Towards an Advanced Theory of Comedy
by Dr. Ben Jarvis
How many times in my life has someone said, "You should be a standup?" And how many times have I had to explain, in excruciating detail, how standup comedy almost inherently violates the humor of a particular comment or situation? Many times, I tell you, many times. Hopefully this dispatch will stand as a final answer to the grand old questions of comedy: what is funny, and why.
First off let's dispel the myth that comedy is subjective. True comedy, the art, is universal, regardless of what anyone's opinion may be. You say that's a contradiction? I say contradiction is the heart of comedy! An example: jokes circulated on the Internet about George W. Bush are not ever funny. Dead baby jokes circulated on the Internet are invariably funny.
Perhaps comedy is not exactly objective or subjective, but entirely contextual. Think about it. When dead baby jokes were invented (can you say invented about a trend that has no clear cut beginning or ending but simply existed in a mutually understood pocket of time?), they were funny because we were kids and anything that was kind of racy was funny. Basically, if Mrs. Yursky sent you into the hall, you were a hero.
Babies on pitchforks, if you really think about it, is kind of horrific, but it's also kind of funny, too. But not really that funny, and certainly not funny enough to survive past pre-adolescence. The jokes themselves, in fact, are emphatically not funny, and not at all artful. They are Henny Youngman jokes without the tact and sophistication. Yet we all half-smirk and half-chuckle at the mention of dead baby jokes. Why? Because we remember thinking that dead baby jokes were funny, and we're a little embarrassed and nostalgic. "Was there ever a time when I was so na´ve as to think that dead baby jokes were funny?" A resounding yes. But again, the dead baby jokes themselves are not funny. However, if one were to repeat the dead baby jokes to anyone who would listen, repeat them until everyone is baffled and annoyed, and continue to repeat them until all of his/her friends simply stopped talking to him/her, the situation would rise to the highest heights of comedy.
There are three iron laws of comedy:
1. Nothing is sacred.
2. Repetition, repetition, repetition.
3. You can never take a joke too far.
These three laws illustrate why the above-manufactured situation is, if properly executed, brilliant. First off, even babies, even dead babies, aren't sacred. Nothing, not the Holocaust, not slavery, not death or pain or suffering, is sacred. Everything can and should be made into a joke. The more upsetting and/or disturbing, the funnier. But obviously dead babies alone aren't funny enough. Repetition pushes the comedy into new territory. Yet mere repetition alone won't cut it. If you tell a joke only once, even if you tell eighteen people that same one joke one time each, you have blown an opportunity. If you tell a joke only three times, you've merely annoyed everyone and made them think you're an idiot and have no memory (which, I suppose, is funny enough, but it won't get you a window seat). But if you tell that one joke more than fifteen times to any single person or group of people, in as short a period of time as possible, then it's very funny. Regardless of, and often in direct contrast to, the quality of the joke's content and the reaction you get. Dead baby jokes are the bottom of the content quality barrel. But if you tell a single dead baby joke twenty times during one party to the one girl you're trying to impress, you have hit the comic jackpot. Because you can never take a joke too far. If you tell that same joke until the girl leaves the party in tears, you've won. If you tell it until your friends don't like you anymore, you've won. Winning, regardless of the personal cost, is the true essence of comedy.
I've kind of shotgunned the topic, so let's backtrack. I use the term "joke" in its broadest sense, which loosely covers all forms of comedy. That includes standup, sketches and skits, plays, books, movies, the funny pages and even music, but more importantly, the everyday comedy of living one's life and coming up with the appropriate comment, eye-roll or hand gesture for all occasions. I suppose the best way to describe it is, "Comedy as a way of life."
The two primary ideas you must be clear on regarding comedy is that one, comedy is about winning, and two, you must have awareness to be a comedy master. Winning is important because when you say something funny you're basically asserting your superiority over the person you're telling it to, regardless of whether or not they laugh. Often, the less they "get" your joke, the more superior you are. This is complex stuff, because whatever you're saying has to be funny. And the only way for you to be funny even when people aren't laughing is through awareness. If you are always aware of what you are saying, aware of the shades of meaning, you are always funny. Period. Especially if you are saying something specifically designed to not be funny. If you are unaware, you are only funny insofar as someone else is aware that you are unaware that you are not funny. Confused? Let's go back to the dead baby jokes.
