Are there rules in comedy? If you look at live stand-up, it’s got one rule. If it gets laughs, it’s comedy. It’s pass/fail because, unlike other art forms, there’s a specific and spontaneous physiological response to indicate the success of a joke. A song ends and people applaud but it’s a conditioned societal response not a physical reaction. But it’s a tricky switch to flick that laughter switch. I liken it to the inability to tickle onesself. If you know what’s coming, you put the safety on the laughter switch. A comedy act is like judo. The audience’s minds were going one way and you flipped them unexpectedly. The laughs come because the surprise flips the switch.
That’s why jokes change over time and so much that was funny in a context loses its laugh over time. Hearing routines from a burlesque show in the 1920s, one is rarely made to laugh. That is not so long ago in a historical context. Cultural shifts have completely changed the things we find amusing. Place is crucial too. It’s hard to imagine an act that would succeed in every venue. A lot of cruise ship acts would die at Spirits while a lot of New Yorkers can’t play Tennessee.
Sometimes a joke is a lack of a joke because that tricks an audience expecting a punchline. The classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?” riddle is already written for an audience of people used to hearing clever twists. A long time ago, the listener was already sophisticated enough in the ways of jokes that he was surprised by the non-joke, “To get to the other side.” If you think about it as the earliest non-joke, it’s clear why it’s still known since it would have been a groundbreaking concept.
That’s also why there’s always room for new comedy. Every humour convention that gets established sets up the switch on it for the audience that now expects that type of joke. Andy Kindler made fun of Jeff Foxworthy saying, “If you’re uncomfortable around minorities, you might be a redneck.” Hilarious and only possible because Foxworthy established the convention. Since comedy is all about the unexpected, it will always have to respond to whatever the world has established as convention.