No matter where you look these days, someone is trying to make you laugh. Advertisers, politicians, and even ministers have all become comedians. But it wasn’t always like this. When and why did the world become so funny? And what are the consequences of living in a culture where everything has a touch of humor and irony?
My guest explores those questions in his latest book, Planet Funny. His name is Ken Jennings (yes, Ken Jennings the Jeopardy guy). Today on the show, Ken shares the moment in his life that got him thinking about how humor has taken over the world. From there we discuss the history of humor and how it’s changed throughout the ages. Ken and I then discuss the recent advent of politicians, advertisers, and amateur Twitter comedians trying to be funny and how the internet has changed humor. We then dig into the consequences of living in a hyper-humorous world, including the decline of sincerity, earnestness, and even genuine, gut-busting laughter. Ken ends our conversation with a call to be more mindful of how an excessive focus on funniness can impoverish society, our decisions, and ourselves.
- What is laughter? Why do humans laugh in the first place?
- Types of comedy that have stood the test of time
- The downfall of classic jokes (i.e., “A man walks into a bar…”)
- The derivative humor of viral internet jokes/memes
- Irony and humor
- Why genuine excitement is so uncool right now
- How humor can desensitize us to serious events
- How humor has entered into our serious institutions like religion and politics
- What is it about Twitter that’s conducive to modern humor?
- The death of the belly laugh
- The downside of our culture being so infused with humor
- How do you resist this torrent of humor?
- What Would Your Grandpa Do?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Geico commercials
- Old Spice commercial
- My podcast with Peter McGraw about humor
- Lasagna Cat
- “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette
- The Power of Likability
- Men and Status
- Funny church signs
- Bill Clinton on Johnny Carson in 1988
- Israel’s Mean Girls meme
- Bo Burnham
- How to Comfort Someone Who’s Sad
- The Interview movie
- Idiocracy movie
- How and Why to Give More Compliments
Connect With Ken
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness, podcast. No matter where you look these days, someone is trying to make you laugh. Advertisers, politicians, even church ministers have all become comedians. But it wasn’t always like this. When and why did the world become so funny? And, what are the consequences of living in a culture where everything has a touch of humor and irony? My guest explores these questions in his latest book, Planet Funny. His name is Ken Jennings. Yes, Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy guy.
Today on the show, Ken shares the moment in his life that got him thinking about how humor has taken over the world. From there, we discussed the history of humor and how it’s changed throughout the ages. Ken and I then discuss the recent advent of politicians, advertisers, and amateur Twitter comedians trying to be funny and how the internet has changed humor. We then dig into the consequence of living in a hyper humorous world, including the decline of sincerity, earnestness, and even genuine gut busting laughter. Ken ends our conversation with a call to be more mindful of how an excessive focus on funniness can impoverish society, our decisions, and ourselves. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/planetfunny.
All right, Ken Jennings, welcome to the show.
Ken Jennings: Hey, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So, you’ve got a new book out. It’s not about trivia, which we would expect you to write about. But you wrote about humor, and it’s called Planet Funny. It’s about how humor has taken over our culture. I’m curious, was there a moment in your life when you realized everything, and by everything, I mean everything is funny now, in particularly American culture?
Ken Jennings: I think the thing that woke me up was when airline safety videos started to get funny. Because when I flew as a kid, I always was terrified of that little laminated pamphlet that told you about the oxygen masks and where’s your life jacket and where’s your nearest exit. I studied that thing for an hour. And a few years ago, those safety demonstrations started to get replaced by little videos with musical numbers and they were full of kind of wacky non sequitur jokes. Delta had an ’80s themed one with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the pilot, just like in Airplane. I remember thinking, “Wait, why does this have to be funny?” There’s nothing less funny than the odds of a plane crash, right? What is happening to us that we need jokes here?
Brett McKay: Yeah. And besides, the other example you gave, I thought, I didn’t think about, but it’s true, like insurance, like car insurance. The thing that supposed to use when you get an accident. That’s funny now, thanks to GEICO.
