Falling Down Manholes

“When you fall down a manhole, that’s funny. When I do, that’s a tragedy.” –Mel Brooks

Is it really funny when a grown man falls down a manhole? It’s supposed to be a tragic moment, but some of us can’t help but laugh. If we find a tragic incident like that funny, is there something wrong with us, or is it funny? What is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference? Most people who fall down manholes don’t fall straight down, clean, like Yosemite Sam, and most of them aren’t mumbling comedic swear words to themselves as they fall. Most of them will likely damage something precious upon entry, and depending on the depth of their fall, they’re probably going to be screaming. They might not have enough time to fear death, but anyone who has fallen from a decent height knows that it’s such a scary experience that we don’t consider it funny.

If our friend walks away from the fall with some superficial bumps and bruises, that might be funny, but what if he chipped a tooth? What if he took a nasty knock on the head, or broke an ankle? What if his injuries were so severe they required Emergency Medical Technicians to free them? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more humorous? Before we say no, think about how we tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation point at the end. What better punctuation point would there be to this story than a prolonged hospital stay that involves tubes and machines keeping the victim alive? “They’re saying that the nasty knock on the head could leave him mentally impaired for the rest of his life?” If isn’t hilarious, it’s at least so noteworthy that we’ll be repeating this story to everyone we know.   

The initial sight of Jed lying in the sewer might be funny, unless he’s screaming. What if he’s hurt? How can he not be? We laugh. We don’t mean to laugh. We don’t find this funny, but we can’t stop. Some of us wait to find out if Jed’s okay before we laugh, and some of us wait to laugh until he’s not around before we tell the story of his fall, because we’re afraid we might laugh. Most of us do laugh at some point, it’s our impulsive reaction to something tragic.

Laughing, or otherwise enjoying, another person’s pain is so common, that the Germans, developed a term for it: schadenfreude. Is this impulse based on some sick and twisted instinct that we cannot control, or do we all enjoy others’ pain in one way or another? Is our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians shaping and reshaping our definition of what’s humorous by twisting dark, tragic themes into something funny? Whatever the case is, incidents such as these reveal the relative nature of humor, and the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy. The purposeful melding of the two even has its own genre: tragicomedy.

My personal experience with the fuzzy line between comedy and tragedy, didn’t involve falling into a manhole, but licking a pole. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, old enough and smart enough to know better, but young enough and dumb enough to do so anyway on one of the coldest days in February. I didn’t know the philosophical details of the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy, but I knew people would laugh if they saw me stuck there. I knew there wouldn’t be an “At least you’re okay” sentiment among my classmates. I knew this wasn’t one of those types of mistakes. I didn’t know a whole lot about human nature, but I knew that certain people live for such moments of pain and humiliation. We all know those types, and we know they never forget. We could win the Pulitzer Prize, or become a world-renowned adventure seeker, and they will say, “Wasn’t that the kid who got his tongue stuck on a pole in fifth or sixth grade?”

I didn’t think about all those things while stuck in the moment of course. The only things I thought about were how am I going to rip myself free and how much is this going to hurt? When I thought about the pain I would endure, I knew it would be worth it to prevent anyone from finding out about this. The idea that one person might see me stuck on this pole compelled me to pull my tongue off as quickly as possible. I considered the pain a secondary concern to the idea that someone else might find out about this. After tearing several layers of my tongue off, the pain lived up to my greatest fears.

I’ve since read stories of others suffering a similar embarrassment, calling in civil servants to help them get free. The first question I have for these people I’ll never meet is, what were you thinking?

While still stuck on the pole, I knew the chance of someone seeing me in this embarrassing position increased exponentially with each second I remained stuck to the pole, and the prospect of calling someone over to help me, and that person calling another person over, until they all gave up and called in a rescue squad makes me so uncomfortable that I still cringe when I think about how many people would’ve been involved and how much material they would have on me in the aftermath.

I have to imagine that the victim who had someone call in a rescue squad was younger than I was at the time, or that the severity of their incident was worse than mine. For if all of the circumstances were even somewhat similar, then I have to ask them why they didn’t just rip themselves free? My empathy goes out to those who feared how painful it would be, but they had to consider how much unwanted attention they would attract by doing everything but ripping off several layers of their tongue. They had to consider the amount of teasing, ridicule, and bullying they would experience once the severity of the incident was over. We must make exceptions for age, as I say, but even young kids have had some experience with these reactions, and they should do whatever they can to avoid having these elements of human nature rain down upon them.

Even when I was still stuck on that pole, I knew certain people would be waiting for the details on my tragedy with baited breath. I also knew that my bully’s audience wouldn’t be able to restrain themselves from laughing at his cruel and clever displays of creativity. I didn’t know what nicknames or limericks he would develop, but I knew he would develop something. He was our class clown, and he was always developing material on someone. I realized that all of the pain I experienced in the aftermath of the toe curling rip of my tongue was worth it, because at least he wouldn’t have this ammunition to use on me.

We’ve all heard talk show guests say that they were the class clown in school. We all smile knowingly, picturing them as children dancing with a lampshade on their head and coming up with the perfect response to the teacher that even the teacher considered hilarious. Those of us who knew a class clown saw some of that, but we also saw what happened when they ran out of good-natured and fun material. I knew the minute the class clown ran out of material he would begin looking around for victims, and I was often one of his favorite targets.

We all enjoy making people laugh, but some have a psychological need to make people laugh, and they don’t care who has to get hurt in the process. Based on my experiences with class clowns, I can only guess that those who would fashion a career out of it, such that they were so successful that they ended up in a late night talk show chair talking about it, probably learned early on that no matter how you slice it, if someone falls down a manhole, or gets their tongue stuck to a pole, there’s comedy gold there waiting to be excavated. They may be too young to know anything about the complexities inherent in the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy at the time, but at some point they realized that anyone can get a laugh. To separate themselves from that pack, former class clowns-turned-successful standup comedians would have to spend decades learning the intricacies and complexities of their craft, as everyone from the Ancient Greeks to Mel Brooks did. They would also learn for all of the complexities involved in comedy, one simple truth they learned in fifth to sixth grade remains: if one wants to achieve side-splitting laughter from the broadest audience possible, someone has to get hurt.


