When Funny Jokes Fail

On the limits of analogical comedy.

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I want to talk about analogy in comedy. Analogy is a form of metaphor that compares two things as a way of coming to a heightened understanding of one or both. We humans use analogical thinking to process just about everything that happens to us, so you can’t fault comedians for relying on it in joke after joke after joke. Nonetheless I will try.

The poet Stephen Dobyns writes that a successful metaphor is “functional rather than decorative, meaning it has to further the general intent of the poem and it must be necessary to the reader’s understanding and involvement in the poem.” He’s talking about poetry, obviously, but the same is true in comedy. A good metaphor heightens the joke. It raises the stakes and complicates our understanding of the subject, allowing us to see it from new angles and/or more clearly from the angles we already have. Consider John Mulaney’s “horse in a hospital” bit:

This guy being the president, it’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital. It’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital. I think eventually everything’s gonna be okay, but I have no idea what’s gonna happen next. And neither do you. And neither do your parents, because there’s a horse loose in the hospital. It’s never happened before. No one knows what the horse is gonna do next, least of all the horse. He’s never been in a hospital before. He’s just as confused as you are. There’s no experts. They try to find experts on the news. “We’re joined by a man who just saw a bird in the airport.” It’s like, get out of here with that shit. We’ve all seen a bird in the airport. This is a horse… loose in a hospital.

The analogy is very simple. Trump is like a horse in a hospital. The vividness of the image creates a sense of urgency, which Mulaney builds over a series of mostly short, shocked sentences. His invitation to consider the horse’s inner life heightens the metaphor by refracting it: to see ourselves from the other side is to see more clearly our own side, the depth of the peril we’re in. We leave the joke with a more complex, more deeply felt understanding of its subject.

That’s a good analogy. Dobyns writes that bad analogies are decorative rather than functional. They use metaphor for rhetorical purposes, “trying to convince the reader by what amounts to technical effects rather than by content.” In comedy, you often see decorative metaphors in jokes mechanically designed to get a laugh that still manage to say…… nothing. I am once again talking about late night.

Before I go any further I must present a selection of analogical jokes from the last week of late night. It’s going to be a very long selection. By all means skip to the bottom once you’ve gotten the idea. Or, if you have my exact brain chemistry, sit right on back and enjoy the ride.

Some of the officers who showed up in DC to put down the protests are a complete mystery, because their uniforms have no insignia, identifying emblems, or name badges. You can't do that! Clear identification is how we hold law enforcement accountable! Just like the waiters at Chili's. I'm not eatin' a triple dipper from just anybody in a red polo shirt. I need to know his name is Chad! There have to be standards! (Colbert)

You can find footage of peaceful protests all over Twitter, like this stirring scene from Houston, where Black activists fought for change on horseback. Come on! Look at that! It's like the Ride of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings, if there were any Black characters in The Lord of the Rings. (Colbert)

We've watched countless videos of local police departments arresting or violently attacking peaceful protesters, and reporters lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. In Fort Lauderdale, for example, an officer was caught on camera shoving a protester to the ground who was peacefully kneeling with her hands up. And now The Miami Herald reports that that officer has been reviewed by Internal Affairs for using force 79 times in his roughly three-and-a-half years on the force. Seventy-nine times in three-and-a-half years! I haven't used shampoo that much in the same time period. And, granted, I probably should have. But how many times do you have to get in trouble before you get fired? No other job works like that. If a commercial airline pilot had been investigated 79 times for flying upside down and doing barrel rolls while hammered on Goldschlager, we wouldn't be like, "All right, man. Eighty strikes and you're out." Of course, if it's more than three strikes—if it's ever more than three strikes, it's just not strikes anymore. It's tee-ball rules. No one's getting sent back to the dugout. They just get sent off to first base thinking, "I'm pretty good at baseball." (Meyers)

And of course the most shocking example in D.C. was the violent attack on peaceful protesters near the White House to make way for the president to participate in his dumb photo op where he walked over to a church and held up a Bible that wasn't his, like a teacher who just found a porno mag in the back of a classroom. "Guys, who is this? Fess up or I’ll have no choice but to conduct an investigation and inspect it myself. You're better than this, guys. You're better than this." (Meyers)

