Laughter as medicine: How to write good jokes about bad things

5 essentials of quarantine comedy.

COVID-19: Is it funny? No. Can you write jokes about it? Yes. DEPENDING. You need to be careful. Do it wrong, and you’ll bum people out (and/or, for one thing, be racist). But do it right, and you’ll do what comedy does: bring people together (even at 6 feet apart). 

I have thought a lot about writing good jokes about bad things. I have struggled with PTSD since I was sexually assaulted as a teenager. I’m also a comedian—and I’ve talked about PTSD and assault on stage for years. Recently I recorded a podcast, hosted by two former soldiers who’d done tours in Afghanistan, where comedians talk about mental health. On the podcast, I half-joked, “The only people who get to talk about PTSD are soldiers and assault survivors.” 

Obviously, that half-joke is not 100% true, but it does highlight a few crucial things to think about when you want to tackle the tough stuff. It might seem hard, but—take it from me, Hannah Gadsby, Cameron Esposito, Adrienne Truscott, Tig Notaro, Julia Sweeney, Maria Bamford, and many more, and their fans—it’s important, cathartic, empowering, and worth it. Big picture, joking about hard topics is a delicate process, but when done right it can accomplish something very special: make comedy important

So! We are all stuck inside right now, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave your funny stuck inside, too. Since coronavirus is top of mind, I encourage you to rise to the challenge and explore where in this terrible situation you can find some true funny. Crack up your fam or just work on your craft—and let us know how it goes (@goldcomedy)!

Here’s how to get it right:

1. Keep it personal. 

Ask yourself: Did this terrible thing happen to or affect me directly? The answer pretty much needs to be yes. Take: cancer. If you have struggled with it or someone close to you has, that makes it fair game for you. (Again: See Tig Notaro and Julia Sweeney, who have made true comic art about their own experiences with illness.) In the case of COVID, that test is easier to pass: We are all affected in one way or another by the social distancing, job loss, confusion, isolation, fear, etc. (not themselves funny, but all definitely a source of comedy).

I regularly make jokes about being a sexual assault survivor. So do other comics who are also survivors, and we always clap each other on. But when I see someone making a joke about sexual assault who is not a survivor, I get wary. It might turn out to be a good joke if it punches the right way (see below), but as a comic, it’s also your job to take care of your audience and not make them think they need to worry about how to respond to something. When Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, I had a joke about how “all” “Bretts” are rapists. During the setup, I made clear that as a survivor I was deeply affected by the hearings—and that helped audiences know it was going to be okay to laugh at whatever came next. 

2. Punch in the right direction. 

In comedy, you punch up. That is, you make the butt of the joke something or someone with more power than you. Avoiding punching down—making fun of people with less power than you—is incredibly important when you’re joking about sensitive topics. (Read more about punching up vs. punching down here.) In today’s terms: DON’T make fun of people or families suffering because of COVID. (DON’T make fun of Chinese people, or even China, for “starting the disease.” You might think it’s punching up because China is a country, but jokes like that usually rely on racism, which is always punching down.) DO (for example) make fun of powerful people you think are NOT HELPING (hilarious example from @Adley here), or—of course—of the ridiculous ways that YOU are responding to the experience of being stuck at home. 

Making fun of yourself (punching the mirror?) is usually called self-deprecating comedy. A word of caution: You might lose the audience if they feel like you are beating yourself up too much. When I do jokes about my sexual assault on stage I don’t blame myself for getting assaulted or punch down at other survivors; I punch up towards the concept of assault, people who think it’s ok to hurt others, or the culture that allows such things to happen. This way, you’re talking about something specific to you—but everyone can relate. 

3. Know your audience.

It’s always important to read the room (an actual room or whoever’s listening to/reading/etc. your jokes), but it’s most important when your topic might alienate or trigger members of your crowd. 

Let’s say (rule 1, above) you’re making a joke about your struggle with a death in the family. You’re punching up (rule 2) by making the joke about the U.S. healthcare system. But the joke bombs. Why? Maybe your joke reminded too many people of someone they miss. Maybe your crowd thinks the healthcare system is awesome. No matter what: It happens.

Of course,  bombing with material that is personal and difficult can hurt a lot more.  I have a joke about when I told an ex-boyfriend I was a survivor. He said, “Like CSI,” and I said, “No, like SVU.” That joke works EVERY TIME, except…that one time. That one time made me feel worse than any other bomb in my life. Make sure you are ready to share these jokes, and try to find an audience that will support you. 

4. Be open to (most) feedback. 

Audience members (in real life or online) are often VERY HAPPY to share their opinions on your jokes. Maybe especially jokes about hard topics. When I started doing jokes about sexual assault, it was before #MeToo had reached full force. We weren’t talking as much about assault as a culture. I had a lot of male comedians tell me to stop. I had other comedians go on stage after me and riff at my expense with their own terrible “rape jokes.” Those…aren’t the opinions to be listening to. 

DO: Listen to people who have been affected by the same bad things as you. If your joke is good, they will often be your biggest supporters. They will be much more valuable to your writing process than simply listening to those who say, “You can’t talk about that.” 