Ten Reasons to Buy: Based on a True Story: A Memoir

Number Ten: Norm Macdonald appears to have had no career advancing goals in the writing of this book. Most artists use the memoir as a vehicle to promote their career, and the idea that while they may appear to be a little quirky to the naked eye, deep in their heart, they are actually a very wonderful person. No matter how apathetic, somewhat cruel, and insensitive an author of such material is, the unspoken rule of such comedy is that the author break down the fourth wall, in some manner, to let the audience in on the joke. Norm Macdonald, the character that he has created for this book, and all of the layers in between do not appear to care that the reader regard him as a wonderful, compassionate, good guy. Most authors that approach a style similar to the book, qualify their motivations for doing what they did with follow ups that redound to the benefit of the author. Norm Macdonald does not appear to care why the reader bought his book, about their outlook on him, or if that reader feels good about themselves, and their world, when they have finished the book.

There are no politics in this book, in other words. Norm Macdonald appears to feel no need to convince us that he is actually very smart, savvy, or anything more than he is. There are no subtle approaches to politics that inform the audience that Norm is compassionate, empathetic, or nuanced. For those of us that do not care what a celebrity thinks, this approach is refreshing.

29937870Number Nine: The narrative voice in Based on a True Story: A Memoir comes from an old world influence. (How many modern books invoke the word “Hoosegow”?) That voice provides contrast to the cutting edge, nouveau humor Norm Macdonald employs in his narrative, but that contrast serves to intrigue more than it confuses. If the reader is the type that needs some sort of qualifier, or apology, for somewhat cruel, and insensitive scenes, takes, and reactions that occur throughout this book, it can be found somewhere in this kind, Midwestern sounding voice that Norm, and his ghost writer Charlie Manson, employ.

I knew nothing of Macdonald’s upbringing, prior to the reading of this book, and I didn’t care about it either. After reading the initial chapters of this book, however, I found myself relating to the rhythms and verbiage the author employed that was later explained by the fact that Norm Macdonald had an older father, and that he spent much of his youth surrounded by old, hired hands that knew nothing beyond manual labor. These were no-nonsense men that had an old world structure to their being that is too often lacking in today’s weak, easily offended culture. The locale of Macdonald’s rearing was different than mine, it turned out, but the small details of his maturation were so similar to mine that I was surprised to learn we didn’t grow up the exact same. This could be as a result of Norm’s better-than-expected ability to relate to the reader, or his ghost writer’s ability to translate Norm’s thoughts into a book that I found my voice in. The ghost writer is renamed Charlie Manson for the purpose of this book (not that Charlie Manson, the other one.)

Number Eight: There is some name-dropping in this book, but on the number of occasions in which he runs into celebrities, Norm’s character does not ingratiate himself to that person, or the trappings of that world. His character remains on the outside looking in, and there are no subsequent tropes that reveal a little guy finding his place in a larger world. This is not the typical celebrity memoir, in other words, but Norm Macdonald is not the typical celebrity. Norm’s character remains outside their world throughout, and it’s endemic to the character that he not endear himself to these people any more than he distances himself from them with insider insults.

Number Seven: For those of us that have never been able to explain why we find Norm Macdonald intriguing, this book only serves to highlight that confusion. He is an unusual person with unusual insights, raised in an unusual culture (unusual to most celebrities that is), and he has an unusual outlook on life as a result. A comprehensive nature of Norm Macdonald’s voice has never been captured as well before, and it remains consistent throughout this piece. How many talk shows has Norm Macdonald been on where he provides a brief glimpse into his mind with an unusual story that is funny in a way that the audience (and often the host of the show) doesn’t completely understand? How many of them have laughed with raised eyebrows, or other visual displays of concern for either Norm Macdonald, or themselves for laughing? That voice is here, in this book, and expanded upon.

Number Six: The shifts in perspective that Norm Macdonald achieves in this book are near seamless. Some call it style, others simply call it a proficiency for storytelling. Whatever the case is, if the reader has gained an appreciation for such minutiae in their books, they will thoroughly enjoy this. On those occasions when the seams are exposed, most of them involve Norm’s trademarked conclusions that remind the reader of the obnoxious conclusions Macdonald achieves in his stand up routines, and more famously on Weekend Update.

Number Five: A number of comedians, and top shelf celebrities have learned how to poke fun of themselves, but I would suggest that most of those people have learned the art of how to engage in self-effacing humor while allowing the audience in on the joke. There is a point by point, color by numbers approach to this form of comedy that has evolved thanks in part to Andy Kaufman, Chris Elliot, David Letterman, and perhaps Will Farrell. Other comedians have displayed the base nature of their talent by attempting to take the premise of this approach to crueler, and more obnoxious levels. It’s all good, though, because we all know it’s all in good, clean fun. We know that these jokes are all delivered in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In the character Norm has developed, onstage and off (with this book) the reader is not so sure. The narrative of “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” leads the reader to feel sorry for the character, while laughing at his naiveté, and his inability to abide by social norms.

Number Four: Although each bit in this book is a bit of one form or another, the layers of reality, coupled with the careful wording of each story leads the reader to believe that the author, the character, and all layers in between, believe otherwise. The book achieves that fine art of “the willing suspension of disbelief” in other words, that leads the reader to believe that they are being exposed to an uncomfortable level of nudity that is so sad that Norm Macdonald may either be a bad person, or a person that missed a few monkey bars on the way to maturation.

Number Three: Monty Python had a slogan that prefaced much of their material, “And now for something completely different.” For those of us that pine for something different, this book contains stories, reactions, and anecdotes that I have to imagine most authors, and almost all celebrities do their best to avoid. I have a sneaking suspicion that Macdonald’s public relations people asked him to include the “Based on” words to the title of his book. I have a sneaking suspicion that Norm wouldn’t mind it one bit if the reader believed this was the true story of Norm Macdonald’s life. Something tells me that his people, friends, associates, and business partners cautioned him to bolster the doubt regarding the material, because too many people might believe it’s his true story, and that this book may do some damage to his career.

