Archive for the ‘History’ category

Funny thing about satire…..

July 21, 2008

Satire is a lot like a chainsaw. Wielded by skillful hands, it can turn a stump into a beautiful sculpture. Used appropriately, it can cut down a mighty, but diseased, oak. But in the hands of an inept or careless user, it can cause mayhem like a Quentin Tarantino remake of a Sam Peckinpah film.

The July 21 New Yorker magazine cover probably falls into the last category. The collection of caricatures, aggregating the smears and distortions leveled by critics of Sen. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, is not particularly funny and has already caused foreseeable harm, and not to its intended target. Rather than cutting down the smear merchants, it created another diversion from the real issues of the campaign, where Obama’s focus (and presumably the media’s) ought to be.

“What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s — both Obamas’ — past, and their politics,” New Yorker editor David Remnick explained to the Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar. “I can’t speak for anyone else’s interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama’s supposed ‘lack of patriotism’ or his being ‘soft on terrorism’ or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers.”

It’s axiomatic in comedy to say that if you have to explain it, it’s not funny (although some argue that a stupid audience negates the axiom, but there it is). Nowhere is this clearer than in satire, which relies on an underlying truth as premise for the punchline/comeuppance. If the truth of the matter is obscured, or ignored altogether, the audience is left to guess at what is being satirized. Any good comic knows that removing such variables can make the difference between killing and dying onstage.

Accepting Remnick’s explanation that the intent was satirical, it simply wasn’t funny. Wingnuts are smearing Obama, and this is what it would look like if the smears were true. Get it?  I get it. Everybody gets it. We’re not laughing because it’s a weak joke– a  groaner at best.

Worse than being unfunny, there’s a distinct possibility that the “satirical” cover does not counter, but rather reinforces, the smears against the Obamas. An as-yet unpublished study* by Indiana University professor Julia R. Fox (whose research in 2006 found that, minute-for-minute, The Daily Show has just as much substantive content as the network news) finds that humor makes the audience more receptive to serious information. Specifically, Fox and her researchers found negative physiological reactions indicating aversion when watching network news, while watching The Daily Show provoked favorable reactions, indicating receptiveness to information.

Just to be clear, I asked Prof. Fox, does that mean that the “just kidding” defense doesn’t actually excuse the nasty accusation, but can in fact make it stick? Her response: “Exactly.”

Yes, the New Yorker cover was just a joke. Not a particularly good one, though, and a collective shrug was probably all it deserved. But this is an election year, and there’s a 24-hour news hole to fill. And in light of Prof. Fox’s research, there’s nothing funny about that.

The similarly tepid responses by the Obama and McCain campaigns— that the cover was tasteless and offensive—probably could have ended the discussion. But, appropriately enough for satire, at least two levels of irony came into play and magnified the problem. First, as Jon Stewart ably pointed out, the news media leapt at the opportunity to rehash the charges against the cartoon ad absurdum and vent their mawkish outrage, while also claiming with spitting indignation that the Obama camp was also outraged. Never mind that there was precious little evidence for this beyond a mildly worded quote from spokesman Bill Burton; the media machine was running of its own accord.

Then, after two days of studious silence, Sen. Obama finally did address the matter on July 15, and only at the prompting of Larry King. He said, quite reasonably, that the American people have more to worry about than a cartoon. Naturally, this set off some critics. The next day on Hardball, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post absurdly said Obama’s response shows “thinness of skin.” LA Times blogger Andrew Malcolm argued somewhat paradoxically that Obama’s response was both too late and unnecessary. In Malcolm’s view, apparently, Obama should have taken swifter inaction.

The ongoing deconstruction of the cover and reaction to it, says Prof. Fox, is a double-edged sword. Her research suggests that those who find the New Yorker cover distasteful, which presumably includes Obama supporters and those likely to give him a fair shake come election time, probably won’t give it a second thought because it isn’t funny. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the aftermath could be worse than the cover itself.

“Visual processing is relatively automatic, whereas audio/verbal processing is more of a controlled process,” Fox wrote in response to my emailed questions. “So the numerous news reports criticizing the possible negative effects of such imagery may be serving to reinforce those negative effects rather than to dispel them.”

