the comedy “crime” of telling jokes that aren’t true

A friend mine told me this fantastic story that happened to her one time while she was dog-sitting. After she told it to me, I was like, “This is an amazing story. I have to share it.” So that’s the first reason I’m writing down my version of it here. The second reason why I’m sharing her story isn’t so happy.. .but let’s forget that for now and just enjoy the story first!


My friend Madison is dog sitting for a couple in New York City when the dog just decides to kick it. The dog completely dies! Madison freaks out, not knowing what to do. This is the first time she’s ever dog sat before and the dog she’s very obviously supposed to be keeping alive is now dead. She’s failed at the easiest part of dog sitting: not killing the dog.

So, Madison calls up the couple on the phone panicking, freaking out, saying how the dog died and it wasn’t her fault. Madison fed it and took it outside and everything that day and she doesn’t understand how it could be dead! It just stopped moving!

The couple is like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! It’s okay! We knew the dog was gonna die, it’s totally cool. Just take the dog to the pet morgue.”

So, Madison looks up the morgue and it’s a 30-minute train ride away. Madison is like, “Fuck! How do I get this big dead dog to the morgue? I can’t just carry it on the train.. .it’ll look really strange. It’s a dead dog. People aren’t just gonna be like, ‘Oh hey that girl is carrying a limp 100-pound dog. That’s normal.’”

A thought suddenly comes to mind: Madison finds a rolling suitcase in the couple’s apartment and she stuffs the dead dog inside. Then, she hauls the suitcase outside and down into the subway. She gets on the train to the morgue and finally arrives at the her stop. But, as she’s exiting the subway, Madison struggles to get the heavy bag up the stairs. A nice young man comes over to offer help with the suitcase. Madison doesn’t particularly want to bring any attention to the suitcase, but she’s tired, so hesitantly, she lets the man lift the dog-stuffed suitcase all the way up the flight of stairs for her.

When they get out to the street, the man says to Madison, “Jeez this bag is heavy! What’s in there?!”

My friend Madison thinks quickly. Not wanting to say “a dog corpse,” she says, “Oh it’s just filled with a bunch of heavy electronics.”

The man gives Madison a quick look.. .and then he snatches the suitcase and starts running away down the street, thinking he’s landed a buttload of expensive electronics! Exhausted from lugging the huge dog around all day, Madison is hopeless to catch him. All she can do is collapse on a bench and laugh at the thought of the man opening the bag to find out what he stole isn’t electronics, but a PAWsitively rancid surprise.

Great story, right? I actually told it a little better than Madison did too, because she’s a lousy story-teller and never would have thought of a great paw pun like I did!

It’s hard to deny tis story has fantastic structure. There’s an odd problem that provides tension for the main character, a supporting character who switches from hero to villain in the span of a few sentences, and a funny turn at the end for the burglar who doesn’t know what we know: that the electronics are really a big ol’ dead dog.

But. The second reason I’m sharing this story, unfortunately, is becauseIT ISN’T TRUE! It didn’t happen to Madison and it probably never happened at all! The burglar is not the only one who gets a nasty surprise: thanks to Madison, we do too. Sorry!

“Whaaaat? I thought Madison was cool!” I know, right?

How do I know it’s a lie? Well, after Madison told me about it, I thought to myself, “This story is amazing” and I started telling it to a bunch of comedian friends. Some of them loved the story, but others immediately recognized it as a quite obviously made-up folk story that had evidently been passed off as truth by my “friend” Madison. Madison probably heard the story one day and thought, “I bet no one’s heard this story before. My life could seem more interesting to people.. .you know what? I’m just going to say that this dog-sitting story actually happened to me! Who’s ever going to find out? I’m not hurting anyone!”

I’m going to find out, Madison! I’m going to get hurt! I felt dumb. I was lied to! And that sucks. 

LIES SUCK

Many of the worst things you can do to a person boil down to a lie. Older people like to tell me that relationships are all about trust. Whether you cheated on your partner or you RSVPed “yes” to Rachel’s bat mitzvah when you were really going to six flags, you lied. And for whoever is on the receiving end of that lie, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Just ask Brandon Flowers AKA Mr. Brightside.

