Talking About Jokes with Jesse David Fox

INJ 84 | Comedians And Jokes


Jesse David Fox is a writer who works at New York Magazine, first as a blogger and then a comedy columnist for New York Magazine’s pop culture site Vulture.com. In 2017, Jesse launched his podcast, Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, in which comedians discuss their jokes.

Listen to Episode #84 here

Talking About Jokes with Jesse David Fox

Our guest is Jesse David Fox. Jesse is a writer who works at New York Magazine, first as a blogger and then a comedy columnist for New York Magazine’s pop culture site Vulture.com. In 2017, Jesse launched his podcast, Good One. A podcast about jokes in which not surprisingly a comedian comes on and discusses one of his or her jokes. Welcome Jesse.

Thank you for having me. I’m excited.

Before I get into this I have to say, I feel this weird sense of pressure interviewing another podcaster.

I won’t be judging your questions; I’ll mostly be thinking about my ability as an interview guest. There’s a reason why I interview people and specifically interview people not have people on to have conversations. I don’t think in my podcast as a conversation, it is an investigation using the person to explore themselves so I try to talk a little as possible. Anytime I’m forced to do this I want to be entertaining and I feel pressure, don’t worry.

We’re even. Jesse, if you weren’t working as a writer or podcaster, what would you be doing? This is the most interview question of everything we’ll talk about.

The truth is, and I thought about this a lot because writing about comedy or writing in general was not my first plan. It was a thing that I came through later in life. I first tried to work in the entertainment industry. I lived in LA and was bad at it. I was bad at all portions of the job which were filing, I was bad at it. Answering the phone and talking on the phone, I was bad. I’m bad at being business-y in general. Eventually, I was let go and it was very nice the person who had asked me to move to LA for this job he was like, “You got to get out of here.”

I tell this story so much I don’t know if it’s true but it’s true which he goes, “You’re too sensitive to work here and too much of an intellectual living in Los Angeles.” I moved to San Francisco and worked in the food industry. I ran marketing for a few restaurants. I had no experience in food or marketing. They’re looking for an entry-level person who understood the food scenes and I did. In that year, I lived in San Francisco which I describe is the only time I was ever young because I was unsure of what I was going to do.

I made a New Year’s resolution that I’m either going to learn French or become a writer. I had been writing a blog for a while for fun not thinking that would be my career because I never thought I could make a career writing about anything. I was a bad writer in high school it was not my thing and I was able to figure out certain things. I was either going to learn French or I’m going to pitch places and write for other places. The idea was I was either going to make one last go at trying to pursue a dream career where my work is my life or I was truly doing the opposite and move to a place I want to live and try to make a go at being a person.

It’s the live to work or work to live conundrum.

[bctt tweet=”Make sure what you’re offering does not exist somewhere else. ” via=”no”]

I was always work is important, you do what you do and you don’t work a day in your life. It’s then like a question that if I didn’t get successful at writing then I would have moved to France. I didn’t think about what I would be doing and I’d be working in natural wine distribution. I was thinking, I’ll move to France and I’ll try to work in food and that was around the time where that decision was happening was when natural wine was on the rise in France, it had not caught here in the same way.

What’s natural wine?

It’s like there’s no real on one rule but it’s essentially wine made with as little chemicals or all the stuff that can go into the wine producers. The thing that’s most thought of is sulfur, often you’ll use sulfur to streamline things and make it so it’s a little bit more a controlled environment. It’s not all-natural wines don’t have sulfur, it’s usually less. It’s less interaction with, how they farm is different, how they bottle is different. It’s a lot more natural maceration and stuff like that. People figured out processes early on. In certain countries like Georgia have always been doing it this way. Georgia has become a much more popular tourist destination because of these wine processes they have. I was always interested in food and wine, but I also have been good at noticing trends and being like, “I should work in that trend,” it’s partly how I got into comedy was that. I moved to LA in 2008 and a friend took me to see comedy when it was a live show.

In high school I’d watch comedy a lot. I would go to Comedy Cellar. I used a fake ID and would get in the Comedy Cellar but then I fell out of it. I would go to Comedy Cellars as a kid and I had a falling out because I got tired with the comedians I would see. You see them doing the same material and I was like, “This is not exciting anymore.” I went to Comedy Death Ray and I would see people I’ve never heard of. The first I saw Hannibal Buress and I was like, “This is amazing.” He was closer to my generation. He was making jokes that made sense to me and his reference points. I saw Kyle Kinane week and I couldn’t believe how funny he was. I would go to Comedy Death Ray specifically three to four times a month. That’s when I got familiar with all the people now are the people. That’s when I got into comedy again, I didn’t think I’ve always been good on going whether the things that are happening so if I moved to Paris, I would have figured out, try to work at a cooler restaurant maybe. I didn’t know how; I didn’t speak French well enough.

The French, they love hiring Americans.

It was a time where Brooklyn was being fetishized especially, it had that going for me. I’d be like, “I know what Brooklyn restaurants are like.” Maybe use that to get somewhere. Several years later, I probably would have moved back by this point, worked in the distribution of wine. What is my life if I didn’t find writing? This is what I do or it fits but if it didn’t work out, which doesn’t work out for many people. I wrote about a thing at a time where people want to read about it.

INJ 84 | Comedians And Jokes
Comedians And Jokes: That certain idea of ego in stand-up is toxic and not good. It eliminates people that could be interesting comedians. Comedy is one thing and you have to grind it out.


It sounds like you have good instincts in the sense that you pay attention to what’s going on and that said, there is this notion of luck. I teach MBA students and I give them the Sara Blakely episode of How I Built This. She’s crazy smart and hardworking, high EQ, the whole package as an entrepreneur and yet it’s not clear Spanx gets made if one of the producers at dinner asks his daughters, “What do you think about this?” and they’re like, “Dad, you need to do this.” He doesn’t bring it up at dinner, the daughters aren’t there that night. Who knows the trajectory and how it changes. 

In my earlier life, I worked with people who were entrepreneurial and failed then I met people entrepreneurial and they’re exactly the same people. There’s a delusion they both need, you have to hope you’re correct and you don’t know you’re going to be, you think you’re going to be correct that’s why you do it. I tell people all the time how lucky I was, it’s like, “You’re talented,” and I was like, “Talent is you have what you do,” and talent means there are other people that will respond to that. I wrote in a way at a time in which enough people liked it that I was able to get a career doing it. It was the type of way I wrote that made sure if I was funny or not funny, the nature of my analysis. All that stuff that was all perfectly timed for the exact window in which I became a writer. Also, an up-and-coming journalist’s mind like, “How do I do it?” I’m like, “All I can tell you is get a time machine, go to 2009 and that’s when there’s going to be blogs,” I can tell you the pitch too. If you can pitch something and are willing to write for free, they’ll give you one shot and they had medium-sized traffic but were read by bigger sites.

