Hi Dave – I want to ask you if you had any advice for when you tell someone you’re a comedian and the first thing they say is “tell me a joke” or “say something funny.” I think it’s a little rude of them. Also since my sense of humor is about storytelling, they seem really disappointed that I just don’t tell them a joke. Is there anything polite I can say when people say things like that to me? Thanks – K
Hey K – First of all, thanks for driving this week’s FAQ into Audience Participation Land. I’ll have something to say about this (as usual) below, but the best answers will come from working or aspiring comics who’ve had to deal with this.
This is where I’m throwing it out to everyone reading this. Have YOU been asked, “Tell me a joke” or “Say something funny” after someone found out you’re a comedian or humorous speaker?
* There’s a comment form at the end of this article.
Let’s hear what you’ll say when someone asks you, “Tell me a joke.”
As anyone who has been around the entertainment industry will tell you, this is not a new question or dilemma. It’s been a potential headache for performers whenever word gets out about what they do for a living.
An example of dealing with this from a Hollywood point of view is a classic scene in the film Loving You with Elvis Presley (humor me, I’m a classic rocker). A local greaser bullies him to sing a song. When he finishes, Elvis (“Sideburns”) asks what this guy does for a living – and tells him to return the favor, “Cuz I usually get paid for singing.”
You can see how it turns out at this YouTube LINK. Fast forward to about 1:30 into the clip – then duck & cover.
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“Tell me a joke” has also been the topic of more than a few comedy rants for probably longer than any of us has been around. I can’t remember who was on stage the first time I realized comedians dealt with this on a regular basis, but I’m pretty sure it was at the NYC Improv. And as a cheesy lounge singer in a cheesy lounge might introduce the bit:
“It went a little something like this…”
Comedian: So this guy says, “If you’re a comedian, then tell me a joke.” So I tell him a joke. Then I ask what he does. He says he’s a chef. So I say, “Okay, now you show me what you do. Make me dinner.”
In an Elvis movie, that would lead to a fight. In a fantasy movie, it could lead to the guy actually fixing the comic’s dinner. In real life – the guy asking the question would probably think the comic was trying to be funny and laugh it off (with a bit of deserved embarrassment, I hope).
You can also say you get paid for your work. Making audiences laugh is your job and you don’t work for free. If they want to cough up the bucks, you’ll tell them a joke.
My way of thinking – and this is probably from hanging around too many comedians for too many years – would lean toward the insult comic response. I can crack up just thinking of how Lisa Lampanelli, Bobby Slayton or Don Rickles would answer such a question.
I’d take a seat and enjoy the free show.
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But you mentioned being polite about it. That’s also clear when you said that you tell stories and your style of comedy – storytelling, rather than jokes – may disappoint them. So in your case… uh… well, I guess you should be polite.
I wouldn’t exactly want a seat to enjoy that type of free show, but since you’ve asked…
Thank them for their interest in your career and change the direction of the conversation. Most people like to talk about themselves, so go ahead and put the focus on them. Find out what they’re interested in and what line of work they’re in. And… uh… well, then (sorry for this, but I can’t help myself)…
Ask them to do it for you – FOR FREE!
“You’re a chef? Then make me a burger.”
Have a better comeback? The form is below…
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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.
For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com
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