The ultimate crime is fooling someone into thinking you’re telling the truth when you’re not. And in comedy, that actually happens sometimes.

One time at a hopping New York City open mic, I listened as a comic told a joke about a ridiculous date with tons of crazy unexpected twists and turns. He was killing with the joke, but stopped short and said, “I don’t have enough time to finish the story, so I’ll leave it there.” Everybody in the room was so on board with the joke that they yelled out for the comic to finish his story. The open mic host thought it was a great story too, so he said, “Go ahead! Take your time and finish; I want to hear the rest!” The comedian on stage paused for a second as if he was considering continuing.. .then gave up and said, “I can’t finish it.. .because I haven’t written the rest of the story yet.”

The comic wasn’t just lying about the fact that he didn’t have enough time to finish the joke (he hadn’t even gotten the light yet), he was lying about the whole date ever happening. It was pure fiction! When the comic admitted his lie, the same crowd that had been so into the joke before, who had laughed along and wanted to know how it ended, completely turned and let out a chorus of loud groans and boos.

People absolutely hate the feeling of being fooled. It’s the worst because you can’t help but feel like an idiot. It’s a momentary self-dialogue of: “How could I possibly have fallen for that?! I’m so dumb! Wait, I’m not dumb – you’re just a horrible person who lied to me and took advantage of my trust! Boooo!”

When you find out that you were lied to, you feel cheated. You feel like I felt when I found out Madison’s story wasn’t true. Like your trust was violated. You feel like: “WHAT THE HELL, MADISON?! I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS!”

THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF LIES

When Madison told me her story, she lied twice. The first lie was when she told the burglar she had electronics in the bag when really it was a dog. Her second lie, the bigger one, was that her entire story wasn’t true. There are two types of lies that anyone can tell: 1) “Madison lying to the burglar” lies and 2) “Madison lying TO US” lies.

Obviously, some lies are worse than others. Lies aren’t always bad – the canonical example: telling your girlfriend she looks good in that dress. Sometimes telling the total truth is more trouble than it’s worth, which is why we have “little white lies.” It was probably white people who decided that “white” lies should be the better ones.. . In any case, these are “Madison lying to the burglar” lies. Nobody cares about these lies because they make our lives better. Madison simply lied to keep everything copacetic. Not only that, we also always knew that Madison was lying when she lied to the burglar. The only person who didn’t know Madison was lying was the burglar himself and he’s evil. So we’re cool!

The second kind of lie is much worse and it’s the “Madison lying TO US” lie. This isn’t a little caucasian lie at all – it’s a big, big non-white lie. It’s that angry “WHAT THE HELL, MADISON?!” type of lie. You never see these lies coming and you only find out when the liar gets caught. The comic who lied about his date told a “Madison lying TO US” lie. That’s why all the comedians got mad. The dude didn’t fess up to lying until he got caught. And then everyone was like, “What the hell dude, why’d you lie to us?! You’re JUST like Madison!”

Some non-comics probably think that all comedians tell big fat “Madison lying TO US” lies on stage all the time. That’s about as true as thinking every stand up comedy set is 100% on-the-spot improvised (that isn’t what happens, just to be clear). At least in New York, there seems to actually be this big idea that “comedy is all about truth.” This truth-telling rule was a little annoying to me when I started stand up here because I tended towards writing jokes that were either really absurd or were nearly complete fiction. Eventually, I realized that I could still write funny stuff that was also true. And the truth made it funnier.

I’ve been converted. The funniest stories, in my opinion, come from things that actually happened to people. To help prove my point: one thing that always gets comedians riled up is some hot juicy comedian gossip! If two comics went through a nasty breakup over the weekend, nothing makes us happier than seeing those two comics get up on a stage and hash out everything that happened down to the dirtiest, most revealing, and funniest details. We all know what’s happening is very true and very real and we’re all excited for what funniness has to be said about it. The fact that we all know it VERY MUCH happened makes it that much funnier.