I wrote for this website called Jewcy.com, it was a Jewish pop culture site. It’s a place that I saw existed. That probably got 500,000 uniques or something a month which is not big but it’s enough where it’s noticeable and that’s like a small, medium-sized blog. I was able to use that to be around, I was able to pitch Splitsider which was probably getting maybe a million which is now a medium-sized blog that is happy to have people write for free. That’s how I was able to do and I was able to keep on doing different things and got noticed. How I got noticed was not from writing essays or writing at all, which was I did funny graphs. I started making graphs seriously. I’d written a post about a counted amount of jokes in multiple episodes of certain sitcoms or whatever. I found a website where I can make graphs online. It’s a .edu so I think it’s for kids to learn how to make graphs. Then someone assigned me to do graphs, Jewcy assigned me to do graphs because Tablet was doing the hundred greatest Jewish films or something, it’s like, “Do a graph of this.” I spent weeks of doing two serious graphs and I was like, “This is not a story, I’ll do eight funny graphs.”

People liked those funny graphs. Splitsider was asked me to recap 30 Rock and I was like, “Maybe you should do it in those graphs.” I did that. Vulture saw one of those recaps and was like, “Do you want to do graphs for Vulture?” That’s how I got my job at Vulture. I didn’t know this, which was New York Magazine at the time was run by this guy, Adam Moss, who was a legendary editor-in-chief and he’d been there for a while. His contribution to this magazine Lexicon was visual storytelling. I didn’t know that I was essentially doing the next evolution of a thing that he is doing. That’s how I did the Grammys and Oscars in graphs. The Oscars one was popular. I had some blogging experience and I was able to get a job as a blogger. No one valued my opinion for a couple of years of being a journalist. I started writing about comedy. It was quick to me trajectory; it was probably a couple of years of writing for free as a second job. I had a full-time job the entire time. I’ve never believed in that idea that you have to quit and make it so you have to succeed. I’ve always had a full-time job. I’ve always had health insurance.

I’m working on a book. It’s Serious Business Lessons From The Masters of Comedy. What can we learn from the folks who come into your studio week in and week out? They’re misfits oftentimes and yet they’re successful in this incredibly difficult endeavor. It’s not just that they’re smart and naturally funny. They have practice perspectives. I’m sure some of which you’ve uncovered. Those practices and perspectives can translate into other worlds, creativity, innovation, teamwork, leadership and career development, etc. One of the ideas that I fussed around and I never wrote about it is the idea of no plan B, which a lot of comics like that. No plan B goes something like this, I put myself in a situation where I couldn’t afford to fail. If I failed, I was dead. If I failed, I was homeless.

I remember Eugene Mirman told Max Silvestri he had to do it. He had to quit his job if he was going to be a comedian. He did and it worked.

The alternative to this is the 10% entrepreneur. You’ve got your day job and you have this side hustle. It’s a little bit of a passion project. You spend some nights, you spend some weekends, you spend some lunch hours and you work on this thing not exactly knowing and slower. You don’t develop as quickly. However, you’re never dead, you’re never homeless. No one ever has to do a GoFundMe because you broke your ankles. The reason I couldn’t settle on it is that I don’t think that there’s a right answer. They both work. It probably depends a little bit on the person and their risk tolerance. It probably depends a lot on this notion of luck.

People are able to take risks if they’re not that much of a risk. Probably the most prominent person who didn’t do this is Maria Bamford. Maria Bamford didn’t quit her day job until she had to. Maria Bamford could not risk not having health insurance. She needs to have access to certain medical care. She’s always been financially conservative of making sure she’s safe. As a result, her career trajectory is slower. Also, her career trajectory is because she’s a bizarre thing and she’s a woman, all these things, she fits in no box. She didn’t fall into that trap of like, “Go for it.” That’s when you’ll make it. The idea of making it is silly because they’re only so many people who make it in a way that is 100% exactly what they want to do.

You can say you’ve made it which is like you’re able to sustain yourself by being a comedian. There are many different versions of that. Not all of them are better than the life you had beforehand. Let’s say a person was given advice like Max Silvestri was given advice by Eugene Mirman, “You have to quit if you want to do it.” Let’s say he didn’t. He was one of the better comedians in New York at the time and he remained that. He would get some work here and there. It’s possible that he would not become a touring comedian in the same way. Instead of getting a job which she currently has, as a writer on Big Mouth. She would focus on development. Essentially which is, you don’t have to be staffed on a show. You’re allowed to be, “I’m going to work on my own thing and hopefully sell it but if I have this good enough job, it’s not a rush and I still get to create it.” Maybe then he sold some show and then that’s his entire life and that’s also good. Certain people like the danger of it and a lot of comedians are people who like those extremes. The bad boy part of it is the narrative we hear more often because it’s a better narrative to hear.

[bctt tweet=”Talent is you have what you do and having other people that will respond to that. ” via=”no”]

No one tells stories about the well-adjusted comedian. What gets reported is what’s interesting and that’s a fun sexy story. No one wants to write the story about the comedian who worked at Walmart 40 hours a week.

All the UCB stuff, it’s many complicated things. If you look at UCB or all the improv theatres, if you look at them in terms of not how other comedians make it but how other people make it in other careers. Which is like, “You pay to have a path that you could take.” Where you will get better at each level and it’s deliberate and you can take classes. It is how a lot of actors make it. There isn’t a stand-up for actors. It is because comedy has this romanticism around like, “You just do it,” and you’re this lone person.

That ego that stand-up has that is part and parcel of a certain idea of what stand-up is toxic and not good. It eliminates people that could be interesting comedians. Comedy is one thing and you have to grind it out. You have to be good in every room. All that is stupid. The rules were created by Road Dogs in the ’80s, who were failures. Who then bullied successful people into thinking this is what it means to be a true comedian out of guilt? It’s like, “You’re going to be famous but as a result you have to abide by my rules.” It’s stupid. A lot of those rules are like, “Women aren’t funny,” or shit like that. That becomes rules to a segment of the comedy audience. What truth in comedy is or like, “You have to be honest all the time.”

Anytime there’s a rule I’m like, “It works some of the time, sure.” The idea that you have to be truthful in comedy is crazy.

It’s crazy because we define truth as one thing. When they say the truth in comedy, for these people that are like, “You got to be honest, up there.” What they mean is, you have to tell things about your personal life and/or you have to tell the truths of society. Both those things have, I won’t say, “Come under attack,” but there are things to look about. Which is like, “The comedian most associated with being truthful recently was uncovered for being the biggest liar.” Louis CK was like, “I’m honest up there. I’m giving you the raw. You’re learning everything about me.” They had this huge lie that he would not talk about. Truth is it’s a controlled thing. It’s not being vulnerable.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tangentially connected to the comedy community. I talk to people, I spend some time in green rooms, I have comedian friends. The Louis CK stuff was a well-known secret. I wonder if Louis had just said, as part of his bit and was truthful and vulnerable be like, “You know what, I’ve got some stuff that I’m not happy about.” In this world, maybe it doesn’t matter.