Number Two: As one of Norm’s good friends says on a near-daily basis, “Always be closing.” As such, “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” is either building to a close throughout the various chapters, or its closing throughout. When it’s not strict to script of the respective story, hilarious anecdotes break the story up so well that one has to gather one’s self and remind themselves where the narrative was heading. The anecdotes appear to be accidental humor in other words. In the beginning of this book, I began highlighting some of the jokes believing that they would be precious jewels that I would have to remember. I do this with all provocative lines and paragraphs, but as I continued throughout the book, I gave up, knowing that when one highlights too often, the portions that are highlighted begin to lose value.

Number One: Norm Macdonald does whatever the hell Norm Macdonald wants. Is this a true narrative, Norm not does appear to care what the reader believes one way or another. Is this a readable narrative that involves the time-honored traditions of storytelling, Norm doesn’t appear to care. The storytelling format does have a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feel to it, but other than that it does not follow the rules of any celebrity memoir that I’ve ever read. He may have informed us of some true facts regarding his upbringing, and the many things that have happened to him along the way, but he doesn’t care if the readers knows the difference, or, apparently, if those distinctions could lead to some damage of his career as an entertainer. As a result, I would say that this is by far the best celebrity memoir I have ever read, but I have the feeling Norm wouldn’t care what one way or another.

It’s the Garry Shandling Blog

“90% of success is showing up.” –Woody Allen.

“Every great thing you do in life will result from failures, both large and small.” Garry Shandling might have never used those exact words to sum up his unusual, successful career, but those of us on the outside looking in, believe his career may be one of the best examples of that idea. The idea may be an exaggeration of a truth, but in the case of Garry Shandling it suggests that regardless how often a person fails, if they show up to do it all over again, a sweet spot may open up that no one, least of all the person in question, would’ve imagined possible.

No one would look at the physical stature or appearance of Garry Shandling and think, leading man. If central casting were to draw up a stereotypical leading man for roles in TV and the movies, they might use Garry Shandling as a model … to contrast the characteristics they seek. No one, it appears, that listened to Garry Shandling’s early standup routines thought, “This man needs to have his own sitcom.” If one were to compose a list of 100 comedians most likely to succeed beyond the stage, the young Shandling may not have made many lists, unless he decided to pursue his career as a sitcom writer. The difference between Shandling and those “more talented” comedians he succeeded beyond, according to Shandling, was that he continued to show up.

He began his career in comedy, as a writer on the sitcoms Sanford and SonWelcome Back Kotter, and The Harvey Corman Show. He left that world of consistent paychecks behind, to enter into the far less stable world of standup comedy. The problem with that decision, according to those that have documented Shandling’s career, is that he wasn’t a good standup comedian. The owner of The Comedy Store, Mitzy Shore, went so far as to refuse to put Shandling on, because she didn’t think he was funny. One of the funniest comedic actors of his generation wasn’t even able to make it on stage, because of his relative lack of talent. The lucky break, if one wants to call it that, occurred for Shandling when the other “talented” comedians on The Comedy Store’s roster, decided to strike. That strike occurred as a result of Ms. Shore’s decision not to pay her comedians. Shandling made the very unpopular decision to cross that union line, and in total desperation for a body to put on the stage, Shore decided to put him on.

Gary Shandling might even admit that the difference between Garry Shandling and the other comedians that didn’t succeed in that space was that he was willing to continue to get on the stage night after night, regardless the circumstances, the pay, or lack thereof. He was willing to face the abuse and hectoring of an audience that must have reached a point where they agreed with everything, those in the know said about him.

We can only guess that while those that cared about him admired his courage and perseverance, they probably sat him down, at one point, and told him to go back to doing what he did best, writing for sitcoms.

No one gave Garry Shandling any reason to believe in his abilities as a performer, in other words, but he continued to show up and hone his act, until a talent scout from The Tonight Show watched him for a number of nights and decided that he had the chops to make an appearance on a show that was then considered the Holy Grail for all comedians. After a number of these spots, Shandling began guest hosting for Johnny Carson for years, and they began to consider him a suitable successor for Johnny’s seat, should Johnny ever decide to retire.

Was Shandling ever as funny as Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld, or the many other “more talented” comedians of his era that didn’t succeed? It appears that his material was top shelf, but those same people considered his presentation so poor that they didn’t foresee him developing a career in the field.

He kept showing up. He kept enduring the years of bad nights, presumed harassment and humiliation, and the feelings of failure that had to have resulted from bombing so often that he achieved levels of success in TV and the movies that were unprecedented among most of his peers.

The first step, Shandling instructs, is to show up so often that you get over your stage fright. The import of this advice is that tips and advice may ease the psychological trauma a little, but nothing compares to just doing it so often that the fear becomes more manageable. Writing quality material before you take to the stage helps, of course, but nothing helps more than just doing it … often.

The next step is to work your material before an audience and tweak it based on their reactions. Some have said that this part of the job is never ending, but at some point a routine does develop. It’s implied throughout this part of the process that a comedian has to have thick skin for those in the audience that help you shape material.

Thick skin, to my mind, is an understatement. How about a person has to have rhinoceros skin, or the type of skin necessary to evolve from a sane, somewhat humorous individual to someone that is asking around 450 paying customers a night (the seating capacity of The Comedy Store) three-to-four times a week what they think. The first question that comes to mind is how many paying customers in an audience are in such situations? How many people would pay to see someone perform raw, untested material, and how many people will let a comedian know that they’re no better than them, and that the comedian should be sitting next to them in the audience? Unless it’s some sort of amateur night, most people will sit with folded arms, wondering why the owner decided to put some newbie on stage on their night out. These people enjoy the schadenfreude of watching another person squirm. This thick skin requires that the aspiring comedian move past such people, and the consistent feelings of failure, the heckling, and the excruciating nights where you’re left alone to adjust your material for the next night of more of the same.

The night after a person bombs, the natural inclination of most sane individuals might be to adjust the material in such a way that it sounds like the exact opposite of the night before. The inclination may be to list those jokes under the “rejected” heading. The inclination may be to consider a scorched earth policy on that material. It’s often somewhere in between, say successful comedians. The successful comedian has to believe in the material, they say, and it may require nothing more than some tweaking of the language. They might want to consider adding something here, deleting something there, changing the point of emphasis, or the point of perspective. Then, just when a comedian reaches a point where they’re comfortable with their material, they’ll want to do a complete overhaul that puts them in an uncomfortable place where they’re nervous and agitated and learning from the audience, because once a comedian becomes comfortable they reach a point that no comedian wants to reach.