So, truth is important. And generally, “Madison lying to the burglar” lies are cool and funny, but “Madison lying TO US” lies are not.

“BURGLAR” LIES ARE BETTER THAN “TO US” LIES

What does a “burglar” lie look like?

In this clip from CBS This Morning, Charlie Rose asks Louis C.K., “Where is truth in comedy?” To which Louis replies:

“It’s not always there. I think lying is an effective way to get laughs. Lying is like magic! There are so many lies in my act. I have so many stories that I really convince them that it’s true and that’s why they’re laughing. It’s like “This really happened man!” and that makes them laugh because I’m sharing something.”

At first, it sounds like Louis is backing the more serious type of “TO US” lies, yet I think he’s really extolling little white “burglar” lies. Louis has talked many times about how he’ll write characters into the real world that are really thoughts in his own head. His cell phone bit in Hilarious – the one that goes, “Give it a second, would ya?! Could you give it a second? IT’S GOING TO SPACE!” – was actually about his own frustrations with his phone and not some imaginary person that he makes up in his act. 

A couple minutes later in the same special, Louis tells about how, when the newly-offered in-flight WiFi had gone out out, the guy next to him on an airplane went, “This is fucking bullshit!” There was never a guy on the plane who said that – it was really Louis’ own thought when it happened to him. After trying it out on stage a bunch of times, he probably just figured out that more people laughed when he attributed it to the guy next to him instead of himself. (*)

Both these jokes are lies, but they’re harmless “burglar” lies. You can see how, if he says the thoughts were some other person’s, a person he can interact with in the bit, it turns into a better joke. It’s not true, but it’s not totally not true either – he’s editing the joke into something a little funnier even if it’s a little less true. From what he says, you get the sense that Louis tells a lot of these lies. Even if Louis C.K. filled his entire act with burglar lies, I wouldn’t care. It makes the joke funnier; who cares who actually said what in real life? 

An even safer type of “burglar” lie is one that is so ridiculous that there’s no way the audience won’t know it’s a lie. If you’re blatantly lying, it’s not really a lie! You’re basically spelling out for everyone that what you’re saying isn’t true. I have a joke that works that way, about how some people spell the word women with a y.. .

I have a female friend who spells the word “women” with a Y instead of an E, because the word “men” is inside of the word “women” and that’s misogynistic. And I think that’s kind of a bad attitude because you could just as easily look at that in a positive way, right? Like instead of getting upset that men are inside of women or whatever, why not just think of it like being a woman is so difficult and amazing that being a women requires everything that it takes to be a man, but then also SO much more than that. So much more than it’s like: WHOA. WHOA-man. .. .Right?! That’s a way more positive way of looking at it, don’t you think?

.. .Just shows how stupid women are!

To my knowledge, I don’t have a single friend who actually spells the word “women” with a Y.. .I just know of people who do. So yeah, it’s a little white lie. However, it sounds a lot better than saying “Some crazy feminist nut jobs spell the word “women” with a Y!” because I’m on the audience’s their side. I get people to laugh at a blatantly misogynistic phrase because I obviously don’t believe it’s true. I also don’t think women are stupid and I don’t think feminists are nut jobs. No one actually thinks I think women are stupid at the end of that joke because I just spent the whole beginning of it talking about how being a woman is really hard! If your lie is clearly a lie, you’re not fooling anyone. You’re just bein’ silly! The lie is the joke itself!

There are a lot of comics who are pretty known for this.. .they’re like comedy Robin Hoods: taking lying from the rich and serving it up to the poor. A lot of one-liner comedians will do it. Some comedians’ premises are so contrived that fictional tendencies are not only accepted, but expected. Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, and Anthony Jeselnik all do it. Here’s Demetri Martin making a joke on the fact that a lot of his jokes are blatant lies:

I think the safe rule for truth in comedy might be: you can lie, but people have to know you’re lying. Either that or even if they found out about your lie, they shouldn’t care. You’re building up a relationship with your audience and you don’t want to break that trust. Martin goes so far as to point out the silly, factually-dubious nature of his jokes. But how would you feel if you grew up listening to one comedian your whole life – had her posters on your wall, quoted her every line, owned every one of her albums – just to learn learn that all of her stand up was complete lies? Maybe she had a bit that particularly resonated with you because it was about something really serious and meaningful. All of a sudden, it has lost all its truth and meaning. Not cool, Madison!

