Why do we laugh? Why do we cry? “Confusion,” suggests author Kurt Vonnegut. “Laughter is similar to crying,” he said, “In that, in some cases, these are the only reactions we can find to react to that which otherwise confuses us greatly.” How many times have we laughed at something without taking the time to figure out the gist of the joke? How many times have we laughed and followed that up with a “Wait … What?” How many times have we gone so far as to ask our joke teller to repeat a joke that we didn’t completely understand?
“What’s black and white, and red all over?” was a joke I found on a Bazooka Joe wrapper. “A newspaper!” I repeated that joke a number of times. I went into the punchline with what I believed to be the perfect pitch, and I hit that punch line perfectly, but I had a little secret: I didn’t get it. I asked those in my inner circle —those that I believed would gracefully illuminate me without attaching the public ridicule I probably deserved— to explain it to me. They couldn’t. They didn’t get it either. One person told me that they thought the ink newspapers use comes from a red-base. It didn’t think that was funny, but I was relieved that I finally had something of a foothold on the joke. It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized that the joke involved the homophone spellings of read and read. Read, as in the in the past participle read, as in while a newspaper may have a white base, and black print, it is read all over, as opposed to the color red. If you got that joke right off the bat, congrats, but I assume that there has to be at least one joke that you retold that you didn’t get. The point is that we may actually laugh harder at jokes we don’t get than those we do, and that laughter may be an instinctual, fallback position to those things that confuse us.
Have you ever asked a joke teller to explain a joke? Have you ever laughed harder at the explanation than you did the joke, even though the explanation only confused you more? Was this due to the fact that you were seeking cover for the fact that you didn’t get it, or were you —as Vonnegut’s suggestion would lead us to believe— laughing harder the more confused you got, and was there ever a progression to this confusion that leads us to finding a joke hilarious without ever understanding it in the first place?
Humor is relative. Of that, there is no doubt. What is perceived to be hilarious by one man can be viewed as silly and sophomoric by another. There are some universal truths to comedy, but for the most part comedy may be our most subjective art form. Individual experiences lead us to finding relative humor in a subject, but it would be impossible for a comedic artist to try to relate to all of his audience members. On the face of this, a qualified comedic artist is forced to create funny.
Falling is funny. There is no confusion about that. Seeing Chevy Chase do what he did in the 70’s was a brand of humor that never had to be taught. Stupid is funny. Abbot and Costello, John Ritter, and the Airplane/Naked Gun writers proved that by creating timeless humor with people falling and doing stupid things. Most comedians began their careers by falling, doing stupid things, and imitating famous people, but most of them realized, at some point, that they could only do those things for so long before they started to become an imitation of themselves.
I was too young to see Richard Pryor’s gestation cycle in comedy. I didn’t know the middlebrow, Bill Cosby-like Richard Pryor. I only knew the racial and radical comedian that launched himself from the pack to the stratosphere of comedy, but that didn’t mean I got his brand of humor. I didn’t get George Carlin or Cheech and Chong either. Knowledge and experience have taught me that Carlin and Pryor are funny, but how did I arrive at that answer? I have to imagine that Pryor and Carlin struggled to reach audiences when they first attempted to stretch their comedy beyond the border. I have to imagine that there were some pratfalls involved in their path to the hip, cool, dangerous, and edgy titles that their work would eventually assume. There had to be an inclusive group that “got it” that everyone wanted to be a part of. Those people then had to teach other people, until those other people taught my people, and my people taught me that I would be ostracized if I didn’t “get it” too.
Cheech and Chong followed Carlin and Pryor through the doors they opened. They introduced some of their own elements to the brand, but for the most part they owed a deep debt of gratitude to Carlin and Pryor. I learned these comedians were funny by watching my friends and my friend’s parents watch them. I was young and impressionable. I wanted to learn adult humor, and I wanted to be considered hip and cool by my friends, so I learned that this material was cutting edge, and a tour-de-force, and I learned that if I wanted to be all that I was hoping to be in life, I would have to laugh to tears at the things Cheech and Chong did.
“Man, you have got to see Up in Smoke,” my friends would say, “That thing is hilarious.” I watched it. I didn’t get it. I tried really hard, because I didn’t want to be seen as a naive little kid that didn’t get it. Later, while watching it with friends, I made sure that I laughed in all the right places. I still didn’t get it, but they didn’t have to know that. They didn’t have to know I wasn’t hip or cool. It was my little secret.