President Trump yesterday walked from The White House to a nearby historic church and posed for photos with a Bible. But why is he holding it like that? It's the Bible, not an auction paddle. Looks like a camp counselor going through lost and found at the end of the summer. “Is this anybody's book? No pictures in it, so it's certainly not mine. He knows what I'm talking about. Going once. Going—alright, into the trash it goes, you guys." (Meyers)

The president used police to violently attack a peaceful protest just so he could walk over to a church where even the clergy fiercely condemned him, and hold up a Bible in front of the cameras like a fourth grader who forgot about show-and-tell until the last minute. You can tell he's a man of faith from the way he holds the Bible like he's selling it on QVC. It wasn't even his, and he didn't seem to know where it came from. A reporter asked him about it and this was his answer: “Is that your Bible?” “It's a Bible.” Why so vague? Did you steal from it a hotel? He holds it like he's never held a Bible before in his life. He probably doesn't know how to read it either. Based on his grasp of Christianity, he probably reads it upside down and backwards. "Lot's wife was a pillar of salt, but then she looked back at Sodom, cured just like that." (Meyers)

The Times' editorial page editor James Bennett responded to backlash over the op-ed, writing: "Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counterarguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy. We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton's argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate." Wait, so your argument is you had to print a bad column in your newspaper so everyone would know it's bad? I mean, that logic makes no sense. If you go to a five-star restaurant, the chef doesn't serve you Arby's first just to make sure you know it tastes like [bleep]. (Meyers)

Donald Trump's speech last night was one of the most menacing moments in his three-and-a-half years as president, and that's saying a lot, given that he is always menacing. Remember during the debates when he stalked Hillary Clinton like a "Naked and Afraid" contestant trying to sneak up on a bird? I mean, half the time it looks like he's on a chain in the front yard scaring away a mailman. He only has two modes: menacing sociopath, or limp French fry that's been sitting in the bottom of the bag soaking up all the oil. And last night he cycled through both of them, in turns threatening to unleash the military on American citizens within our borders, and at other times, listlessly reading off a teleprompter like he just finished a Thanksgiving meal of Turkey with Sudafed stuffing: “America needs creation, not destruction. Cooperation, not contempt. Security, not anarchy. Healing, not hatred. Justice, not chaos.” Coke, not Pepsi. McDonald's, not Wendy's. Pizza Hut, not Domino's. But if there's no Pizza Hut, Domino's is fine. He's reading a speech in the middle of a national crisis like a 13-year-old reading from the Torah at a bar mitzvah. Can someone at least show him these speeches before he reads it cold off a teleprompter, like he's getting his vision tested at the DMV? "E, S, M, Q. Oh, we love Q. Oh, we love the Q, don't we, folks? So many great words use the Q. Quiznos. Hydroxychloroquine. Quick!" (Meyers)

The police can't even get through protests against police brutality without committing more police brutality. It's like if your wife accused you of having an affair in divorce court, and you tried to smooth it over by seducing the judge. "Look, the only question I have, your honor, is what's under that robe?" (Meyers)

Even elected officials were not immune from police violence, as a New York state assemblywoman, Diana Richardson, explained after getting pepper-sprayed at a protest in Brooklyn… You know, if you're going to pepper spray a group of peaceful protesters unprovoked, you might want to make sure those protesters don't know more about the law than you do. It's like trying to sell a reverse mortgage to Tom Selleck. “Nice try, those are just a trick to take your house.” Or like trying to sell a used car to Dom Toretto. "Trust me, the Dodge Dart, fastest car on the market." “It's not about speed. It's about family." (Meyers)

So far, Trump has turned off The White House lights, hid in a bunker, and is now building an ugly chain-link fence. He's like every crazy neighbor rolled into one. (Fallon)

