The Ethics of Deadpan Humour: When is a Joke Actually a Lie?

Sam Woolfe
10 min readApr 29, 2024

A popular view on comedy is that ethics should have nothing to do with it, and trying to place comedy within the realm of ethics is a way for so-called ‘woke’ and ‘progressive’ types to moralise, police, and censor what can (and can’t) be joked about. The sentiment, from the ‘anti-woke’ crowd, is that if you start conceding that some jokes are unethical or ‘too offensive’, then we will, firstly, be limiting creativity and expression, and secondly, be opening the doors to further forms of social and cultural censoring.

Every topic has the potential to be fit for comedy, but the above view on the intersection of humour and ethics does, I think, miss out on legitimate ethical issues. The whole narrative surrounding ‘cancel culture’ in relation to comedy — despite often being overblown (you could hardly call Jimmy Carr ‘cancelled’ given his continued success) — ignores the more subtle and complex relations between speech and ethics.

Deadpan humour (or dry humour) is one specific issue where I think morality can, sometimes, enter into the conversation. A lot of my humour is deadpan — it’s what I’m drawn to, both culturally (as a Brit, I’m used to it) and personally (dry humour resonates with me and I appreciate the comedians who do it well). But my humour is often very deadpan — to the point that people (who don’t know me very well) won’t be sure if I’m joking or being serious. This got me thinking about the point — if there can be one — when a joke becomes a lie. This is because many jokes depend on fabrications, and this is what makes them humorous. It is the way that a person works with untruths that makes them funny. We would not consider a genuinely malicious or selfish lie to be fit for humour, on the other hand.

It may seem obvious that what makes deadpan humour not deceptive, and not a form of lying, is that the intention is to be funny. The intention behind the fabrication or speaking falsely comes from a good place, i.e. to entertain others. The intention, as with all comedy, is also to bond through a shared understanding of the joke and shared laughter, thereby uplifting the general mood (which is sometimes needed in serious, stuffy, or tense situations).

The appeal of deadpan humour, and the skill of comedians who employ it, lies in the ability to make a serious or emotionally neutral expression (dryness) into a form of levity through what is being said, which depends on a whole host of expectations shared by both the speaker and listener. Dry humour works because it messes with expectations about what we are accustomed to people saying with a serious or neutral expression, and in a matter-of-fact way. If there is no ‘surprise factor’, or reversal of expectations, then deadpan jokes wouldn’t land.

In contrast, when we lie to others, we are not seeking to elevate the mood of others or enhance social bonds through false statements. Lies are typically not ridiculous, surreal, rude, or shocking statements intended to surprise and amuse others, but are instead fabrications that the person is trying to get away with. The intention behind lying is not to reveal the deception, at any point. Moreover, lying is typically considered immoral because of its association with selfishness and lack of consideration for others. Excluding white lies, deceiving others is usually done for one’s own benefit, regardless of how this affects the person (or people) one is lying to. The intention might also be to harm someone through deception, such as by ruining their reputation. (According to some interpretations of Buddhist ethics, some forms of lying are permissible, if they are considered ‘skillful’, i.e. they aim to alleviate the suffering of others.)

A case could be made that even white lies are not permissible (Immanuel Kant is well known for his absolute opposition to all forms of lying, and Sam Harris is against lying in virtually all cases, including instances of white lies). An argument in favour of this position is that deception, no matter the intention behind it, ultimately worsens our relationships with others. By failing to always be honest with others, we will tend to have less deep, intimate, and trusting relationships. However, there are also, I think, valid arguments against this unshakeable commitment to never lie, in light of certain circumstances, what the potential consequences may be, and what other duties may be violated through the refusal to lie. (Harris is not quite as strict as Kant, however, as he does not believe — as Kant did — that one should tell a murderer about the whereabouts of their intended victim if one possessed such knowledge).

For the purposes of this discussion, I think it will be more useful to focus on what most people would consider to be obvious cases in which lying is unethical (i.e. purely or mostly self-concern and disregard for the interests of others). We can consider this kind of lying to be wrong on consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethics grounds. Addressing these ethical positions in turn, we can say that some lies have a tendency to produce negative consequences (for ourselves and others); we would not want to live in a world in which such lying was, as a principle, universalised; and the kind of person who habitually lies in this way has a dishonest and untrustworthy character.

Conversely, we could posit that deadpan humour is dissimilar to the above type of lying. It is not wrong on consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethics grounds. But is this always true? What if, as I’ve experienced, others aren’t sure if I’m joking or being serious? There can also be times in which people are not just unsure — in my own experience and in general — about whether an intended joke is serious or not; they may end up believing that what was told is true.

On a practical level, these problems could be avoided. One could become better at deadpan humour (thereby avoiding confusion or misleading others) or one could only be extremely dry in situations where it will have the intended effect (such as in the company of others who are likely to understand that level of dryness). But is it really necessary to think in this way to ensure that deadpan humour doesn’t become a lie? Sometimes, we expect that someone — especially a comedian — should’ve got the joke that flew right over their head.

Deadpan humour does, on the one hand, depend on certain cultural and social assumptions, which means it won’t be effective in all situations with all people. Yet, on the other hand, there seem to be other factors that influence whether a dry joke is recognised as such. For example, if a deadpan joke is taken seriously, then the point of it failed; but the failure of the joke doesn’t inherently make it unethical. We could say that so long as the intention is revealed (either verbally or non-verbally), then the joke isn’t a lie. It’s just either a poorly formulated or executed joke, or it doesn’t land for other reasons (e.g. cultural differences in humour or the listener not being well acquainted with the personality of the speaker).

