If you’re making everyone happy in comedy, you’re not doing comedy right.
Following Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Bill Cosby joke at the Golden Globes, it became clear that SOME AUDIENCE MEMBERS FELT UNCOMFORTABLE. Oh, no! How did this happen? Don’t Tina and Amy know that comedy is all about making sure NO ONE feels weird about ANYTHING you’re saying at ANY TIME? Especially if you’re using humor as a weapon to shed light on monstrous behavior that has been ignored for several decades?
For example, say you want to make a joke about the vast number of sexual assault allegations about Bill Cosby, but you also want to be sure that absolutely no one is going to be offended by your humorous aide. Easy peasy! Let’s run down the basic rules of writing a Bill Cosby joke that is totally cool with literally everyone:
Word Choice Matters: No Baddies Allowed!
Ugh! A joke is basically just a collection of funny words, and rape is such a…harsh one. No thank you! Do your audience a solid and also stay away from gross phrases like “nonconsensual sex,” “drugged drinks” and “disgraced icon” – these are real aggressive groups of words that might make people experience (gasp!) cognitive dissonance. We’re trying to get a laugh here, NOT make people consider the fact that someone can be good at comedy AND ALSO a sexual predator. EW!
Don’t Worry About Connecting the Punchline to the Setup
Eek! Normally when you write a joke, the punchline comments on an element of the setup. So if we have a setup like, “Bill Cosby has now been accused of drugging and assaulting over two dozen different women,” the punchline could comment on anything from the huge number of women affected, or the drugs, or the fact that there has been no criminal charges filed. But punchlines like that could maybe offend someone, like your boyfriend’s mother Janet, or that girl you’ve met twice but have no idea what her name is!
So let’s try surprising your audience with something like this instead:
“Bill Cosby has now been accused of drugging and assaulting over two dozen different women. And that’s why Pop-Tarts come in S’mores flavor!”
See? Move along folks, no social commentary to be had here!
Don’t Alienate Your Audience by Invoking Bummer Images
Oh, boy! “Victim” brings up real downer visuals, like the over thirty separate women who have all come forward with their stories. That’s like a whole sad football team of Bill Cosby assault victims! Try a more cheerful way of referring to the more than two dozen humans in your joke, like calling them “chicks” or “a pack of lady friends” or “accusers.”**
**The super-chill word Camille Cosby chose to use.
Remember: Status, Status, Status!
Dios mio! Usually, you want to make sure that the people with the lower status (so in this case, all the women) aren’t the butt of the joke. Buuuuutttt since Bill Cosby is a celebrity and was in a super popular show that continues to make millions of dollars in residuals for the people involved every year and lives in a place of reverence in so many people’s minds, HE can’t be the butt of the joke…so I guess…just don’t worry about status for this joke. It will probably work fine, anyway. Let’s just move on!
Have a Point of View, But Not, Like, a Strong One or Whatever
Yikers Island! What if you tell your joke, but someone doesn’t laugh or seems (gasp!) offended and makes a bad face and then you need to backpedal? Guard against this horrifying possibility by making sure that your joke doesn’t (disgusting!) have an opinion! Ideally, at the end of a Bill Cosby rape joke, the listener should have NO IDEA where you as the joker stand on the issue. Being funny is all about being neutral. That’s why all the funniest people in the world are either Swiss or admins in the HR department.
So now you have your no-no words, you’re not following classic joke structure, and you’ve refused to take a point of view. You’re eady to deliver that non-offensive Bill Cosby joke!
Bill ____ of___ ____ ___ ___ (redacted). Bet that’s _____ ____ what ____ times ___ ___ and ____ _____ ___ ________!
There you go! A totally inoffensive Bill Cosby rape joke! You’ve done it! Collect 1,000 laugh points and return home a champion. You’ve offended no one, started no discussion and said nothing of relevance about the topic. Way to go, PC-police!
Caitlin Kunkel is a writer and director, as well as a faculty member at The Second City Training Center. She is currently living in Portland, OR, where she studies ironic yoga and the role cat jokes play in the universe. Read more of her musings @KunkelTron or at the more professionally-named www.caitlinkunkel.com.