If he admitted it years ago, it would not come out. The cover-up is worse than the crime. Not only did he do these things. That’s hypothetically where industry used to silence these people. That speculation makes it seem worse. If he was truthful about it now, thoughtful and considerate in his stand-up, he would be able to be in a better situation where he is in terms of the pop culture. Some people would never forgive him, but a lot of people were hoping you would come back and be interesting and thoughtful. When he came back and seemingly was the opposite. He broke a lot of people’s hearts. Men and women I knew in comedy were like, “He had an opportunity to help shape how we move on through these things.” Instead, he signifies like it’s a war. There are these people out to get you and it sucks. I thought what he did was wrong. I held onto hope, not about redemption but he’s a skilled person and he hypothetically could talk about a subject that is complicated.

That’s one of the things that he does better than almost any other comedian on the planet. Take something you ought not to be able to talk well about and find a way to talk about it.

He decided not to. He’s good that he knows what he’s doing. If you hear what he’s doing and you’re like, “This seems cynical or dark or why are these the targets that he’s coming up to do?” It’s like, “He knows what he’s doing.” He’s like, “Who’s left in my audience? The people who didn’t care what I did. I’m going to be their favorite comedian.” There are enough of those people that he can have a career doing it.

Let’s be honest, Louis doesn’t need the money. It is truly up to him. This is not an issue of survival. The man-made millions of dollars. I’m surprised that when people get that wealthy, we don’t see more of who they are. It’s why I’ve always enjoyed Kanye. The man has some mental troubles and I feel bad about that. I’ve always liked him, besides liking his music and as an artist. He’s brought me great joy as a listener of music. I love the fact that that guy gives zero fucks. I’m surprised that more people don’t. Once they reach a level of fame and fortune. Where the system seems to keep them behaving well. If you think about it, that guy probably sits here and goes, “I never should be here. I should be dead. I’m going to enjoy this ride and I don’t need it anymore.”

Being in LA, I always think about how there are these interviews of people to protect people from not doing things wrong. Things that would make the road of being a famous person more complicated. You could be a famous complicated person, it’s just a bumpier road. Intentionally, your job is as smooth as your road. If your thing is like a messy person to use this lying of the day but let’s control it. It’s like, “Go on Letterman and tell stories about pooping.” Don’t get pictures of you falling down drunk. Ultimately, the thing that most famous people would be like is they are motivated to create things. To maintain your fame allows you more ability to decide what you want to do. You have to sacrifice these other parts of yourself. You’d have to be a mix of not be at the disposal of the industry at large. That’s why stand-ups have the ability to deter more people off. I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden by myself. If you don’t like this joke it doesn’t matter to me. However, it’s clearly done because they’re sensitive.

What happens is as a comic or any other public figure, the love is always clear. You always get the love. You get it in box office returns. You get it in laughter and applause breaks. The thing that has changed is that the hate also reaches you and you didn’t get the hate before.

INJ 84 | Comedians And Jokes
The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Stand-Up

It’s weird for people to see it. The great irony of being a person who is in the world of comedy is Kevin Hart is legitimately the most articulate about this change comedian out there. He constantly uses this example of this bad boy who he has to get rid of. It’s incredible because they only have so much of an understanding of a person because they see certain clips. He is peculiar as a famous person is but he was talking about that. On the episode of that haircut show, whatever that show is that he was on. Those people got mad at him for being incredulous towards Lil Nas X. Someone asked him about like, “Is it hard to be a comedian now?” He’s like, “We’re adjusting to the fact that we can now hear people who don’t like our stuff.”

Forever, people have not liked our stuff. We just never knew it. You would hear these stories of letters going to TV networks. I’d hear my entire life, this goes these complaints. The thing is no one reads those letters. Now they’re tweets. For certain celebrities they’re like, “I got famous so I didn’t have to hear people’s opinions.” It’s like, “Get off Twitter.” You can’t have it both. You can’t be around people. You can’t be in a situation that you’re on there for praise. Get away from both. If you want either, you have to have both.

I ran into a comedian here in town. I was at Sweetgreen and I was picking up a salad that I had ordered mobile. His was next to mine and I texted him, “Are you craving salad?” He walks in and we’re chatting about this idea. First of all, this stuff is generally a healthy conversation to have. Although, there are times where I’m like, “You know these comedians aren’t the problem.” There are truly evil people in the eyes of the critics, the masses. He goes, “That would be hard to do.” It’s the easy thing to critique Kevin Hart.

For this project I’ve been reading a lot of books. I’ve read the book about The Improv by Budd Friedman. You know what’s fascinating, it’s like all the comics that we know, these middle-aged-plus comics, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis and so on. There wasn’t much competition back in the day. The people who we know are famous were Robert Townsend, Eddie Murphy, Roseanne and all of these people. They all knew each other, they all worked out of a small number of clubs. It was competitive and it was professional and the standards were high. When we’re talking about career management stuff, if someone said to me, “I want to be a stand-up comic.” I’d be like, “Don’t do it.” It’s good for comedy that the funnel is big, that thousands of people are trying to do this. If you want to do comedy by all means, there are plenty of opportunities still. I’m not sure you should be a stand-up comic.

If you have to do it, I’m sorry. The story I tell which I tried stand-up once. Not because I felt that I needed to, I just wanted to. I had a friend who was like, “Do it, you have these jokes.” I told one joke and I got a decent enough laugh and I had thought of like, “That was fine.” It was a relief to not be like, “I need this all the time.” Not to prove that I’m less needy than comedians it’s just like, “This doesn’t feed my neediness.” I know it does. I say, “The best comedians are talented, they have a vision and they have this incredible need that made them do it over again.” They were the funniest people before they started trying. To be a comedian does not mean you’re the funniest person. It means you have the need to keep on doing it, to grind it out. You’ll see a lot of comedians of a certain level who would do the job well and will never break out of that level.

They’re ultimately not that funny and they don’t have a vision. They do have the need to do stand-up and they do it. You can tell they don’t have a vision. You can tell that they knew they liked doing it and they knew they wanted to be funny. They want to people laugh but they did not go into it being like, “This is an art that I want to create something with for a reason.” You can see incredibly famous people who you can also see that with those who don’t have a vision but they’re funny and they’re good at it. That doesn’t matter. The best people, the people we truly remember. You can tell there’s a difference. My whole thing is that I’m trying to reward the people with vision, who do things for a reason to explain what that is. The ones I target are sometimes people I know that have an interesting process.

Worth it or not, it’s not about who I like or don’t like. It’s about people who I feel have a vision for the work that they’re doing. No one asks them about it because people don’t think of comedians that way. I’ve been thinking a lot, if comedy compared to other art forms has a literacy problem. That people don’t know what makes comedy good or bad beyond they like it. That includes some comedians, that comedians get into it because they like being up all night. They’re like their friends where they like saying stuff. You see them lumping in bad comedians with good comedians and it’s been frustrating. We’ve had a few things happen: Dave Chappelle released his special, Bill Burr released his special and the Shane Gilis stuff happened. 

This is going to modulate but people will be familiar with all of this stuff, which most people don’t give a shit about. It’s interesting. Everything gets amplified. My Twitter feed is filled up with this stuff, why? I follow a bunch of comedians and people who talk about comedy and care about comedy.