Ken Jennings: Yeah. As late as the 1960s, and this is shocking to us today. The conventional wisdom on Madison Avenue was that funny ads didn’t work. You had to stay away from all humor, because viewers would remember the punch line, but maybe forget the product. And of course, that’s all changed now. The main thing that’s in the calculus I found out was the possibility of an ad going viral on the internet. Tens of millions of people trying to watch your Old Spice ad just because it’s got a funny guy on a horse. You don’t have to pay a cent for that product placement. People are seeking your product out. Procter & Gamble now says that Old Spice isn’t even a deodorant anymore. It’s an entertainment brand. The deodorant is incidental to providing a fun branding experience, which is an awful thing.
Brett McKay: Right, so before we get to explain how we got to this point let’s talk about the concept of funny too. You explore this idea of what exactly is funny and how is that changed. And then how is that because of the change in humor why that’s sort of infected everything in our culture.
You mentioned in the book Peter McGraw, author of the Humor Code. He researches, he’s a scholar that researches humor. You talk about him in this book. He has his theory about what he thinks makes something funny. But you talked to other researchers and academics about why humans laugh and why things are funny. What are the theories out there about what makes something funny?
Ken Jennings: Philosophers have been arguing about this for thousands of years. What’s the root of humor? Where does the impulse to laugh even come from? Aristotle and Plato believed that it was laughter came out of superiority. If you feel better or superior or smug towards someone else you laugh at them. All laughter is ridicule. To Freud, it was more a laughter of relief. It was a way to express discomfort or about taboo subjects or vent uncomfortable feelings. Today a lot of cognitive scientists center around the idea of incongruity. Two things that don’t normally go together. You seen a monkey, you seen roller skates. But a monkey on roller skates? Ah, that’s funny.
To this day there is no consensus on where the urge to laugh comes from or why amusement works in our brains. It makes it hard to track down what is funny. I think, it’s a moving target for one thing. Think about reading a, in quotes, humor book from 100 years ago. Or watching a Elizabethan comedy. These things just don’t strike us as funny even just a few years after they were made because jokes move on.
Brett McKay: But are there jokes that or things that are funny that have stood the test of time? Are there things that were funny in Ancient Rome that are still funny today?
Ken Jennings: I think so. Think about somebody falling down. That’s funny, I don’t care who you are. I’m sure that’s universal. There are written records of Ancient Greek jokes that we still tell today. The very earliest joke collection has a joke in it that was still being told about sour politicians in the 1980s. Man goes into the barber shop and the barber says, “How would you like me to cut your hair?” And the man snaps, “In silence.” That joke’s thousands of years old and it’s still kind of works. I think the way you tell jokes have to change because, again, the comic sensibility keeps changing and we demand novelty.
Brett McKay: Right. The fart jokes I think too have been around for a while. My kids still think, my seven and four-year-old think it’s hilarious, fart jokes. But that was funny in Ancient Greece too.
Ken Jennings: That would be Freud’s theory. Something that they can sense is taboo. I don’t know if you raised the kid by wolves would the kid think farting was funny? I doubt it. I think they can sense that we’re uncomfortable with it. They realize, “Oh, I can do something with this.”
Brett McKay: For most of human history, recorded history. There were jokes. There were jokes you told. I guess comedians call them joke jokes or jokey jokes. Like man walks into the bar. But we don’t do that anymore. I can’t remember the last time when I was with a group of friends and they said, “Hey let me tell you this joke.” Instead it’s like they pull out their phone they’re like, “Let me show you this meme.” So I mean, what happened where you know what we no longer tell joke jokes. And have that change and metamorphosis happen?
Ken Jennings: I wonder if part of that is kind of the American ethos of cool that came out of hipster and jazz cultures, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. It just seems like such an effort to create a story where a priest, a minister, and a rabbi get on a plane. What am I, Edgar Allan Poe? Why am I writing a short story for you at dinner? To actually get the organic laugh it needs to seem cool and low impact, and something that just I thought of off the tip of my tongue. And that’s really the comic mood of today. Comedians goofing around off with their friends on podcasts and saying whatever crosses their mind on Twitter. The idea that we like a more conversational vibe. We like Jimmy Fallon playing charades with people, God help us.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, yeah, continuing on how the internet has changed, one thing I noticed in the past 10 years, humor has gotten weird. It’s like as you said, non sequiturs. It’s pretty much what it happens on the internet. So like stuff that if you didn’t understand the story about how that thing became in existence or how, why it got funny. You wouldn’t get all the derivative jokes that came from it.