A comedian is no longer striving when they’re comfortable, and they’re no longer developing fresh, new material that makes the audience so uncomfortable that they’re laughing with you, as opposed to at you. The space all comedians search for exists somewhere between artistic purity and honesty, a sweet spot that can some over a decade to find.

This struggle, according to Garry Shandling, didn’t involve the material. He may have needed years to shape the material, but the basic task of writing jokes always came easy to him. The presentation, on the other hand, had always been lacking to some degree, and the fact that he kept showing up to put himself in the uncomfortable position of exposing this weakness before others bore fruit in the form of an insecure, neurotic character that was insecure about his presentation skills.

What Shandling did, in short, was combine his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness to form a pure, honest character that he would go onto hone over the course of a decade in the form of two television shows: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show. These shows featured a character that knew how to write material but were forever worried about his presentationThese shows resulted in nineteen Emmy nominations, numerous American Comedy Awards, and a spot in the hearts of many standups that regard him as one of the most influential comedic actors of all time.

Garry Shandling’s story is, in essence, the exact opposite of all those sad, depressing “could’ve been, should’ve” stories of individuals that were on the cusp of stardom but didn’t make it … for a variety of reasons. His is the tale of a “couldn’t have been, shouldn’t have been” character that showed up so often, and worked so hard that he was … for a variety of reasons. His unlikely story should remain an inspiration for those marginal talents, that are informed that they are marginal talents, that there may be a sweet spot for you too, if you are willing to work your tail off and show up so often to succeed. It’s your job to find it and hone it.

The one cliché in the Garry Shandling bio is the “no one believed in my talent as much as I did” angle that has been put forth by so many, but in Garry Shandling’s case, it appears to be the unvarnished truth. The non-believers may have been witness to some killer material, but they may have believed that a more skilled, more charismatic presenter would better serve that material. His is the story of an individual of marginal talents that believed in himself beyond reason.

To those that have never heard of Garry Shandling, or believe that I am overselling the insecure, neurotic characteristics of a man that has succeeded in life to the degree he has, I challenge you to watch the interview Ricky Gervais did with him in 2010. The purpose of this interview, for Ricky Gervais, was to deify Shandling as a comedic luminary, and to pay homage to Shandling as a personal influence. Shandling, however, appears as insecure and unsure of himself in this interview as he may have been as an upstart comedian in 1978. It’s uncomfortable to watch in parts, and in other parts, it appears almost confrontational. Even the most informed viewer –that knows the Shandling schtick, and knows that some of it is schtick– can’t help but think that at least some of what they’re watching is an exposé of a man that is uncomfortable in his own skin.

The idea that Shandling has lost whatever it was he once had crosses the viewer’s mind, as does the idea that he might be too old, or that he’s been out of the game so long that he can’t handle this type of interview anymore. There are parts of the interview when the viewer begins to feel so sorry for Shandling, and we want someone to step in and put an end to Shandling’s pain. Those informed viewers that know the Shandling story know that he never had it, in the manner, some define the elusory “it”, but that doesn’t stop the intrigued from watching something that is almost unwatchable. A description that Garry Shandling, himself, might admit is a beautiful encapsulation of just about everything he did throughout his unusual career.


Poking the Televised Frog

If it’s true, as the Chinese proverb states, “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark” could the same principle be applied to TV shows and our sense of humor?

imagesHas anyone ever informed you that they have something of a twisted, dark, and “some would say” sadistic sense of humor?  Have the two of you entered into an unspoken agreement that no one has a sense of humor as unusual as theirs?  Have they tried to leave the impression that they sat in some dark room and gestated into the character that stands before you?  If you press this person, they will walk you through all the dark caverns of their sense of humor and point out all the bearded ladies, wolf boys, and evil dwarfs that have informed their sense of humor.  No matter how common you may find the material that has informed their “twisted, bizarre, and some would say sadistic sense of humor”, these people will insist their sense of humor is more advanced, more sadistic, and more quirky than yours.

How many of us loved The Simpsons for over a decade?  How many of us still watch the show?  The Simpsons seemed groundbreaking at one point in our definition of comedy, until we we were provided other, “more groundbreaking” humor from the likes of Family Guy and South Park.  After seeing those shows break new ground, The Simpsons no longer seemed as cutting edge as it once had.  Our sense of humor evolved somehow, and those at the water cooler that continue to mimic the humor from The Simpsons no longer seem as funny as they once were.

The question that some of us have regarding TV comedies, in particular, is are these comedies popular because they broke new ground, or does it have more to do with the manner in which they tap into the spirit of the age, or the zeitgeist? Family Guy and South Park have both paid homage to The Simpsons, and it could  be stated that they both operated from the template that The Simpsons created, but at some point they may began to expound upon it.  If that’s true, could it be said that these two shows created something that moved us past The Simpsons, or did The Simpsons become such an obvious staple in the culture that it lost its provocative edge in the zeitgeist? Put another way, if The Simpsons somehow managed to outdo both of these shows in the next couple of years in a provocative manner, could it recapture the audience, or is it impossible to recapture that perceived edge once it’s gone?

Ssi_2Those looking to be cutting edge, among their friends, are constantly updating their sense of humor.  Whereas The Simpsons used to be perceived as “on the cutting edge” of all forms of groundbreaking humor, it reached a point that TV people call a “Jump the Shark” moment where it was no longer.  The same thing has happened to cutting edge TV comedies going to back to Sanford and Son, All in the Family, The Lucy Show, and The Honeymooners.

A number of books have been written on the psychological study of humor, and how it progresses, and they have attempted to capture this phenomenon.  The question is, is this progression the greater curiosity, or should the greater story of the study of humor, as it pertains to television, focus on the the fact that even though we’ve moved past The Simpsons, it has left a mark on our sense of humor we may never be able to escape.

Poking a Dead Frog


Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind … [Humor] won’t stand much poking.  It has a certain fragility, an evasiveness, which one had best respect,” –E.B. White writing in The New Yorker.

As a play on this E.B. White quote, author Mike Sacks titled his book Poking a Dead Frog to provide a thesis for a book that attempts to investigate the art of comedy by interviewing a group of TV and movie writers that may have influenced the core of what modern-day Americans define as funny more than any others.

