Comedy will always divide people - it's what it does | That's why saying 'it's just a joke' is disingenuous, says Joel Morris

Comedy will always divide people - it's what it does

That's why saying 'it's just a joke' is disingenuous, says Joel Morris

Be Funny Or Die coverToday marks the publication of Be Funny Or Die, professional comedy writer Joel Morris' comprehensive exploration of the psychological, cultural and linguistic dimensions of what makes us laugh to provide a unique overview of the artform. In this exclusive extract from the book – subtitled How Comedy Works and Why It Matters – the co-creator of dimwit pundit Philomena Cunk explains how being divisive is an intrinsic part of comedy – and the joke is on us if we don’t understand how it works...

In 2002, Amaani Lyle, a recently fired writers’ assistant on Friends, took out a lawsuit against the hit show’s producers, because her job – basically a secretary who keeps notes of all the crazy ideas being thrown around the writing room – meant she had to transcribe conversations between the writing staff that she felt were offensive. 

The writing team defended their sometimes edgy and confessional banter as a necessary part of the creative process, particularly on a show filled with occa-ssionally risqué jokes about young people’s sex lives. The writing team was mainly male and white. Lyle wasn’t. Which made her feel very uncomfortable. So she said something. 

The writing team’s argument was that saying the unsayable was like clearing your throat before speaking. Before getting down to the business of writing broadcastable network comedy, there was a limbering-up period for the group where the only rule had to be no rules. Friends was a lucrative factory spinning this room’s off-colour banter into syndicated comedy gold. 

But it was all just a joke, no harm meant. The tribe was safe. What’s the problem? It’s funny. 

And the writers’ assistant lost her case. The Friends team argued that although the writers’ private warm-up conversations, written down cold on paper, could be seen as racist, misogynist and offensive, none of the aggression in the room was directed at Lyle personally. It was comedy, not aggression. 

The writers and producers meant it sincerely. But the feelings of the rejected member of the team tell us loads about comedy’s tribal function. What had happened was that the outsider from the writing-room tribe had been told that they had to accept the majority’s values or leave the group. 

The tribe and its values were secure. Comedy isn’t pretty, yeah, and if you can’t take a joke… 

It’s unlikely the result would be quite that way today, now we better understand how ‘othering’ works in social spaces. But in terms of our Golden Rule of Comedy – make ’em laugh – what had failed was the middle word. 

While attempting a skilful Make (resulting in lots of killer jokes), the team had experienced a full-scale ’Em failure (by making one member of the supposed tribe feel as if they didn’t belong), and, long term, because suddenly everything felt unsafe (to the extent that lawyers were called in), that had led to Laugh levels falling to zero. 

Comedy is always used to make a statement of identity. Any one of us might make in-jokes about our hobbies, home towns, families or worldview, and these jokes are designed to only be shared and enjoyed by ‘our people’. We do this for entirely positive reasons, to create a feeling of safety, strength and belonging within our tribe. The writers were right to invoke the idea of a ‘safe space’, because that was exactly the process. The no-holds-barred chat was to create an environment of trust that would enable the writers to relax and start work.

But because the show only had a certain sort of person in that writers’ room, and the writers’ assistant didn’t belong to their tribe, the natural consequence of that was that this outsider was eventually identified and rejected. 

How we got here 

The explosive 21st-century issue of what we ‘can and can’t say’ is this same question of who is welcomed inside and who is driven outside the room where we make our jokes. And that isn’t a side issue with comedy: it’s central to what the thing is. 

Making jokes requires sophisticated room-reading skills. The room comes first. 

Before we can even speak the language of comedy, we need to agree on a shared dictionary. And nowadays, whether writing jokes for a living, sharing a gag in the office or posting funny stuff on a social media feed, none of us are in our assumed-safe-space equivalent of a 1990s Friends writers’ room. 

We aren’t within a sealed and sacred tribe, unless we actively choose to be. Which is fine. But if we do deliberately seal our bubble, shut the doors, make sure nobody outside the gang is listening, we should know what we’re doing, and we shouldn’t pretend we haven’t locked ourselves away. 

Being the one person who isn’t laughing feels bad, because that’s how comedy works. We use the assumed values buried deep inside jokes to tell people who we are, to draw lines around our social group, to create entrance conditions for membership, and make people within that group feel safe. We might then signal that we have stablised the social group by exchanging a joke that contains a package of our values. And then we’ll signal that we now feel safe by laughing. 

And if someone doesn’t laugh, that’s part of the deal. If that person complains that certain jokes make them feel uncomfortable or persecuted, that’s not necessarily down to their paranoia, or humourlessness, or censorship. 