Ken Jennings: Here’s why that happens. A joke requires novelty. You can’t laugh at something the fifth time as much as you laughed at it the first time. So common tastes have to keep evolving so that the kids are laughing at something their parents don’t get. When I was a kid we stayed up late to watch Letterman and Saturday Night Live and we just knew that our parents would not enjoy this kind of crazy irony. But as that keeps progressing the jokes have to get weirder and weirder. So you get these Adult Swim shows where it’s not even clear where or what the jokes are. It’s just kind of uncomfortable.
There’s online humor like I love this thing called Lasagna Cat. Which is this weirdly edited, live action re-enactments of Garfield’s comic strips. But with very sad music and even horror movie tropes added in. And it’s impossible to explain how this is a joke, but again, that’s kind of the appeal of it. We’ve already laughed at everything else. The well is running dry.
Brett McKay: Right. And another point you made with the way things have changed where that things are constantly evolving at a quicker and quicker pace is that humor today is much more fragile than it was say 20 years ago. You could tell a joke and kind of flub it but you could still land the punchline and people would laugh. But today, it doesn’t, if you miss one little thing then it’s not funny. It falls dead. It might even be offensive. Suddenly the pitch forks come out on the internet and you’re pillared.
Ken Jennings: That’s what you see a lot. This makes sense in my head but, yeah, humor is so ephemeral that any little thing will break it. There’s a reason why jokes don’t translate well into other languages. Why computers can’t produce them. You try to tell a friend an Onion headline that you enjoyed and you realize you can’t crack her up because you’re not remembering it word for word. So much can go wrong telling a joke. But we’re all getting better at it, even so. The fact that we’re surrounded by this endless avalanche of jokes on social media, on streaming video, means that we’re all kind of internalizing what the rhythms and the mechanisms are and we’re starting to get into a culture where everyone can kind of do the voice of comedy whether they really have a knack for it or not.
Brett McKay: This idea, also you get into how one way humor has changed is we become much more ironic. And you get into like what irony means. You talk about Alanis Morissette. I remember when that … I was like I think in 9th grade when that song came out. And my English teacher was like, “That’s not irony what she’s talking about.” What is irony and why has irony infused our humor today?
Ken Jennings: Well, irony just started out as a literary device. An oddly appropriate fate for a character in a short story or a play where the audience knows that the guy is doomed and the character doesn’t yet know he’s doomed. And that was just fine. But sometime around Vietnam, Watergate, the new American cynicism era, ironic comedians like Steve Martin and David Letterman started to expand irony so it was a whole voice. I don’t take anything seriously even my own comedy. Today, it’s essentially a lifestyle. You have people growing facial hair or buying vintage clothing because they’re not sure if it works. But even if it’s kind of crazy, over the top, hey this works ironically. People voting ironically or telling offensive jokes ironically. It’s almost like we want to be insulated from any of the possible impact of our convictions. So lifestyle irony is a way to skate through life unscathed without having to commit to really believing or thinking anything seriously which is pretty awful when you think about it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, because it takes out some of like, I don’t know, the sincerity of life. When was the last time you actually felt genuinely excited about something? Because if you look too excited well then you’re a square. Something’s wrong with you.
Ken Jennings: Right or actually telling a friend how much you appreciate them or love them like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, no way.” We’re very comfortable riffing him with light banter. I noticed this recently, my daughter fell and broke her wrist. And a lifetime of ironic social media had really prepared me for funny quips to try to distract her from her owie as the doctor put the cast on it. But when something seriously goes wrong. I had a friend whose kid was in a car accident. And I realized I had nothing to say. All these years of banter and social media quips and riffing with my friends have left me really ill-equipped to actually get under the skin and share my real feelings and find out what this guy needs. I do miss that kind of earnestness.