What’s frustrating is that these stories, because overlap with different stories about political correctness writ large become interesting to publications who don’t give a shit about comedy. They use it as a means to communicate certain things. My thing is that people only think about comedy based on what people say and not how people say it. When they say something good, they’re able to like, “Speak truth to power.’’ We use that joke as a way to communicate gun violence is bad. We pass Jim Jefferies joke around. The same way is like we use their political incorrectness as a way to essentially talk about Trump or whatever, get that same rage.

They’re like, “Let’s use those people are mad about this stuff who don’t care about comedy to get clips on stories about comedy.” It has nothing to do with the fact that they care about these comedians. In this narrative that no one cares about in terms of how I care about it which is the art of stand-up comedy. Dave Chappelle put out this special that had, let’s say offensive as the genre of comedy. It was a lot of offensive comedy. You can be offensive in good or whatever but it’s an offensive style of comedy. You ran through a list of things that people find that are sensitive and you talk about them. It’s lame, generally to do that but you can do it well because it’s not self-inspired. It literally is based on what you know people will be mad about or shocked about.

You’re exploiting shock to raise the tension up so that you can have a punch line. It’s not naturally creating the tension in a way that it’s more interesting. Talk about the benign violation. To pick violations is cheap. In some ways you’re like, “That’s what a comedian is supposed to do.” If you talk about a taboo subject in front of people, you are sent to just doing it. It’s like “I’m safe, you’re safe, because we’re talking, you trust me.” I’m going to talk about an unsafe thing and then you’re going to be like, “That’s funny.” I’m like, “Have a more complicated violation.” Have a more complicated way of being benign and push how it is benign or not benign.

That’s the art form. The issue with this is you put an F-bomb into your joke because it turns the volume up. It’s a cheap way to create a violation.

[bctt tweet=”To be a comedian does not mean you’re the funniest person. It means you have the need to keep on doing it, to grind it out.  ” via=”no”]

In the most basic, it is a violation for grownups to curse and like, “It’s fine.” That’s all of it. I thought Chappelle’s special was poorly done. I thought it was one of the most lazily released, most poorly constructed stand-up special that’s ever been released. I love Dave Chappelle, some of my most seminal moments of understanding comedy have been Dave Chappelle. Dave Chappelle is Dave Chappelle. He’s allowed to release things when they’re not ready. We don’t usually see that. We don’t usually see comedians release things where you’re like, “That doesn’t connect back.” Like, “This punch line is not surprising.” Instead of going from A to B, it’s like A and then he just says a random thing.

That happened and people wrote negative reviews about it. I didn’t write any, but I’ve talked to the person who wrote the review. This was bad at it. It’s not bad to talk about these subjects necessarily but this was bad. You’re allowed to say it’s bad. It’s almost like the opposite which is there’s one side you can’t say about anything. There’s the other side that you have to be able to say everything no matter what, you’re a comedian, you can’t be criticized. This existed and I was like, “This is bad, it is offensive to comedians.” That he puts us out and people are arguing it’s good.

To go back to one of the ideas I didn’t get to finish. I feel that we have to treat the comedian with a different model than we used to. We used to treat them the way you would treat a musician. We should treat them as we treat politicians. Politicians never complain that the other side hates them. They ignore it. It’s the nature of politics to have a bit of this adversarial relationship where some people love you and some people hate you. If you try to make everyone love you, no one will want you. I feel that comedy stuff is more like politics these days. Even independent of whether you’re talking about political topics or not. It’s the style of segmentation that you can’t make everyone laugh.

We don’t hear the hate because political correctness is also a thing that’s been co-opted by politics. To me, there’s a job both sides have to do of being like, “These critiques are about what you’re saying.” Ultimately, it’s like they’re saying, “It’s the same thing as a bunch of people going, ‘I don’t like this painting.’” You hear it and it’s a different version of that. They’re saying like, “I don’t like your art.” That is hurtful to hear.

The difference though is usually when someone doesn’t like your painting, it’s not that they find it disgusting.

It’s hard because it’s you. You’re doing it. You are talking, you’re using your name and you’re saying it’s not a character. People will complain about certain movies or books being this or that. Ultimately, the creator of it is separated. The fact that as a comedian saying it makes it harder. That’s part of what’s interesting about comedy. There’s the paradox of what is true and what is not true. It does make it harder because you’re not saying this is bad you’re saying, “Dave Chappelle is bad.” That is different. Both sides are saying that. People do not view a piece of comedy as separate from the person. I’ve been critical of this stage about the special and they were like, “Dave Chappelle’s a legend,” I was like, “Legends make bad stuff all the time.” it’s not like when someone criticized that.

Paul McCartney was like, “How dare you criticize the Rolling Stones.” That’s because I’m saying, “Dave Chappelle is being lazy.’’ It’s like, “You created this work.” This special is a separate thing created by a person. It’s because we associate it with these people that it becomes more mixed up. Comedians get successful, they get worse. That is also hard. They are just worse. Once you get to a point where you’re selling 5,000 tickets in a city, you are now worse. I don’t know what happens, it’s just you’re worse. It happens to everybody. By the time you’re that level, 3,000 tickets you can be as good as you’ve ever been. You are probably going to be better than you’ve ever been but that jumped. Those 2,000 new people in the city are not your fans and they’re ruining your comedy.

I’ll give you my opinion about the Chappelle special. I’m watching Bill Burr’s Paper Tiger.

It’s a useful contrast, spoiler alert it’s great. It’s so good and I saw it, I’m like, “Thank God, someone put out a special this good.” It’ll allow us to recalibrate the conversation and be like, “This is what good looks like.” A person who’s pushing boundaries and we all realize, “Maybe we’re wrong.” The problem was that it is not how the conversation has played out. It’s insane, which is people have lauded this special. Our critique wrote a rave of this special but said, “The first four minutes are unnecessary.” He lists things and he’s triggered in all those words and then he moves on.

He says some edgy stuff. It’s incredible. The point is he justifies why comedians are angry or come off as hateful in the beginning by showing that it’s all built on these things. It’s a whole piece. It’s thoughtful, it’s considered, shows what good is and shows how unconsidered Dave Chappelle’s was. We wrote a review that said it’s positive in the first few minutes, the first two, three minutes were unnecessary. It is just winking at a certain audience and we’re like, “That’s bad,” since we wrote the review. The critic who wrote that has been getting violent types of threats on Twitter, “How dare you criticize Bill Burr.” Washington Post wrote an op-ed, someone wrote an op-ed criticizing the critic of the first four minutes.

What’s great is the critiques of the specials are being critiqued.

These are all different things and it’s because people are lazy and they’re lazy when thinking of comedy because they’re like, “What comedians do is this.” It’s a wide spectrum of things and that is the main point. We need people to be able to see something and know it’s bad and not morally bad.

This is difficult because you’re an art expert. This is always the case when it comes to art. The difference between the people who are at the forefront and the masses. This is art and entertainment lumped into one. The music analogy fits there. Pop music is fun even if it’s not cutting edge art. I watched Bill Burr’s special not with a terribly critical eye to be honest. I watched it because mostly as someone who is trying to consume some comedy. Frankly, I’m not watching much stand-up comedy anymore, I’m over it. It’s also not fun the way it used to be. I’m analyzing it I’m just like, “I see what you’re doing there.” As a result, I watch improv because I’m not deconstructing it. I can just be present and just laugh and enjoy myself. I watched the Anthony Jeselnik special. I get a kick out of that guy. I like how committed he is to his style and I like the character that he plays. It’s well done.