And isn’t that funny? Not “ha ha” funny, of course, but “It could only happen to a Democrat” funny. Even when the media purport to rush to his defense, they do more harm than good.

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I asked Gary Huck, the very talented and funny cartoonist for United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), with whom I used to work, his thoughts on the issue. His response:

“Often cartoonists communicate in reverse, and this is a perfect example. The cartoonist cannot be concerned, nor defend the intent of their art. In this case the intent is clear: it’s on the cover of the f#$*9ing New Yorker. The intent is not slander but satire. But remove it from the context and what do you have? An impassioned debate about the image and what it means, and one thing it means is the cartoonist DID ONE HELL OF A GOOD JOB! A DEFINING MOMENT IN THIS CAMPAIGN, AN IMAGE THAT WILL BE REPRINTED FOR A VERY LONG TIME AS HISTORY REVISITS THE HISTORICAL! That is what I seek each time I sit down to draw…period.”

Gary’s take seems similar to my discussion of Borat— if it makes people think, it’s probably doing some good.

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SATIRE ALERT!

South Carolina state senator Kevin Bryant put this up on his website:

Bryant told Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney: “You know, blogs are for satire and whatnot and, um, that’s why it’s up. It’s similar to the New Yorker picture. Maybe that’s why this has gotten so much attention, because of that thing that came out a couple days ago.”

So there you have it. Any stupid, jackass, racist thing you can imagine is now satire.

That high-pitched buzzing sound you hear is Swift, Twain, Bruce, Carlin and Hicks spinning in their graves.

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* The published abstract for the study can be found here: Fox, J. R., Wilson, B., Sahin, V., Sanders-Jackson, A., Koloen, G., & Gao, Y. (2007). No Joke: Motivated Cognition While Viewing The Daily Show and Broadcast Network Newscasts. Psychophysiology, 44(supplement), S94.

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I wish it were under better circumstances….

June 23, 2008

George Carlin is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself….

Far greater minds than mine can tell you how important Carlin was to social satire, and far lesser minds than mine tried today.

My job requires me to watch MSNBC pretty much constantly, and they’ve been revisiting Carlin’s death all day. They talked about how his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine was his most famous, of course. And they talked about how it was responsible for a Supreme Court decision. Aside from those facts and Carlin’s age, they got very little right.

The case stemmed from his “Seven Words” routine being played on a Pacifica Radio station in New York, where a man heard it while listening to the radio with his son. The father complained to the FCC, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court. One of the blabbing heads on MSNBC– I don’t recall which and honestly don’t care to try– said, “It actually ended up as a loss for Carlin, because the Court said you can’t say those words on television.”

Well, duh. Genius insight from precisely the type of vapid, witless person Carlin spent his career mocking. (And actually, you can say “piss” now. “Tits” sometimes, but rarely.)

Carlin was only tangentially connected to the Supreme Court case. He was not a party to it. The case is FCC v. Pacifica Foundation— no Carlin involved. Ergo, he could neither win nor lose. And furthermore, the case would not be considered a loss for free speech types, among whom you could count Carlin.

The Court held that the FCC had the authority to regulate decency on the public airwaves. That much is true. The Court reasoned that broadcast comes into the home and can be readily understood by children who might not be able to read the same in a book or see it in a movie theater, so the broadcaster may be regulated. However, regulation to the extent that the entire audience is always limited to receiving material acceptable for children was not acceptable to the Court. Thus, the “safe harbor” hours, from 10pm to 6am, wherein materials of a more adult nature can be aired, came to be.

The distinctions drawn by the Court color media issues that continue to this day. Cable television is less regulated than broadcast, because, unlike broadcast signals, you must seek it out and invite it into your home. (Forget for the moment that you need to buy a television or radio to receive the broadcast signal, and each is equipped with a device that allows you to tune in or tune out a particular signal….) The Internet is, to this point, treated more like cable than broadcast, though that could change.

So, yes, George Carlin’s filthy mouth did a lot of wonderful things for you and me. We get to talk to each other like grow-ups after 10pm, and we can hear Gordon Ramsey curse out diffident chefs on BBC America. And his routine will be forever recorded in the annals of the Supreme Court of the United States.

