What’s So Funny, Anyway?
(dedicated to my dad, one of the funniest people I ever met)
Conventional wisdom will say the best way to kill comedy is by trying to analyze it, but I respectfully disagree. I’ve always been a why guy (as opposed to a wise guy); understanding why something works gives me more of an appreciation of it. Psychologists tell us a laugh is an autonomic reflex triggered by the discrepancy between expectation and reality. By the time Mary had her 14th child, she’d run out of names to call her husband. We were expecting names to call the children. This is nowhere better illustrated than in my favorite joke of all. A guy is walking in the park and sees a man sitting on a park bench, a dog next to him. “Does your dog bite?” he asks the man. “No,” says the man. When the guy reaches out to pet the dog, it bites him. “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite,” the guy says. The man replies, “That’s not my dog.”
Two guys are out hunting in the woods, and one collapses, eyes glazed, not breathing. His friend calls 911 crying, “Help! I think my friend is dead! What should I do?” The dispatcher says, “Calm down, sir, I can help. First, make sure he’s dead.” She hears a loud bang, then the guy’s voice: “Okay, now what?”
There are various formulas to joke construction, but a prominent one is the Rule of Three. A story joke has the AAB form. The first two instances, A and A, are expected. The third, B, is the discrepancy, or punch line. Think of how many jokes involve three people, rarely two or four or more; A priest, a rabbi, and a duck walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “What is this, some kind of joke?” The number 3 has some kind of resonance with the human consciousness, and for this reason is also predominant in public speaking. You’ll find them sprinkled throughout speeches by Barack Obama and Dr. King, as well as historic documents, as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Comic relief is the result of escaping a bad situation. Perhaps the first nervous laugh was from some ancient hunter/gatherer who heard a rustling in the bushes, and what burst forth was a mouse, rather than a saber-toothed tiger.
While formulas and analysis might help us understand the intellectual basis of comedy, they don’t get to the beating heart of what really makes it work: pain. When I was a kid, my dad and I were watching a Laurel and Hardy comedy. He turned to me and said, “Did you know that some of the funniest comedians came from lives filled with tragedy?” Grouch Marx said “All comedy comes from pain,” echoing Mark Twain: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow.”
Groucho, Twain, and my dad (as usual) were right. Bill Cosby grew up in the projects with an abusive, alcoholic father. Carol Burnett’s parents were both alcoholics (as were my own), and she was raised by her grandmother on welfare. At the age of 10, Stephen Colbert lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash. Richard Pryor was raised by his prostitute mother in a brothel. You think these people didn’t know about pain? Ellen DeGeneris, Rodney Dangerfield, Sarah Silverman, Owen Wilson, David Letterman, Larry David, Jim Carrey, Conan O’Brien, Woody Allen, and Maria Bamford. All these wonderful comedians, by their own admission, have had to deal with depression. Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, and Chris Farley died from drug overdoses of cocaine and/or heroin. Richard Jeni, Robin Williams, and Hunter S. Thompson took their own lives. Thompson isn’t usually thought of as a humor writer, but his stuff is screamingly funny, so I included him in this litany.
So what’s going on here? Do people pursue a career in comedy to alleviate their own pain? They get the laughter from the audience because it identifies with the pain all of us go through in life. Maybe they’re more hyper-aware, (and if so, also more vulnerable, as we’ve seen above). Comedians are the canaries in the coal mine. If you didn’t know, miners used to carry canaries in cages down into the mines. If the canary suddenly keeled over, you knew there was something wrong with the air, and it was time to get the hell out of there. I think comics are the canaries in society’s coal mine. Comedians can not only detect, but more importantly articulate, the ways our lives can seem like a vale of tears. The challenge is to take something awful and make it funny.
If you still don’t think the best humor comes out of the greatest pain, here are a few examples that beautifully illustrate the point. How do you get a nun pregnant? Dress her up as an altar boy.
Seth Meyers: “After the cast of Broadway’s hit musical ‘Hamilton’ addressed Mike Pence after a performance, Trump demanded an apology, and tweeted: ‘The theater must always be a safe and special place,’ to which Muslims replied, ‘Two tickets to the theater, please!’ “
From The Onion: “Nation’s Schools to Ensure Bullied Transgender Students Hide in Stalls of Bathrooms Corresponding to Their Biological Sex.”
During his campaign, the Oaf of Office promised that under his health care plan everyone would be covered. After the plan was released and it was obvious how terrible it was, there was this political cartoon. It pictures a hospital room. Trump, dressed as a doctor, is pulling a sheet over a dead body as he says, “Everyone will be covered.”
There are different levels of humor. More coarse and vulgar types deal with sex and various emissions from the body, like farts (which I’ve never found particularly funny). Also, there’s a universal rule in comedy: always kick up, never down. Racists and other bigots often kick down, making fun of black or brown people they feel are in a lower social status. That’s not funny, it’s pathetic and mean. Kick up at authority; they usually have it coming.
When comedy becomes weaponized, you have satire, humanity’s noblest of virtues. It has a pain component too, in that pain is inflicted upon the targets, usually those in positions of status and power above the rest of us. Laughter eats away at power. It’s more difficult to respect and fear power when you’re laughing at it. Plato and Aristotle correctly feared the power of laughter to undermine authority. Laughter takes the power back, at least psychologically. My Irish half is proud of our ancient Celtic bards, who were so skilled in satire it was said they could make boils break out on the faces of their victims. If the theory holds, this orange jackass in the White House will birth a new golden age of comedy, and that thin skin of his will be flayed clean off, revealing the bloated carcass beneath. I say lock and load.
We see a guy slip on a banana peel and fall on his ass, and we laugh. Is it because it’s his misfortune and not ours? Are we that mean-spirited? No, the science suggests we laugh to deflect our own pain, because we empathize with him. Again, it’s an autonomic reaction, as well as a survival tactic. Pain is part of the human condition. A tree falls on a house. A loved one dies. Donald Trump is elected President. Without the healing power of laughter, life would be unbearable. And one of the best things about laughter is that it brings people together. It’s a very effective social binding agent. On the other hand, a world without pain, where everything was always just great, would probably be pretty dull.
You know those iconic Greek masks, comedy and tragedy? They’re always shown together. They were the two kinds of plays in ancient Greece, but the actors also wore the masks so their emotions could be seen by those in the cheap seats. I think there’s more going on than that. Perhaps the masks are a collectively unconscious expression that comedy and tragedy are conjoined twins. We need the one so we can deal with the other, but neither can exist independently. Leonard Cohen said there’s a crack in everything that lets the light in. I think that when we laugh, it lets a little more light in.