I always cringe when someone tells a joke and it’s a joke that’s at someone else’s expense.

Making fun of people isn’t great comedy. It’s cruelty disguised as humor.

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” — Eleanor Roosevelt.

But how do you know?

What’s the difference between edgy in your comedy and when is it outright offensive? 

When you’re developing your own voice (or a company’s brand voice), there are a few simple rules I like to use to remember where comedy hits best, and when it falls flat.

Here are some rules & guidelines to help you decide when a joke is funny, and when it’s… not cool.

1. Ask yourself who the subject of the joke is.

General rule of thumb: making fun of things in the world? Funny. Making fun of yourself? Self-deprecating, and can still be funny. Making fun of other people? Much riskier, harder to do, and often is a bad idea.

A few examples:

World: “It was like that time I tried to go to Walmart and had to park 87 million miles away from the entrance. What, they wanted me to exercise before I got into the store?” 

Self-deprecating: “I mean, I have zero technical skills so you’re asking the wrong person, but if I can figure it out, then we’re getting somewhere.” 

Other people: “It’s like a small island porcupine trying to code for you.”

*I don’t actually want to write something racist and so I made it about porcupines. Don’t do this one.

Rule of thumb #1: poke fun at the world or yourself, don’t use other people in your skewering. 

2. Watch the power dynamic.

Jokes are often most offensive when they are targeted at a group of people who have less power than the group that you are in. Do not do this. Making fun of people who are lower-income, a minority race, or at some sort of disadvantage will always be offensive, especially if you’re the one in the power seat.

White, young, men have the most power in our current patriarchal society. It might not feel like it at times (everyone is human, and we all feel put-out, or left behind, from some time to another). That being said, our current systems and structures have been designed, historically, with white men in power. Keep this in mind, because making fun of other groups with less power can be highly offensiveand very risky. The same is true when you’re in other situations. If you’re the wealthiest person in the room, making fun of people in poverty might not go over so well.

Rule of thumb #2: don’t make fun of groups that are less powerful, abled, or different than you. It is almost always “offensive” and not “edgy.” 

3. Decide if something is “on brand” or “off brand” for you.

Being unpredictable is a more difficult strategy to adopt. Find a way to streamline your style of comedy by knowing what’s “on brand” (aka, part of your closet of tricks), and what’s “off limits” for your own sense of humor.

Are you a fan of curse words? Embrace it if it’s part of your brand, and know this about yourself.

If it’s not part of your repertoire, then keep this as part of your boundary box.

(Also, cursing is most effective when it is done sparingly and with the right accent or punctuation. A well-timed F-bomb can make your audience pay attention.)

Dropping curse words into every sentence makes you look like you lack the ability to find other words in the English language to use.

Rule of thumb #3: Create your own sense of boundary: what topics are on-brand? which ones will you leave alone?

Great jokes and delightful comedy speak to issues, ideas, and larger constructs. Making fun of people is small.

Do you use humor in your communications? How do you like it? What works well for you? How do you know (as part of this month’s theme on discernment) that a joke is going over well or not?