There is something inherently funny about not telling the truth. However, if people aren’t in on the joke and you keep the ruse going on too long, it’s not just a funny prank – it’s a cruel trick. “Burglar” lies are fun for everybody. “TO US” lies are only fun for the person telling them. That’s not fair!

MAYBE I’M WRONG

I might be wrong, though. Maybe Louis really did mean that he’s cool with any type of lie – even “TO US” lies.

There are a lot of comics who are much more extreme than Louis C.K. when it comes to lying. Not that I would ever want to compare the two, but Larry the Cable Guy is a comic who made a name for himself by inventing an entirely different personality. His whole character is a lie! Here’s a video of him that the Youtube uploader described as Larry “before he turned redneck.” (and here’s after for comparison, in case you’ve never heard the phrase “Get ‘r done”)

Is this type of lying okay? I mean Larry isn’t necessarily hurting anybody by pretending to be a different person on stage. In fact, he resonates way more with a significant part of the American population by adopting his character. Nevertheless, maybe it’s a little weird that he blurs the line between his act and reality. I mean, how often have you heard his real name: Daniel Lawrence Whitney?

Is lying that big a deal in comedy? Probably not. In fact, I doubt any rednecks are going to go home crying after finding out that “Larry ain’t real?!?” Although, if you take “TO US” lying to the extreme, you get Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook and other comedians who have been accused of joke stealing. This is the ultimate crime: telling a joke that is so untrue that it wasn’t even yours to begin with. So I think it matters at least a little bit.

MY LIE

Even the most honest comics lie sometimes. In fact, I have something to admit: I lied too.

Madison is made up. She isn’t real. I google-searched “popular baby names 2016” and picked Madison because it sounds like a portmanteau of “mad,” “eye,” and “son,” which I thought was fun. Someone did tell me the dog-sitting story, but it wasn’t a friend; it was just a girl I went on a date with once. And she wasn’t even the one who claimed the story as her own; she said that her friend was the one who went through the dog ordeal. That level of separation is just unnecessarily complicated to explain, don’t you think? Too many details. It was much cleaner the way I told it. And it made the whole “WHAT THE HELL, MADISON?!” thing way more personal! It would have been weirder for me to vilify the friend of a girl I went on a date with once. It was a better story the way I told it. It’s a white “burglar” lie; it was for good, not evil! Plus I kind of tore into Madison for lying to me, so it’s really best if she’s not real.

When I got caught lying when I was a kid, my mom would wash my mouth out with soap and water. She’d lead me to the bathroom, lather her hands with a bar of soap, and then scrub my tongue “clean” from all the lying I had done. Lemme tell you, I got really good at lying really fast (or as my mom called it, “becoming much more honest”). It wasn’t that I got better at telling really bad lies, I just knew how to pick my battles. I’d lie just a liiiittle bit to make things run smoother than they otherwise would have. It isn’t about lying or not lying; it’s about the type of lies that you tell. With stand up, you have to tell the lies that benefit everyone. The good kind of lies. Or else the audience will “wash your mouth out with soap” with their boos.

 


This post was written by Stu Melton, a NYC comedian and creator of ACN. You can find him on twitter @tellsjokes.

The featured image was created by NYC comedian and artist Grant Lindahl. Grant is a creative at Above Average, hosts a monthly show called Art School Acid Dropout at The Creek and the Cave comedy club and hosts the Art School Acid Podcast on Cave Comedy Radio. You can follow Grant on twitter @Gvlindahl and find all his killer art at grantdraws.com.

If you liked this post, please like and share below! You can also follow the blog through Twitter, Facebook, or by joining my mailing list.

(*) I searched forever for my source for this, but I couldn’t find it, Sorry! If you know where I got this from, please let me know!

1 thought on “the comedy “crime” of telling jokes that aren’t true”

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *