Depending on who you ask, being a comedian is either the easiest job in the world or the most unfathomably difficult. As a comic, I’ve had people say, “I can’t even imagine! That must be so nerve-racking. I would just die,” to which I normally reply, “I’m getting paid to talk about my bowel movements for an hour AT MOST. I would die if I had to work under the sun on a job site for 10 hours.” But for most “civilians” (a semi-patronizing term used by stand-ups for anyone who isn’t a comic), it is very difficult to imagine not only the performance of jokes to an audience of strangers, but also the crafting of those jokes and the ability to do it over and over and keep the material fresh and funny.
The comedian’s brain functions in an entirely different way from the rest of the world. Everything you see and hear is looked at the through the lense of humor. Is there something funny here? How can I make this a bit? Even the most sensitive of subjects or the worst kind of tragedies, a comic still asks him or herself these questions, because they know that if we can’t laugh, we are doomed.
That being said, below are some of the nation’s premier stand-up comedians who were willing to give us a behind-the-scenes look at the framing of a joke and a little bit of insight into the mind of the modern day comic.
(It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, 2 Broke Girls, Crashing)
“My dad’s visiting soon, which means I need to practice apologizing to waiters with my eyes."
This joke has been like a "Get Out of Jail Free” card for me – it always works. People being disgusted and embarrassed by their fathers is a universal feeling, apparently. My dad likes to keep the wait staff on their toes. He’ll start out with corny jokes and segue VERY abruptly into staggering cruelty. He’ll snap at waiters to get their attention, ask if they speak English, rush them to bring the check so he can get to his flight the standard 12 hours early… it’s all mortified me since I was a kid. He once told a Thai waitress he hates Thai food because he “doesn’t eat anything that floats.” Now, I don’t know what that means, but I do know it made me want to shit twice and die. The bit goes on to show some examples of my “apology eyes,” and which ones I whip out for different levels of shame. Those eyes that let the waitress know “Look, you’ve got a father, I’ve got a father, let’s just get through this together and get on with our lives.”
(Comedy Central, MADtv, Up All Night)
I can talk about my most popular one, based on how many people have downloaded it. It’s off my second album and first special, “Shovel Fighter.” The joke I’m talking about is called “A Ghost at the Two Man Party.” It’s a true story. The reason I think it’s so popular is that it’s funny AND abjectly terrifying. “AGATTMP” is the story of the night my friend Brian and I got insanely hammered by ourselves at his mom’s house while in college (and while she was out of town). At a certain point we went to our separate sleeping areas, finding things amiss in both. Scared shitless, we grabbed weapons and searched the house together. Finding nothing, we decided A) A ghost did it, B) That ghosts are real, and C) We should say goodnight to the ghost and go to bed. I’ll let you listen to the joke to hear how the rest goes. It’s still one of those things I look back on and go “Jesus! We’re lucky we lived!” The joke is a big hit with people who like to get high (or not) and freak out in terror while they laugh. I can’t tell you how many people at shows have asked me if it really happened. Yep. It did. Oh, and I should say that when I did the joke in Portland at the album recording, my friend Brian (the other guy from the story) was there. He came up to me afterwards and corrected me on one detail. When we went looking all over the house for the intruder, he didn’t have a bat. He had a machete. Like I said, “Jesus.”
(@midnight, WTF w/ Marc Maron, Best Bars In America)
It was a f*cking insane experience that I am still to this day wondering if it was a fever dream. As it happened, it all felt staged at first until I got hit in the face. That’s a pretty good sign that something is indeed happening. Nowadays, on the rare occasion that I get really angry for the third time that day, I do fantasize about tracking those guys down to see if they’re still bigots. Part of me wants them to be. Part of me wants them to lose at life forever. But a different, more forgiving albeit much smaller part of me hopes that experience changed them and they joined a religious commune where they live in the woods with other men coping with their hatred of men living with men. It took years for me to tell this onstage, and even longer for me to expose the humor in it. It’s one of those experiences where, as a comedian, you remember it because you know you HAVE to tell it onstage. And it’s a moment where you aren’t at all sure just how you’re gonna approach it. So you just begin and trust yourself to find the way. That’s the best part of being a comedian. The Journey. Both offstage and on.
(Comedy Central, Netflix’s Love, The Tonight Show)
I have a joke about how I once saw a tow truck towing another tow truck. I ramble off on an unfunny diatribe about how it could be interpreted as metaphorical–that the things we view as powerful and helpful still ultimately fail. But by the end of the speech, I just wind up yelling “Looks like those tow trucks are f*cking each other!” Because I am not a poet. The inspiration was I once saw a tow truck towing another tow truck, and thought “Now that’s something.”