He was also a very funny guy. And he’ll be missed.

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Referencing myself here, kinda: Carlin on his motivation for going into comedy, from the History Channel’s “History of the Joke”:

“Carlin also spoke of what drove him to pursue comedy, an internalized need to prove himself. As a high school drop-out, he wanted to recapture the praise of an aunt who told him as a child, ‘Oh, you’re so clever.’

‘That’s all I really want people to say. “Isn’t he cute, isn’t he clever, isn’t he funny, isn’t he smart,’” he said.”

Yes, he was.

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An $8.5 Billion opening act.

I crashed the ACLU’s Membership Conference in Washington, DC, a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to say hi to the headliner, Greg Proops. I’ve been a fan of his for a good while, but I had a reason other than hero worship to see him. He was best friends with my dear friend and former client Warren Thomas.

When Warren passed back in ’05, it came as quite a shock to many of us, despite his being very ill for several years. There were memorials for him in NYC, where he was working for Air America Radio and doing a regular gig at Rocky Sullivan’s “Satire for Sanity” show, at the Punchline in his hometown of San Francisco in conjunction with “Comedy Day” in Golden Gate Park, and at the Improv in West Hollywood. It says a lot about Warren that there were three events held in his memory. It also says a lot that some comedy greats attended. Barry Crimmins, who gave a most moving eulogy in New York and made the trip to San Francisco (it was my great privilege to read Barry’s eulogy at the Improv, as Barry couldn’t be there), Sue Murphy, Rick Overton, Robin Williams, Debi and Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo, A. Whitney Brown, Barry Sobel, Randy Kagan, David Feldman, Bob Rubin, Tom Rhodes, Martin Olson, Kurt Weitzmann and many, many others. I got to meet many of them for the first time as we grieved over our lost friend.

But I didn’t get to meet Proops. While he was inside the Punchline keeping things going, I was outside trying to help January, Warren’s widow, keep it together.

So I grabbed him by the elbow at the Washington Convention Center and introduced myself: “I was Warren Thomas’s attorney just before he died.” The look on his face was at first a bit surprised, and then became very warm. We shared a few brief words, and then parted so he could do his set. As he walked away, he said, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Warren.” “Same here,” I said.

So Proops went up and did a very entertaining set, drawing laughs from the assembled lefties who keep the ACLU in paperclips and notepads. (He drew one shocked gasp when he suggested that Dick Cheney’s use of “hogwash” as an interjection was befitting of someone who strides to his horsedrawn carriage on a stairway made of Negroes. “Come on, ACLU. It’s called satire,” he chided.)

One of those donors was Proops’s lead-in. The speechmaker who preceded Proops was a multi-billionaire you may have heard of: George Soros. Not bad for a warm-up.

The Great Lady Comic Debate of ’07/’08

March 27, 2008

An awfully uncompelling debate reached its second round recently, long delayed despite its enviable collision of sex, beauty, humor and politics. Unfortunately, Vanity Fair‘s he said/she said go-round on whether women are funny is remarkably unfunny, despite the participants’ efforts, which unerringly leads the reader to assume that pundits are the least funny people on Earth, regardless of the packaging of their nobbly bits.

The Vanity Fair issue on the newsstands today features a cover story that purports to retort to a transparent provocation from January of last year. (It also features a cover photo of SNL‘s Amy Poehler copping a feel on 30 Rock‘s Tina Fey.)

That’s when noted curmudgeon and frequent inebriate Christopher Hitchens picked a fight, writing about why he believes women aren’t funny. His arguments are broad, his caricatures broader. In response this month, a broad gets argumentative about being caricatured. (Zing!)

Hitchens’s opening salvo from 01/07 is primarily that women don’t have to entertain men to be attractive, whereas a non-athletic, less-than-handsome, non-rich guy needs something to get him over the hump (as it were) with the ladies.

He references a 2005 Stanford University study, which found that women process humor differently from men. They do so, researchers say, because women approach comedy with a more skeptical eye than men (likely finely honed by years of listening to jackasses buffet them with “clever” pick-up lines and such), and accordingly are more pleased when they reach a good punchline, and sooner to conclude that a joke isn’t funny.

Sounds to me like women are more discerning comedy consumers.