In Sacks’ first interview, we meet a writer from the television shows Saturday Night Live (SNL) and Late Night with David Letterman named James Downey.

Working for SNL for as many years as he has, Downey has written numerous sketches with other writers, and SNL’s performers.  He offers an assessment of the difference between the two approaches to comedic presentations that he qualifies may be a broad generalization, but one he believes to be true:

Writers tend to write ordinary people in weird situations.  Performers tend to write weird people in ordinary situations.

“The primary critique that most writers have with performer-written sketches is that writers are obsessed with writing original and cutting edge material.  Performers don’t mind writing material that may resemble material that the audience may have seen a million times before, and it bothers the writer that the audience doesn’t seem to mind. 

“Writers treat comedy as a science where advances are made, and we must always move forward, never backward.  Once something is done, no matter how groundbreaking it is, it perhaps should be built upon, but never repeated.  For performers, the fact that something has been done before is neither here nor there.  Writers get themselves all tied up in knots worrying if their current material is too similar to other things.

“As for me, I wish originality were prized by audiences, but it doesn’t seem to be that important to them.  Figuring out the right balance is everything.”

In the Downey scenario, the performer can be excused for writing a less-than-groundbreaking sketch, because they’re the ones on stage.  They’re the ones that get the laugh for being funny, or the arrows for the material that isn’t.  Few audience members would excuse a performer for attempting a complicated sketch that didn’t play well on stage, on the basis that it was written by a writer that tried too hard to be groundbreaking.  Likewise, they don’t give the writer plaudits for a groundbreaking sketch that hits the mark.  Most audience members, and critics, give all of the credit and blame for a performance to the performer.  Thus, the performer can be excused for preferring the laugh over the groundbreaking provocation that may not go over as well as it appears to on paper, or in theory.  It’s their career that’s on the line here, their reputation on the national stage.  While the insiders may know the responsible party for the sketch, it’s the performer left with his performance hanging out for all to see that will define him from that point forward.

Once something is done, no matter how groundbreaking it is, it perhaps should be built upon, but never repeated.”  

A performer could also be excused for wanting to repeat, or build upon, a sketch that works on the basis that it’s so hard to find one.  A writer, on the other hand, doesn’t think that their groundbreaking sketch can be built upon.  They look at what they’ve done as a concise, “one off” work of brilliance, and any attempts to repeat it would be perceived as forced by the audience.  The performer says nonsense, and applies a far too subtle tweak for the repeat performance.  Assigning their creative brains to the audience, the writer thinks that the audience will see through this far too subtle tweak and recognize the repeat performance for what it is.  They don’t, complains Downey, they enjoy it in a manner they did the first time through, and this confounds writers.

Writers tend to make certain demands of themselves, and the material they release.  The audience, however, is far less demanding.  They just want to laugh, or in all other ways, be entertained.  The easiest way to entertain is to seek the patterns of entertainment that we’ve all seen a million times.  This answer does not count on the people (be they writers or performers) that do it better than us, but on the idea that most humans are more comfortable with the comfort of “getting it” than they are being challenged on some epistemological level.  This was thoroughly covered in the Exit Strategy of Sitcoms blog, and in the What’s So Funny? blog.

Many writers fume over the mundane forms of entertainment that others enjoy.  In my own struggles to find provocative material, I’ve surfed though other blogs to read their “Ruminations on a day in my life”.  Most of these blogs are ten times as popular as the one you’re reading right now, and it’s obvious that most people find the 101 reasons a cat moves across a room at the sound of a can opener more entertaining than a blog on why we fear, or a researched, and original, dissertation on the electromagnetic path between our brain and God.

As a writer of a number of the political sketches done on SNL, James Downey made some assessments of comedian Bill Maher’s brand of political humor: 

Bill is a funny guy, but he seems to prefer what (Downey’s former SNL alum Seth Meyers calls) clapter (that is some laughter combined with clapping) instead of actual laughs.  A lot of his (Maher’s) material runs to the “White people are lame and stupid and racist” trope.  It congratulates itself on its edginess, but it’s just the ass-kissiest kind of comedy going, reassuring his status-anxious audience that there are some people they’re smarter than.”

Whether it’s the “ass-kissiest kind of comedy going” from performers giving their audience what they want, or the thought-provoking, groundbreaking comedy that writers try to produce, we all make determinations on comedy.  We all judge what is funny, and what is not, without making conscious decisions about it, and we’re all affected by it in one form or another.

The “Once something is done, no matter how groundbreaking it is, it perhaps should be built upon, but never repeated,” line Downey uses to explain the difference between writers, performers, and what the audience demands defines the difference between writers and their audience on another level.  All writers have received the compliment from an audience member that suggests that you should do a sequel of the story they’ve written, or that they should expound on the theme in one way or another.  This compliment is a double-edged sword in many ways, for while the writer has to love the compliment, the idea of repeating it feels like the idea of repeating it.  The first question a writer has is “How?  How would you have me repeat it?” which of course is not the audience member’s responsibility, but the writer’s.  The point the writer would then make is that they poured their heart out in the story, and while they love you for saying that you thought it was so good that I should just do it again, they also hate you for suggesting that it looked so easy that you should be able to just enter that world again, and do it again, but … different.  Just flip that “on” switch is what they’re saying.  It’s a very writer-esk, artistic thing to say that they can’t just do it again, but as most writers know there is no such “on” switch, unless you’re writing a “ruminations on life” blog that involves cats running to can openers.  Those sequels seem to write themselves, because no one cares, yet everyone cares, and they love them, so writers just pound them out.

It’s Funny. Very Funny!

You should read this blog.  It’s funny!  Very Funny!

One would suspect that such obnoxiously, over-the-top self-promotion wouldn’t work, but some productions are successfully marketing themselves with such ad campaigns today, and they have been doing so for some time.

If I were to put word out that this blog was going to pay a ridiculously high amount for promotion, and of the hundreds of ad agencies that began vying for this money, one suggested that we build a marketing plan around the idea that “It’s funny!” that campaign probably would not finish in my top 100.