Brett McKay: Yeah. One of the more poignant moments in the book you talk about that sort of how things being infused with humor sort of, I don’t know, what’s the word, desensitizes you to those things you talked about. You watched a clip of an accident. And your initial reaction is like kind of chuckled, but then you realized that, no, what happened was actually really terrible, and I should be feeling something else.
Ken Jennings: Yeah, it was one of these dash cam videos. And it was actually, it was awful. It had been near my house and I knew that a bystander had been killed. But yeah, when the link appeared on the newspaper site and started running and I saw the weird slapstick, “Boing.” I kind of involuntarily laughed. And I realized I did think it was funny but that didn’t excuse it. Things can be funny and still not be helpful or good. And I think that’s an important realization in comedy as well. A joke might work and still do something awful.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So this idea you mentioned earlier about we’re all practicing at being comedians all the time. We have these devices in our hands where we can create memes on the fly. And we can use emojis in certain ways that illicit humor. But what’s weird about it is that, as you said, it kind of degrades our ability to be earnest. It’s also infused not just our relationships and how we interact with others, but it’s infused other institutions where you think well that shouldn’t be funny. For example, religion.
Like religion has always been like the … they been the buzzkill. But now you even argue that religion is trying to get on the humor games. What’s going on there, any examples of that in particular?
Ken Jennings: Yeah, in the middle ages you’re exactly right. Early Christian scholars ready the bible closely and realized there’s no record of Jesus ever laughing. Therefore that’s important. We should be serious in this life so that we can have joy awaiting us hereafter. And that idea has really gone away. I think because it can’t compete. You’re not going to get butts in the church pews unless you got a funny pastor giving a funny sermon. And I noticed it the most on the marquees in front of churches. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Brett McKay: Yeah, oh I know, yeah.
Ken Jennings: When I was a kid those were bible verses, always. And now it’s always some kind of one liner or a pun. “Come to my house after the game, God.” And you realize pastors are trading these xeroxed and emailed list of funny marquee ideas because they have to keep up. Once part of society seems funny any competitor that’s not funny seems stogie and old fashioned by comparison. And so humor kind of spreads like a virus or an epidemic.
Brett McKay: Is that working for churches?
Ken Jennings: I don’t know. As a parishioner I enjoy it when I get a little chuckle from something at church. But I can’t imagine anybody ever walking by a church seeing a sign that says, “Our lifeguard walks on water,” or something and being like, “Oh boy, walking on water, that’s hilarious. I got to find out more.”
Brett McKay: I’m going in there, right. Yeah churches become, it used to be you go there to be lectured basically on how to be a better person or why you’re a terrible person and why you needed to do better. And now it’s like we’re going to entertain you. As you said some churches, some pastors or members are better at it than others. I’m sure there’s a lot of eye rolling humor going on in churches.
Ken Jennings: Well that’s something you see a lot when people who shouldn’t be funny try to infuse humor into what they do. It’s cringy. There is a fad for office humor where big corporations would have funny dress like Elvis days or a special, people patrolling the halls with Groucho glasses on trying to crack you up. And there’s nothing less funny than work. Or God co-opting humor.
Brett McKay: Alright, but yeah you talked about the ’80s and ’90s there was like corporate humor consultants. That’s sort of going on today still but it’s like workers themselves are infusing the workplace with humor because they’ve grown up in a culture where anyone can be funny thanks to memes and things like that. So they probably use Slack to tell jokes or share memes. So they don’t have to hire some outside guy to tell really bad jokes.
Ken Jennings: His group was spending an incredible amount of time and expense to make this engine where instead of reporting bugs with an email or some kind of Slack note on Slack or whatever, you would send a meme. And the seriousness of the meme would determine how bad the bug was and how problematic the tech issue was. Clearly this did not have to work this way but this humor has so suffused our culture now that it’s not a scarce resource anymore. You don’t have to hire a speaker to come in and do a routine with a rubber chicken because now everybody knows how that works.
Brett McKay: Well, besides religion trying to get in on the humor game, another one that’s gone in the humor game where you think this really shouldn’t be funny because it’s kind of serious what the stakes are is politics. So today we live in this world where any political candidate, particularly presidential candidate, has to make the rounds on the night shows or making an appearance on SNL. But that wasn’t always the case. When did politics in America start getting funny?
