Flailing your way out of a failed joke
Nothing is as uniquely ego-wounding and embarrassing as the awkward silence following a bad joke.
Observe: Have you heard about the new corduroy pillows? They're making headlines.
We'll assume you have not been slayed. Although that stinkbomb was culled from an infinite online source of bad jokes, not our own minds, there is shame in our collective Alibi bosom. So what's the right protocol when a joke goes horribly wrong? Here are two famous scenarios, one of suicide and one of recovery (sounds like we're about to talk about drugs):
1) Michael Richards' appearance in an L.A. comedy club has received attention for Richards' repugnant racist remarks, as it should, but it's also exemplary of one worst-case scenario in joke telling. After being interrupted in the middle of his set, the former “Seinfeld” star makes a racist comment, delivered in the cadence and posture of a stand-up comedian, not that of an angry outburst. The audience continues to laugh. Then, instead of stopping himself, Richards pushes it over the edge, repeatedly saying the “n” word and other epithets, as if his outburst has some acceptable comic license. Thus, the demise of Kramer.
2) Gilbert Gottfried takes the stage at the New York Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner soon after 9/11. Gottfried opens with: “I wanted to catch a plane, but I couldn't get a direct flight because they had to stop at the Empire State Building first.” Someone in the audience yells, “Too soon.” There is a lull, then Gottfried says, "OK" and launches into “The Aristocrats,” the notoriously dirty joke, which was made into a film of the same name last year. The audience is quickly hysterical, and Gottfried's performance (and career) is saved.
You won't know if your joke will bomb until you tell it, so the moral of the story is this: If you plan on taking a risk by being offensive, corny or otherwise, come prepared with a back-up, some reliable chestnut that will get the audience back on your side. When your original joke fails (it's bound to happen sometime), don't dwell on it--just cough up a zinger! Even if the second joke isn't hilarious, moving on shows you don't take yourself too seriously.
Laura Marrich contributed to this article.