ConanBath“It’s funny!” just wouldn’t seem, to me, to be a campaign built for the long haul.  This simplistic approach would surely generate some traffic in the short term, but I would think that a true, funny designation would have to be earned over time through meretricious production, and that the obnoxiously over-the-top suggestion that it was funny, would only take me so far.  “We’re not even making a suggestion, I would complain.  “We’re making a statement.  Isn’t there going to be some backlash to that?”

“Look, your blog is already funny,” would be the sales pitch that an ad man would surely use.  “We just have to get the word out.”

“That’s great,” I would reply, “But aren’t there going to be some unintended consequences involved in skipping the steps in the long haul word of mouth process?”

“Haven’t you already been trying that?” I can hear him asking. “Where’s that gotten you?”

He would be right, of course, but there’s something about determining what is funny that seems intimate to me.  You determine what is funny according to what fits your “my sense of humor” designation.  This “It’s funny” ad campaign appears to be saying: “Look, we’ve already determined that it’s funny for you, so you don’t have to go through all that.  All you have to do is laugh. You don’t have to think about it.  You can just sit back, relax, and enjoy.  You don’t even have to tell your friends about it.  We’ll take care of that too.  So just sit back and enjoy it!  It’s funny.  Very funny!” It all seems to be a violation of the principles of that intimate decision about what’s funny and what’s not.  A decision that the audience should make on their own.

Pull quotes, such as these, are effective.  As are critical praise and peer review, but I would think that if a prospective audience member were to find out that I was the one making the claim, about my blog, that there would be an immediate backlash.  I would expect to see my fellow cynical minds loading up the comments section of my blog with “You may think this is funny, but it don’t appeal to my sense of humor”.  Or, “You may think this is funny, but it’s not funny to me.”  Even if I wrote what was unquestionably the funniest blog ever written, I could see some rebels wanting to stand out from the crowd by saying, “It’s just not for me.  I can see this appealing to the common man, but I’ve read Kafka and Voltaire, and I’ve seen George Carlin at Carnegie Hall, so my expectations may be higher than some.  I prefer cerebral, subtle humor that this author apparently knows nothing about.”  One could say that such responses would happen regardless, but I imagine that an obnoxiously over-the-top ad campaign, like  “It’s funny” would only provoke more of this type of rebellion.

Saying, “It’s funny” or “Very funny!” also tells me that the product in question may be funny in a universal way, in a way my parents thought Milton Berle was funny, and Bob Hope, or Andy Griffith.  These guys may have been funny to them, and they may have even been very funny in that universal manner, but they don’t appeal to me, or my sense of humor.  I have always preferred the risque humor that comedians like George Carlin and Sam Kinison employed. There was something bitter and angry about their humor that appealed to me.  They confused and angered my parents, and I idolized them for it.  And when Andy Kaufman did the things Andy Kaufman did, few people around me got it.  They thought he was weird.  I got it, and there was something about getting it that gave it an intangible quality that may have been diminished had Kaufman prefaced one of his bits with, “Watch this next skit, it’s funny.”

I enjoy the universal slapstick, body function humor as much as anyone else, but to get me enjoying your product over the long haul, you have to be different, and over-the-top in a manner that leads me to believe that no one has ever tried that joke quite that way before.  If my parents think it’s funny, or that guy at the deli that repeats Andy Griffith jokes thinks it’s funny, I may find it humorous, but it would never achieve that long-term, “wait with bated-breath for the next episode” level of hilarity for me.

The ad campaign reminds me of the obnoxious retort, obnoxious people like Tony Kornheiser, make to comedic sentiments: “That’s funny, and I know funny!”  I’ve always wanted to ask these people, if you know funny, why haven’t you ever been funny?  You may know what you consider funny, but I haven’t heard you ever say anything that I consider funny.

I don’t know which team started this promo.  Whether it was the promo Ricky Gervais ran for his show Idiot Abroad:  “You should watch this show.  It’s funny.”  Or, if it was the TBS switching from the “Superstation” tagline, to the “Very Funny” one.  I would think that telling the audience what to think about their product would be a major no no in marketing, but if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t keep these campaigns going, and it shows that I know little-to-nothing about marketing.

In the case of the show Idiot Abroad, one could argue that Ricky Gervais probably needed to clarify that the show was a comedy, as opposed to the serious travelogue one might perceive after reading a brief description of the show. I still find it condescending.  I find it condescending in the same manner I find laugh tracks condescending.  I know where to laugh, my cynical, rebellious mind responds to laugh tracks.  I don’t need to be told where to laugh. and I don’t need to be told what’s funny … because you know funny.

It could also be argued that when a star like Ricky Gervais tells us that something is funny, we apparently listen to him because he is a star.  We know that when a star tells us how to vote, we listen.  We know that when stars tell us how to live, how to eat, and how to dress, we listen, because we’ve wanted to have people see us agreeing with cool kids since the fifth grade.  When these same cool kids happen to be hawking their own products, however, we shouldn’t allow them to have any authority over whether it’s cool, good, or funny.  They should, at the very least, be required to hire another star to make such a comment, just to avoid appearing obnoxious. There’s a part of me, a part that always hated the cool kid aesthetic –because I’ve never been a cool kid– that says that not only should this not work, for the cool kids that do it, but that they should be shamed for even trying it.

As I said, I don’t know who tried it first, but I saw the Gervais ad first, and my first reaction was that this must be common in England, the place that treats royalty like superhumans.  My next reaction was that this type of shameless self-promotion would never work here, until I heard the American broadcasting company, TBS, do it too, saying that they were “Very funny!”  I refused to watch TBS, and Idiot Abroad, for these reasons, until a friend of mine told me that Idiot Abroad was, indeed, funny, and I determined that it was, but it wasn’t the marketing that convinced me of it.

What’s So Funny?

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 red 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.

How many of us asked a joke teller to explain a joke? We hate to do it, because we know it reveals us, and we hate to ruin another person’s joke by asking for an explanation, but some of the times, we need explanations. How many times has the explanation confused us more and led to more laughter? Were we using this laughter to cover for the fact that we didn’t get it, or were we –as Vonnegut suggests– laughing more in conjunction with our confusion? Has this progression ever led us to find a joke genuinely hilarious without ever understanding it in the first place?

