18 May 2011

On Comedy

Most of us think we're funny, because of course we say and do things that we think are funny.  I'm a little different, in that I believe I'm funny because I frequently make other people laugh, and often I do it without any conscious effort.  Maybe I'm just arrogant, but I'm going with the hypothesis.  In one of life's little ironies, though, this post about me being funny isn't really comedic.  Go figure.

Did I laugh at things in my youth and make others laugh?  I'm sure I did, but I honestly cannot recall any such instance.  I wasn't morose as a child, mind you; I was simply more curious than anything else.  It never crossed my mind until I reached middle school that there was anything to actually learn about comedy.  I just assumed that I would understand comedy better the more I knew about things in general.  That seemed self-evident to me, as I distinctly recall being told that I would find something funny if I had a working knowledge of the subject material.  Ergo, if I wanted to get jokes, I needed learn more about the world.

For Christmas 1990(?) I got a 13" Emerson TV for my bedroom.  It was astounding!  I no longer had to watch what anyone else wanted to watch in the living room.  I could watch whatever I wanted to watch.  I could stay in my room, watching TV while sketching or reading comic books, or anything else I wanted to do with my stuff.  I couldn't just clutter up the living room with my stuff just to watch TV; the expectation was that either I was going to watch TV, or I was going to play with my stuff and with a TV in my room I could do both!  It didn't take me long to discover that, from my bedroom, I could tune into TV stations from Lexington in addition to those in Louisville.

One of those Lexington stations (their Fox affiliate, as I recall) played Cheers re-runs Monday through Friday.  I had already become a sitcom viewer, but it wasn't until I began to really immerse myself in Cheers that I began to consciously study humor.  I learned there's a statute of limitations on comebacks.  If you're in, you can generally get a laugh even with weaker material.  If you're late, though, even a great line will fall flat and you may as well just keep quiet.  Cheers was full of biting put-downs, but it was never mean-spirited.  I laughed because it was clever, not because it belittled someone.  Furthermore, much of the humor came from characters fessing up to their own shortcomings as people.  I admire honesty, and I was fascinated to learn that you could get laughs at your own expense.  Given that I was already an outcast at school, this information came in handy.  It didn't take me long to prove that I was much better at making fun of myself than my classmates ever were, and I stole their comedic thunder.

I knew their names, but I always doubted they knew mine.
I once read some remarks by John Ratzenberger in which he credited the strength of the show to the fact that the writers had grown up vociferous readers.  Their literary-minded proclivities, Ratzenberger felt, helped create a comedic style more sophisticated than anything else on TV--which was largely written by people who had grown up with movies and other TV shows.  I think there's something to Ratzenberger's theory.

During the early 90s I also began watching Saturday Night Live.  Every viewer thinks "their" era was the best, but I think I can prove that the era I began watching really was the strongest.  Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and Chris Rock have conquered the world of comedy.  Phil Hartman and Chris Farley would have.  Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, David Spade and Julia Sweeney are terrific.  And while Victoria Jackson isn't necessarily funny anymore, at least she's still a punch line.

Best Presidential parody ever.
"Weekend Update" was my foray into news-derived comedy, which was really a payoff for me as I'd begun watching Today before school most mornings.  I don't even know why, but I can tell you this: I fell in love with Katie Couric almost immediately.  I resented Bryant Gumble for talking when it could have been her addressing me.  Willard Scott was okay, though.  Hard to resent Ronald McDonald, you know?  It became a cycle; I would follow the news through Today and learn how it was funny on Saturday Night.  You can see how this conformed to my paradigm that learning more about the world would expand my sense of humor.

It's 7:18 in the morning. Shut up, Gumble. I want to hear the perky one!
The big event of 1993 was, of course, The Late Night War.  David Letterman, heir apparent to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show, was snubbed by NBC in favor of Jay Leno.  Dave defected to CBS, launching The Late Show in August 1993--just as I entered high school.  Conan O'Brien succeeded Dave as host of Late Nite.  Other late night talk shows abounded, including Chevy Chase's short-lived stint in the format.  I began watching Carson near the end of his run, sticking around to familiarize myself with Dave.  I was tuned in for the premiere of Late Show and ate it up.

It doesn't even matter what was said.  This image is funny and you know it.
From Letterman, I learned an additional pair of lessons.  Firstly, I learned that you can actually rescue a fallen joke by turning its failure into a joke.  Time and again, I would watch Letterman berate a lame joke from his monologue, until it had become the funniest gag in the show.  Secondly, I learned a lot about facial expressions from watching Dave.  Many a time, he could make me bust a gut without saying a word, because he could make and hold a face that was far funnier than anything he might have said.  I began to work on that aspect of humor.  At first it was hard to resist the urge to fire off a Cheers-style one-liner, but I quickly began to appreciate how rewarding it could be to make people laugh entirely with my eyes and my brow.

There's a bonus to facial expression humor: There's nothing for anyone to repeat.  Often, there's someone in a room who feels that they need to parrot whatever makes them laugh, as though their echo validates the humor or ensures that others are aware that they heard something they thought funny.  I can't explain the concept, as it's one of the few mental maladies from which I do not suffer.  I'm sure I should feel flattered to be repeated, but I just feel cheapened.  No one ever tries to make a face that they think is funny, though, which allows the moment to simply occur and then pass.  A bad joke can be resurrected until it's good, but I believe the good ones should be allowed to rest in peace.

I'm still convinced that the key to humor is understanding.  You can't know how to make a joke about something you don't understand.  I still adore news-derived humor; I sincerely believe Stephen Colbert is a satirist worthy of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.  I still like some TV sitcoms, but the truth is that Cheers is the only one that still makes me literally laugh no matter how many times I've seen a given episode.  Letterman still cracks me up, and I look forward to "Weekend Update."  I think Seth Meyers is the cleverest host they've had yet for that segment.

It may not be hyperbole to declare him the greatest satirist of his time.
There is one downside to cultivating this reflexive, comedic nature.  My manner is so diffusively lighthearted that it's often difficult for me to be taken seriously.  For instance, at my last doctor's appointment, I had my physician laughing so hard she had to wipe away a tear at one point...and this was a conversation in which I explained that Cymbalta had failed to treat my depression and that I had exhausted any hope of ever being "happy" or "normal."  Now, to clarify, my physician was not laughing at that specific part of our discussion; I don't want anyone misconstruing this anecdote and thinking her insensitive and cruel.  I can't even tell you now how I became funny, but I do recall impersonating a seal at one point.  Now, how the hell you go from discussing suicidal thoughts to impersonating a seal, I cannot tell you but I did it.  I couldn't help it.  It's just how I am.

It may not look it, but this was a profound movie.
Lest I become melancholy about this working against me, I try to remain mindful of the classic film, Sullivan's Travels.  The premise is that a filmmaker has tired of making comedies and sets out to make a dramatic picture worthy of critical acclaim so he can be taken seriously within the industry.  By the end of the film, though, he's endured more than enough misery to make him realize how valuable it can be to make other people laugh.  It's a terrific film with an endearing and charming message.  I won't lie: when I feel like I've joked my way out of being taken seriously, I become frustrated.  Eventually, it passes and I take some small solace in knowing that I made someone laugh.