Yes, sure, they are a killjoy, but that’s just a literal description of what’s happening when someone within the assumed shared values of a joke doesn’t share those values. Doing that kills the joy. 

Unfortunately, ‘making someone outside the gang feel shitty’ might just be a blunt description of one of the things jokes are meant to do. 

There’s a great 1970s Ray Lowry Private Eye cartoon of the Hindenburg airship disaster. Most of the half-page drawing is a chaotic inkblot of flame. A tail fin pokes limply out of the fireball. Canvas and ribbing rain down. Far below, a tiny crowd on the ground looks up, and one of them is saying:  ‘Does anybody know whether they’re supposed to do that? 

That’s where comedy is now. We’re all looking up at the explosion of hurt feelings and fears of censorship and wondering, ‘Does anybody know if comedy is supposed to do that?’ 

And the answer is: yes. 

Comedy isn’t meant to make everyone laugh at the same things. It’s meant to divide us, and delight us, to appeal to niche audiences. It’s not meant to bring the world together in harmony to laugh at the ultimate joke that tickles us all equally. It’s meant to gather us in small tribes under the flag of whatever joke we, and only we, like best. 

Comedy is like our teenage taste in music but turned up  to ten. There are jokes that everyone kind of likes, but usually nobody loves those ones. Those are the ones that fall out of Christmas crackers. And though nobody is going to reject a load of weak but functional puns as ‘not jokes’, you’re not going to feel this one was just for you. 

Comedy is tied up with identity and safety and comfort. It’s divisive and toxic and, sorry, it is meant to do that. 


We have to accept that jokes aren’t ever ‘just funny’. They’re funny because of what’s inside the joke, and how it reacts with what’s already inside our heads. Every joke defines its own audience: who gets the joke, who feels safe. They’re the ones who laugh. And every joke has the potential to reject others, who feel confused, or isolated, and maybe even threatened. They’re the ones who don’t laugh. 

So the important thing for anyone who creates or uses comedy is to acknowledge that comedy is both uniting and divisive. Because that is what it is designed to do. 

To claim ‘no harm meant’ about a joke whose main purpose is to gather your gang closer (and push others away as a consequence) is disingenuous. Even if you only know it subconsciously, thanks to the little buzz of communal warmth and belonging that comes with every joke, we all know what we’re doing. 

We joke for our friends, amongst our friends, to tell them that they are our friends, and to declare that we have this joke in common and that’s why we are friends. 

We are giggling with a sibling in the back row of a funeral again, and we will not be sharing the joke with the rest of the congregation, because it’s not for them. They wouldn’t get it. And if you really didn’t know you were shutting some people out when you cracked your mates up, and those excluded people complain, the least you can  do is either own it and say ‘that was the whole point’ or, alternatively – and this might seem a maverick option – you can say ‘sorry’. 

Meanwhile, in the Embassy Rooms 

In Comedians, Trevor Griffiths’ seminal 1975 play about the very early birth pangs of the alternative comedy scene, one of the hopeful evening-class clowns offers an unpleasantly misogynist limerick. Veteran stand-up Eddie Walters, leading the class, dismisses it with the classic putdown:  ‘That is a joke that hates women.’

Griffiths had written his play after watching an episode of Granada TV’s The Comedians, the hit showcase for working-men’s-club comics that launched provincial stars like Bernard Manning into the mainstream. 

The acts’ jokes were designed to bond their club audiences together with a loud declaration of shared values. The punchlines made clear the rules of admission and exclusion.

 To Griffiths, a left-wing progressive university-educated dramatist, every joke was ‘a lead pellet aimed at somebody in… my society’. But though the open sexism, homophobia and racism of the average 1970s Manning routine feels shocking today, the show’s jokes were only doing what Griffiths’ own jokes do: bonding his tribe together, marking the edges. 

Of course, laughing from the gut is more fun than laughing from the head, thinking all the bloody time. Of course, we worry about killing the fun of laughing without a care, but like Griffiths’ comedy class, we do need to be students of the jokes we tell. 

The most intelligent way to make good comedy, and to demonstrate any love and feeling for the craft, is to understand the nature of the tools we are using. Once you realise that dividing people is something that comedy does – not as an unforeseen side effect, but as part of its job – it becomes your responsibility as a user of comedy, amateur or pro, to ensure you’re using the equipment correctly. 

Just like you would if you were using a hedge trimmer. Read the instructions. Follow the safety advice. Keep an eye on where the cable is trailing. Know which bit is the sharp bit. 

Because if you know what this tool is for, and accept full responsibility for being in charge of it, you’re less likely to wave it in someone’s face and then act surprised when it cuts their nose off. 

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Published: 7 Mar 2024

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