Trump's thinking he can turn this around. Tomorrow he's going to walk to the Vatican, hold up a Bible and be like, "Okay, Pope Francis." How does Trump not know how to hold a book? I've never seen anyone hold—this is—have you ever seen anyone hold anything like that? It's like a broken GI Joe hand or something. I've never—it's like he's plucking the Bible from the Bible tree. (Fallon)

Last week, Trump was rushed to the White House bunker because of the protest. Earlier today, Trump said the report was false. Take a listen: "Well, it was a false report. I wasn't there. I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny little short period of time. It was much more for an inspection." Yeah, it's like running into a friend at the CVS buying hemorrhoid cream. You're like, I'm not buying, I'm inspecting—what is this? Hemorrhoid cream. I'm just inspecting. I'm a hemorrhoid cream inspector. What's the big deal?" (Fallon)

Meanwhile our president is still getting his Bible thump for that embarrassing photo session at St. John's Church on Monday. The White House today tried to explain why the orange chicken crossed the road, and Business Suit Barbie tried to spin it like this: “Through all of time we've seen presidents and leaders across the world who have had leadership moments and very powerful symbols that were important for a nation to see at at any given time to show a message of resilience and determination. Like Churchill, we saw him inspecting the bombing damage. It's a powerful message of leadership to the British people.” 

Churchill? When Churchill said “We shall fight them on the streets,” he wasn't talking about his own people. The only thing Donald Trump has in common with Winston Churchill is they wore the same size bra. And even though she just basically said it was a photo op, they continued to insist it was not a photo op. But let's review the facts: He walked to the church. He stood in front of the church. He never went in the church. Never spoke to anyone from the church. Didn't examine the damage to the church. Held up a Bible upside down. Didn't read from the Bible. Didn't give a speech. Posed for photos. And left. It sounds like a pretty textbook definition of a photo op to me. He treated it like taking your kid to see Santa at the mall. "You got the picture, okay let's get the hell out of here." (Kimmel)

I'm glad [Esper] spoke up. Why would a draft dodger be allowed to send in the military? It's like putting a vegan in charge of the barbecue.  (Kimmel)

Yesterday Trump's former Secretary of Defense, four-star general James “Mad Dog” Mattis gave the president one-star Yelp review. He lambasted his former boss, saying we are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership, and then he said Trump is a threat to the Constitution of the United States. The president of course fired right back. He tweeted, “Probably the only thing Barack Obama and I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world's most overrated general.” Did he call Meryl Streep overrated? “I asked for his letter of resignation and felt great about it. His nickname was “Chaos,” which I didn't like and changed to ‘Mad Dog.’” Which, not only is that not true—he had the nickname Mad Dog for years—it’s, what a strange thing to lie about. It’s so easily disproved. Remember the movie Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, where they lie and say they invented post-it notes? It's like that, but from the president. (Kimmel)

Whew! Okay.

Comedy is the art of calling things what they are. Analogy is a tool for expanding our understanding of things. Analogical humor fails when it ends up limiting our understanding rather than expanding it. Take Colbert’s Lord of the Rings reference. It’s certainly amusing, but it tells me nothing about his subject, Black cowboys, who were whitewashed out of popular Western narratives. This seems like relevant context for the protest he’s covering, not to mention worthy fodder for political humor. Instead he opts for a loving jab at a series we all know he’s fond of. It may similarly be funny to compare unmarked agents of the state to a waiter at Chili’s, but in truth these are nothing alike. One is a waiter at Chili’s, the other can shoot me dead and get away with it. The analogy makes the subject smaller, more familiar, less absurd. This is an odd thing to do when your subject is unmarked agents of the state.

A good metaphor invites the audience’s participation. Like referential humor, it offers an image or idea that activates the viewer’s memory, allowing them to use their own imagination to arrive at whatever point the writer is making. Obvious or overly explanatory analogies not only deny the audience this experience, they risk insulting the audience’s intelligence. I am well capable of seeing that Trump held the Bible all weird. I don’t need Seth Meyers to explain this to me in three separate segments with four separate analogies. I am also capable of understanding why it is bad for the police to pepper-spray lawmakers. Meyers’ belabored pop culture references provide no context, only confusion. Kimmel’s Santa and Romy and Michele punchlines may offer a welcome dash of show to what he has already thoroughly told, but by that point there’s nothing left to heighten. These analogies waste valuable time explaining what is already clear. When you can talk about anything you want, why spend a whole minute arguing that 79 uses of force is too many?

