Why profanity isn’t humour

Photo © 2010 Unraku, Inc.

Crude puppets can be funny, but many videos with them aren’t. Why is that?

I think one of the reasons is that a lot of people who are making videos featuring puppets cursing, swearing and/or having sex mistakenly believe that the shock value of that alone is a good idea in and of itself.

I’m here to tell you that it isn’t and why.

While rude, crude and lewd Muppet-like puppets were possibly an original idea back in 1989 when Peter Jackson made Meet The Feebles, the novelty has long since worn off. I don’t mean to suggest that puppets and profanity can’t work, just that in order for it to be funny there has to be something more substantial to it.

The media often attributes the success of a show like South Park to crudeness, but if you watch the show carefully you quickly realize that the crudeness is really just window-dressing on some very clever comedy. South Park may feature a talking pooh, a gay Satan and lots of little kids cursing and swearing, but it’s also an incredibly sharp satire of American society. The best episodes are filled with lots of very intelligent and very, very funny ideas.

I’ve read that many great comedians like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld share a theory that comedy works better without profanity. The theory goes that people tend to use profanity as a crutch when writing comedy; by deliberately not using it you’re forced to come up with better ideas and write stronger material. I think that this is important because people don’t really laugh at swearing or even at jokes. People laugh at the funny idea behind a joke.

Other great comedians like Robin Williams might not hesitate to say “fuck”, but the word isn’t the joke, it’s just used as an exclamation mark on the joke. Otherwise it isn’t really funny, it’s just really crude. Great writers understand the difference.

Please know that this isn’t intended to be a jab at any particular person or video, just written in frustration after watching what seems like the umpteenth zillionth video on YouTube of puppets cursing at each other.