The relative nature of humor is obvious to anyone that has attempted to crack a joke, but the extremes are noteworthy. 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. Thus, it is incumbent on a qualified comedic artist 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 he never had to explain. 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 a parody 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 understood his brand of humor. I didn’t understand 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 they experienced pratfalls on their road 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 in on. Those people then had to teach other people, until those other people taught my people, and my people taught me that I if I didn’t “get it” too I faced ostracizing.

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 be hip and cool, and I wanted to understand adult humor. I learned that this material was innovative, 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, and I put a lot of effort into getting it, because I didn’t want to be that naïve, little kid that didn’t understand. Later, while watching it with friends, I made sure to laugh 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 is playground funny. It is 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 occurs. Most of our most embarrassing biological functions are funny, because we all do them, and we can all relate, but if you can mix in a dash of the “Doing that while doing this?” element to the story, you can achieve hilarity. Stories of drug abuse are funny, as long as the provocateur is not currently doing it. We’ve agreed that it’s sad if someone is currently chasing demons, but if they say they did it in the past “while doing that” the next thing they will have to do is hire a manager to handle their bookings.

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 great comedy, until you factor in that Darth Vader was a character kids adored, and that Prowse did cocaine while playing the character … 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 they now do it comedies. 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.

“If I fall down a manhole, that’s not funny. If you do, that’s funny,” Mel Brooks once said.

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,” Larry David responded, “You (Leno) can 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. Benny and Hope did not seek to break boundaries or expose the culture’s sensitive underbelly. 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 told some risky jokes about Raquel Welch and Loni Anderson, but they were never so bold that they would offend a parent. 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 carved a niche out 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, and 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 a more permissive society. One could say that the power comedians wield in our society dates back to court jesters and beyond. Yet, even those court jesters had a pecking order that divided the talented from the untalented. We can assume that some of those jesters were so talented that they could tell a joke and get paid. Others recognized that they weren’t as talented, and they needed to carve out a niche for the untalented that didn’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.

Something Different: A Crazy Lady

If a crazy person ever asked me for advice on how to get along in the world, I would tell them to be nice.  This advice may appear to be so obvious that it’s not even worth giving, but it’s been my experience that people will rush to the defense of someone they consider nice, regardless what that person does or says.  Being nice, courteous, gracious, and conscientious also allows a person to float under the radar of most people.  People do talk, and they will talk about a crazy person, but if they consider that person nice, that will be the beginning and the end of any such discussions.

Crazy-cat-ladyOne of the key components to selling a nice façade, is to walk around with a warm smile on your face.  A warm smile disarms the observers looking for cracks in your foundation, and it will serve you well in your attempts to conceal your eccentricities.

We, observers, have bullet points that we look for when we’re trying to spot crazy people.  Are these bullet points fair?  It doesn’t matter.  They’ve been created by us, for us, to help us avoid saying or doing the wrong thing to the wrong person that may go crazy on us.  One of the most prominent bullet point is nastiness.

The preemptive strategy of attacking before being attacked is effective.  People will avoid an attacker, but they will also talk about them.  They will talk about the attacker behind the attacker’s back, until most of those that the attacker knows and loves will reach some sort of sort of agreement that the attacker will not expect.  The solution is one that is so simple that they may have never thought of it before: be nice.

I used to work at an online company.  This company rewarded its employees with a month long sabbatical for tenured service.  While on this sabbatical, my department hired a number of new people.  One of them was a woman named Abbie Reinhold.  One of the first things Abbie did, to introduce herself to the group, was defeat any impressions we may have made about her.  This planned defense was comprised of confrontation and nastiness that dared anyone to challenge the impression she may have made.  This defense gained her the reputation, however unfair, of being a cat lady.

To this point, no one knew Abbie Reinhold owned a cat.  She simply fit the stereotype, arrow for arrow, bullet point for bullet point.  She could’ve been the prototype for the cat lady on the television show The Simpsons.  The stereotype is an affixed staple in our culture, because it’s true.  It’s not true that all women that own cats are crazy, for I’ve met a number of sane women that have an insane number of cats, but some women scream at their cats as if they’re human, and some women find that they get along a lot better with cats than they do humans for all of the psychological underpinnings that are indigenous to cat ladies.

When I arrived back at work, I found that those in charge of seating arrangements placed this crazy lady across from me, in the cubicle I faced.  Did I know that she was a little crazy?  How could one not sense that something was off about her, based on her defensive posture?  My attempts at building a psychological profile on someone, based on initial impressions, had been so wrong, so often, that I decided to give Abbie Reinhold a chance.  My precedent sat right next to Abbie Reinhold.  A Mary something or other.  I had been so wrong about her that I decided Abbie Reinhold might another Mary something or other.  Mary was a woman of solitude, and a little “off”, but she was such a sweet woman in all other matters that she became the precedent for how wrong I could be about some people.

As that day wore on, I noticed that she talked to herself a lot, and while I do judge people that talk to themselves a lot as crazy, I cut her some slack for being a new employee.  Some of the cases that we worked at this company were difficult and overwhelming, and I had firsthand knowledge of how difficult and overwhelming the job could be for a new person.  For this reason, I paid little attention to her on that first day.

The second day, she began talking to herself when I sat down at 8:00 A.M. up and to the point when she left at 5:30.  Man, I thought, this woman is struggling.  Her frustrations were on display for all to see, but I empathized.  I went through those frustrations when I was the new guy, and we’re all the new guy at one point in our lives, and we all struggle, and some of us need to talk our way through it.  She did talk to herself A LOT though.

The third day was something altogether different.  On the third day, she appeared to be so comfortable with us that she didn’t mind screaming at the computer.  There were no sounds coming out of her mouth, but she was going off.  Her head was bopping, and her teeth were bared.  I glanced around to determine the source of her frustration, I couldn’t find anything.  She was new though, and I tried to continue cutting her some slack, but the progression wasn’t subsiding in the manner it had in the past days.  Her frustrations had progressed.  I am not often phased by much, I’m a calm, level-headed guy, but I had one foot pointed to the door in case some sort of progression occurred.