Analogy deployed clumsily turns your gaze in the wrong direction. The writer’s search for a punchline becomes a distraction for the viewer: By the time Meyers gets to his tee-ball image, I’ve lost track of what he’s actually talking about. So many of these jokes are technically funny but avoid confronting the true difficulty of their subjects. Kimmel says a draft-dodger running the military is like a vegan running a barbecue. Well, the Constitution enshrines vegan control of the barbecue. Maybe there’s some problem deeper than Trump worth honing in on, like the near-limitless power of the executive branch? Meyers’ obsession with Trump’s Bible-holding reflects the same hesitancy. So you think it’s bad to gas a bunch of protestors for one’s selfish political ends—if I may quote the timeless improv maxim, if this is true, then what else is true?

Which brings us to the most frustrating (if predictable) thing about the last week of late night. The overriding theme was that Trump is an authoritarian. Colbert used that word in several segments, as well as “fascist” and “autocrat.” Meyers said at one point, “We can't just wait until November and hope to vote Trump out. We need to stand up to him now to stop the country's descent into authoritarianism before it's too late.” Both highlighted violence by the NYPD and Buffalo PD. Neither seemed to notice or care that the people in charge of those departments, who lied to the press and public about their officers’ conduct, are engaging in the very authoritarian behavior for which they condemned Trump.

You would think such masters of analogy might see the comparison. Alas they are clouded by a reflexive deference to the Good Guys—perhaps because the Good Guys don’t hold Bibles weirdly or act like someone caught shopping for hemorrhoid cream. Where Meyers described Trump as going “full tyrant,” he said Democratic mayors and governors have “simply acquiesced” their authority over the police. Even if this were true, would the two really be all that different? Does it not take an affirmative decision to acquiesce one’s authority to the fascists under one’s command? And what do we call someone who acquiesces to fascists? Hmmm.

Here we see the dark side of analogical comedy. Analogy is supposed to help us think. Too often it replaces thought. That’s not so bad when the product of analogy is just mediocre humor, but this week the mediocre humor rose to dangerous obfuscation about what’s happening in this country and who’s responsible. Trump is like a crazy neighbor? He held his Bible like a QVC salesman, a camp counselor, a fourth grader, a guy plucking a Bible from the Bible tree, a teacher who found a porno mag? Police violence against lawmakers is like trying to sell Tom Selleck a reverse mortgage? Unmarked federal agents are like a waiter without a name tag?

At a certain point you have to ask, what the fuck are you talking about??

I’m a poet. I love analogy. Things being like other things? That’s my jam. But comparisons are only useful if you can see what you’re comparing. There’s no use in telling people what things are like when you don’t even recognize what they are. At best your likening of self-evident evil to some absurd flight of whimsy will offer a superfluous and evanescent distraction. At worst it will give cover to the perpetrators of that evil. I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume most late night writers didn’t get into comedy to do that. Now seems like a good time to stop.

One of my favorite poems contains no metaphor. Or, the entire thing is a metaphor—you can never tell with poems. It’s called “Telemachus’ Detachment,” by Louise Glück:

When I was a child looking
at my parents' lives, you know
what I thought? I thought
heartbreaking. Now I think
heartbreaking, but also
insane. Also
very funny.

Every tragedy contains absurdity. It doesn’t take much to see. A little bit of distance, a little bit of context. Late night is in a powerful position to provide these things, but too often gets caught in a shell game of winding analogical proofs that X is like Y, which makes it funny, don’t you get it?

Enough. Comedy isn’t math. It’s an act of looking, really looking at the world and how it works. If it’s hard to look at some things without immediately looking sideways at others, that’s only because some things are hard to look at. But there’s no getting around them without lying to yourself and your audience. Screw the shortcuts. Don’t look for something easier. Face the hard things head on.