As a character, it’s well written as a character. It’s a well-developed thought through thing and he writes it like a writer. He wanted to be a writer. He created an American psycho character and it evolved. If you see him, he is like a different person. The stuff he’s doing, the way he tells stories and it’s interesting how the paradox of who’s Anthony, who’s this Anthony, all of that stuff.

By the end of it I’m predicting his punch lines. He has a formula that he goes about creating these situations. I’m not critiquing, the average person would never do that. It’s here I am sitting in my living room looking for the reversal.

He also takes big pauses. It’s like he wants you almost to get there and then say something. It’s an odd thing to do.

In most comedians, there’s this myth of the pause. There’s this myth of set up a pause punch line. It’s a setup punch line, there’s research on this. There are no pauses. He’s the exception of this rule. I like the intent of what Chappelle was doing and because he’s a legend he can get away with it. Back in the day there are these stories of Bill Cosby doing like 2.5 hours. Not only was he incredibly talented. He had this likeability factor and he was a legend. People were willing to give him that break. I was like, “You needed six more months on this.” He was hustling because of the timing. It’s Kanye of him. It’s a little bit of a middle finger. 

INJ 84 | Comedians And Jokes
Comedians And Jokes: Maintaining your fame allows you more ability to decide what you want to do. You have to sacrifice these other parts of yourself to not be at the disposal of the industry at large.


Comedians I talk to about it before the news was coming out. They’d see him on Broadway or whatever and they’re like, “It’s not done.” You’re allowed to this, on a live stage you can do whatever you want but when you charge people a lot of money. You’re just making people pay to see you. You’re Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. You’re basically like, “This is not going to be a good show but we’re going to be in the same room as Bob Dylan.” I grew up loving Michael Jordan. The only time I’ve ever seen him play, he scored eight points. That’s one of the worst games he ever played, when he was in the Washington Wizards. I paid because I wanted to be in his presence.

Dave Chappelle is doing a comedy version of it, if he then didn’t release these specials. If he wasn’t the only comedian that anyone knew. Many people know Dave Chappelle is good. What happens is when people don’t know what good is they get a sense based on how other people talk about it. People are like, “Dave Chappelle is the best.” No one explains what that means. Everyone was like, “Why laugh at this?” I know it’s good because I’ve been told then this is what good is. Whatever he does, calibrates what good is for people. When he is not good, it undercuts the entire thing I’m trying to do which is to explain that comedy is good.

Let me counter though, I agree with you that it was too early but I’m not sure it was bad. The reason is people loved it. What’s the currency? I’ll juxtapose this with Hannah Gadsby, Nanette. Nanette dialed in. In Nanette, Hannah was willing to forego laughs to make a point. The argument is Chappelle was willing to forego laughs to make a point. That point resonated with people. I get the fact that the critics panned it and then the audience loved it. A particular audience loved it.

We’ve talked a lot about other people. I want to talk about you for a little while. Your name is Jesse David Fox, not Jesse fox. I’m Albert Peter McGraw but I’m not Albert Peter McGraw. I’m Peter McGraw. My family has a weird tradition where the firstborn male is Albert Peter but goes by Peter or Pete or something. I’m a State School guy. I have friends who went to Ivy League schools. My fellow academics make fun of me for being a State School guy. Peter McGraw is a State School guy, Albert Peter McGraw is an Ivy League guy. You’re a State school guy but you sound like an Ivy League guy. 

This was a decision I made when I was early on. In San Francisco when I decided to start pitch places. I was going by Jesse Fox. It’s a common name. There’s a professor at Ohio State who’s a woman who spells her name Jesse with an I which is usually traditionally the boy way of spelling it. Who is a professor is somewhat in media so she gets interviewed a lot. I was starting out, the first thing I was like, “There are these other Jesses doesn’t make me more Googleable.” I wrestled with the idea of like, “It is a more pretentious sounding name.”

For the audience, Jesse is sitting across from me in a Brooklyn Nets Ball cap, a t-shirt.

It’s fun of you to notice it because truly I never dress this way and I showed up to meet a friend dressed like this. She joked that I was dressed this way because this is how I dress to go on a plane or whatever. I’m flying later. I usually dress in the exact same way every day which is a long sleeve, Oxford shirt, a fitted slack and then sneakers. I don’t dress fancier than that or less fancy I just neutralize. I will wear a hat; I get haircuts every couple of months. About a few weeks in the haircut is not good anymore. It takes me a couple of weeks to remember to book the haircuts. I’m in that phase, my hair is not good. I didn’t pick the name to be more pretentious, but I did know when I did it, it was. My roommate at the time, who I asked about it. You’re trying to be a writer, it’s not crazy to seem more pretentious than you are. I was like, “That makes sense.” I liked the sound of it. I do think the sound is good. I was like, “Okay.” I told people, then that was it.

My point is Jesse David Fox went to Harvard. Jesse Fox went to Maryland.

I have a chip on my shoulder about when I got into journalism proper. I started to work in New York Magazine and I was surrounded by these people that went to those schools. Even when I worked at William Morris I was surrounded by people that went to those schools. I tried to write a bit knowing that I am a person of that background. I majored in psychology, I didn’t major in journalism or writing. I take all of that into representing that. I think of myself as clever. I don’t think of myself as intelligent. I want my writing to reflect that. There is a while that if I’m my writing became too academic. I’m not fussy about language that I need things to be dense or long. I was able to write complicated subjects in ways in which people understood. That’s why I was able to have a career as a writer. I did not like being that way. I didn’t feel like that represented who I was. I tried to be the person who went to that state school and be like a clever person who has made it. Not trying to pretend I’m like the smartest person. 

In the podcast, I tried to avoid seeming academic. I tried it to seem human and that is an intentional attempt. I have this perspective and understanding of how comedy works. The goal is not for people to hear that by me talking. If it seems like I know how comedy works because of the questions I ask the guest, sure. It’s about knowing and understanding this person and knowing how comedy works to understand this person. Having the conversation reflects how much they understand how comedy works. It might be instinctual, “Let’s capture that.” It’s like, “Sinbad doesn’t write jokes, Sinbad is Sinbad.” He talks for three hours and it’s incredible. Capture that. Don’t be like, “What was it like to think of this sentence.” He’s not that. He’s like, “You’re trying to capture those people.” I’ll ask certain people, you use callbacks and then we will talk about that. Sometimes I’ll tell the editor to cut out the part where I’m talking a lot. It is not about me seeming smart.

