That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore: Looking for Comedy’s Place in the Modern World

Filmmaker and actor Shannon Plumb struggles with what direction to take in her work when nothing in the world now seems funny.

Trying to find a funny bone this summer is like trying to find a smile on the B49 bus. My work has always revolved around comedy. And now, there isn’t much to laugh about.

I’m into my third year trying to finance my second feature, The Narcissist. Plans to shoot this summer fell through. My ego, of course, got crushed. My soul-searching began. I asked my husband Derek what I should do: “Should I give the lead to Melissa McCarthy instead of myself? The only way to get a movie made is to put a star in it. I couldn’t give up the lead. Could I? I’m a performer. Aren’t I? I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing. Maybe I should write a book? I’m getting older, less attractive (according to Hollywood, agents, financiers). I can hide behind the pages instead of trying to be funny on the screen. Should I quit making the short films that only entertain the art world? Should I work to get Hillary Clinton elected? Should I start racing cars?” He told me, “Shannon … you make people laugh. That’s what you were meant to do. You should write the Shannon Plumb half-hour comedy show.” I always consider Derek’s advice. I started jotting down ideas: “There once was a little girl who wanted to be funny…” I started Googling go-cart tracks too.

As a kid, my biggest thrill was making my family laugh. When times got bad, that’s what I wanted to do. I had one fight with my cousin. She was a notorious badass. She took a swing at me, grabbed my hair and pinned me to the ground. When she stared down at me, her eyes swelled up. I knew there would be no tomorrow. Her mouth fizzed like a shaken soda bottle about to explode. She was going to bite a chunk out of me, or head-butt me, or knock me back to the Beginning. I thought, “What would Bugs Bunny do?” I escaped by planting a fat kiss on her angry face. Her bubbles settled. She started laughing, I started running. When my old aunt with one white eye caused havoc at the dinner table by insisting there was no such thing as an upside-down cake (“It’s right side up. How can it be upside down?”), I wrote a story about the dessert scene and passed the pages around. Everyone laughed. When I tried to get in with my older cousin and her cool friends, I drew two dots on my chin, tipped my head upside down and performed a bald man named Mr. Chinnegan for them. They were in hysterics. They handed me my first beer.

You have to be somewhat protected to find the funny things in life. You can only let some of the dark side in. But you also have to be carefree so a soccer ball can smash you in the face as you take a sip of your first coffee of the day. You have to be loose enough to walk into signposts, inexperienced enough to walk near puddles at city bus stops, clever enough to confuse everyone who comes in contact with you, and brave enough to be the idiot in a room full of “achievers.”

I’ve always resorted to humor to lead myself and others away from black holes, suicidal thoughts, permanent frowns. It just felt good to make people laugh. But these days, it’s getting harder. The first time comedy became a questionable way of life was after 9/11. I was in my little apartment near Soho. The smoke from downtown lingered outside the window. In it was the smell of burnt plastics and singed metals, airplane fuel and death. The smoke eventually went away, but it took our innocence with it. For the first time, I wanted to quit making funny short films. They seemed so stupid. How could I think funny thoughts when the man around the corner was at the photo shop framing a picture of his wife for her funeral? “She was on the 92nd floor,” he said in a trance. “She never knew what hit her. Thank God for that.” I grabbed my photos and walked away thinking this was no time for thinking funny things. How could I find humor in the world when this man would never see his wife again? Downtown was blocked off. We couldn’t leave. Everyone was inside during those days; inside they’re homes, inside their hearts and minds. We were all examining the life we still had. I never wanted to think funny again.

On TV, Whoopi Goldberg was being interviewed. The topic was comedy. She had gone into a black hole after 9/11. Unlike me, though, she said now was the time for comedy. Even though the world has gone mad, now it’s time to make people laugh. Her message seemed to say, “If you can’t be the one saving people, you can at least help the ones doing the saving. They need laughter. They will use it.”

I eventually returned to making short movies. I felt the importance and purpose of being funny when a video I made was shown in Beirut. I played a character dressed in a burqa and hijab. A fan was blowing the Middle Eastern robe into a giant bubble. Sexy legs shown underneath. The Middle Eastern girls laughed. It was the Marilyn Monroe of the new century. It was communication with another culture. It was a shared moment of joy. I gave them a laugh, they gave me a laugh back.

As a stay-at-home mom, I found the silliness in the mundane of the domestic world. There were props for inspiration. I had two short bodies for an audience. In the kitchen, there were make-believe stairs to descend. There was the mouse that talked nonsense and bit the noses of children before bed. There was the chase around the house between a stuffed Lorax and a boy in saggy diapers. Both had wobbly torsos and stubby legs. I invented a character for my sons. He was a drunken, farsighted, cross-eyed old man who hated kids. He shouted in their face and spit when necessary. Screams of laughter. Joy.

This laughter saved me. I had no idea how hard being a full-time mom would be. I thought of all the mothers through all the ages who had stayed at home to raise their children. They could have used a few laughs about the sacrifices they were making. Someone had to tell the story about motherhood. Not a man but a woman. And it should be funny. Because it’s so insane, it’s hilarious. The skits in my house became skits for a script. That’s when I wrote and performed in Towheads, my first feature.

But how do we laugh in these times today? Terrorism, Trump, police brutality, Syrian children buried by their bedroom ceilings. The images and video are traumatizing. Suddenly there are orphans everywhere, there are mothers in mourning everywhere, there are children’s bodies in the streets being covered with small white sheets. What’s funny? I don’t remember these images when it was fun being funny. I tried to turn off the news. But it’s hard to ignore the suffering of other human being.

There is no balance of comedy and drama. The world is a dramatic place. People crave drama. If they aren’t seeing it as reality, they want to see it as pretend. Both versions stamp permanent, horrific images in the brain. The jesters are quitting their jobs.

“Be funny, Mommy. Do something funny. Play the character,” the kids would shout. I can’t be funny right now. No one’s laughing anymore.

At the moment, my husband and I and our two boys are in Colorado visiting family. One day in the mountains, we were having a really bad start. Angry father, rebellious child, crying brother, impatient mother. We all got in the car together. The air was thick. Almost hateful. We all wanted to scream, but we had to get down the mountain and visit a relative in the ‘burbs. We held it in. It got quiet in the car. I turned to look at my son. He was hurt and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. The engine started. A voice was telling a joke over the speakers. We listened. It was a man named Mitch Hedberg. He was talking about a baseball cap on a picnic table. The letter X. Sesame seeds. He was talking about the funny things he sees in the world. We all started laughing. I turned to look at my son with a smile on my face. My son was smiling back at me.

I know a joke isn’t going to stop poverty, or social injustice, or a terrorist from striking a large crowd. I know a joke can’t help stop Trump. But a joke might ease the tension between two brothers. A joke might remove anger from a bully’s eyes. A joke might divert someone from the darkness. A joke will unite enemies. A joke has a lot more power than we realize.

Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.