(Comedy Central Comic To Watch, Funny Or Die, Bonnaroo 2016)
First Time With A Woman (The video titled “First Time With A Woman”)
I have a joke about the first time I went down on a woman and well, that joke came about because I went down on a woman. The woman who was on the receiving end of this brave act had no idea it was my first time, as I acted way more versed in the art of cunnilingus than I was. My plan was just to do to her vagina what I would want someone to do to mine, easy enough I thought. I mean we are working with the same equipment. I had no idea how much seeing a vagina spread eagle in in my face would throw me. I wasn’t ready! Then her uncle, who lived in the basement with her, walked in to get to the bathroom that was adjacent to her bedroom and also happened to be the only one in the basement. He proceeded to take a 10-minute dump, complete with straining noises, water plops, the whole nine. We laid in silence under the covers in the dark. It was awkward and actually a godsend because had it not been for her uncle’s bowel issues I think I would have terribly embarrassed myself, but instead he terribly embarrassed her.
ANDRES DU BOUCHET
(writer for Conan, Bob’s Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
My favorite jokes tend to be anti-jokes, where the left turn is actually the unexpected absence of a left turn, and the punchline is funny (hopefully) because I just went completely literal. That being said, here’s my favorite joke:
Knock knock. (Who’s there?) David. (David who?) Yes, that’s right. David Hu, from the Equities Research Department.
(Netflix Special “No Offense” Streaming Now, TBS’s Deal With It)
“I got bit by a black widow… she was in her 40’s.”
I was at a bus stop in New Orleans and a black woman came up to me and said, “My husband died.” I grew up in a family so I don’t trust a lot of people, so I said “No he didn’t.” She said “Yes he did!” Then she bit me. She was in her forties.
(Canada’s 3-time Female Comic Of The Year, Netflix Special “Single Awkward Female” Streaming Now)
"When I was 12 years old me and my best friend Shannon found her mom’s romance novels and I tucked right in- and now- I still read them. I’m not proud of myself, the novels are so old fashioned and totally UN-feminist. The men always treat the women like they own them, like they’re property… AND IT IS SO HOT! I know it’s wrong, we all want equality between the sexes- but let’s be honest: Sex between equals?? BOO!!! Fuck me like I make less money. I want to be a feminist in the streets, but oppressed in the sheets.”
The story behind the joke was basically me reading my porn- I’m so old fashioned- reading a historical romance novel? It’s just a lame way to jerk off, basically me reading for 3 hours as foreplay? I also had the realization that all the stories are SO archaic- I’m a woman in 2016 who believes in equality and feminism but it gets me hot when a Viscount or a Lord (I’m so embarrassed) rips a woman’s blouse and then forces her to marry him?? Plus, I like that the joke is kinda wrong- I know it makes people a bit squirmy- I always like it when people laugh even though they know they really shouldn’t.
(Writer for VICE, Viceland’s Flophouse, co-host of live show BLESSED at Hollywood Improv)
"You all seem like friendly people, so I’d like to ask you a friendly question: Which one of you dumb, racist, misogynistic, non-trans ally mouth-breathers…wants to get in a civilized discourse with me online?”
The Internet is where civilized discourse goes to die, and wanton indignation roams free. The implication of anyone’s hearts and minds changing as a result of mixing it up with someone whose views they oppose in the comments section of an article, or via Twitter @ replies, I find laughable. The likelihood of hipsters finding Joseph Kony, the Equal Rights Amendment ever passing, or America lessening its reliance on foreign oil is far higher. Let the record show all three of those things are impossibilities.
I had to wake up early one god-awful day and complained about it to my friend, Dave Ross. He literally said, “The nice thing about waking up early is you get a lot of stuff done.” I started complaining about how doing stuff sucks and the worst time to do anything is during the day. Nighttime is the right time. Let’s party.
(Comedy Central Presents, Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show, Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson)
I would say that the bit that I am most known for is my Roller Skating bit. It was a physical act out bit with music, and I used to close with it for years. The premise was about this old guy at the roller rink when we were kids named Tony, who thought he was cool, even though he was practically a grown man. It was actually one of the first bits I wrote, and was inspired by a real guy that used to hang out at my roller rink in Wallington, New Jersey. When I moved to South Florida in 9th grade, I went to another skating rink, Galaxy, and sure enough, there was another old guy showing off in the middle of the rink. He always stuck with me and I found him amusing. I used to make fun of him as a kid, and then when I started stand-up, he was one of the first things I talked about. It’s still one of my favorite jokes to this day!