This is my first ever show, I’m going to wind it down soon. This will be episode 76, 77 or so. I’ve said I’ll do 100 and then reassess. It’s been a good learning experience and I did it mostly to see the ideas for this book project, rather than to build a huge following. I’ve been successful. I got into a situation where I realized there’s a perfect ratio for the percentage of the time my guest speaks to me speaking. It sounds like you’re on the high end of that ratio. To me, when it’s 90 to 10 it feels too much like an interview. If it’s 60 to 40, I feel like I’m cheating my audience out of an opportunity to hear someone special. 70 to 30 is probably the sweet spot for me in this show.

[bctt tweet=”People only think about comedy based on what people say and not how people say it. ” via=”no”]

I wanted to talk to you a bit about your experience doing a podcast. I can’t claim that I’m doing this one well. It’s competent. I have a secret project I’m working on that will be launched as a podcast. That podcast is going to be designed to see if I can garner an audience. I don’t have huge resources. Let’s be honest, the best most popular podcast usually has two things going for it, at least one of them. One is a big name by an already established brand. The other one is a team. A level of professionalism that makes it go. I’m curious though, as I’m contemplating this next podcast. It’ll be a sit down with one or two people. Anything I should be thinking about? What has it that has worked well for you? What are the problems that you’ve established? What advice do you have? It’s a big open-ended question. Do what you want with it.

It was what conversation is lacking. I had listened to the entire life of a comedy podcast. I’ve pretty up on it. The first column I wrote for Splitsider was reviewing comedy podcast. The first comedian I interviewed was Scott Auckerman, the co-creator of Earwolf. I’ve been a follower of the industry. I’d heard a lot of interviews and a lot of shows and I felt like certain things were not. There was conversation that would start and they would drop about how people write. I found it fascinating and special. It felt like it was as insight into a person that was being jumped over because other comedians get it. I feel like, “You write on stage? I write on stage,” then they move on.

I felt this way when I first started studying humor. I watched the movie Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld and Orny Adams. It was like blinders coming off.

I interviewed Jerry Seinfeld and I asked him questions about jokes in this interview. He goes, “This is my favorite thing to talk about but it’s so boring to these people.” This is one of the most famous on earth’s favorite things to talk about and he said, “It’s boring.” That is impossible. Maybe talking about cars might be boring for people who don’t like you because of cars but you’re a comedian. I felt like there was something missing. That alone it’s not like what is not missing is like comedians chatting with each other. It’s good if you like the host and how they chat and then it’s like, “Those were nice to hear,” and meet other comedians. That was missing and I knew it was missing.

I also felt it was hard for people to know how to get into new comedians. There’s no way of doing it justice. There are these people that I’d be like, “This is what great is.” It’s like how do I tell a person who only watches two specials a year. That like Jen Kirkman is better than those people. They’ll be like, they have whatever biases they have. A lot of people only have room in their hearts for three comedians. You’re going to tell me that there’s a thousand that are brilliant if they don’t know any of them. They’re more specific. All of that combined and that answers the main advice is like, “Make sure what you’re offering does not exist somewhere else.” Being able to articulate what that difference is. For me, it was beyond those topics. It was a feeling that no comedian has been interviewed well.

The gold standard was Marc Maron.

He’s not interviewing people because he had comedians who are not interviewers. They do okay and you get a sense of who a person is. Marc is open and he’s interested. You get a sense of who they are like people in an interesting way and you learned what their parents did for a living. He’s obsessed with that. That’s what his goal is. The problem with the show was built around Marc’s understanding of the person. That sometimes he was wrong. There are the examples that I won’t name of people who he was insulting because he did not know who they were and didn’t prepare to know who they were.

I was on WTF and I had one of those experiences.

No journalist who interviewed a comedian understands how comedy works. They only understand how to use comedians to talk about things they want them to talk about. Comedians are good at talking. I know how comedy works but I’m an interviewer. I’m going to bring thoughtfulness to an interview with a comedian. Honestly, my experience is non-existent. That was the real thing that I was like, “That doesn’t exist.” Hopefully, there are people who like comedy.

I teach marketing to MBA students. The intro class and you’re basically giving a lesson in this idea of creating value that’s differentiated. The idea is, this is the only place you can get this thing and you will be successful if people want that thing.

As time goes on, the success is partly in my ability to be good. The show being good is probably the best marketing at this point. The first X amount of listeners it’s like comedy fans who’d felt like they’re missing out on this. This was always my goal which was, I want to talk to an artist about making art. However, comedians are better at talking than any other artist because they talk for a living. That’s the show. I would talk to photographers, but you wouldn’t be able to see the work because it’s an audio medium. Photographers aren’t great at talking because they see visual stuff.

It’s like the DVD specials for when they talk to the director. You watch the movie and then the director talks over it. That works great because these are incredibly smart articulate people but it only works because you’re watching a movie at the same time.

Comedians had such a hard time talking about the process. The only time they’d be asked about it, they would get the broadest question like, “How do you do it?” “Where do your ideas come from?” They’ll give a broad answer. I give them incredibly specific questions and I don’t even get to the writing until ten minutes into the interview. If the joke is about ice cream, this is a fake example, what was your experience to ice cream as a kid? Tell me all about it. Anthony Jeselnik told a joke about dropping babies. I was like, “You wrote this joke in your late 30s, what is your relationship to having kids?” That goes into this joke. This joke is not about Anthony Jeselnik’s joke about having kids. He doesn’t go, “I decided I didn’t want to have kids.”

That joke is his joke about being in his late 30s. Being around kids and realizing he does not feel normal around them. It’s not what do you think the joke’s about. That’s not what the text of a joke about is at all but clearly he’s a person. It’s like, “Let’s fill out this picture and be like, ‘You see this joke.’” After there’s a lot of stuff going on beyond how the joke was written. It’s like, “Who is this person that led into this?” Why are they the person that made this joke at this time?

INJ 84 | Comedians And Jokes
Comedians And Jokes: The best comedians are talented; they have vision; and they have this incredible need that made them do it over again. They were the funniest people before they started trying.


I need to curate a bit, but I will offer one person who in terms of interviewing comedians who seem to do it well and that’s Howard Stern. In part because Howards is a humorist and he’s also an expert interviewer. He’s not doing it in a podcast. He’s excluded from this. He has an incredible ability to get people to open up and talk about things that they wouldn’t tell anyone else. It’s stunning. I knew about your podcast. A number of people reached out to me about your Gilbert Gottfried episode. In that episode you prefaced. You do a little intro and you give a little primer on the Benign Violation Theory. You’re contending that it was important to understand this because of the nature of The Aristocrats joke and so on.

I don’t usually do a big intro because I do a good job in the interview giving context to things already. The first joke about the podcast was that Marc Maron’s intro was too long. I try to convey that this person is great and a little bit about why. Sometimes I use the intro to get at something that I couldn’t get in the interview. I’ll leave the interview and be disappointed I didn’t mention something. I will bring it up as a way of framing everything. I regretted not asking Anthony Jeselnik when I was interviewing him if he was in the persona while we were talking. What I did in the interview goes like, “Pay attention to what feels like him and what feels like not him.” That’s what I tried to do like little small things, like seeing things. I played the Gilbert Gottfried joke for one or two people. It’s a harsh version of that joke.