Hitchens’s conclusion?

“Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?”

He does throw a few bones to female wits: Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, Ellen DeGeneres, Dorothy Parker among them. But no praise comes from Hitchens without punishment, as the rest of the female comedy world is dismissed as “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combination of the three.” When Roseanne plays the “tough broad” angle, Hitchens implies, she is merely acting like a man. When lesbian comics make the ladies laugh, it’s for the same sexual gratification that male comics seek. And Jews? Well, angst and self-deprecation are male traits.

Furthermore, Hitchens argues, men make jokes when bad things happen. Women, he says, want things to be nice and sweet all the time. Men joke about losing their hair, prostates and erections; women are less apt to laugh at their own structural collapse. It’s true that some of the highest reaches of comedy come from processing tragedy, but you don’t have to be Betty Friedan to understand that aging exacts a higher social toll from the fairer sex.

But Hitchens’s last point is the “best”: motherhood is not funny.

Well, hell, lighten up, Oedipus. My mom doesn’t giggle all that much when she talks about her episiotomy, but I’ve gotten a few laughs out of her.

This month, Alessandra Stanley responds to Hitchens, arguing that what sets today’s women comics and comedic actresses apart is that many of them provide their own material. In defending these female talents, Stanley inartfully drops in a few groaners that could not do more to distract from an actual refutation of Hitchens’s highly refutable claims.

After dwelling too long on the history of marginalized funny women, Stanley makes a salient point, quoting 1885 educator Kate Sanborn, who “pointed out that women have good reason to keep their one-liners to themselves. ‘No man likes to have his story capped by a better and fresher from a lady’s lips,’ she wrote. ‘What woman does not risk being called sarcastic and hateful if she throws the merry dart or engages in a little sharp-shooting. No, no, it’s dangerous—if not fatal.'”

That’s an excellent point, but one that’s woefully under-emphasized. Few women (or men, for that matter) are itching to make a funny that might cost them a crack in the mouth. Or worse.

Stanley then goes on to talk about how pretty the women comics of today are. Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler, the cover girls, are appropriately noted for their looks. And props are given out to Amy Sedaris for her willingness to make herself look horrible for the sake of character. “Even Lisa Lampanelli, a husky comedy-club veteran whose Donna Rickles act is an all-offenses-made smutfest, crammed with jokes about gays, blacks, and ‘fisting,’ does stand-up on Comedy Central in a low-cut, blue satin cocktail dress, with Jimmy Choo shoes and her hair long, honey blond, and tousled,” Stanley writes. She seems to argue that pretty girls are getting all the breaks in comedy. Unlike the rest of the world, where they’re always on the short end…..

(Inexplicably, Stanley compares Paula Poundstone to Lampanelli, saying they both have a “head-on … aggressive style.” Huh? Could Poundstone be any less aggressive on stage?)

Stanley speaks to the era of SNL with Tina Fey as head writer and a cast that included Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and, today, Kristen Wiig, and calls it a watershed moment in the previously male-dominated writers room. Which is true, as the current consensus is that Fey’s tenure gave women on the cast juicier roles, and gave fewer “Animal House,” ham-fisted, fratboy kneeslappers air time, in favor of humor with a feminine edge. And it was damn funny.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Naturally, Hitchens cannot allow Stanley to have the final word, and offers a rebuttal (available also on video). His ultimate point: “She said what I said.” In that, he’s right. Stanley repeats much of Hitchens’s claims, but appears to try to excuse rather than refute them.

Hitchens says there are more bad female comics than bad male comics, suggesting that even though there are some funny women, they are the outliers on the survey. I say that’s nonsense. Writers and comics like Fey, Sedaris, Poehler, Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, Tina Dupuy, Samantha Bee, Lizz Winstead, Alex Borstein, Sue Murphy, comedic actresses like Jane Lynch, Jenna Fischer, Lauren Graham…. and a raft of others. That is a group of very funny women. There are many more like them.

Come up with a list like that for male performers… It won’t be too hard. But think about the ones you’d have to leave off. There’s no shortage of bad, hacky guys wasting stage time that good comics could be using, or getting roles that actors with real talent should be getting.