(Chelsea Lately, After Lately)
The joke that I’m currently enjoying doing the most is about a gig I recently had in Vernal, Utah. The venue - and by venue I mean a sports bar within the hotel - in the bridal suite of a Holiday Inn, complete with heart-shaped love tub and leopard skin furniture. To keep myself from relaxing in the aforementioned love tub, I would spend my days at a Wal-Mart watching obese Americans electronically scootering themselves from one Duck Dynasty t-shirt to another. The joke ends with me turning down a threesome from a 68 year old couple at a dance club off the freeway, but in order to hear it all you’ll have to close this Playboy browser window, zip up your pants and come and see me live.
(Album “This Will Make An Excellent Horcrux “ Available Now, Conan, The Jackie and Laurie Show Podcast)
I love this joke because of how uncomfortable everyone is when I start talking about “negative” sexual experiences and then how cool it is when people, men and women, approach me after the show and say how much they liked this joke because they haven’t been able to think or talk about whatever their own horror was and it loosened it up in them. And it’s super funny. Because it’s about my game designer husband fixing things with game mechanics. Oh. And the Iliad.
One of my favorite jokes to tell pertains to my conservative family’s gifting habits. The heart of the bit is, “My family is so Republican they send each other steak in the mail.” It goes into how my uncles complain that Mexicans are taking our jobs even though machines are taking over more jobs than Mexicans but no one protests those. I’m from a small Oregon hick town where hunting is as normal as juicing is in LA. The culture shock of moving to LA, where many people were RAISED vegetarian, was massive. I remember my dad receiving and sending Omaha steaks in the mail to relatives as presents. Even as a bleeding heart liberal, I can attest to the deliciousness of those steaks but the morbidity of gifting flesh always struck me as odd and funny. Dark things have always tickled me. It’s especially fun to tell the joke in big cities where my audience has never hunted or camped because presenting steak gifting to them out of context makes my family sound barbaric.
(Comedy Central Comic To Watch, Viceland, Just For Laughs Comedy Festival)
When I wrote this bit I was on the road and really lonely, the kind of lonely where you think that maybe your 70 year old Lyft driver could be your best friend if you play your cards right. The kind of lonely where you think she could maybe be like an old wise mentor, filling in the love gaps your parents neglected and through her old timey wisdom you find out how to truly love yourself and the world around you. Then the music thing happened.
(writer for Vice, Viceland’s Flophouse, Huffington Post Live)
I have this bit about how pointless it is to be conventionally attractive (speaking as a heterosexual woman) because heterosexual men (generally) still treat attractive women like shit. I know this because I live in Los Angeles, where “hot” women run amok. After becoming friends with many of them, I learned quickly that they still deal with the same crap my 5’0”, 165 pound self deals with. They’re still waiting three days to be texted back. Still getting told things like, you’re really cool, but…, and still getting cheated on. I then discuss Beyoncé being cheated on by Jay Z (this bit is from before Lemonade, mind you), which is literally the dumbest thing anyone in the world could do. I then make a joke about Jay Z looking like he’s melting, which is my extremely mature and deeply poignant way of pointing out the imbalance society places on standards of beauty according to gender. Anyhow, my conclusion to this entire bit is, sincerely, what is the goddamn point of being “hot”?
My stand up is super innovative in that all I do is talk about things that happen to me and try to find the punchline somewhere in the long-running joke that is my life. Hearing rumors about Jay Z cheating on Beyoncé definitely inspired this, but so did buying a baguette at Trader Joe’s and eating half of it on the drive home. While driving, I remember thinking to myself: “Damn, I really love bread.” Then I got to wondering about how many complex carbs Beyoncé eats in her day-to-day life, and my educated guess is that it’s little to none. I remember thinking how pointless it is to have such a perfect body, if in the end the men we love are still going to betray us. The combination of these thoughts as well as personal life experience (pretty sure I got dumped by a rollerblader a few days prior to this bit’s formation), created this long shouting rant, which I call my humor. I don’t know. I am probably going to be single forever, but that’s okay because men still eat me out and I have bread. Thank you for your time.
(Netflix Special “Mating Season” Streaming Now, Conan, Here We Are Podcast)
I had a joke that I opened with early on in my career. It was a short bait and switch. There is always a bit of uncomfortability with the audience until they know you and trust you are going to be funny. So I enjoyed heightening it. I would say, “I have this great idea for a bumper sticker… it just says ‘I am a child molester.’” Then I would make the uncomfortable audience sit with the uncomfortable atmosphere I just created and then say, “Oh I should probably explain… you don’t put it on your car.”
It would almost always get a huge laugh and relief of tension from the audience. I say almost always because sometimes during my big awkward pause, some one would yell something like “not funny” or whatever and I wouldn’t be able to deliver the explanation in the way that it was needed. Then I would really have a hole to dig out of. I thought of the joke because I have this old high school buddy who I sometimes talk on the phone with who always had these really awful ideas for t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. They were always so bad. I was going to write a joke about it and wanted to think of the worst possible thing you could write on a hat or whatever. After I thought of “I am a child molester” the trick was to think of any possible purpose for it. Then I thought of putting a bumper sticker on someone’s car for a practical joke. I’ve never actually done it. People often said that I should sell that bumper sticker after shows, but I never wanted to be responsible for someone’s death.