For the audience, if you’re not familiar. There’s this joke, it’s a comedian’s joke, anti-joke called The Aristocrats. Paul Provenza has a fun documentary about it. In the documentary he interviews comics about it. They tell they’re versions of the joke. As the documentary goes on the joke gets more and more foul. It’s incredibly offensive. It features incest and bestiality. Gilbert Gottfried has one of the most outrageous versions of this.

He has a famous version where he did at the Hugh Hefner Roast, right after 9/11 because he had this 9/11 joke bomb. I’ve seen the documentary and I’ve heard versions, but they all are five minutes long. They hit the beats. It is a bit of a problem with The Aristocrats. The joke we play is a version that’s about eleven minutes long. It’s incredible how it encompasses all of Gilbert. It’s every impression he does go into it. It is gross, it is disgusting and it’s not just old people love incest. It’s like a fake benign thing when you say incest at this point, when you know the context of the joke. There are these rats and they’re put inside of people and there’s blood. It’s so gross. I had played it for people. It’s not just language. It’s violent. If people don’t know the context of this, it might turn them off or have them be like, “This is nothing.” I wanted to soften it. Essentially, which is in the intro which is like the whole idea of The Aristocrats and Roast in general is essentially creating context.

What makes that joke funny is to understand the nature of the joke, the history of the joke, the other versions of it.

It’s in the context that says, “This is a joke where we say offensive things.” You know that if I’m saying it. I’m saying it’s bad. That’s like the whole premise of it. Comedians can do this on their own in their own jokes. It’s sometimes challenging. Some comedians are better than others. It’s essentially like a definitive example of having a clear violation and trying to make it benign as possible. I felt, even people who knew that context would still not find it benign enough because to then listen to an interview. If you’re at a comic club and you hear that version, you’ve seen that he closes with it. You’ve seen all of their stuff. You know the context, you’re drinking whatever. If you’re going to work you need it to be a bit more benign. If you are then going to have to sit through an hour of the meeting taking him seriously.

That is something that I had learned from doing the podcast. I had David Cross on and he had a joke which he says the N-word. He’s of a belief system that like, “If you’re doing a racist character and you have him say the N-word. That’s a lie, you’re letting them off the hook. No racist person says that.” I did a bad job of not explaining that to a person who doesn’t understand that context to it. That turned people off. If you didn’t know that until after you heard him answer why he says it. I then edited that intro to add more context. I know that a lot of people are not going to like this. I am not offended by anything, but I do find things gross. I wanted to be like, “What you’re about to hear is gross, It’s important to maybe listen to the joke because we will talk about it.” Explaining the Benign Violation Theory which holds for a lot of different types of comedy, makes people feel a little bit more comfortable for things like that.

The example I always use for the benign violation, that I like to show that there’s a range is Stella. They would wear suits but then be stupid. The smallest amount of a violation of like, “People who wear suits are smart, they’re stupid.” That’s a violation. It’s benign, because who cares? That to me is a smaller use of how I think of benign. Not just violation means comedians much push boundaries. Violation could be, “This isn’t funny. You shouldn’t say it again. You keep on saying it over and over again.” There are a lot of things that could be violating what the norm is.

It’s like the joke the second time you say it, it’s not funny but the 1,000th time. There are these jokes that play on that kind of stuff.

Like, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” You’re expecting a punch line to violate that. By not having a punch line is a violation whether it’s benign.

The real heavy lifting for this idea was done by a linguist named Tom Veatch. He wrote a paper, published it on an obscure niche journal called Humor. He called it N+V Theory. Caleb, my co-author and collaborator on almost all of this work, did most of the heavy lifting like naming this thing. For a long time, I wanted to call it Benign Threats. That didn’t work though. The story that Veatch tells is that he heard a joke and he said he laughed for a day. He had to figure out why it was funny. It’s a version of why did the chicken cross the road. It’s, “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? It died.”

[bctt tweet=”Truth is a controlled thing, not just being vulnerable. ” via=”no”]

I was working on an idea with a faculty member at USC. I remember him saying something that he was doing took several years to catch on. He’s a senior scholar, a mid-career guy. I remember thinking, “That seems strange to me.” I’m used to the immediate of you publish something, there’s a bunch of media and that’s where it feels like it’s on. These things are slow burns. If they’re going to make it out into the world, it’s going to take a long time to do it. Our first paper came out in 2010. I did a TEDx Talk in 2010 also. Your Gilbert Gottfried thing hit my Twitter feed or my inbox. I’ve met Pete Holmes and we had a panel where it all came up, talking about some festival.

This is the best one. I have this favorite coffee shop here in Los Angeles. It’s an old school coffee shop I go on the weekends in the morning to try to write. I was there with a friend and I tapped her on the shoulder and I go, “Listen to that conversation over there.” She’s like, “What?” These two guys, and I had heard incongruity. That’s all I heard was incongruity. I was like, “I wonder if they’re talking about humor.” There are these two white guys talking loudly. I’m sure they’re mansplaining, manspreading they’re doing all the things that are hate-able about straight white guys these days. One of the guys was like, “My preferred explanation is the Benign Violation Theory.” My friend looks at me and she goes, “Are you kidding me?’’ I was like, “No. I’ve never had this happened.” I could be wrong. I feel like it’s catching in a way that I didn’t anticipate when I started doing the work.

There are people interested in comedy. That part of all of this is people value comedians more than they did in the past. We expect so much from them. The problem is we value them. We value them incorrectly. Jon Stewart ruined everything which is like, “Jon Stewart, comedy is important.” It was then Louis. Louis was then the next comedian we took seriously. There’s something wrong about the translation of how we took these people seriously. Seemingly, more people are teaching college courses in comedy.

When Caleb and I started this work, I did my homework. I looked at the resources out there, what is the conversation happening and it wasn’t happening.

You’re there, that was right when the conversation starts. It’s essentially like the podcast is when the conversation started happening. The podcast started in 2009. WTF started at the end of 2009. Comedy Death Ray/Comedy Bang! Bang! started in 2009. That was what most people call the first wave which added a second wave because there was The Ricky Gervais and all of those. Everyone is writing stories about WTF and like, “These comedians are interesting.” Generations of new comedy podcasts and people are taking comedy seriously. My career and Jason, more people meet me and want to be comedy journalists, which is not a career that existed in 2010.

I know your peers. I’ve had two of them on. I’ve had Jason Zinoman on and I had Julie Seabaugh on. I also know John Lenzle.

Compared to how big the industry is. Considering that Jason started that column, the fact that he started in 2011 and there’s hasn’t been tons more comedy critiques in America since. He is crazy. I know people start like, people in New Yorker if you’re into comedy that might be useful. They understand to have people write about comedy. It’s not anyone’s main job. The person that has written a bunch of comedy pieces is now theater critic at the New Yorker. It’s a good writer about comedy it’s just not for places like the New Yorkers they’re readers. They have to have a theater critic. In England there is a rich culture of comedy criticism. It’s born out of theater criticism. It’s starting and hopefully will increase. My goal is that there is a bunch in every publication asset and people are pitching unique story ideas. The hard part is also some comedians still don’t believe comedy should be analyzed that all. It’s like we’re above it, we’re the only art form that can’t be understood.