I learned that drugs and sex were funny. Cussing was even funny after a while, because cussing was naughty. I became an adult, I had my own individual adventures in life, and I eventually learned that cussing, sex and drugs were funny because they were naughty. Naughty is funny, but it’s playground funny. It’s base humor, and some are satisfied providing base humor, but an artistic comedian needs to make it situational.
Situational humor is the: “I can’t believe he did this while doing that?” brand of humor that we all have to learn in life if we want to be cool and hip. Sex is funny, especially if you do it wrong and you’re willing to be self-effacing about it in front of a group of people. Farting is funny no matter where it’s done. Most of our most embarrassing biological functions are funny, because we all do it, and we can all relate, but if you can mix in a dash of the “You did that while doing this?” element to the story, you can achieve hilarity. Stories of drug abuse are funny, as long as you’re not currently doing it. We’ve agreed that’s kind of sad, but if you say you did it in the past “while doing that” you can go ahead and hire your own personal laugh meter technician.
The guy under the Darth Vader mask, David Prowse, once admitted that he did more cocaine during the filming of the Star Wars movies than there is snow on Hoth. That’s not really funny, until you factor in that Darth Vader is a character kid’s love, and that Prowse did cocaine while playing a character kid’s love … that’s funny. Really? Why? Is it because Prowse pulled the ultimate naughty … doing drugs while doing that? If someone says a joke about a mean mama, and your mama was mean, the comedian can reach you on your level, but how many of us have snorted a line of coke, or injected heroin in our veins, and why do we laugh so hard about that? The current strain of “doing that while doing this” involves adult comedians cussing in front of children? We, apparently, love this taboo breaking practice in our movies, judging by the number of times it’s currently being done. We also love to see men make lustful jokes about other men. We love it when our comedies break taboos, but George Carlin once provided a warning about breaking taboos. He basically said that societal standards should always be respected and taboos should be carefully and gradually broken down, for once they’re all obliterated comedians will have nothing left to mock.
Mel Brooks once said: “If I fall down a manhole, that’s not funny. If you do, that’s funny.”
Jay Leno once mused that he didn’t understand why social, highbrow comedians felt a need to shake their audiences’ foundations and breakdown barriers. He said that he didn’t understand comedians bringing high-falootin’ sensibilities to their comedy. He said being a comedian is a wonderful profession that has two basic components: telling jokes and getting paid for it. “Well,” said Larry David, “You (Leno) could think that, because you were good at it.”
Bob Hope and Jack Benny told jokes and got paid in their day, but theirs were different jokes, safer jokes, that appealed to fathers and sons alike. There was no power to what Benny and Hope did. There were no sensibilities brought to their brand of humor. One would think that they would probably have a lot of trouble breaking through the ranks today. Hope may have told some risky jokes about Raquel Welch and Loni Anderson, but they were never so bold that a parent would be offended by them. Benny’s self-effacing humor would land him gigs in Omaha and Des Moines, but if he wanted in the upper echelon, he probably would’ve have to do some border stretching today. The difference between a Bob Hope and a Sam Kinison, or an Andrew Dice Clay, shows that humor evolves and changes over time.
Richard Pryor started out wanting to be the next Bill Cosby, but he realized there were limits to that, so he had to carve out a niche for himself. His primary goal was to tell jokes and get paid, but there came a point in his career where he realized that ultimate success could not be achieved through those traditional avenues. George Carlin was also one who could’ve stayed safe doing zany weathermen, but he realized there was other territory out there for him to mine. Jim Carrey was a master impersonator, but he saw an end game to it, so he reinvented himself and his comedy. Andy Kaufman could’ve never made the stage with traditional comedy sets, so he decided not to be funny, and he hoped that we would laugh instinctively at the confusion he created.
These comedians, and others, have broken down barriers in our society, they’ve shaken our sensibilities and made us laugh at ourselves, they’ve shaped our politics, our views on religion and music, how we treat our children, what we think of our parents, how we define our sexual mores, and if we were going to have a puritanical or permissive society. The power comedians currently wield in our society could be said to date back to court jesters and beyond. Yet, even those court jesters had a pecking order that divided the talented from the untalented ones that were looking to tell jokes and get paid, and there was probably a niche for the untalented that couldn’t rely on imitating and falling, and they most likely had to teach the king a new brand of comedy that relied on the natural human instinct to laugh when confused.