TOO FAR! Keeping deprecation funny

"Leonard, Penny and Sheldon. Screenshot from The Big Bang Theory." | Art by . Used with permission.
Some people say that The Big Bang Theory “makes fun” of geeks. I disagree.

As a comedian, I have written two shows for dinner theatre based on the TV comedy. I think it had the potential to make fun of geeks, but it went somewhere better. It became a celebration of geeks and geek culture. If anything, it helped make geeks cool. Let me explain where I am coming from.

I’m a comedian. I make fun of things for a living. I make fun of my family, technology, movies and other people. But mostly, I make fun of myself.

But where’s the line drawn? How far is too far? When does it stop being funny?

To answer that question, we should start at the root of comedy.

Humour is a weapon, and a darn good one too.

Often humour is used to cover up pain. That was the case for me. I’ve always been chubby. In high-school I would constantly suck in my gut. I was terrified to show people the real me, or at least my real stomach. Then one day in a comedy club, I came clean.

“I have a bit of a weight problem,” I said. “You can’t tell ’cause I suck it in.” That got a bit of a laugh because despite my best efforts to hide it, it’s fairly obvious. “No really, I’ll prove it, look!” I stood with my profile facing the audience, “sucked in” and then I let my gut hang loose. For the first time in front of a large group of strangers, I revealed what my body really looked like. It got a huge laugh.

I should point out that getting a laugh from sticking out your stomach is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re happy the crowd is laughing. On the other hand, you now have to face the fact that your body is a punch-line.

The truth is, I felt liberated. I revealed something that used to cause me shame and embarrassment, but now, I had taken the edge off. Yes I was getting laughed at, but I was controlling the laughs. I was being openly mocked, and I felt great.

That was the first of many steps towards open self-deprecation, and I’m happy to say that I even stick my gut out in normal life once in a while. The trouble with self-deprecation is when you start to believe the jokes you’re telling. If I start believing that my identity is wrapped up in my weight, I’ve done a huge injustice to myself and my creator.

The perspective that I adopt is that God doesn’t look at me as fat. I don’t think He sees my flaws at all. When God looks at me He sees someone who is justified, righteous and redeemed. But that’s not a very funny thing to say on stage, so I stick with the fat jokes.

Self-deprecation can be a great tool if you want to turn the tables and liberate yourself from the awkwardness of your own insecurity, but relying on it as a crutch will only weaken your confidence muscle in the end.

How far is too far? When does it stop being funny?

Now, let’s move on to the real issue, making fun of other people. When it comes to this I have one rule: don’t make a joke that you believe. If you hate someone’s hair, don’t make fun of their hair. Make fun of something you actually like about them. The audience can sense it. It comes off as mean if you believe your insults and it comes off as playful if you don’t. Something else to keep in mind—and brace yourself, this is super ‘comedy nerd’ stuff—don’t stereotype, archetype. A stereotype relies on old, antiquated and usually offensive generalizations. An archetype takes something cliché and builds off it to make it genuine.

If the writers of The Big Bang Theory focused on nothing but broken glasses, asthma inhalers and the inability to talk to girls, then yes, that would be a stereotype. But all the characters grow into actual human beings with thoughts and emotions. Now when Sheldon does something stupid, we’re not laughing at all geeks, we’re laughing at Sheldon. When Howard’s mother passed there wasn’t a stereotypical-geek joke to be had. Instead, we the audience grieved and mourned with Howard as the episode ended not with a bang but with a silent somber moment.

Due to the skillful expertise of the writers and actors, The Big Bang Theory blossomed into something authentic; and that’s what makes parodying these characters on stage so enjoyable. What I’ve learned during my career is that humour is powerful. It’s a weapon, and a darn good one too. And just like a real weapon, if you’re going to point it at yourself or someone else, you better know what you’re doing.

Matt Falk

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Matt Falk is a Canadian comedian who finished second place in the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas. His comedy album Apple Pie & Scars skyrocketed to #1 on the iTunes comedy charts, and he has worked with comedy phenomenons such as Brent Butt, Ron James, and Gerry Dee.

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