Why Is Stand-Up Not Funny? (Was it ever?)

There are obviously some comedians better at stand-up than others, and not due to effort or natural ability. So why is stand-up not funny at times?

The answer to why is stand-up not funny is two-fold. The most obvious reason a comedy set is not funny is because of the comedian’s delivery and/or content. However, a second, often overlooked reason, is whether or not the audience is targeted and engaged properly.

Whether you a parent trying to find funny stand-up for your family or a teacher who’s learned that half of the teaching battle is good ‘stand-up’, I think this article is for you! Come with me for a unique look at the ins and outs of stand-up, and how it relates to children.

How is Stand-Up Comedy Different From Other Comedy Formats?

Stand-Up Comedy, aka public speaking, can be extremely terrifying for anyone, comedians included.

First, let’s answer the question of what makes stand-up ‘stand up’ and different from other comedic formats.

Stand-Up comedy is different from other comedy formats in that it is a one-person show. Alone in front of an audience, the comedian tells jokes and funny stories. The audience participates by laughing at punchlines, and sometimes through, solicited or not, dialogue with the comedian.

Many comedians have been able to carve out a specialized stand-up niche, setting them apart from other stand-up comedians. Let’s look at a few who’ve been successful at this, and how.

Use of Props

  • Jeff Dunham sets himself apart by his use of puppets for his comedy act, which he wrote about in his 2011 book, All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me (available at Amazon). Peanut, a purple ‘monster’, is his most popular and loved puppet whereas other comedy crowd favs are the curmudgeon, old man Walter, as well as ‘Achmed, the dead terrorist.’
  • Carrot-Top is another prop comedian. He has flaming orange hair, hence his comedy name, and is just as well-known for his incorporation of exaggerated and over-sized toys and other props during his stand-up acts.
  • Ron White almost always brings a glass of liquor and a lit cigar on stage whenever performing stand-up. Sometimes, he takes long dramatic pauses between funny bits to take a swig and puff, too. This is such a part of ‘Ron White’s Stand-up’ that without it, audiences would wonder what’s wrong (as if drinking and smoking on set are ‘right’, that is!).

Audience Participation

  • Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld often have conversations with their audience while they tell jokes. They talk to the audience like they’re a singular person, or some will pick out 1-2 unassuming members and ask them questions, and then, use that as guidance to direct their comedy routine.
  • Although Eddie Murphy is probably most well-known for using foul language in his 80s stand-up routine, or ironically enough as the voice of ‘Donkey’ in the massively kid-popular Shrek movies, he also frequently involves the audience with questions and chit chat for humor purposes.

Telling Stories

  • Aging comedian Bill Cosby most commonly told funny stories in his stand-up acts (though he often sat down on a stool during the shows!). I still remember his routine about going to the dentist, and laugh just thinking of how he used his whole body to tell the story!
  • Kevin Hart, one of today’s most popular comedians, often tells stories during stand-up. He’ll talk about parenting situations, for example, detailing different events humorously in a way to hook his audience’s attention.

One way to build humor with your kids is to use it strategically through routines or regular activities. For instance, our Fun Jokes For Kids Coloring Book is a great tool for embedding humor through kid-friendly activity.

Special Note for Parents, Grandparents, and Teachers

So why is knowing about ‘stand-up comedy’ important for parents, grandparents, and teachers? Well, humor is extremely important in our lives and understanding stand-up is one part of knowing about humor. So how is it important?

Research abounds with the benefits of a good sense of humor and regular episodes of laughter in our lives. For example, some studies like this 2006 report show us that it’s effective in promoting healing in cancer and heart patients. And this other example (2014, Trends in Cognitive Sciences) touts the social benefits of laughter, too, as children grow.

And then of course, as a retired public school teacher, I can provide decades-long instances of humor and laughter’s benefits for learning and relationship building in the classroom.

What are some ways parents, grandparents, and teachers can apply stand-up comedy?

  • By providing opportunity for their children or students to perform (It’s vital that children are self-motivated and not forced; however, many will enjoy entertaining others and being in the spotlight if they feel comfortable and safe in the home or school environment.)
  • Enjoying stand-up selections as a family or group (Adults should preview clips before showing to children and can use Common Sense Media and/or IMdB’s Parent Guide for vetting stand-up for age-appropriateness)
  • Incorporating humor into the relationship they build with their children, grandchildren, or students (By maintaining and modeling a good sense of humor to children, you’re teaching them appropriate humor, as well as important life lessons about humility, grit, and perseverance.)

Are Comedians Always Funny?

One reason stand-up is not funny is because comedians aren’t always funny. It’s as simply as that. So why do comedians, who’s main occupation is to be funny, fail at humor sometimes?

Comedians aren’t always funny. The comedian’s delivery can cause a joke to fall flat if he or she has bad timing, tone, or expression. As well, the joke’s content could be received as not funny if it is boring, doesn’t make sense, or crosses boundaries the audience views inappropriate.

When the jokes aren’t funny, neither is the comedian.

There are several comedians in recent years who’s comedy careers have suffered from crossing boundaries. Many, obviously, felt their jokes were funny, but because of audience reactions to their ‘punchlines’, they realized the jokes didn’t work.

Kathy Griffin, Michael Richards, the late Joan Rivers, and Bill Maher are just some of the comedians who have crossed lines of inappropriateness that their audience didn’t find funny.

