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?