The nature of the female comic is no different from that of the male. To be funny, they must appeal to the audience’s ability to identify with the absurdity in their lives, to find irony and whimsy. There is no physiological reason why a woman can’t be as funny as a man. There is no heavy lifting required.

Funny requires smart, astute, creative observations. Neither sex has cornered that market.

And as the Hitchens/Stanley argument demonstrates, it’s hardly a fight worth having.

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VF.com has interviews with some of the best women comics. Interesting reads.

Bill Hicks, 1961-1994

February 24, 2008

Today, I mourn someone very dear. Someone I found inspirational, enlightening, and by any measure, hilarious. Someone, actually, whom I never met. This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks.

Books have been written about Hicks, deep and insightful looks at the person he was, some by people who knew him well. So I can’t speak of that with any aplomb. I’ll leave those testimonials to those who earned the right to share them.

I want to talk about Hicks the artist.

There are quite a few comics who tackle important issues, but few can lay waste to the absurdity and degradation of politics and society as Hicks did. Fortunately, his comedic legacy has found its way onto video and CD, allowing me to see much of his act, recorded in many venues in the US and the UK. Listening to the recordings chronologically, you can hear the bits develop and grow, the edge getting sharper and the punchline hitting harder.

What’s so impressive is that though his routines were timely and topical, they are also timeless. A few tweaks here and there, and they are as fresh today as when he first unleashed them onstage in the early ‘90s. Replace Debbie Gibson with Jessica Simpson; substitute Nick Lachey for Rick Astley; Iraq, religious fundamentalism and “American Gladiators”… well, some things just endure.

Try this bit on for size:

“Hey buddy, my daddy died for that flag.”
Really? I bought mine. Yeah, they sell them at K-Mart and shit.
“He died in the Korean War.”
Wow, what a coincidence. Mine was made in Korea.
No one – and I repeat, no one – has ever died for a flag. See, a flag … is just a piece of cloth. They may have died for freedom, which is also the freedom to burn the fucking flag. That’s freedom.

In post-9/11 America, where not having a little yellow ribbon magnet on your car is enough to rouse your neighbors’ suspicion, that’s a conversation worth having.

“Revelations,” his 1993 HBO special, had this line about the first war with Iraq, which would be repeated by many people, in many variations, ten years later:

You know we armed Iraq. During the Persian Gulf war, those intelligence reports would come out: “Iraq: incredible weapons – incredible weapons.”
“How do you know that?”
“Uh, well … we looked at the receipts.”

And in today’s presidential race, where a major party candidate can publicly deny the existence of evolution and gain votes, consider this bit:

Fundamentalist Christianity. These people actually believe the world is 12,000 years old. Swear to God! Based on what? I asked them.
“Well, we looked at all the people in the Bible, and we added them up all the way back to Adam and Eve, their ages – 12,000 years.”
Well, how fucking scientific! I didn’t know that you’d gone to so much trouble there…. You believe the world’s 12,000 years old?
“That’s right.”
Okay, I got one word to ask you. A one-word question. Ready?
“Uh-huh.”
Dinosaurs.

One of my favorite Hicks CDs is “Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1,” recorded in Pittsburgh in 1991. In it, Hicks vents his frustration with the moribund audience, who seemingly only want dick jokes. Hicks shows no patience for that. By turns, he tries to pry laughs out of them and berates them for not wanting smarter material. It’s painful, and funny, and in its rawness shows Hicks was not merely a funnyman, but a man with a driving compulsion to say something.

Nobody who has heard Hicks can doubt his brilliance. Many comics have been compared to Lenny Bruce, but with Hicks, the comparison stands. Like Bruce, Hicks is respected, long after death, by respected comics. Like Bruce, his material holds up, as true today as it was when he wrote it. Like Bruce, Hicks has inspired legions of imitators. Like Bruce’s imitators, none of them come close.

It’s a shame that Hicks never got his due in America when he was alive. He was a superstar in the UK, but the US never quite caught on. His many appearances on Letterman built a loyal following—including me—but the fanbase that the quality of his material should have brought somehow eluded him.

Now, more than a decade after his death from pancreatic cancer, Bill Hicks is something of a cottage industry. Books, CDs, DVDs, websites, t-shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets… and good for all of that, I suppose. So long as people hear and see and learn about what a brilliant comic and social satirist Hicks was, I won’t begrudge the moneychangers their profit.

