Tom Smart, Deseret News
View from the pulpit at the Conference Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)
I've been telling jokes for a while. I've been giving sacrament talks in meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a while, too. I don't mix the two. Oil and water. Dogs and cats. Mormon handcart re-enactments and showering. Pick your comparisons, but either way, I'd like to explain why I don't.
There are a handful of factors that can make comedy more difficult than it is already. Light, for example. That's factual — it's harder to make a lit room of people laugh. My own — unproven theory — as to why, is that in a lit room everyone's more conscious of the fact that other people can see them and in turn, see what they think is funny.
Anyone who is self-conscious of what they are laughing at is by default filtering what they hear. Filters deaden laughter. When we filter humor, we are taking time to think instead of simply reacting — and laughter is mostly a reaction. There's another reason a right-minded comedian doesn't like performing in the light — they can see the audience. A crowd that's roaring can be soured by a few inevitably scowling and often-distracting faces.
I've performed in some difficult circumstances. I recall one performance where the "emcee" decided at the last-minute to announce that I'd perform some material to close out a "talent" show that half the audience thought had already ended — including me. Totally unprepared, I gingerly walked up, threw out the first jokes that came to mind while half the audience was already — and noisily — taking down metal chairs. That's like trying to play volleyball as your opponents take down the net and deflate the ball. I recall a performance at a history society's end of year party where toddlers were literally running around me on the stage hitting each other with balloons, audience members walked in front of me to get refreshments, and a raucous game of foosball went on some 20 feet away. Unlike my "talent" show improvisation, at least I got paid for that punishment.
Comedy isn't music — it doesn't work in the background. It requires an audience that is as focused as you are. Every bad gig I've had has had one thing in common: people weren't expecting comedy or prepared for it. Sacrament meeting fits this to a tee. People don't expect someone to get up and start telling jokes — they didn't come to be entertained. And even if you are a reputable jokesmith in a room full of admirers, your jokes will underperform. Why? The congregation isn't "warm" — the hardest job in comedy is leading off because you're working with a cold audience.
Yet, there's this prevalent idea that if you can make people laugh they'll pay more attention to your talk. That's fine. I'm not against humor at church, and sometimes I sprinkle it around anecdotes. But I never tell jokes.
While congregations may not anticipate someone telling jokes, they aren't opposed to laughing. So if you aim to be funny, here's my advice: tell "stories" not "jokes." Funny stories are a thinly veiled series of jokes — and their strength is in the fact that the audience doesn't think of them as jokes. How do you know if you are telling a joke or a story? First, make sure you didn't get it in an email chain. Second, it should involve an event that is related to you or someone you know. The problem with jokes has little to do with whether or not they are funny, but how they are perceived. And they are perceived as being hokey in this setting. What works in one venue may not in another, which is why that joke that really got your coworker died at the pulpit.
The other problem with traditional setup-punchline jokes is they immediately raise comedic expectations. People instantly recognize them, and as they wait for the joke, unconsciously put up some filters. Instead of getting up and announcing "I going to try and be funny right now... this guy went to the doctor's office...," you'd be better served by surprising people with a well-told story, where the humor is organic and expectations are modest. The now-disguised-punchlines will sneak up on the audience before they have a chance to filter their reactions. Even more, because they weren't planning on laughing or in the joke-hearing mindset, how warm they are becomes distinctly less important. Now (with the important caveat that the story is amusing) will finally find those laughs you are looking for.
And that's no joke.
James Littlejohn is the pioneer of Brigham Young University's stand-up comedy group Humor U.