I often laugh about my own jokes, which apparently I shouldn’t do because it violates a social rule or something. But somebody has to? I’ve noticed that very few other people laugh when I crack a joke. Maybe they didn’t get it or know it was a joke, which I could’ve clarified if I were allowed to laugh myself. Or could it be that I’m not as funny as I think? No... it can’t be. Although I must admit that I know many people who think they’re funny even though they make jokes that aren’t funny at all. Is it possible that I’m one of those people? A good sense of humour is hard to come by, it appears to me.  

Worst case scenario, I’m not so funny after all. The next question is, who is then? We can only really say with confidence that comedians are funny, because they make a living out of it after all. But what makes them successful at being comical, and why are their jokes funny and aren’t mine? The Humour Code proclaims that for comedians to become successful, they must be edgy and their jokes somewhat twisted. Comedians approach life with sheer sarcasm, ridicule serious world issues, and insult practically anyone around them. So if you want to entertain an audience, jokes must be dark and should leave people feeling slightly uncomfortable. 

We seemingly adore stand-up comedians no matter how offensive they are. We laugh while they crack sexist and antisemitic jokes, applaud when they go on a narcissistic and homophobic rampage, and cheer while they swears and makes comments so vulgar that kids aren’t allowed to come near them. A comedian in the Netherlands once said to an attractive, yet somewhat older, lady on live-television that he could never bear seeing her naked because he ain’t no necrophiliac. It’s not uncommon that the ruthless jokes of comedians destroy other people, but it doesn’t stop the audience from laughing anyway.  

However, people only get away with that stuff when they’re on stage. What about regular people like me, who just want to score some points with the new parents-in-law? Dark jokes about sensitive topics wouldn’t be much appreciated I’m sure. The same goes for stereotyping and vulgar jokes; that’s why we call it bad humour. What’s normally considered good humour are practical jokes, one-liners, sarcasm and self-irony. They only work in proportion though, and the timing must be right. I don’t think my mother-in-law would appreciate it if I replace the content of her shampoo bottle with balsamic vinegar, and my father-in-law might think less of me when I take my self-irony too far. 

Nevertheless, if I learn to make appropriate jokes only when the timing is right, being adored will be pretty much guaranteed. People like humour because it diminishes stress, spreads optimism, and stimulates a feeling of intimacy. Phychologists even started using humour as a treatment to pull mentally unhealthy people out of their misery. They force patients to smile under their watch and call it laughing therapy. When it doesn’t work, they can resort to group therapy. Because people often laugh when others do, even when they didn’t hear the joke, phychologists figured that laughter must be contagious. “Laugh and the whole mental hospital laughs with you.” Even general doctors recommend humour as a medicine, because it allegedly stabilizes our blood pressure, increases our heart rate, and boosts our immune system. Even more reason for me to learn how to be funny! 

An easy way to start would be with one-liners, as they’re more a matter of memory than comical skills. For example: “My wife accused me of being  immature. I told her to get out of my fort.” Or: “Someone in London gets stabbed every 52 seconds. The poor bastard.” What about: “My drug test came back negative, my dealer sure has some explaining to do.” My parents-in-law will love it! The best joke in the world, according to two million people from 70 countries, goes as follows: “Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground and stops breathing. The other guy immediately calls 911 and shouts I think my friend is dead! What can I do? The operator replies with a calm, soothing voice: Just take it easy, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead. A silence follows, and then a shot is heard. The guy comes back on the line and says: OK, now what?” Hilarious, but not everyone might laugh. Humour will always be subjective and even varies per country. British people like one-liners with word plays, Americans prefer jokes that make people look stupid, and Europeans enjoy gasps about something surreal, like a duck that walks into a bar for instance. So I better start memorizing jokes for each country separately, if I want to be funny all over the world. 

But everything in life comes at a price, and being funny has its downsides too. There has been a persistent association between comedy and depression, referred to as the dark clown. Suicidal Robin Williams and neurotic Woody Allen aside, The Laugh Factory now employs a full-time psychiatrist to provide constant counselling to their staff. Stand-up comedians even joke about it themselves, it’s what they do after all. Their joke goes like this: “A comedian walks into a clinic and the phychologist says: Lie down and tell me everything you know. The comedian hasn’t been able to get an appointment since because the phychologist started to do his own acts.” I don’t really get it, but I’m obviously still learning the ins and outs of humour. Could it mean that the thoughts of sad people give inspiration to funny people? Does it take a troubling mind to be funny? 

It could also be that because comedians are the ones making the jokes, they hardly ever get to laugh themselves. Comedians are also often introvert and shy, it turns out, so perhaps they use humour as a defence mechanism. Exceptionally funny people are also more likely to be overweight, smoke, and drink heavily, which supports the troubling mind theory. Studies even showed that comedians die younger than their less-funny peers. It makes me wonder whether I should pursue becoming funny after all. Maybe I rather want to be on the laughing side of life. Others can makes jokes and suffer from anxiety, while I laugh and stabilize my blood pressure. But how will I be liked if I don’t make jokes? It might come down to a basic pros and cons chart. Popularity, stress release and optimism in the one column; depression, obesity and premature death in the other. Or I could try to find a balance and mitigate my comical output. One night I do the joking, the next one I do the laughing. My parents-in-law will be happy, I will be happy.