5. Make sure YOU are ready. 

Even if you follow all these steps, the most important thing about making these types of jokes is making sure you are ready. Not as a comedian, but as a person. These jokes are extremely personal if done right. You open yourself up on stage with these jokes—and that is hard. Some wounds are just too fresh for jokes, so don’t push or rush yourself. Not everything in your life has to be fodder for performance. Once you are ready, don’t be discouraged, if you stick to your story in a respectful and thoughtful way, no one can tell you you’re wrong. 


Rosa Escandón is a New York-based writer and comedian. She’s been seen on Buzzfeed Video, DAZN, Seriously.TV, and other silly internet videos that you can watch here. She is a contributor to Forbes and has been an editor at the Tusk and a writer for Laughspin.

Rosa has served on the board of Cinder Block Comedy Festival and is a proud alumna of Bloomers: All Female Sketch Comedy. She joined the board of the Black Women in Comedy Festival for its inaugural year. She is a member of the sketch troupe Infinite Sketch. 



Are any jokes off-limits? How to know if you’re punching up vs. punching down

A student in one of our workshops once tried out a joke about wanting to hide a knife in her hijab to cut the boys who tried to take it off.

Can she do that? It’s edgy, but sure.

But could a white dude do a joke about trying to take off a girl’s hijab? NOT RECOMMENDED.

This is all a way of answering the very, very common question: Are any jokes off-limits? The answer is YUP! But the real questions are: Which ones, and how do you figure it out?

Put another way:

Is stabbing people funny? NOT REALLY.

Can you do a joke about stabbing people? MAYBE!

It all depends on your joke, on your intention, and on you.

This is why people talk about punching down versus punching up.

Simply put, punching down means making jokes about people with less power than you. Punching up means making jokes about people with more power than you. When you make fun of a mean principal, you are punching up. When you make fun of the dweeby kid, you are…bullying.

Comedy is better when you punch up.

Punching up is morally preferable, generally kinder, and most likely to make the world a better place, as awesome comic and beloved friend of GOLD Negin Farsad notes. “It’s vital to understand the job comedy can do in actively providing a counterbalance to bigotry and prejudice, as well as understanding the types of humour that reinforce negative stereotypes,” she says. “I want to make sure I’m punching up, not punching down.”

But let’s also look at it simply from the level of craft. A punch line is a surprise. A punch line takes some work. A punch line reveals something new, or says a familiar thing a new way. A punch line may even, at best, not just be a rando wisecrack, but a joke that only YOU can tell: a window into your unique point of view.

So for instance when you make fun of someone short, you’re revealing that they are SHORT—and showing us nothing about what makes YOUR POV unique. When you make fun of the mean principal, you’ve got much more to work with: you can reveal something about how you relate to the grownups who boss you around, and you’ll get people on your side without ganging up. And bonus: no one in the crowd will think, “Eeep, that comic’s kind of mean.”

At the level of craft, it’s lazy to write the easiest joke about the easiest target. Comedy is about being CREATIVE and getting people to LIKE you. Do the harder work on your end and you’ll make easier for them.

Where are your up and down?

Up and down are different for different people. It all depends on how up or down YOU are on the existing power structure (#fighthepower). Straight cis white dude, up. Young woman of color with a hijab, farther down. Let’s call them Norm and Nora. Nora could make jokes about Norm. Norm probably should not make jokes about Nora.

But wait. It’s not really that simple. If Norm makes a joke that puts Nora down for being female, of color, Muslim: that’s punching down. If Norm makes a joke ABOUT sexism, racism, Islamophobia with Nora as his main character: bruh, that’s punching up. Because then he’s making fun of the existing power structure itself. Go, Norm.

#elephantintheroom

Can you make rape jokes? YUP!

Quiz: Will the better jokes be about (a) rape victim(s) or (b) perps and the culture that excuses rape, etc. etc.?

If you answered (b), go write some jokes!

There it is: there is no TOPIC that is off-limits. Not even rape! It’s the joke—the target, the POV, the intention—that requires evaluation.   

When in doubt, answer these key questions.

  1. Who or what is my target? Starting point: make sure the target of your joke—the who or what you are making fun of—has more power than you. (Margin of error: one bratty kid sibling.)
  2. Who is my audience? Do they have roughly the same up/down as you? You should be good. If not, tread more carefully. (This interesting counterpoint to the up/down idea is relevant here.)
  3. How’s my tone? YOU KNOW (and so does the crowd) if a joke is coming from a place of snarky mean, or a place of legit anger. (Sometimes legit anger can justify snarky mean, but that’s an advanced move.)
  4. How’s the joke doing? If it’s crushing with the people you want it to crush with, then you’re probably doing fine. (If it’s crushing with a**holes, maybe let it go.) And if it’s just not working at all, even after some tinkering, it’s just not working. Let go of the idea (usually pushed by people on the higher end of the up/down) that COMEDY IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE or whatever. Naw. It’s supposed to make people laugh.
  5. What does my gut say? How do you feel when you tell this joke? Delighted and energized, or a little tight and squinched up? Your gut knows what’s up. Your gut is a tough crowd, but a good one. If your gut feels off, maybe the joke is, too. If your gut feels good, punch on!

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