When Humor Doesn't Work

Jeremiah Gibson is a couples and family therapist who is working on using less self-effacing humor in his work and relationships.

It was my first open mic night, and I was terrified.

I've sung with choirs in competitions all over the United States. Before I became a therapist, I led worship at a church in Texas with around 1500 people. In college, I headlined a university musical event with five other friends--there were easily 2500 people at each of those shows.

But that was me performing other people's music. My first open mic night was my own stuff. Sure, they were covers of other people's music, but they were arranged in completely different genres. Hip hop and high-energy pop songs acoustified by a folk duet in a bar across the street from the Berklee School of Music, home of Boston's most innovative, talented musicians, some of whom would watch my friend and I perform.

The host of the open mic night announced we were on deck, creating an increase in hand sweats and heavy breathing. Before we performed, a young man took the stage--microphone in one hand, alcoholic beverage in the other. For the next ten minutes, this attempted comedian made one racial slur after another. First, a joke designed around Muslim's religious beliefs and clothing choices. Then, a comment about folks from the Midwest that didn't really make sense, which was followed by an extremely insensitive comment about Hispanic folks.

On the positive side, as this went on, my anxiety went away, and I told my friend, "Anything that we do over the next ten minutes will be better than that."

On the other hand, my anxiety was replaced with anger at this guy who spent 10 minutes insulting people who don't look like him. I'm a straight White male--I can only imagine the intensity of the anger that my friend and the other women and the people of color in the room were experiencing.


Humor is a double edged sword. When it creates inclusiveness, it can provide radical healing for a relationship and communities. When it excludes and name calls, it can create relational damage, anger, and resentment.

In the last post, "When Humor Works", I referred to the work of Jeffrey Hall, a sociologist at the University of Kansas, who recently poured through 90 research articles about laughter and humor. And while he listed six qualities of humor that creates connectedness and intimacy, he also identified five qualities of humor that can lead to discord and pain:


Who is the butt of your joke? What insecurity/fault are you trying to expose about that person? And how might your exposure of that person's insecurity/fault negatively affect the relationship?

As we've stated on this blog before, criticism doesn't work. Criticism includes, but is not limited to, blaming ("You" statements), name-calling, verbally attacking, mocking, belittling, and expressing hostility towards another person.

Criticism immediately begins a negative interaction cycle as well. If I criticize you, you are left with two options: defend yourself, or withdraw, which means that I might respond with downplaying your defense and/or further attacking you, forcing you to stay engaged in the conversation.


How is the joke that I'm making communicating how well I understand/respect where my partner is at?

I mentioned in the last post that effective humor creates a sense of inclusiveness and shared meaning. There are situations where humor can completely change the course of a conversation, For instance, if your partner is trying to tell you how important it is to keep a tidy kitchen and you make a joke about something irrelevant to the conversation, your partner will probably feel hurt because he/she didn't experience that you really understood what they were saying.

Attacking Others

What stereotypes are the jokes that you're telling based on?

As I mentioned in my story at the top, defensiveness also gets created when other people outside of the relationship, particularly women, people of color, and LGBT folks, are the subjects of jokes.

A few weeks ago, NESN was supposed to air a celebrity roast for David Ortiz. They (correctly) didn't, largely because of the volume of racist and sexist jokes made my other comedians and athletes (namely, Rob Gronkowski). Let's think about racist/sexist jokes from the lens of the criticism-defend cycle I identified earlier.

Racist and sexist jokes leave recipients with three options. Two of them--laugh at the joke and ignore the joke--represent complicity in the support of the powerlessness and vulnerability that women, persons of color, and LGBT folks experience. The other one--don't laugh and call the giver of the joke "racist" or "sexist"--further exacerbates the criticism/defend cycle, because then, the teller of the joke either defends their position or lamely responds, such as the way that comedian Josh Wolf responded to NESN's pulling of the David Ortiz roast.

Comedian Josh Wolf, who hosted the roast, called the backlash about the tone of the jokes “ridiculous.”

”The only reason Rob’s name is being put in this is because he’s Rob Gronkowski,” Wolf said, via WEEI. “Compared to the rest of us, he was tame. But you know, TMZ doesn’t get any clicks if they say, ‘Josh Wolf went over the line.’ It’s all about clicks. He did what we asked him to do.”

The stereotypes that fuel these jokes often come from generations of assumptions, policies, and practices that disempower the marginalized. Take time to read some of these narratives, particularly written by folks who are marginalized.


At what point does your partner consider something offensive?

I mentioned in the last post that timing can be a slippery slope when defining humor, using the example of Chandler Bing. Generally, he has such a good read on the room that his snarky comebacks deflate the tension of the situation. However, from time to time, his snarkiness backfires, and one of the Friends characters snaps back at him. Read the room and the context of a situation. A family dinner is probably not a great context for a sex joke, for instance.

Also, ask your partner and friends at what point they consider something humorous to be offensive. Generally, the more privilege a person has, the further the line is. Respect his/her wishes, and don't cross the line.


What are you trying to gain by putting yourself down in front of your partner? How would you like criticism of yourself to affect the relationship?

Jim Gaffigan explains in this video that self-effacing humor is useful because it communicates humility and a connectedness/understanding around one's victimization. Relationally speaking, receiving a self-effacing comment often evokes a response of pity, where one person connects you to a regressive characterization of yourself, rather than the confident, attractive, adult parts. This creates a hierarchical kind of connection based on caretaking and functioning for, rather than an egalitarian connection.

Humility itself is an excellent goal to attain, but achieving humility through vulnerability--the identification of anxiety or fear--rather than through self-effacing humor changes the relationship dynamic. The receiver of vulnerable humility has the ability to connect with their partner from a more adult position, rather than a caretaking one.

If you'd like help with including shared laughter, rather than laughter at one person's expense, into your relationship, give me a call at 617-750-0183, or click the Book Online link at the top of the page to schedule online.