Deadpan humour only works if there is a clear mismatch between expression and content, and this often means what is being said has to be absurd or amusing enough. More subtle deadpan humour may rely on less obvious fabrications, which can nonetheless still end up having the intended effect, although not in every situation, or for every listener. We can see how content (not just intention) matters if you imagine someone saying something deeply unpleasant or upsetting. This is not immediately funny — even if it’s about the speaker herself — simply because it is said with a dry expression and monotone voice. This could also be interpreted as serious.

But the more crucial question is as follows: Is there a point at which the gap between a failed joke and the reveal makes deadpan humour unethical? At one extreme, never disclosing one’s intention behind the statement could be considered unethical. The listener will then go away with a false impression about the speaker. And perhaps in some situations, this may be harmful. It may lead to a negative perception of the speaker, and continually never clearing up these intentions could lead to social disconnection. So while the person joking has a good intention, the actual outcome can be negative.

It is not clear to me, however, if we can identify a clear gap between joke and reveal, in which we can say the dry joke is definitely not deceptive. It does not seem reasonable or intuitive to think that revealing the intention or truth immediately after a confused response from the listener is still, nevertheless, a form of lying. Otherwise, we would have to be committed to the view that every failed dry joke is an act of immorality (albeit not, in most cases, a serious one). Would a week, day, or an hour be too long? Can deadpan humour (or any joke) be either effective or not a lie when the reveal takes that long?

Furthermore, lying is often framed not just in terms of its effects (whether a person has been, and feels, deceived) but also in terms of the intention of the speaker. When lying, a person intends to deceive for a reason that is distinct from the motivation behind deadpan humour. As we have seen, in the former case, a person is not lying out of playfulness, whereas in the latter case, they are. So is it the attitude of playfulness, irrespective of the joke itself or its effect, that makes deadpan humour ethically distinct from lying? I believe this can be one component that makes it distinct, although this does not mean that in all cases deadpan humour does not end up being deceptive (and therefore wrong). We might still want to question, however, whether such humour can be ‘wrong’ if the speaker’s intention and expectation were innocent, that is, to be playful with the listener and expect that they will not believe what was said.

Yet if the misapprehension is never cleared up, then the attitude of playfulness becomes only one-sided. The speaker knows they were being playful at the time (and they still think of the joke as playful), but the listener never ends up seeing it that way. Even if this attitude is eventually revealed, one could consider that too long a gap makes the intended joke a form of unethical deception. But what that time period should be, I do not know. One might counter this by saying that so long as the intention is to entertain oneself and others, rather than mislead for a purely selfish reason, then it is not a lie. Or perhaps an intended joke can change from being deceptive (when the speaker fails to signal it’s a joke) to a genuine joke (when it’s eventually revealed as such).

However, jokes work because they are brief. I wonder, then, whether some types of deadpan humour can work instead as pranks, intended — in a friendly, jovial way — to make someone look foolish for believing what was said, with the reveal happening (as is common with pranks) later than with jokes. We can still think of this as distinct from lying, although sometimes the line between a prank and a lie becomes blurred.

A potential issue with deadpan humour only being one-sided, either throughout an entire relationship or for a long period, is that a kind of bond or social contract has been breached, in a sense. Bonds are created through trust, reliability, and common ground. Bad or failed jokes here and there do not threaten these principles, which lie behind positive relationships. In contrast, creating a certain level of regularity in these misperceptions could be thought of as wrong for consequentialist, deontological, and virtue-based reasons. Again, this might only be wrong in a minor way, and I do not think it is a widespread and pressing moral problem.

The ethics of humour becomes trickier, though, when the speaker assumes they’ve not been taken seriously. They may have just assumed the joke failed since the listener(s) didn’t laugh, but still realised it was meant as a joke, or they may have misconstrued actual laughter as a sign they got the joke (when in fact, the laugher was just a knee-jerk reaction of surprise to something interpreted as serious). This should not be surprising, as people may often laugh in response to serious or honest statements, which may be expressed suddenly, disconnected from the rest of the conversation, or in an odd or idiosyncratic way. In addition, some autistic people find they are misinterpreted as being deadpan (when they’re being serious) or they struggle to pick up on deadpan humour.

Whether one wants to consider certain instances of deadpan humour as a form of lying, and therefore unethical, is up for debate. The conclusion one arrives at will depend on views about whether the attitude or intention behind the statement or the effect on the listener is what matters most. I generally lean towards thinking that it is the speaker’s attitude that distinguishes certain instances of dry jokes from lies (the intention to be playful and make sure that this intention is clear if the listener ends up believing what was said). In that case, I think even if the listener feels deceived or untrusting of the speaker from then on, this could be thought of as undesirable (preferentially bad for both parties, since both wanted the situation to be playful) but not unethical (that is, not morally bad).

In other words, some negative outcome from what we say, including a joke, is not what makes that act wrong. This doesn’t, however, exclude the additional point that some statements, expressed in a deadpan way, could be both preferentially bad and morally bad. The intention to make others laugh is not always enough to outweigh the potential harm of what was said (I don’t mean ‘harm’ in the way that the anti-woke brigade likes to characterise the ‘snowflakey’ sense of it: as meaning upset or offensiveness). I mean the kind of harm that arises when there are additional attitudes behind the joke (e.g. genuine bullying, malice, or prejudice) and other effects besides offensiveness (e.g. reputational damage, stigmatisation, and enmity). Here we can say that the spirit and purpose of humour have failed.

By delineating this kind of immoral deadpan humour, I am not trying to say what kind of jokes should or shouldn’t be allowed. People and comedians should be free to make whatever joke they like, whether it be disseminated to only one listener or millions of viewers. But this does not mean that everything that can be expressed — and which should be uncensored — should be immune to criticism. We should be free to say what we want (excluding incitements to violence or libel), but this freedom does not mean that anything that is said is therefore morally innocent.

Originally published at on April 29, 2024.



Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: