Words have power. If you want to tell jokes, it’s important to take responsibility for your words, and use them in the best way possible. Here is how to tell jokes that uplift others, and cause smiles instead of tears.
Think about the type of reputation you want.
Who might like your joke? Who might be alienated? What type of person do you want to be seen as, and would this joke represent who you want to be, or not?
- For example, if you want to be known as kind and trustworthy, then making jokes at other people’s expense wouldn’t match that. If you want to be known as having cutting wit, then you might want to decide who does and doesn’t constitute an acceptable target.
- Recognize that people may appreciate jokes at the expense of cruel or evil people. For example, the satirical newspaper The Onion was praised by the public when it made jokes at the expense of the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Consider the subject matter of your joke.
Some topics are more likely to strike a sensitive spot than others are. A joke about a really cute animal, for example, is probably inoffensive, while a joke stereotyping people might hurt some feelings. People might be upset by jokes about…
- Politics (including identity politics)
- Ethnic origin
- People or animals being harmed (from mild injuries, to traumatic violence like rape)
- Stereotypes about a group of people
- Suggesting that people do something harmful
- Putting somebody down
Look at your audience and whereabouts.
Understanding where you are, and who you’re with, is important for knowing whether the joke is appropriate. Context matters, and a joke that is funny in one situation might be awkward in another.
- “Where are you?”
A group of divorced people might make an eager audience for your jokes about divorce. The guests at a wedding shower might find it a little inappropriate.
- “How formal is the setting?”
Your buddies might laugh about sex jokes when you’re at the bar, but it definitely wouldn’t be appropriate at work.
- “Are people trapped here?”
At a family reunion, people aren’t expected to leave until it’s over. Thus, if your jokes about racist people upset racist Uncle Bob, his disapproval might be an acceptable loss… but the conflict could also make the rest of your family very uncomfortable.
- “Are you making fun of someone in the audience?”
For example, if you make a joke at the expense of gay people, your gay friend might come out to you in the most awkward and scathing way possible.
- “Will the audience understand the joke?”
Young people might get confused by a complicated joke. Autistic people, and other literal thinkers, might think you’re being serious. Is it okay if this happens, and are you willing to explain it to them?
Recognize that words can hurt.
Think about a few of your prominent characteristics, and imagine if people used them as an insult. It would sting, wouldn’t it? Now take into account that some people are especially sensitive, and some characteristics ”are” used as insults. How many times has a woman heard that she is too emotional, a disabled person heard that bad things are “stupid,” or a black person taken extra safety precautions because they are wrongly stereotyped as violent? Words and microaggressions add up.
Consider that a vulnerable person may be listening to your joke.
For example, imagine yourself telling someone “jokingly” to kill themselves while the person is secretly dealing with self-esteem issues. Or that a rape victim will hear you joking about rape, or that the person listening to you talking about “wimpy goth cutters” secretly struggled with self-harm for five years.
- Even if a vulnerable person isn’t nearby, you’ll be shaping people’s opinions of those who are vulnerable.
- Or maybe a bully or aggressor will hear your joke. For example, if you make a rape joke, a rapist might hear you. Do you want a rapist laughing along, secretly considering you an ally?
Ask yourself whether you are punching up or punching down.
“Punching up” means poking fun at the more powerful party in this scenario, and it often challenges unfair power dynamics. “Punching down” means making fun of those who are not in power. Punching down should be avoided as it hurts the people who are most vulnerable, and they will quietly stop considering you someone they can trust. Punching up may bruise a few egos and ruffle feathers. Punching up is subversive and a little edgy, and punching down is just bullying.
- Making fun of women, LGBTQIA people, people of color, disabled people, fat people, poor people, and other marginalized groups is punching down. This is consistently inappropriate, and very likely to upset people.
- Misandry jokes, such as “men are so hormonal; lesbians go in locker rooms with women all the time without harassing anyone” are an example of punching up. These people don’t hate men; they’re turning the tables on the harassers and pointing out the myth that men have no self-control. Some people may laugh along, while others might get grumpy, so read the situation carefully.
- Sometimes, people in positions of power may turn angry or vindictive if you start “punching up,” so be prepared to deal with that if you start mocking the people in control. It may not be the wisest choice if you’re trying to keep peace at a place like a family reunion or workplace.
Choose insults that cover things that people ”can” control, …
… or make unflattering comparisons. For example, people can’t choose how intelligent they are, but ignorance, rudeness, and bad behavior are all choices. Feel free to get creative to come up with unique insults! Try mixing and matching from some of these…
- Personal odor (Did you bathe in a swamp?)
- Comparisons to disgusting things (trash, slime, dirt)
- Animal comparisons (muddy pig, frog wart)
- Ignorance (He is about as well-informed as a man who sits in his house all day making fart noises.)
- Rudeness or general terrible personality (You are the human equivalent of a mosquito.)
Ask yourself if it will add anything good to the world.
Will your joke be well-received? Will it cause genuine smiles, or could it cause pain? A good joke makes the world a happier place for everyone.
Be prepared to apologize for a bad joke.
While a good faith comedian’s jokes are usually well-received, you may eventually tread on someone’s toes by accident. You can minimize damage by taking responsibility for it and apologizing wholeheartedly.
- “I’m really sorry that I upset you. I didn’t think that it would hurt you, and I should have known better. I apologize.”
- “I’m sorry my race joke caused such an issue. My intent was to deconstruct white privilege, not to make things worse. Looking back, it was an ill-advised joke. I’m truly sorry.”
- “I’m sorry I made Grandpa angry with that ‘colonizer’ joke. I thought he’d take it in good spirits, and obviously I was wrong. It probably wasn’t the best thing to say at a family reunion.”
- “I should never have made fun of your speech disability. I realize it was incredibly hurtful and inappropriate I’m so, so sorry. I promise I’ll never do it again.”
- Some people are more sensitive than others. When in doubt, err on the side of kindness.
- Don’t joke about mental disorders, and especially do not use the “R” word.
- Intent does not equal impact. You can hurt other people without trying to.
- The “benign violation” theory holds that people find things funny if they are non-threatening violations of social norms. Thus, if your joke is not benign, and it hurts someone, it isn’t funny.
- Punching down or making cruel jokes may cause you to lose friends, even if you don’t realize it right away. And you may gain the sort of friends whose company isn’t particularly wholesome.
Please also read:
Have you ever made jokes that are offensive and would you like to share them?