Thursday, May 18, 2017

What is funny? (1,000th post!)

Do you like to laugh? Sure, we all do. When people discuss what makes them laugh the word "subjective" tends to appear, as though comedy were the most subjective of all forms of entertainment. We don't all agree on what is sad, frightening or thrilling either, but comedy is the whipping boy. Perhaps this is because if you don't believe that, say, a ghost story is scary you might still be entertained by it in some other way; but when comedy is not funny it is considered less than worthless.

I have come to realize I am a particularly prickly person where comedy is concerned. I like what I like; I don't put much effort into discovering new comedies, whereas I do place some effort into exploring new horror stories, adventure stories, etc. I have seen maybe 1.5 episodes of Saturday Night Live; I've never gone to a live comedy show; I haven't watched sitcoms for a decade; I very seldom watch comedy films in the cinema.

Recently I was browsing Netflix to find something to watch - I wanted something light and enjoyable, so I browsed through comedy. I couldn't find anything that I thought I would enjoy except for those shows I had seen before. That got me thinking: what about all the things I do like? What do they have in common? Come with me and we'll see.


I've mentioned before that when I first became interested in old-time radio I listened for the science fiction/horror shows and skipped over the comedies, believing they would be old-fashioned and unfunny. And yet, I soon found one program which made me laugh: The Jack Benny Program. Jack Benny was a comic who knew his limitations - he couldn't master snappy patter. Thus, Jack's character was the schmuck instead of the wit; Jack's program constantly featured his supporting characters puncturing his ego, frequently to observe he was not as handsome, smart, funny or likeable as he believed himself to be - and I laughed because it seemed as though it were true and Jack deserved to be humiliated.

The wonderful, intangible part of Jack's routine was that his audience knew he was putting on an act, that "Jack Benny" was a false persona, yet he didn't break character (even Jack's ad-libs were very much on-point). I have found few other comedians so willing to put themselves down; to some extent, this is also what I enjoy about Robert Benchley's articles and short films; he would project an image of a dignified, urbane gentleman, but really he was another schmuck.

The Non Sequitur

How best to describe it... I like the snappy, witty remark, particularly when it is in stark contrast to the other party's statement ("the stooge"), and especially when it's surprising, totally unexpected; "non sequitur" seems to be the term which best describes it. I enjoy how authors such as P. G. Wodehouse & Damon Runyon would subvert genre expectations through clever dialogue and situations. I see this humour in my love for Groucho Marx's retorts:

This kind of humour tends to be heavily sarcastic or sardonic. The first party has come to play chess, but the second party arrives to play tennis - with a pogo stick - and demands the first party explain why he isn't similarly prepared. I was late in discovering Mystery Science Theater 3000, but its format of witty remarks and put-downs mixed with affectionate chiding truly spoke to me.

I've since come to learn, however, that one should not abuse their "witty" humour in public as it quickly becomes intolerable to friends. I've also learned how my idol Alfred Hitchcock used such remarks to disguise his own shyness; these remarks are basically a form of self-defense.


Over time I've learned I have low tolerance for the all-encompassing statement. I am the one who picks holes in every broad remark, noting the exceptions to each and every rule. I am similarly quick to note the cliches which infuse popular culture and when a masterpiece of satire appears - say, Stan Freberg, Cerebus, Monty Python, the Tick, Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, Batton Lash - I nod in approval. The object being satirized need not be obvious; some of Bob & Ray's satire is best enjoyed when you are aware of their target (listen to at least one episode of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy before listening to one of their "Jack Headstrong, the All-American American" skits) and yet, even in this instance, a parody of a children's science show which I'm not familiar with, I recognize they were satirizing a particular format and style of programming; the satire is specific in its target but broad in its humour:

I've never read a Nancy Drew book in my life, but Kate Beaton has had great fun writing her own comics based on the covers of Nancy Drew novels:

Edgar Wright is perhaps the best currently-working film satirist, mocking the sitcom (Spaced), zombie genre (Shaun of the Dead) and crime story (Hot Fuzz).

Returning to self-deprecation, some satirists would satirize themselves; witness Edgar Allan Poe and his connected stories "How to Write a Blackwood's Article" & "A Predicament," or Michael Kupperman sending up the entire genre of comics:

Self-deprecation works well with satire - however, I'm not confident that simply doing the opposite of the source material is sufficiently funny. "Dracula, but stupid" is not a solid basis for a film. Great satire digs deeper than the surface and exposes the tired tropes and cliches behind the entire genre; it's Poe making fun of morality tales in "Never Bet the Devil Your Head"; it's Stan Freberg making fun of lawn mower commercials while selling lawn mowers; it's Bob and Ray selling you a suit that will not only save you money, but make you money!

Laugh, won't you?

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