Ken Jennings: It’s really shocking how recent that was. The watershed moment is probably 1988. Bill Clinton gives just a lousy meandering speech at the Democratic National Convention and everyone says his political career is over, he’s toast. And his handlers managed to get him on Carson that week, which never happened. Carson never had politicians on. But he played his sax with the band and joked with Johnny about how bad his speech had gone. I think Johnny pulled out a big hour glass on his desk when Clinton was about to start talking. And within less than a week he had totally turned it around. And everyone realized, wow this is the playbook now.
So when Clinton ran for president he went on Donahue and Larry King. At the time, this was considered very undignified and everybody was tsk tsking at him. But once it worked that became the new climate. Today we’ve gotten to a point where the most entertaining candidate might get the most votes even if he’s not the most qualified. Even if he’s awful and all the other candidates will try to be doing their cringy attempts to keep up with jokes of their own, as we saw in 2016.
Brett McKay: Right, there was a lot of cringe moments going on. Speaking of politics, even on international level we’re seeing that now. I think just a few days ago Israel sent a meme out to I think Palestine. It was like a Mean Girls meme. They were basically doing diplomacy with internet memes from a movie from the early 2000s.
Ken Jennings: Yeah, once powerful people in organizations realize that they could put humor to work for them. Ad agencies and political campaigns. That was really a ball game because humor used to be our way to fight back against the man. But if the CIA now has an ironic Twitter account. And if Israel is sending memes to the Palestinians they’re shooting like what is left? We really have to be suspicious of the jokes we hear now because they have agendas behind them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, completely, I thought it was so bizarre. Just like this is so bizarre that I’m living in this time where a country is sending memes to another country. What’s interesting too about how the internet has changed humor, you talk about. You play up Twitter because you’re very active there. I follow you on Twitter. And you’re testing out stuff and putting stuff out there. What is it about Twitter that’s conducive to humor and particularly internet humor?
Ken Jennings: It’s mostly the short attention span. They don’t have the 140 character limit anymore, but when Twitter first came out it was too limited to actually work for the things they hoped you would use it for. Just chilling with friends or talking a serious issue. It really only worked for jokes. Humor is the only art form that requires brevity or it fails. And so this huge jokey Twitter community formed with people just kind of essentially having a big sentence contest all day. Who can come up with the best one liner about the day’s events. Once we had Johnny Carson telling four or five topical jokes a night. And now you can read 100 or more every hour on your phone.
It was very easy for me to get just swept up in that and be like, “I want to hang out with these people. They seem fun.” And of course it was awful and no one should do that. I want to warn all your listeners, please stay away from Twitter. It will break your brain. But it’s seductive.
Brett McKay: You highlighted not only yourself but several other internet comedians or just comedians generally, they’re like yeah Twitter, it destroyed humor for me. It just turned making jokes into a job and not fun anymore.
Ken Jennings: For some of those people it literally became a job. They got hired away to work on late night stuff because they were writing such great, high quality, topical jokes on Twitter. But I think that’s something comedians say a lot in general. Which is that once they do it for a living, once they can see all the strings and know where all the bodies are buried, comedy has no joy in it for them anymore. And I feel like we’re starting to see that culture live now that we are all getting as savvy as comedy writers about jokes. We’re starting to enjoy it less and less. We just know the mechanics too well now, we’re hard to surprise.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I can’t remember the last time I had a giant belly laugh where I cried because I laughed so hard. It’s more like okay I see something that’s funny and my brain recognizes, “Oh, that’s funny.” And that’s it. There’s no loling going on at all.
Ken Jennings: There’s a thing called the hedonic treadmill where the brain gets used to more and more pleasurable stimuli and it needs those just to maintain a baseline. So if you don’t have a 100 jokes a minute on Twitter you’re kind of bummed. But as you get them, you take no joy in them. People used to literally slap their knee and hold their sides. And now it’s just more like, “Hmm, yes that’s funny.” That’s about the best we can do.
Brett McKay: Right, I’m amused. I know that’s supposed to be amusing. And I would be laughing if I was not living in 2018.