Some content that is risky for comedians are jokes about race, politics, and religion. Also, jokes about recent tragedies are generally not good material for comedians. Most audiences are not prepared to laugh about terrorist attacks, either!

When the comedian’s delivery is off, the joke falls flat.

Common issues with delivery have to do with the comedian’s comfortableness on stage, his timing for the punchline, and his expressions, whether or not he really can convey the huor in his joke or story.

However, besides this, audiences also have to remember that comedians are people first, with good and bad days. This can affect whether or not a routine works from one day to the next.

Comedians And Depression

Then, ironically, many comedians actually suffer from depression. This is in stark contrast to someone’s profession that requires them to talk in front of audiences. However, it happens more than you’d think.

One very successful and popular comedian who suffered from depression was Robin Williams. Williams began like most comedians in stand-up, but he was also able to find success on the small and large screen.

His popular TV sitcom, Mork and Mindy, is fondly remembered by most kids of the 80s, whereas his film career spanned decades, and earned him many awards and recommendations.

Yet, Williams spoke frankly about his drug and alcohol abuse and the connection to his depression, debilitating at times. Sadly, he died by suicide at the age of 63 after a grim diagnosis of a brain disease.

There are many other comedians who battle depression. Ellen DeGeneres, Wayne Brady, Drew Carrey, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, and Patton Oswalt are just some who have been vocal about their personal struggles with depression.

So it makes sense that sometimes the tone, expression, and timing of jokes will be ‘off’ or un-funny if the comedian is dealing with personal struggles that conflict strongly with being a comedic performer.

To read more about laughter and humor, I recommend checking out these articles:

Why Is Some Stand-Up Comedy Not Funny?

Meg Cupernall, a stand-up comic, went viral with how she responded to a heckler. Hecklers are just one reason that stand-up comedy isn’t always funny.

So now that we understand that some comedians aren’t funny because of delivery or content, is there any other reason some stand-up comedy is not funny?

Some stand-up comedy is not funny because comedians fail to connect and engage the audience properly, which can include how to handle hecklers at shows. Another all too prevalent reason is that they rely too much on crude and shock humor.

What are some of the other reasons stand-up routines can fall short?

Hecklers can often inhibit stand-up comedy

Hecklers are those who talk back to the comedian out of turn, or unsolicited. Often this happens because they aren’t finding the performance funny. Other times this happens because they are inebriated or drunk and act disruptively.

How a comedian handles a heckler can either make or break his or her stand-up act. Some times comedians are able to diffuse hecklers by either retorting a rude comeback or by turning the spontaneous outburst into a humorous dialogue.

If a comedian is not ready for the heckler, and instead caught off guard, unfortunately for the entire paying audience, the show can suffer.

Not Targeting an audience correctly is why some stand-up isn’t funny

Sometimes a comedian’s comedy routine doesn’t pair well with the audience. This may be the case when the comedian is a guest or opening act of another more popular performer. Or it may just happen if the comedian is not well known and ends up performing in areas that conflict with his or her usual content.

It’s vital that comedians present themselves clearly, their main topics and joke styles, so that the audience will align. For instance, comedians should be clear if they use profanity or vulgarity in their acts before signing up to do a church function.

Also, some comedians like to insert politics into their gigs and if so, that could be important to share in their advertisements.

It’s expected that comedians will push buttons for laughs, but being clear up front with everything is a better way to target audiences and ensure stand-up is funny!

Jeff Dunham, who incorporates puppets in his stand-up acts, regularly sells out his shows at large theaters and other similar venues.

Even though stand-up is not always funny, there are many comedians who have been successful in stand-up. So, yes, stand-up can be funny!

Richard Pryor, One of Stand-Up Greats

One of the most successful early comedians in both stand-up and film was Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor was not one for the mild, either! He frequently peppered his show with curse words and wild stories. However, as a kid, I also know him from his performance in Brewster’s Millions, a remake in 1985, also starring another successful comedian, John Candy.

Carol Burnett, VIP Comedian

Carol Burnett, like many successful comedians, started in stand-up (hers a night sketch comedy show) and then eventually was able to move on tv and film. Her TV shows included Mama’s Family and her own Carol Burnett (variety) Show. She also famously played the evil Miss Hannigan in the film version of Annie.

Jerry Seinfeld parlayed his ‘observational’ stand-up routine into a hit TV sitcom, running for nine successful seasons. After a respite when his series ended, he returned to doing stand-up, selling out tickets in major theaters and large auditoriums.

Stand-Up Comedy Punchline

To recap, stand-up comedy is not always funny, like any kind of comedy format. Sometimes stand-up suffers due to the comedian’s delivery or personal issues; other times jokes fall flat because of their content.

Audiences play a critical factor in whether or not stand-up is funny, too, so comedians need to make sure they connect well and target their audiences appropriately.

Parents, grandparents, and teachers can utilize stand-up to build humor in their children and students; as well, it never hurts for adults to brush up on their own comedic timing, either, and stand-up is a way to do that!

To read more about laughter and humor, I recommend checking out these related articles:

Jackie Booe

A mother to four kids, grandmother ("Oma") to a growing number, a retired teacher for over 18 years, and a wife to Mat since 1994, Jackie knows kids and laughter. She holds a license to teach in 3 states and is certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners, with practical experience at all levels. She holds three degrees in the field of education and has taught education courses online at the university level as an adjunct professor, too. She has mentored numerous education interns, hosted professional development for educators, and tutored, in addition to homeschooling her own children.

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