When you tell your single dead baby joke over and over, the essential ingredient is that you know that dead baby jokes are not funny. It's not just that you're making a reference to something that happened in the 80s, but that you know the 80s aren't funny anymore (see below), you're making fun of people who still think the 80s are funny (and thus establishing superiority), you're telling a joke that you know wasn't funny to begin with, you are reminding people of how unfunny dead baby jokes were, and you're making fun of the idea of telling a dead baby joke. However, if you just tell a dead baby joke thinking it's funny, you're an unfunny idiot, unless I'm standing next to you feeling superior because I know you think you're funny, in which case you are accidentally funny but still an idiot (I would express this by laughing a little too hard a little too long, in illustration of the concept that comedy is cleverly disguised hostility). The complexity is overwhelming! Even right now, at this very minute, I am mocking all of you by using dead baby jokes as an example, and by pretending that any of this makes sense. Layers on layers on layers.
Another important aspect to comedy is the theory of comic cycling. What that means is, some things are funny now but never were, some things used to be funny but aren't now, some things aren't yet funny but some day will be, and some things used to be funny, aren't funny now, but will be funny again in the future. Just as with any aspect of comedy, timing is everything. Number one, topical humor is never funny unless it's seriously out of date (in which case it's no longer topical), or so obscure no one even knows it's topical. That includes anything to do with politics or A-list celebrities. Unless, of course, these things are funny in and of themselves. George Bush's foibles aren't funny. Not because they're a statement on the presidency, but because Jay Leno and David Letterman and eight hundred thousand standup comics and newscasters and pundits and e-mailers are all making jokes about them. Anything lampooned in National Lampoon or Spy or on "Saturday Night Live," anything that makes its way to Caroline Rhea's opening monologue, is by law not funny. By the same token, jokes about Ronald Reagan forgetting things weren't funny when he was president. But they are now!
Therein lies the double-edged sword to comic cycling. The comic potential of any topic comes and goes dependent upon the mainstream. When the mainstream catches on, even if it's something that's really funny, it's no longer funny. Which is exactly why the 80s are no longer funny. Take, for example, by far the worst movie ever made, The Wedding Singer. One, it starred a second-tier member of a third-tier SNL cast, which is always about three steps behind. Two, it had no recognizable plot. Three, there was absolutely no compelling reason to set this thoroughly useless "romantic comedy" in 1985. The only possible reason is that Adam f'ing Sandler is the laziest "comedian" this country has ever known, and stupidly believed that 1985 was funny just for being 1985. Well, Adam f'ing Sandler, you were wrong. Michael Jackson zipper coats were funny from about 1987-1992. Then they weren't funny anymore. They might be funny again, but in 1998 the only recent era worth making fun of was 1991-1996. So once again Adam fucking Sandler was about five years late in mining the dry comic well of the 80s. Soon, though, the concept of Adam Sandler thinking the 80s was funny will itself become funny, but for now I'm still angry.
Here's another iron law of comedy:
4. Nothing is funny when, or why, everyone thinks it's funny; it's only funny before or after, or on top.
With Bill Clinton out of office, and the e-mails and doctored images ceased and the world moved on, jokes about Monica Lewinsky are just now starting to be funny. You tell a Monica Lewinsky joke these days and you'll be met with the same rankling disapproval as were you to drop a Pauly Shore "Hey budddd-dy" into conversation. In about eight years, the mainstream will glom on to the nostalgia of Monica Lewinsky as a comedic phenomenon, and they will start to appreciate the humor in laughing at Monica Lewinsky as humor. So unfunny topical humor becomes funny untopical humor, then unfunny untopical humor. Don't hold me to this prediction, of course, for these things are fickle.
This actually brings up an important point. Comic cycling can happen instantaneously. Often, because we are so "aware," we make fun of something while we are enjoying it. That only applies to certain things, though, like anything very new or very old from Aaron Spelling. Melrose Place was funny when it started, but has worn out its welcome. 90210, on the other hand, stomped, spat and urinated on its welcome, and is now once again funny. Love Boat: The Next Wave was never funny, not even as a concept, but had it lasted three years it would have been funny. However, if it had become like late-era Saved by the Bell, when everyone watched with the same level of comic awareness, it wouldn't have been funny. I only refer to SBTB to illustrate that even I fall prey to the confusion of comic cycling, for I fully admit thinking it was cool to watch SBTB at exactly the cultural moment when everyone else had the same idea. Part of the problem is that we are no longer "allowed" to truly enjoy anything; we must always be on our guard lest someone accidentally mistake us for sincere and/or gullible idiots. There may never be another time in our lives when we love a trend with uncynical abandon.
Before I lose the few people who have stuck around, let's put what we've learned into practice.
Test Case #1
You loved Titanic but thought it was kind of silly. You heard a joke on the Internet about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky "going down" with the ship. What do you do?