Ken Jennings: If I was not a hollowed out shell of a man I would be delighted now.
Brett McKay: Right. Well you talk about Twitter a lot. What about Instagram and YouTube how are those doing in contributing to humor or maybe taking away from humor?
Ken Jennings: They’re both paths to success. Bo Burnham is now selling out Madison Square Garden as a comedian when he used to just be sitting in his room at 16-years-old making YouTube videos with an acoustic guitar. So it’s a way to get an audience, which is great if you’re in the business of being funny. But, again, it’s just kind of an addictive, oppressive dopamine cycle for everyone else who we can’t look away from these feeds. But one thing they do is they kind of give us training wheels. They give us a set of templates for how to be funny. Whatever the meme of the day is or the joke format of the day on Twitter. And it’s pretty good comedy for dummies. It’s a good remedial class on how to at least simulate comedy, which is one reason why we can all do it now.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, well, it’s sort of like those old jokes from 40 years ago. The priest, the rabbi, whatever walked … We have that now but it’s in the meme form.
Ken Jennings: Yeah and for a while it was catchphrases. If you could say, “Yeah baby,” like Austin Powers you could be the office cut-up. And now we have Twitter joke formats to do that with.
Brett McKay: What is the downside of having so much culture infused with humor. You kind of highlight it a little bit of it. On a personal level you’re less empathetic and you laugh at things you shouldn’t laugh, you don’t know how to console people or be genuine or sincere with them. On a societal level, what is happening to us now that everything, including international diplomacy, is supposed to be funny?
Ken Jennings: Well, yeah there’s the personal cost for all of us that we enjoy jokes less and maybe, in my case, maybe even feel like it’s not making me a better person. But I think there could be real world effects too with the result of people making worse and worse decisions because we’ve kind of been narcotized by our love of jokes. People buying an inferior product just because the ad was funnier. That could have real impact. North Korea could have launched missiles because they didn’t like the interview with Seth Rogen and James Franco. So at some point, there may actually be a body count for this phenomenon which I kind of shudder to think about.
Brett McKay: Well you gave an example that was really poignant was there’s some Greek myth about a city that all they did was laugh and they ended up destroying themselves because of it.
Ken Jennings: Yeah there’s this Ancient Greek story from Theophrastus who talks about a city called Tiryns where everybody was addicted to laughter. They just couldn’t stop and it was ruining their city. They couldn’t trade, they couldn’t do anything. So they go to the Oracle and the gods say you have to sacrifice this bull and if you can do the whole ceremony without laughing your town will be cured. But a little boy sneaks into the ceremony and sees the bull getting sacrificed and makes a pun and just cracks up the whole crowd. And the lesson, said Theophrastus, is that once your society has an inveterate custom there is no remedy for it. You’re locked in. And sure enough that city was invaded by Argos just a few centuries later and has been ruins for thousands of years.
That’s kind of a gloomy takeaway but I think it’s not possible that this is a new kind of dystopia we could be entering. One where instead of a government oppressing us we decided to kind of oppress ourselves just by ignoring serious things in favor of comedy and amusement. And not grappling with the real challenges we have because there’s just too many hilarious distractions on our phone.
Brett McKay: Right, or we see the problems and instead of doing something about them we just laugh about it.
Ken Jennings: And we say hey, it’s a coping mechanism for dark times. Sure I got a joke about Trump, I got a joke about rising sea levels. But it’s gotten to that point where a joke is kind of our default first response to everything. Like I noticed this thing on Twitter where even when like a celebrity dies, immediately 100 people will jump in and start trying to make jokes about the death. The guy who founded Ikea died a couple months ago and immediately dozens of people on Twitter were like, “I hope his casket came with an Allen wrench.” Or whatever. And it’s not unfunny but is that really the best impulse when somebody dies? It seems very callous but it’s like the only thing in our playbook now. It’s like the only pitch we have is to tell a joke.
Brett McKay: Right so when you talk about the dystopia, the thing that came to mind that it’s our future where everything becomes is a joke is Idiocracy. I don’t know for some reason I think that’s where things are heading, by making everything funny and entertaining.
