I never liked the dogma that comedy is subjective. Yes, there are things that make me laugh and wouldn’t make a child or an elderly person amused. Comedy does rely on having access to a framework of knowledge and experiences (or lack of those, what explains why slapstick works so well with children). It IS subjective at its rudimentary core. But as we move away from such core, towards grounds where, ideally, the intellectual field is leveled and anyone could, in principle, get a joke, what would the make a set up, the subsequent punchline and the narrow interstice between them appealing to all or at least most? What would give it (a relative) universality?
There is no reasonable answer to that question, which is usually phrased as “Is this funny?”, tout court. As creators of humor it is only natural that we seek what’s funny, it’s a tautology to state that. Yet, it’s a necessary tautology as I assume that it is the wrong approach. Yes, we summon humor and put it on paper. That’s the work of creating comedy. But when it’s up to labeling it as good or bad or not-comedy-you-are-not funny-never-write-again-kill-yourself-your-hack, then the the approach should be, in my opinion, the opposite. We should ask not what makes us laugh, chuckle, etcetera, but what doesn’t.
I suggest a very simple exercise: think about a piece of comedy you read or watched that not only failed at amuse you in any way, but made you either sad or angry. It doesn’t matter the source of that emotion, it could be that the comedy piece made you triggered due to personal experiences (e.g.: a cancer joke after you lost a loved on to cancer), to social affinities (a racist joke when you happen to not be a racist scumbag), a joke that was just plain weak, cliche, that made you frustrated with the fact that someone got paid big money to create it while you are having instant noodles for dinner.
In my case I could give examples from pretty much any Wes Anderson movie I forced myself to watch, or from a Adam Sandler movie produced in the period after he gave up and just used the loyalty of his fanbase to shoot weak ass movies to make cash and before he got that juicy netflix deal and started giving a fuck again. I will keep it simple, though. There is an animated TV show called Brickleberry about park rangers. I watched 2 episodes of that show before giving up because it was just plain bad. But there is a joke that was particularly bad and I will never forget. A character needed an organ transplant and the doctor told him “Mr. Whatever, we have a liver available right now, but we can’t give it to you because it is reserved for an illegal immigrant”.
The thing that frustrated me the most about the joke I mentioned wasn’t the cheap shot at immigrants, but the fact that it was not even remotely based on a fact. Immigrants are not a hindrance to the health system and they certainly don’t have privileged access to organs. That’s when I realized: comedy needs to be based on truth. You can distort it to make the caricature work, but it still needs to be a product of tangible experiences accessible or at least conceivable by us in a reality that has rules and social dynamics. That’s the first step to make a joke funny, one that most comedy writers don’t consciously take. Sometimes they land in comedy gold without being aware of that, but that’s still a step they took. And their next joke can incur in a misstep.