Whether Hicks would be so charitable, I don’t know. He doesn’t strike me as the type to let himself be commodified; his thoughts on commerce were not kind.

But, he does strike me as the sort who loves people and hates society—a compassionate misanthrope.

I wonder what Hicks would have made of Dubya’s America. I wonder how he’d have blasted Cheney’s hunting skills, Alberto’s “quaint” opinion on torture, and “Heckuva job, Brownie.” There’s been plenty for him to burn with his acid wit. The only question is what he would have burned first.

What I do know, as a Hicks fan and a student of comedy, is that he was hopeful. His cynicism was borne of idealism, his anger borne of the desire to share. Mostly, it seems that he wanted us to be better people.

The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.

On “The History of the Joke”

February 22, 2008

I was really looking forward to the History Channel’s “The History of the Joke.” Set up the TiVo for it and everything. Watched it with the remote in hand so I could back it up and watch its key points over and over.

Frankly, I was a little disappointed. But maybe that’s just me. I go a little wonky for humor.

It didn’t suffer from lack of star power. Beside the host, Lewis Black, the panoply of comic stars who contributed is nothing to sneeze at: Dave Attell, Shelley Berman, George Carlin, Kathy Griffin, Robert Klein, George Lopez, Kathleen Madigan, Patton Oswalt, Penn & Teller, Bobby Slayton, Suzanne Westenhoefer, George Wallace, and Robin Williams. And those are just the A-listers. The History Channel website boasts “over 50 stand-up comedians working today,” and I can’t argue with that.

The arc of the program, dotted throughout with one-liners and quips from the comics illustrating the narrative points, pretty simply broke down the joke and the art of telling it into their component elements, and a few questions for the ages: improvisation; are joke-tellers born or made?; can women be funny?; working “blue”; untouchable topics; bombing; hecklers; pain; truth; and finally, what is laughter?

Add to that Black’s interstitial exchanges with Prof. Richard Wiseman of University of Hertfordshire, who claims to have isolated the world’s funniest joke from a library of more that 40,000, as well as a historical timeline tracing comedy writing from Sparta circa 7th Century BC ‘til now, and you’ve got a packed show.

Part of the difficulty I had with the show was that it relied on comics to tell jokes. But does anyone really do that anymore? The era of “gags” as a form of stand-up comedy is quaint in its nostalgia, but seems like a waste of all that assembled talent. Having George Carlin and Robin Williams tell one-liners is like taking Tiger Woods mini-golfing. Sure, he can do it, but is that really what you want to see him do with a golfball?

Which is not to say that the show was pointless. A lot of clearly well-informed and deeply considered ideas were shared. Jimmy Carr, erstwhile host of Comedy Central’s game show “Distraction,” gave about as succinct and erudite a definition of comedy as I’ve ever heard: “All jokes are the sudden revelation of a previously concealed fact.”

Okay. That sounds about right. Every twist, misdirection and pun is based on getting the audience moving in one direction and then jerking them another. That element of surprise is the pay off. As Carlin noted, “The more it’s a complete 90-degree turn from where we were going, the happier I am.”

Carlin also spoke of what drove him to pursue comedy, an internalized need to prove himself. As a high school drop-out, he wanted to recapture the praise of an aunt who told him as a child, “Oh, you’re so clever.”

“That’s all I really want people to say. ‘Isn’t he cute, isn’t he clever, isn’t he funny, isn’t he smart,’” he said.

George Lopez spoke of his childhood of poverty as the impetus for his humor, joking to deflect the taunts of other kids. Others, including Robert Kelly, echoed the sentiment, with which I suspect many more can empathize.

The part that most interested me is the issue of truth in comedy. Much of my research is based on the notion that the joke exposes the truth in ways that merely “telling” the truth cannot. Sometimes the truth is too painful, too distasteful, or too dangerous, and only by making it funny can you make it palatable.

Some comics are driven to tell their own sort of truth, and take pains to add something to the public conversation. Some comics, however, say the job is to get laughs and nothing more. How would the show deal with that complex and philosophically volatile discussion?

