Last year I had breakfast with a college professor who has a theory about comedy. It’s one of those “All comedy is X” theories. He’s created a cottage industry around this idea (not a bad idea, but overly simple; an acorn being passed off as an oak), believing he has cracked the code of humor. As we talked about comedy, I found that many of my references to comedy in the 20th century were met with blank looks. I later checked out his resume and found that he is an associate professor of marketing (a ha!) and philosophy. There’s nothing in his history that indicates any actual experience with or familiarity with comedy.
At one point he mused, “I find it interesting that I’m studying comedy from the inside and you’re studying it from the outside.”
I wonder if Jane Goodall thinks the same about chimps.
There are those who do it and those who study it and each side thinks the other is a pack of idiots. The academes think the comedy-creators don’t have the wherewithal to understand what they’re doing, and the the creators believe the analyzers are comedy wannabes who couldn’t go out and reverse engineer an actual laugh from their theories if their lives depended on it.
As someone who creates the stuff, I used to be very proprietary about it too, turning up my nose at tone deaf analysis of the subject. And I understand that by writing a book about it, I now invite the same response from other people who create it.
Why do we resist analysis? Maybe it’s because a lot of people who do comedy for a living worked pretty darned hard to get here. Maybe we resent the idea that someone sitting in a classroom who didn’t work in countless clubs at 2:00 am, who never rewrote a script until they could no longer see, who didn’t get rejected in audition after audition, think they can stroll into our domain as if they owned the place, without paying any actual dues, without sweating for a single laugh.
Another thought… Maybe if comedy can’t be explained, it can still be magic and we can all be magicians. Even actual magicians know they’re pretending, and so does the audience. But people who generate comedy might still seem, in small way, touched by the gods.
And who wants to pull away the curtain on that?
So today was an interview with Colin McEnroe on NPR. Very frustrating — I still have a lot to learn about presenting this material. The problem is that anyone who has had any brush with comedy comes to the table with assumptions and preferences in place. The book and its philosophy requires that one shove everything away and start with clear eyes.
Unfortunately, it means the questions themselves were sometimes filled with the assumptions I was trying to break. Some were of the “Why is X always funny” variety. (Colin apparently read the wrong parts of the book, or glossed over the right ones.) So let me state this clearly:
NO INFORMATION IS INTRINSICALLY ALWAYS FUNNY OR ALWAYS NOT-FUNNY. If the comedy theorist goes in with this basic assumption, he is lost. Eventually he will be confronted with the challenge of charting the border between that which is funny and that which is not. This line does not exist. Even in the individual receiver, the line is constantly in motion. I don’t care how many surveys you do, how many samples you take. There is no spoon.
The thing we experience as Comedy is a choice made (consciously or unconsciously) by the receiver. People will sometimes laugh at things that follow “comedic rules” and sometimes laugh at things that do not. There is far more to this, but — as I will say a lot here, I think — it’s in the book.
Comedic performers must persuade the receiver to make that choice over and over. There are certain areas of content and certain structures that increase the chances that the receiver will make that choice. We can influence them with our performance, or by triggering feelings that can enhance response, etc. (Blah blah blah. It’s all in the book.) But no comedy is foolproof — we can only play the odds.
We started a discussion about what makes comedy work, which got mixed up in a discussion about what makes a good sitcom. Sitcoms are specific dramatic forms and have different requirements than comedy by itself. Small tangle.
There was some discussion about a Michael Palin bit on Monty Pythion that seemed to follow no rules. Palin is filmed jumping repeatedly into a lake. (Python fans, am I getting this right?) Colin wondered if there was any way to analyze this. The answer is yes. The two most straightforward ways to understand why this can be found funny:
1. We understand the rules of human behavior. Against these rules, the act of a man repeatedly jumping into a lake is incongruously pointless.
2. (And this is the bigger part of the joke, I believe:) We are aware of the rules and formulas of sketch comedy. Against those rules, this simple bit is incongruous. It eschews the standard set-ups and punchlines we’ve come to expect in sketch comedy. (In effect, comedy itself is the set-up against which the material is the punchline.)
So we may be laughing at the content, or laughing at the fact that this is being presented as comedy. Our both. Or at ten other things. Or we may not laugh at all.
Otherwise some good stuff about audience inclusion (inside jokes) and references.
The show was visited by a pack of improv people (who in my mind wore matching T-Shirts that pumped adrenaline into their systems). They did a bunch of Shakespeare (clever wordplay abounded) and left. I guess a little performance art was needed to spice up the show. Still, I think I prefer to really dig in and talk about theory without feeling like the show I’m on has to be zany too.
Colin and Julia Pistell were very nice.