We have a new generation who grew up caring about comedy. I wrote a piece about how the most important comedian was Jerry Seinfeld, the character on Seinfeld. He was the most popular comedian of the ‘90s, this fake guy. He to a zillion people were like, “Comedians have day-to-day lives where they’re funny. That funniness goes into their material.” The fundamental premise of what Seinfeld was that all that other stuff happened was that this guy’s material comes from the fact that he lives this crazy life. Tons of people watch that and we’re like, “Comedy is a thing that exists.” The documentary comes out which is a huge influence on Pete and on Anthony. My hope is that we’re not in a boom that will bust. Because of the first boom we have a bunch of people who do like comedy and hopefully we take comedy seriously. That your theory will be part of the lexicon of how people understand it. Your theory makes things more benign in and of itself. X comedian has a joke about X touchy subject. Their hope is they’re able to make it seem benign in a variety of ways.

That there’s a theory that explains why something would be a violation. That is the thing that will be helpful which is like what Dave Chappelle is doing. With the trending stuff that he’s creating a violation. He’s then trying to make it benign. The hard part is how it is not as benign to everybody. Hopefully people will be like, “At some trans people this is not benign.” To other trans people it is benign. You have to be like, “It’s because one trans person thinks it’s benign does not mean that a thousand think it’s not, are wrong.”

I would say when someone says, “That’s not funny.” You can’t say, “That’s not funny to me.” People say, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is not funny.” I’m like, “They’re in their 14th season. That show is funny to the people that find it funny.”

I avoid the word funny; I don’t like the word funny. It’s not useful for my purposes, comedy is subjective. As I like to say, “All are subjective, comedy is very subjective.” If we’re just going, “It’s funny, these people laugh.” it’s like, “This comedian you disrespect sold out a football stadium.” Are you saying that the only standard is the number of people that laugh? That’s not how we judge any other art just by the number of people that get to do it.

INJ 84 | Comedians And Jokes
Comedians And Jokes: You’ll see a lot of comedians of a certain level who would do the job well and will never break out because they’re ultimately not that funny and they don’t have vision.


Once we accept that every comedian is funny to certain groups of people and that is not how we’re judging comedy anymore. We’re not going to judge people on how funny they are or not. You’re not going to judge comedy about what they’re talking about. Instead are able to analyze the craft or whatever. I understand there’s value to both those other types of criticism. There’s a value to arguing about what they’re talking about and there’s a value to saying that someone is funny or not. If you believe in my taste, then you want to know what I find funny because you’ll think you find it funny. We also need to be like, “That’s not interesting,” It’s a thing to start trying to get people to think about it.

You’re suggesting that you go back to the music stuff. There’s the Billboard Top 100. That’s one way that you can judge music. The other one is you can look at as an art form and who are doing cutting edge work.

Who’s self-inspired and who are doing something that is original? Being original alone is not the only thing, who has something underneath it that is making it work. Sometimes things are just mysterious.

They’re not as mysterious as people want them to be. My thing about this is like to try to claim that comedy is mysterious and magical that science can’t figure it out. One is giving too much credit to comedy and not in enough credit to science. If you think about what scientists have been able to do. I want you to be subjective for a moment. Normally I ask people to tell what they’re reading, watching or listening to that’s good. I would like you to do to tell me three episodes of your podcast that you would suggest people listen to, independent of the Gilbert Gottfried one since we already talked about it or the Jerry Seinfeld one. Three from good one.

I thought you’re going to ask me who my favorite comedians were. I only thought that because I decided. When people ask me, I say, “Kristel Schaal is my favorite comedian.” It’s true but I didn’t think about it. Pick somebody and think about what it means. If you’re at a comedy show, let’s say, “We have a surprise guest.” You don’t know who it’s going to be. Who would you be most excited for them to say is coming up? Then that’s how I was able to realize. Chris Rock in my opinion is the best comedian but he’s not my favorite. He’s the shortlist of dream guests. It’s him, Mel Brooks and Tina Fey.

The three episodes, Nikki Glaser. We talked about Roast jokes. I love that episode because it is the iceberg metaphor of the podcast of you hear one sentence and you learn, there’s so much work that went into it and so much thought that went into it. I wrote some jokes for Nikki Glaser for this Roast. I saw this process at hand, she essentially sendables of writers room of 70 people. She’ll get different amounts of emails from different amounts of people. She’ll then makes smaller and smaller groups, it’s interesting. She wants to tell the best jokes she doesn’t care if she writes them. Ultimately, they inspire her to write her own jokes anyway. She wants to crush and that’s why she does.

Danny McBride is one of the real people who do it right, those other people in comedy respect. He’s not doing stand-up. He’s doing TV shows or whatever. We talked about the first scene of his show The Righteous Gemstones. You’re talking about a person who thinks about comedy. Who thinks about what it means to create characters and play with form in a more sitcom format. The Righteous Gemstones is novelistic in its approach but it’s ultimately his version of a family sitcom. I love having that conversation.

The Patton Oswalt episode and the Cameron Esposito episode. Those episodes were once where we talked about more serious things. With Patton, we talked about his jokes about his wife passing away. It was a beautiful thing because he had done interviews around the release of the special. He was still in it. These releasing the special on doing the interviews, he was still in the window of the mediate grief. He had no ability to see outside of himself and remember anything that happened. Through the interview, you see a person talking about jokes and remembering things about them. It is compelling and a good example of how the artist puts their life into their work.

The Cameron Esposito episode we talked about her special Rape Jokes and rape jokes in general. It was a sensitive conversation about how to talk about a thing and not re-traumatize people. Be funny and how to use comedy and how to not use comedy. What is the value of comedy to talk about sensitive subjects in ways that do help people while also still being funny and not minimizing sexual assault and stuff like that? The delicacy is an interesting conversation. It’s the interview I’m most proud of because it’s the most complicated interview to do. They didn’t want to undermine any of it and did not want to speak for it and want it to be honest with what’s she’s trying to do as an artist.

The joke we’re talking about is very small. It’s essentially a real joke. That’s part of a whole hour about rape jokes. It gives us a spectrum to the types of things that have this which is a serious conversation about comedy, while still being respectful to comedy. To Nikki’s which is like jokes are funny. This last season of the podcast was the best. I learned to have fun. I learned the thing that keeps people coming back. Especially listening to episodes that comedians haven’t heard of, is how excited I am to hear answers. That is a thing thinking about the tips about your podcast is people keep on listening because of the host. They listen the first time because of the guest. Even though I don’t talk that much they can tell that I’m passionate about it. What I say is, “Preparing for an interview, I fall in love with the person.” My goal in the interview is to convey to the audience what it is that I fell in love with him about.

That’s a perfect way to end this. Jesse David Fox, I appreciate your time. This was fun.

Resources mentioned:

About Jesse David Fox

Jesse David Fox is a writer who works at New York Magazine, first as a blogger and then a comedy columnist for New York Magazine’s pop culture site Vulture.com. In 2017, Jesse launched his podcast, Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, in which comedians discuss their jokes.


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