“The heart of any great joke is truth,” Black said. Finding that truth within yourself and being honest to it, Greg Fitzsimmons said, is the key. Failing to do so, said Mitch Fatel, is why comics die onstage.

All of which is fair and, not coincidentally, honest assessment. But so much more could be said. I felt a little shorted.

And that is my beef with the whole program. Unsure of itself, it tried to do too much, ending up doing little.

Was it really the history of the joke? Kind of. But Jim Holt’s article “Punch Line: the history of jokes and those who collect them,” published April 2004 in The New Yorker (from which much of the historical content appears to have been lifted), does a far better and more thorough job.

Was it a search for the world’s funniest joke, as Black kept saying? If so, the program never presented it, other than Prof. Wiseman’s offering, which Black dismissed out of hand.

Was it an analysis of humor as a social construct? There was a bit of that, as well, with Penn Jillette presenting what I found a very compelling paradox of humor: “Comedy is a very intellectual form that’s supposed to get an involuntary reaction.” Interesting… but not deeply plumbed.

And that about captures it. It was interesting. Not terribly thought-provoking or engaging, but interesting, and pretty funny.

Ultimately, the line of the night belonged to the great Shelley Berman. Reflecting on the recent death of a loved one, he spoke of the visceral bond of laughter and sadness. “When you cry, when you laugh, you’ve been to an extreme,” he said. “And thank god for those moments in our lives.”

I can’t do any better than that.

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Just for kicks, here’s this:

Killing frogs?

February 16, 2008

Welcome to my blog. I’m very excited to start this new endeavor, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Mostly, I hope you’ll think it’s entertaining and interesting, and worth coming back to visit.

But what, you may be asking, is this “killing frogs” thing about?

It comes from a quote by E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and co-author of The Elements of Style. There are several versions of it, but the one with which I am most familiar is, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

All due respect to the late Mr. White, I and hundreds of other professionals commit significant parts of our lives to thinking seriously about comedy. Humor is an integral part of human discourse, and it has significant meaning in many different ways. Academics from diverse fields of research investigate how humor happens, how it impacts our lives, and how it informs what sort of society we live in. Psychologists, linguists, rhetoricians, anthropologists, sociologists and many, many others turn an analytical eye to answering the age-old question, “What’s so funny?”

By profession, I am a college professor and writer. By training, I am a journalist and attorney. By habit, I’m a punster and wise-ass. By choice, I’m a comedy wonk.

By that, I mean that like everyone on Match.com, I love to laugh. But more importantly, I’m interested in why I laugh. And why you laugh. And what it means that we laugh at some things and not at others. And what comedy means to modern American society.

My particular interest is in political and social satire. I’m intrigued by the notion that making people laugh also makes them think, and that through laughter, we may change in some small but significant way our corner of the world. The great satirist, and my dear friend, Barry Crimmins says, “Humor is a great way to smuggle serious information to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear it.”

Looking at the popularity and social impact of performers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Crimmins’ words are demonstrably true. Satire informs as it entertains, and can help change the society it mocks. Stewart and Colbert are not merely comics, but high-profile social commentators and media critics. They and others like them are helping to open people’s minds by challenging the status quo, carrying on a lineage that goes back at least to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes (ca. 400 BCE).

Satire and other forms of social and political humor have been at the cultural core of American arts and letters, even if they are marginalized or unrecognized in their own time. Mark Twain, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Crimmins, Warren Thomas, A. Whitney Brown, Jimmy Tingle, Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo…. The list of American humorists who have drawn the attention of audiences to social and political issues of their day is a long one.

And their contributions should not be minimized. Forests have been felled to provide paper for books about Bob Dylan, and properly so. His music influenced an entire generation. But humorists like those named above also have swayed people, and it’s my interest to see that their work is given the same attention. It is art to craft a joke. It is transcendent art to craft a joke that enlightens as it entertains. That artistry should be given its due.

To that end, I hope to post at least once a week about issues in the world of comedy. Sometimes more than once as the muse, or the news, compels it. I plan on commenting on the goings on in the intersection of news and comedy, post interviews with comedians and comedy writers, and with any luck at all, occasionally be funny on my own.

I hope you’ll join me. Could be fun.