I was intrigued: Comedians joking about the climate? What kind of jokes do they tell?
It all began when I read an article in The Guardian called ‘How do you laugh about death?’: the comedians tackling climate change. The article quotes David Perdue, a Black comedian, saying:
‘[Solar power] is free labor, and the most American thing to do is to use free labor. We just have to tell people the sun is Black.’
I had a sudden vision of stand-up comics spewing out joke after funny joke about climate change, so I followed the links and watched and watched and read some more. There were some funny jokes about climate, but also a lot of crude language, some very sarcastic takes on serious issues, or the jokes were really about something else like sex with climate change squeezed into the set-up. I thought to myself:
Even if telling jokes about climate can open up a conversation about climate change, some of these jokes are just not appropriate for regular folks to tell. For instance, as a white woman, I could never tell David Perdue’s joke.
So, I opened my old book, The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus. I bought it three decades ago in the hope that I could learn to tell jokes or at least write them. Even if I didn’t succeed in becoming a comic genius, I did begin to realize that comedians often explore tragic and depressing themes to make people laugh using the element of surprise or making people uncomfortable. People laugh to release their tension, so maybe climate change really is an appropriate subject for a good joke.
Could I write a joke about climate change? I took on the challenge. If I could do it, anyone could. I started by writing a lot of what Vorhaus calls jokoids, things that seem like they should be funny but don’t really work like:
Weather is always changing. That’s normal. Climate is long term. It changes slowly. Climate change is climate that is changing as fast as the weather.
But Vorhaus says that’s okay. Jokoids are like the rough draft. Sometimes they can be improved, such as:
Weather can change overnight, but climate changes slowly. That was true, at least, until climate change gave climate an identity crisis. Now climate thinks it’s the weather.
It’s still not LOL funny, but there is a hint of humor there.
It was a start, but could I write the best climate joke ever? I kept trying. Vorhaus says a tool for comedy is to set up a strong expectation and then to defeat that expectation in the payoff. So, I set up an expectation with the claim: There is no climate change. I tried to defeat that claim with a funny comeback. Here are some attempts:
There is no climate change. There’s just a ton of snakes and black widow spiders hitchhiking north to see the sights.
There is no climate change. There’s just a Sea World exhibit popping up across the streets of Miami Beach with every high tide.
These were moderately funny, but I pushed myself toward painful… the threat of extinction. Would that work? Here is the result:
There is no climate change. Yeah, that’s what the dinosaurs thought.
Not bad, I thought. A hint of sarcasm there. Then, reading on through Vorhaus’ toolbox list, I found that making the last word in the joke the payoff is more powerful, so I switched the wording around:
There is no climate change. Yeah, you know who else thought that? The dinosaurs.
That didn’t quite work, so I convinced myself that thought (instead of dinosaurs) was really the payoff word.
According to Vorhaus, another tool for joke-making is to find the truth in a situation and give an inappropriate response instead.
Okay, so for attempt number three, my truth would be: In a rapidly warming world, the future looks grim. To switch that around, I tried: In a rapidly warming world, the future looks bright… and then looked for the payoff.
In a rapidly warming world, the future looks bright for those who love the smell of sweat.
I wasn’t sure that was developed enough to be called a joke. Vorhaus says that jokes often use the rule of threes: setup, setup, payoff. I tried again.
In a rapidly warming world, the future looks bright for weather forecasters, storm chasers, and anyone named Noah who owns an ark.
Finally, I thought a good set up line for the rule of three would be: Three things you should never tell a climate denier….
I did come up with one, but it was mean. Comedians often revert to mean to get their laughs, because people do enjoy a hint of revenge. But that's not me, or at least my idealized vision of me, so I'm not going to share my joke.
Instead, I will challenge you to think up three things to never tell a climate denier.
You might be a much better jokester than I am. And you just might create that best climate joke ever to write into a story or to tell your co-worker or neighbor and get a climate conversation going. Jokes are just one tool in the fight to save the future, but for some people we need to reach, it might be the best one.