Nothing, especially since the red-alert terms Titanic, Bill Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky are involved. Under no circumstances do you forward the e-mail to your friends (unless, of course, you auto-forward it 800 times to everyone on your mailing list, in which case you're either very funny or a hugely annoying pest [often there is no discernible difference]). Same goes for telling the joke. This is not appropriate water-cooler conversation. My suggestion is to file the e-mail for a few years, then when your new e-mail program can't translate it, make a generic joke about Microsoft or e-mail and delete the file. Jokes about computers, especially generic jokes, are always funny. What is a generic joke? Something like, "Computers! Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, ha ha!" The "ha ha" is the difference between someone with no comedic imagination and a very funny individual with an elaborate understanding of advanced comic theory.
Test Case #2
You're in a meeting with your new boss, who may or may not be gay. What do you do?
Most people wouldn't do anything. I probably wouldn't do anything. But a comic genius with real balls would either start using the words "queer" and "gay" as much as possible, in all possible contexts, and/or hint at a liaison and if s/he takes the bait, stand him/her up so that the next time you see him/her it's very uncomfortable and you are eventually fired and file a sexual harassment lawsuit that goes to the Supreme Court and causes a nuclear war in which 80 million people are killed. Now that's a joke carried out to its maximum comic potential!
I suppose the above test cases only prove that it's very hard to come up with realistic test cases to depict the advanced comic theory.
Standup Comedy and How it Does and Doesn't Work
The iron law of repetition also explains why most standup comedy flies in the face of advanced comedy, with a few obvious exceptions. A standup comic writes, let's say, ten jokes, and then repeats them endlessly. Problem is, s/he repeats those ten jokes to a new audience every time. And most of the time the jokes weren't that funny to begin with, but the comic doesn't "get" that they're not funny, and they're probably trying too hard anyway. The best comedy is immediate and fresh. Something happens, and the comic responds. It's very hard to force the "something" that happens, especially if you have the result already in mind. This explains why Mel Brooks is almost invariably unfunny, although Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner resurrecting the 2000 Year-Old Man bit is funny to think about (but not to listen to). Why? Because as with everything there are varying levels of comic value in effort. Zero effort, a.k.a. laziness, is almost always funny, except when it's calculated laziness (like wealthy young actors who rarely shower and live in filth out of some misguided sense of aesthetics, and this means you, Ethan Hawke).
Moderate effort, on the other hand, is usually wasted. Nobody cared about 'Til There Was You. It's not funny to talk about and you probably don't even remember that it was a romantic comedy with Sarah Jessica Parker (and I do NOT understand how anyone can think that woman is attractive). When you exert moderate effort, you are making a choice to kind of care. Not caring at all or caring way too much is always better. Which is why excessive effort is far better than moderate effort, and above even laziness in terms of comic value. The idea of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner spending hours and days to carefully update the 2000 Year-Old Man bit, then hiring lawyers and agents and publicists to handle the contracts, the videos, the CD's, etc., all for a joke that wasn't funny the first time around, is funny.
In standup, most comics put in moderate effort, and it shows. They are nameless drones scouring their boring lives for momentary, unoriginal "laffs." The ones who put in zero effort can be funny. But the comics who put in excessive effort, they are often successful and sometimes even funny. Steve Martin is a perfect example. As are Willie Tyler and Lester, which is a funny act precisely because of the amount of effort that goes into the misguided attempts at comedy. Being mistaken on a huge scale is funny.
A white male friend mentioned to me that he had an idea in which he would go onstage and talk about minorities in the most offensive possible manner. He would talk about black people being stupid and lazy, how the Jews should all move to New York, how the national hat for Mexico is the hair net, etc. Anything generically offensive. He's afraid he'd spark a riot, which would be funny, but physically dangerous (and comics are not known for physical courage). I suppose if he confined his jokes to cripples and retards, he'd have no problem.
The only way you could ever get me to do standup is if I first spent years crafting a bit that would be epic in its misguided simplicity. I had an idea about going up with a pile of notecards, the premise being that it was my first time onstage and I had written each joke on a card with the punch line on a separate card. The first thing I do when I get up is drop all of the cards on the floor and spend the rest of the act nervously trying to reconstruct my original jokes. But when you think about it, could I really sustain an entire standup career based on one very questionable gimmick? I suppose if that's the only gimmick I had, and I confined myself to the same five jokes... Although if it failed miserably and I went home in tears, it would be funny on another level, but not to me.
The complexity of advanced comic theory is often baffling. It's way too easy for even the masters to set up a situation that backfires horribly and leads to the one thing all comedians hate: looking stupid. For the entire point of comedy is to shield the comedian from ridicule and hostility by generously providing ridicule and hostility first. Anything that puts the comedian in a position of weakness is to be avoided at all costs, as are all human emotions.
So you can see why I'm reluctant to do standup.