Ken Jennings: Yeah my wife says she can’t even watch that movie anymore because since she first saw it and enjoyed it, it’s kind of started coming true. And she’s very worried that we’re going to start watering our crops with Gatorade and I don’t know what’s next.
Brett McKay: Wait, it could happen because we might start doing it ironically, and then we end up doing it and we just destroy all the crops because we were trying to be funny.
Ken Jennings: Sure. Like all the people making jokes about the Ikea guy on Twitter, if you asked them they’d be like, “Oh no, no, no. Condolences to his family but I just thought I had this ironic persona where I joke about everything.” Well, I mean if that’s what everybody sees, that’s effectively what we get.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So what’s the solution? It’s so embedded and infused in our culture. Is it just like you stop using the internet? You stop watching the Delta Fly movies? What do we do here?
Ken Jennings: I don’t want everybody to die in a plane crash because they stopped watching the safety video. That would be awful. But you’re right. And that’s kind of the most difficult thing I had with the book is what am I … I’ve noticed this thing and I think it’s a thing and I think it needs to be talked about. But do I really have a recommendation? I don’t want to say I’m against comedy. I love comedy. The book is like a love letter to the comedy I like. But I kind of think of it like one of these charities that it’s not going to cure cancer but it’s raising awareness. “Oh yeah, please donate to our campaign. We’re raising awareness about prostate cancer or whatever.”
I feel like this book cannot solve the problem of people laughing when they shouldn’t. But I would like people to be aware. I would like to start a conversation. So that the next time somebody thinks, “Hey, that ad is funny. I’m going to buy that.” Maybe a voice in their head will be like, “Wait a second. I shouldn’t buy the product just because the ad was funny.” Or maybe some other insurance company has lower rates. Or, “I’m going to vote for that guy. He was hilarious with Ellen or John Stewart or whatever.” Maybe the person will think, “Maybe just being able to get on Colbert is not the same as being a good civil servant.” Maybe having a good zinger in the debate is not the same as mastering policy.
So we kind of think well maybe there are parts of our lives we can keep sincere. Maybe I should make time every day to get offline or go for a walk or give a friend a sincere compliment. There are little things we can do I think to push back against this rise of irony and snark everywhere. And make sure it’s still acceptable to be earnest and nice.
Brett McKay: I like that. So if you have that feeling, if your daughter gets hurt, instead of going to that first impulse of saying something funny, actually give her a sincere counseling there.
Ken Jennings: When you see a friend, don’t instantly fall into the, “Eh, buddy.” The kind of banter. Why not be the kind of guy who’s like, “Hey, how are you doing? How are your parents? I haven’t heard from them lately.” Why not be that guy? There’s plenty of the other guy. There’s no shortage of quippy, hot takes in our culture.
Brett McKay: Think like what would your grandpa do? How would my grandpa behave in this situation and then do that maybe.
Ken Jennings: That’s true.
Brett McKay: My grandpa was like the most genuine, sincere guy. Could just be friends with anybody. And I’m like, “I wish I could do that but I don’t know how to do it.”
Ken Jennings: I had one earnest cowboy grandpa and one irony grandpa who would always be pranking clerks. So I guess I should be like my dad’s dad and not like my mom’s dad who was always asking cashiers, “Oh, I thought today was free day.” Just to watch them be confused.
Brett McKay: Be earnest cowboy grandpa. Alright.
Ken Jennings: That’s right.
Brett McKay: Well Ken, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?
Ken Jennings: I’m @KenJennings on Twitter, my website is ken-jennings.com. You got to remember the hyphen or you wind up at the website of the guy in Florida who would not sell me his URL. And the book is on sale at book stores everywhere. Online retailers like Amazon, should be hard to miss.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Ken Jennings, thank you for your time it’s been a pleasure.
Ken Jennings: Well thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ken Jennings. He is the author of the book Planet Funny. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at ken-jennings.com. Also, you can follow him on Twitter, where he’s trying to be funny, that we talked about, @KenJennings. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/planetfunny where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. And if you enjoyed the podcast, you got something out of it, I appreciate you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member if you did get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. And until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.