Why I'm proud of my crap joke

by Matt Price

A few months ago, I had an idea for a joke that I knew that some people wouldn't like. It required the use of a prop, which meant the possibility that some comedians wouldn't like it either. I thought it was funny and interesting enough to crowbar into my set which usually consists of joke based stories and banter. I've always been a fan of bad jokes and it would seem -– from the number of websites returned if you Google the phrase ‘bad jokes’ – that I am not alone.

There are dozens of websites that are dedicated to bad jokes and jokes that are so bad they are good. www.crapjokeoftheday.com has possibly the worst jokes on the internet, which I mean as a compliment.

What surprised me was that occasionally my joke caused more anger and hostility than amusement, more so than anything else I have done. I feel as a comic that it's important to take responsibility for what we say on stage, but had no idea that I would ever feel the need to defend a stupid joke about a fish.

There have been a number of studies by psychologists with conclusions such, as telling bad jokes can be harmful to health or that a bad joke is an insult to the listener. (For example, this one).

There is also a saying in comedy that a groan is as good as a laugh. Wordplay or puns for example, can elicit groans or even cheers from audiences, which shows how good acts such as Milton Jones, Gary Delaney and Tim Vine really are to perform full length shows and have audiences howling with laughter. To the part-time performer of bad jokes, the challenge to make a pun or a bad joke work, when it's not what you do, can be huge.

There are times when I wish that I witnessed the birth of alternative comedy. Those who were there tell fascinating tales of how comedy evolved. I would love to have watched The Ice Man for example, whose act was just him melting a block of ice with a blow torch. I was told by an elder statesman of the comedy circuit that sometimes the audience loved it but then he would ruin it and start telling jokes. So there is, it would seem, always a fine line between what works and what doesn't.

I don't know what audiences were like back then, but logic tells me that as comedy has evolved, so have audiences. By this, I mean that their understanding of comedy and their capacity to get a joke has surely increased? As a performer, the challenge is to adapt to the audience in front of you. So in that respect bad jokes are a tool or technique, no different to call backs or changes in volume or pace. Ideally, what we do should be customised for any given audience.

So what of my now controversial fish joke?

I wasn't willing to buy a ventriloquist's dummy for one joke that may not work, so I went to a charity shop and bought a cuddly toy fish. It was £2.50 and I thought I could take it back if the joke didn't work.

Walking through town, people stared at the fish. This was only the start. I took the fish with me to a gig and the reaction was extraordinary. I didn't try my joke for at least ten gigs because I had to deal with being heckled immediately as I walked onto the stage holding the fish, people whispering, ‘Why does he have a fish?’ The time simply wasn't right to try out the new bit, although the fish itself became a talking point and generated much in the way of banter.

Trying out new stuff is always exciting. I usually know within three gigs whether something will work properly, but this was a challenge. I was determined to do the fish joke justice. At one gig I handed the fish to a heckler and asked him if he would like to try heckling again, but to keep in mind that it needed to be really good this time because he was holding a fish.

The audience laughed and so did the heckler. It was joke a about a joke. A form of meta comedy if you like. For a moment, I felt like a modern day version of the Ice Man. We were all in on the joke, even though none of us really knew what the joke was. As I left the stage the audience demanded that I did the fish joke. I did as they requested and left to huge applause. I'd at least found one way of making a bad joke good and I've had fun with the fish ever since. Well, mostly.

For most people the fish joke is just a daft gag that doesn't rely too much on language for its effect.

That's probably why it usually works for Eastern and Central European audiences as well as here in the UK. And a laugh is a laugh in any and every language.

When the joke fails, though, Europeans tend to be puzzled and bemused by it, whereas Brits are more likely to feel somehow cheated and a very few have been quite aggressive.

In the UK recently I had someone approach me after a gig and tell me how much he enjoyed my set but that he really hated the fish joke. I even had someone post a comment on my blog: ‘I can honestly say that I think Ventrilofish is fucking shit.’ That strikes me as a bit strong for a 45-second routine but it takes all sorts, I guess.

It's interesting to speculate on the reasons for different audience reactions. Differences of language? Different cultural expectations? Who knows?

Fortunately for me, most people laugh most of the time. I think that means that I'm doing my job and as long as they keep on laughing, I will always try and find room in my set for at least one bad joke.

And here, ladies and gentleman, is the fish bit:

Published: 18 Apr 2011

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