Depending on the size of the company, it is possible to work with thousands of anonymous people at an online company.  It’s possible to meet a fellow employee at a grocery store and believe you’ve never even seen them.  An employee, at an online company, spends most of their time staring at a computer screen, and those that are not in their immediate vicinity can escape notice for years.  It’s even possible for an employee in the immediate vicinity to escape notice, depending on their personality traits.  Abbie Reinhold was an anomaly that gained attention and stuck in the memory.

If her displays had been limited to silent screams at the computer, I may have been able to overlook that too.  I had been working in computer companies for near a decade at that point, and I saw so many anomalies by that point that their idiosyncratic behavior was something to notice.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Then I saw her eat a cookie.

I would never go so far as to say that I’m a macho man that fears nothing, but I can say without fear of rebuttal, that I’ve never known fear watching another eat a cookie, before that third day that is.  She pulled that cookie out and went at it.  I assumed she was diabetic, but I have also known non-diabetic women that were calmed by a cookie.  I still don’t have many answers regarding the nature of this woman, but I’ve never witnessed a person eat a cookie with such vigor.  She ate the cookie in a manner that suggested she had starved herself for three days.

I watched every bite she took.  Don’t ask me what I was waiting for, but I was paying attention.  Watching is the wrong word to describe what I was doing, for I was not looking at her.  We had already established, through confrontational exchanges, that Abbie Reinhold was not to be looked at.  As a result of that, I trained myself to look at my computer and watch her at the same time.  I was looking at my computer, but I could not focus on anything before me.  I was not working.  I was just staring at it.  My attention was directed at her, until she finished that cookie without further incident.  I did not sigh when the cookie was devoured, but I was relieved that I would be able to return to work without further incident.

In the days that followed, I would see her laugh.  The mind drifts when you’re sitting behind a computer for ten hours a day.  That day that that the rude checker at the supermarket said something rude comes to mind when you’re sitting behind a computer for long stretches of time, and the something that should’ve been said to her comes to mind when all one has to stare at are inanimate objects all day.  Hilarious jokes comes to mind, when a person is staring at their computer, and the things that could’ve been added fall into place.  Some of the times, a person can get so caught up in these memories that they may let a smile or grimace slip.  When that happens, the expression is drop as quick as possible, and a quick search for witnesses occurs.  This woman didn’t seem to care.  Her smiles turned into uproarious laughter.  Her grimaces turned into silent, vehement screams.

One minute the sounds of typing, whispers, and people talking in inside voices lull the employee into concentrating on the work before them.  The next minute, the employees in the surrounding area are hit by uproarious laughter.  In the early days of Abbie Reinhold’s tenure, other employees would roll their chair to her computer to see what was so funny.  After a number of such incidents, no one rolled over.  It was just something she conjured up in her head.  Many were the times, when she would turn to her left, or right, depending on the occasion, and she would laugh.  On one occasion, she placed a hand between her breasts and apologized to her computer screen for laughing so hard.  She wasn’t speaking to me, the unfortunate witness to her activities, she wasn’t speaking to anyone.

When she speaks to herself, she gesticulates in a casual manner that one uses to expound upon meaning.  These gesticulations progress to a flailing of the arms, in a manner reserved for party goers having one hell of a good time.  She swirls in a Julie Andrews, “The Hills are Alive” manner when it appears she’s thought of a wonderful moment in her life, and she says things no one can hear.

I wondered one day if she is talking to people in the future or the past, or is she one of those rare individuals who –like a Kurt Vonnegut character– is unstuck in time, and is living in the past, the present and the future at the same time?

I wondered one day, if I started talking to myself, followed by uproarious laughter and wild gesticulations, what she would think of me?  Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish actions, to prove how she was oblivious to her own?  Would she laugh at me with full knowledge of her actions, but by ridiculing me she hoped to gain some distance from the things that crazy people do?  Would she do anything to take advantage of the opportunity of my foolish display to define herself, and lift herself above those that engage in such activities for the purpose of either changing the minds of those around her, or vindicating her beliefs in her own sanity?  The unlikely alternative to all that would be that she would see my display and identify with it in a manner that formed some sort of solidarity between us.  If I performed these actions in a manner that suggested there was no mimicry going on, and that I may have been a victim of many of the same maladies as her, would she see me as one of her people?

On one of the days that followed, she stood.  She was not looking at a fellow employee named Natalie, but she wasn’t looking away either.  She was just standing.  She did stand near enough to Natalie that Natalie thought the Crazy Lady had a work-related question that she couldn’t verbalize.  Natalie was a senior agent on the team, assigned to answering agent questions.

“What’s up?” Natalie asked her.

“Just stretching,” the crazy lady said.

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked when Natalie informed me of these details.

“She was standing still,” Natalie informed me.  “I don’t think she moved a muscle.”

“Did you ask her what muscles she was stretching?”

The Crazy Lady eats her ear wax.  She pulls it out, examines it, and she eats it on occasion.  Some of the times, she looks at it and discards it on the carpet.  I often wonder what her selection process involves.  What’s a good pull, and what’s a bad pull?

I wondered if I cracked a joke about people who eat their own ear wax, what her reaction would be.  Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish people, or would she defend her fellow ear wax eaters?  “Hey, I eat my ear wax, how dare you crack on my people?”

As the unfortunate witness to all this, I would have considered the Abbie Reinhold crazy regardless her temperament, but I had an audience that waited, with bated breath, for the next story.  This audience appeared eager to hear details that supported their initial prognosis.  The question I now have, now that my supervisor was supportive enough to move me away from this woman, is would anyone have wanted to hear these stories if she was nice?  Would anyone have laughed as hard as they did, or offered their own stories about her to our round table discussions, if she was a nice person that just happened to have been afflicted with some eccentricities?  The males may have, for males are predisposed to enjoying stories that pertain to the weaknesses and frailties of another, a trait that may be traced back to their king of the hill mentalities.  I can only guess that the females, that surrounded us, would have shut any discussions about the Crazy Lady’s eccentricities down quick, if she was a nice person that happened to do these things, and they may have even shamed me for engaging in such discussions.  ”She’s a nice person,” is something they may have said, and everything I said, before and after that, would have been dismissed on that basis.  The fact that they not only shared their own experiences but drove the discussion in many cases, suggests that the Crazy Lady was not a nice person worthy of defense in their eyes, and a warning to all people that may suffer from similar, manageable maladies: be nice.