The challenge for any comedian is making jokes that people find funny. How can some people be so good at it? Well, the truth is they use something called comedic conflict.
Comedic conflict is focused on creating jokes that make people feel safe while also violating what they expected was going to happen. Great comedians have the ability to joke about any topic without offending their audience. This is because they have found the balance of the comedic conflict.
Comedic conflict can sometimes be a difficult thing to achieve. There are a lot of things that we can learn about comedic conflict that can help us understand exactly how to make jokes that people will find funny. There are also some pitfalls to avoid when you're using this method.
Safety vs Conflict
Just a second ago I talked about finding a balance between safety and violation. This is such an important principle for any comedian to understand. Comedians who don't understand this principle put themselves at risk of making a joke that comes off as insensitive or hurtful.
Safety is what makes your audience feel secure. Oftentimes this is achieved as the comedian acts in a normal and natural way. This helps the audience recognize that you are a normal person with normal experiences. Establishing this is extremely important because it prepares them for a violation.
Violation is what breaks the audience's expectations of what should happen. If you have ever been listening to a stand-up comedian and you hear them say something that seems completely out of the blue, this is considered a violation (source).
The challenge for any comedian then becomes finding a balance between safety and violation. Although a trip to the grocery store may be a great way to establish safety, nobody wants to hear about how you got eggs and milk. What makes a joke funny is when you start with safety and introduce some sort of violation. At the same time, you want to be careful not to have too much violation which will make your audience uncomfortable and even angry. Good comedians have the ability to find a balance between both safety and violation.
Example 1: I like to think of the analogy of tickling. If you were to tickle yourself, you would feel safe, but it would not be that funny. On the other hand, if someone who you don't know is tickling you then you might feel a little violated and that would not be really funny either. When we were all little and our mom or dad tickled us it was funny because we felt safe and there was not an extreme violation of privacy happening (source).
Cannot be Viewed as a Threat
In order for a comedian to get away with any kind of violation, they must first establish with their audience that they are not a threat. There are countless comedians out there that get away with some extremely insensitive jokes simply because they first established that they are not a threat to their audience.
Example 2: A stand-up comedian comes on the stage screaming and then proceeds to insult the audience. When he tries to make a joke later and the audience is feeling heightened emotions and they boo him off of the stage. The comedian did not attempt to first establish that he was not a threat and the audience took his joke the wrong way.
This type of violation happens when a comedian attempt to joke about something before the world has had time to grieve. This can be hard to gauge sometimes. Because there are tragedies happening all around us, it is sometimes tempting to joke and laugh about them. For some people, this is a pretty healthy way to deal with trials, but for others, it may feel like you are making light of something so terrible. This is why it is so important to know your audience and the social view of current issues (source).
Example 3: You are a stand-up comedian performing in New York City and you make a joke about the events that happened on September 11, 2001. Several of the people in the audience lived in New York during that time and have very traumatizing memories of that day. Because this is such a difficult day for them to think about they certainly do not think your joking about it is very appropriate. They promptly ask you to leave and you don't get to finish the rest of your routine.
The last couple of examples showcase bad tactics to use when trying to find a balance of comedic conflict. These next couple however are simple ways that comedians will violate people's expectations without making them feel unsafe. Prediction is the main way that comedians can violate people's expectations. A violation in prediction includes some kind of surprise that throws the audience off from what they thought you were going to do.
Example 4: A comedian is on stage and he is trying to show the audience that he can juggle. He starts by throwing one ball in the air, then he adds one, and then when it comes time to throw the third ball in he keeps it in his opposite hand and only pretends that he is juggling the ball with the other two. This is a great and simple example representing throwing off people's predictions (source).
Another way that comedians can achieve this conflict is by playing off of social norms. As you know, in society there are things that we perceive as normal behavior. Whenever a comedian does or says something that is outside of those norms, it creates a violation or something that people were not expecting you to do.
Example 5: A comedian begins talking about his mother. Most people when talking about their mom have some emotion in their voice, but instead, the comedian decides to play some strings on the guitar that do not match what he is talking about. Because of the irony of the situation, the audience laughs and the comedian is able to build off of that (source).