire due to Conditions. 


Youth.  Often, humor that is off target is caused by the impulses of youth.  We’re not talking always talking about growing older.  Sometimes it’s an issue of maturing; growing more sophisticated.  Juvenile humor is not linked so much to chronological age, as it is to emotional maturity.  Some people are slow to mature.  Some people regress.  Developing our humor sophistication takes awareness, desire, and growth.

Inexperience.  The development of humor skills is the result of trial and error.  The more we experiment, the more we stumble and fall, the smarter (and funnier) we become.  Skill comes from unskilled performance.

Ignorance.  Sometimes we don’t know our audience.  Or we don’t really know the target of the joke.  It’s a problem when we don’t know the culture in which we are presenting.  The tricky thing is, our own familiar and comfortable culture changes.  There is no substitute for awareness, or for “walking a mile” in someone else’s shoes.

Apathy.  The people guilty of this sin just don’t care.  A response to a mis-fired joke is apt to be:  “They shouldn’t be so sensitive!”  Or it may be a joke directed to a group or person someone just doesn’t like.  Everyone deserves the courtesy and understanding that you and I deserve.

Laziness.  Humor which is in poor taste is often because we took “the easy road.”  Blue humor is a comedy cop out.  It’s an attempt to get a cheap laugh the easy way, rather than working to develop something more sophisticated.

Temporary Insanity.  You should have known better, but blew it anyway.  Welcome to the school of hard knocks.


Logistics.  A joke is likely to go wrong if you have poor staging.  Poor lighting.  Poor sound system.  Don’t handicap your humor.  Work to give yourself the best possible conditions.

Environment.  Humor can mis-fire if the wait staff is clearing the tables and stealing the attention of the audience.  If the band in the next room is booming louder than you are.  If the room is freezing cold, you may have a hard time warming up the audience.

Recent Circumstances.  If you’re trying humor just after the announcement of a death…think twice.  If you’re following someone who just gave an un-funny humorous speech, I hope your opening is REALLY funny, or you’ll quickly find yourself trying to climb out of a hole.  If the program is running long before you’re introduced to give your part, you’ll be funnier if you keep your remarks short.

The Audience.  If the audience doesn’t want to be there, it’s hard to be funny.  If the audience disagrees with your point of view, trying to be funny can backfire.  If the audience is drunk, let’s hope you declined the invitation to speak in the first place.

Target of the Joke.  Maybe the alignment of the planets is not favorable and the usually-jolly target of the joke is having a bad day.  Maybe ordinarily he or she would have loved the joke, but tonight the mood just isn’t right.

The PC Police.  Maybe the joke mis-fires not because the audience is offended, but because some audience members have assigned themselves to be the watch dogs of political correctness.  They are not personally offended, but refuse to laugh because of the possibility that a person or two in the audience might not like the joke.

Some of these factors are in your control.  Some are not.  Know the difference.  And work to gain the experience needed to keep you on the right track.  And learn to not beat yourself up in the process!

The posts which follow will look at some real-life humor failures.  Stay tuned.