Slightly Off Center

Slightly Off Center: A comedy tutorial

By Dennis Hinkamp

Comedy is one of the least curable of psychoses.
by Dennis Hinkamp

I feel sorry for new Democratic senator of Minnesota Al Franken. Sure, we have had lots of former actors and athletes, gays, straights and assorted other crazies, but Franken will be the first politician who is openly a comedian. Senator Franken was on Saturday Night Live, wrote several books of satire and had his own humorous radio show. He made a good living being funny.

I wish him well, but I know from experience that Humor Road is a one-way street. Once you go down the comedy path, it’s hard to ever be taken seriously again. Every time he speaks, people will be waiting for the punch line. Everyone who speaks to him will be wondering if they will be mocked in his next book. I doubt that he will be able to get anything done.

I think 1989 was the last time I was taken seriously, so I know there is no escape from the perilous pit of mirth. Humor is one of the least curable of psychoses, but I have spent considerable time studying its symptoms.

This is what most people don’t understand about comedy:

1) Comedians don’t tell jokes; they do bits or routines. They tell stories. Jokes, almost by definition, are something you heard from someone else. Comedians do original material. The only people who tell jokes are politicians with speechwriters, and after-dinner speakers-who always start off with “A funny thing happened on the way to the dinner tonight…”

2) The most annoying thing you can say to a comedian at a party or dinner is, “Hey, do something for us.” We don’t ask other people to perform their jobs at dinner parties. “Hey Bob, while we’re waiting for our pie, could you climb under my car and check for that transmission leak?”

3) Most comedians have never been on TV. Club comedy is much different than talk show or sitcom comedy. There are hundreds of comedians doing sleazy one-night stands in a town near you who will never be on TV. They are the equivalent of bar bands trying to get a recording contract.

4) TV is ruining comedy. TV takes the best 30 seconds from every performer and turns them into sound bites. I have sensed younger audiences actually appear to be waiting for the laugh track before they can decide if something is funny.

5) Most comedians don’t make stuff up. Few would do a joke about growing up in an alcoholic home unless they really did. Comedy is related to acting, but you rarely take on a persona that is different than your own.

6) Most comedians spend unhealthy amounts of time mining their own psyches for material. Like some writers, they also get caught up in “living life’s dark edges” in search of more material. One comedian friend told me she was looking forward to getting divorced so she could have more divorce material.

7) Working for audience approval brings extreme highs and extreme lows. The feedback is immediate; unlike writing, work or marriage, where your judgment comes much later. You can die a hundred times in ten minutes. If the crowd is too drunk or you fail to convince them that this well-rehearsed stuff is coming off the top of your head, you will become the loneliest person in the world.

8) If you see a comedian twice, you will probably see about the same show both times. It takes years to work up a good 30-minute routine, so you have to keep using it and either move to a new location or hope the audiences forget. Once everyone knows your punch lines, your show has no value. It is not like music where people will pay to see The Rolling Stones play Honky Tonk Woman for the billionth time.

9) David Letterman’s popularity has convinced everybody to think that funny stuff has to come in lists of 10s.

Dennis Hinkamp seriously hopes this helps you understand humor.



This article was originally published on August 29, 2009.