Falling Down Manholes


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

Is it funny when a healthy adult falls down a manhole? It’s a little humorous when a faceless entity on the local news, or someone with whom we have no association, but what if we have some sort of attachment to the victim? Does familiarity affect how we view such an incident? If it does, how much familiarity do we have to have before the incident becomes tragic, and is there a middle ground that reveals the unusual relationship these comedy and tragedy have? If we find a tragic incident like that funny, what is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference?

Laughing at other people’s pain is just kind of what we do. We can call those who laugh heartless, but we also need to recognize how prevalent this reaction is in our society. We can also say that such laughter represents a dark side of humanity, but we should also recognize it as part of human nature. I’ve found few exceptions to this rule, but those who don’t laugh tend to be in professions that experience other people’s pain on a daily basis. Do they develop an emotional immunity to such moments, because they hear about them so often? If that’s the case, is our laughter an impulsive reaction to something we find shocking? We’ve all heard the phrase, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. If we worked with other people in pain on a daily basis, would we develop something of an immunity to these moments that might lead us to deal with them in a more compassionate manner?

Most people who fall down manholes don’t fall straight down the manhole clean, like Yosemite Sam, and most of them aren’t mumbling comedic swear words to themselves as they fall. They 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 it’s not funny to them.

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 that he required Emergency Medical Technicians to free him? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more tragic or more humorous? Before you answer, think about how you might tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation mark at the end. What better punctuation would there be 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?” We might be using an extreme here, as few would find that funny, but where is the line or the lines of demarcation that define comedy and tragedy in this matter?

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 might wait to find out if Jed’s okay before we laugh, and some of us might wait until he’s not around, so when we can retell the story of his fall and laugh with others. Most of us will laugh at some point. It’s often our 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 our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians molding 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, the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy, and how we find comedy in others’ tragedies. The purposeful melding of the two even has its own genre now: tragicomedy.

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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 it 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 would not be a “Well, 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 stories 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 he the kid who got his tongue stuck on a pole in fifth or sixth grade?”

I didn’t stand there and think about all this 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, though, 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. The pain involved in ripping several layers of my tongue off led me to believe I should’ve given it more consideration, but I still didn’t regret it. I still considered the physical pain secondary to the mental and emotional pain I would’ve endured if I hadn’t ripped my tongue off the pole.

I’ve read stories since 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?

These unfortunate victims had to know that the chance of someone seeing them in that embarrassing position increased exponentially with each second they remained stuck to the pole. They had to know that calling someone over would lead them to call another over, until they all gave up and called in a rescue squad. The very idea that that many people might know about it, still makes me so uncomfortable that I cringe when I think about it. With that many people involved, the chances of this information making it to their peers is so great that it’s not even worth considering.

I have to imagine that this victim was either younger than I was at the time, or that the severity of their incident was much 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 them if they feared how painful that would be, but they had to consider all the ridicule, teasing, and bullying they would endure in the aftermath. Even if they feared the pain so much that they wanted an adult to come along and find a less painful solution for them, I would ask them if it was worth it. Even if that adult went inside and retrieved a cup of hot water for them and prevented the kid from knowing the pain I did, I would wager that the physical pain I endured paled in comparison to the emotional abuse this kid endured from his peers.

Even when I was still stuck on that pole, I knew my bully would be waiting for the details on my tragedy with baited breath. I also knew that his audience wouldn’t be able to restrain themselves from laughing at his displays of cruel and clever 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. 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 material 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 our class clown ran out of material he would begin looking around for victims, and I was always one of his favorite targets.

We all enjoy making people laugh, but some have a deep 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 that 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 possible audience, 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

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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.