(Comedy Central Presents, BBC’s Officially Amazing, Hour special on Nuvo)
The joke I have here is one of my favorite jokes because it deals with social mobility, which traditionally is not a funny topic. In my act I say I am secretly jealous of white guys because they get to do so many things without being questioned. As a black man, if you do anything that is considered a non-traditionally black activity you will be the subject of ridicule and jokes from your friends. It’s usually good-natured, but the jokes from your friends definitely come from somewhere. This joke is really telling black men, go ahead and do whatever you want, even if it’s not a traditionally a black activity, it’s probably a popular activity because it’s fun as hell. So go ahead, and even if your friends call you “white”, hey, you got to go zip lining- so f*ck it.
(Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, Conan, Showtime’s Live at SXSW)
It’s not my favorite joke of all time but I like the story. I used to work as a janitor in a skyscraper at a hedge fund company in midtown. The job title was technically “porter” but we all knew what I was. It was a rough gig, but it beat working at a desk. One of my daily janitor duties was to mop the big green tiled lobby. I hated doing it so much because my boss said “always mop the lobby first thing!’…BUT that’s when everyone showed up to work. So not only am I standing there with a mop bucket, but everyone is smudging up my floor right after I gave it a once over. It was a disaster. I was in everyone’s way, people would slide around as they walked to their office and they were all so annoyed with me. I wanted to complain to my boss, but I know if I did then he’d tell me to come in earlier and I didn’t want to do that so I would just grit my teeth and knock it out. Well, I should have figured out some solution because one day as I was mopping, a guy in a snazzy suit walked through the lobby and took the spill of his life. I’m talking legs straight up, he was horizontal in mid-air then came down hard. He snapped! He started chewing me out as he was slowly getting back up. He kept screaming at me "If you’re gonna mop, you have to put a wet floor sign down! Where’s the sign!?” I didn’t understand. Why did he need a sign? I was mopping IN FRONT of him. I was the sign! I’m the guy on the mopping sign but in 3D! I got in a lot of trouble and was so mad I wrote a joke about it and luckily it worked.
(HBO’s Crashing, Showtime’s Live at SXSW, Album “Sweet Beth” out now)
Right, so I have my ex-boyfriend’s signature tattooed on my back. And while I’m not going to show it to you cause you’re a stranger and you didn’t ask nicely, I can assure you that it’s very tasteful, and it’s a reminder of a great time and wonderful person in my life. I met Nick freshman year of college and thought he was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. He was a much older (2 full years) Theatre major at Miami University. While I had his attention as a funny underclassman (he called me dude a lot), for years I worked slyly (sometimes more obviously) to win this angel’s affection. In your twenties one year seems like 7, or maybe it actually was 7 years before I texted Nick when I was in Ohio opening for Tom Segura at The Funny Bone in Cincinnati. Because I was a grown-ass woman now, and I had half-read a book about getting the guy, my text was both empirical and straightforward: “Are you married yet?” So smooth. Nick ended up coming to the last possible show of the weekend and as natural as my 30lb weight loss, we spent an incredible night together eating pizza and kissing under the stars on his roof. Nick and I were a couple and it was beautiful for three years. You see, we were in a long distance relationship, him in Ohio and me in LA. The tattoo was a reminder to not stray from the guy I had wanted and pursued for so long. It worked, but the relationship didn’t. AND I’LL NEVER STOP LOVING HIM.
(Comedy Central, WTF w/ Marc Maron, WOMEN)
One of my favorite jokes I’ve ever written is also one of the first jokes I wrote. I love it because it’s small and simple – so many of my jokes are long stories or multi-part diatribes, but this joke is just short and dumb. I love a good one-liner, and I wish I had more in my act. The joke is also incredibly dark, and there’s nothing better than a dark joke. A joke that makes you laugh and simultaneously cough or scoff or shake your head or even get angry, because you can’t believe you heard those words come out of a person’s mouth, is maybe my favorite type of joke. You wouldn’t know it to watch me I think, because I talk a lot about my feelings and being good to people and other bullshit like that, but nothing makes me laugh harder than something stupid, pointless and borderline evil.
This is the joke:
Everyone should tell people they used to be homeless, because if you’ve been homeless, no one can complain to you ever again. Try it. 'What did you say to me? What? Were you homeless? No. So… Shut the f*ck up.’ 'But Dave, I was molested!’ 'Yeah! In your HOUSE!’