Comedians get up on stage and they tell stories. Well, most of them. Mitch Hedberg made a career out of one-liners. But most of the time you get someone whose work is a bit longer than a knock-knock joke, and something original. If I saw a stand-up comic standing up there and telling knock-knock jokes, I'd be paying attention for when the real gag was revealed. Because the business isn't just about telling jokes -- if that was the case I could get up there and read out of Capn' Billy's Whiz Bang Book Of Hilarious Humdingers. The jokes aren't enough. You have to have a setup and a delivery.
Some people think comedy ought to be about punching up at the big mean people, and not about punching down at people of lower social power, and yet -- if it was about either one of those alone then your usual story story about heroic resistance against evil, or your usual bigoted screed, would be considered comedy. Neither of them are in that category in the bookstore.
They key is the delivery, because you have to have a delivery that makes the person telling it sound funny. Like, maybe you have a guy walking through a door. What's funny, the door or the guy? If it's the door, it's farce. In a farce you're laughing at the exaggerated situation. But if the guy walks through it funny, then you've got comedy. Because in comedy you're laughing at exaggerated people. I think Chuck Jones said that farce is extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, and comedy is extraordinary people happening to ordinary things.
If it was an extraordinary person and an extraordinary event, then you've got drama. That ain't comedy. There ain't nothing to laugh at there. You laugh when an extra-ordinary person has to be stuffed into a normal setting, because they don't fit! You laugh when a big fluffy cat tries to sit in a teacup. Same principle.
Good example of a door: A clip of the Three Stooges I saw a few days ago. Medieval setting, the three wiseguys are stuck in a dungeon. they've been wailing on the cell door with hammers for an hour and getting nowhere. They take a break. The cell door swings open. Funny door, right? Nah. Just what you'd expect for that much work. But you'd expect an ordinary person to notice. Nobody notices at first. And then Larry says he feels a draft. "No wonder, the door is open." Then they notice. What a bunch of dummies! But that's the gag, isn't it? The fact that they're a bunch of dummies. I mean that's their entire shtick, but they manage to play that one joke in hundreds of ways over years of work. A Three Stooges Film is never about the situation, it's about the guys stuck in it. The situations are usually ordinary. They become a mess when the Stooges get involved. That's the gag.
Not significantly different from Bugs Bunny, or Woody Woodpecker, or Abbot and Costello -- always with ordinary people encountering these nutcases and being left to wonder what the hell is going on. In a farce you say "what a revolting development". In a comedy the main character is the revolting development.
This was brought to mind by a re-watch of Dara O'Briain,
an Irish comic and one of the few comedians whose material never gets
old for me. I can watch other comedians and go through a few of their
videos and think "ah ha, yeah, he's re-using the same material from last
video," and I get bored with them, because if they're re-using the same material then maybe they're not usually funny after all? Maybe they're just good at delivery. Ah ha ha, nice punchline! Heard it before. You can only hear a punchline once for the best effect.
And maybe my appreciation of O'Briain is based on the fact that he's only done a few big comedy tours, maybe three or four, and there's only one recording of each up on Youtube, so his stuff isn't getting old for me because I know I'm re-watching the same clip. But I think it's more to do with the fact that these shows are all at least 1 hour, and he has so much to say in each of them, aided by a very quick Irish way of speaking I can barely keep up with him this is kind of what he sounds like, that I've forgotten most of the first show by the time I finish the third. Maybe I'll finally get tired of his stuff.
So far, I haven't got bored with him, and I haven't got bored with Brian Regan either. Both of these guys seem to base most of their appeal on delivery and not on punchlines. They don't exactly have punchlines, as much as they have topics that kind of flow into each other. It's like the setup and the punchlines are rolled into each other. Like some of Civilwaractionfigure's latest work.
And both of them do their best work by their extraordinary reactions to everyday things. Regan, for
example, views the airline boarding experience as something not simply highly classist but absurdly, wildly
classist. The boarding atttendant treats all the priority boarders
politely and then tells the coach passengers "Coach people -- no wait,
wait, sit scuzz, wait little piggies." And then when you get into coach
the first-class passengers are asking the flight attendant to bring them
the head of a pig and a goblet of wine. Regan 's wild exaggeration manages to breathe life and humor into what most people experience as a stressful slog. This is a funny guy! He walks through a door funny! The door isn't funny until he gets there. Just like the Three Stooges.
O' Briain does things differently. He
doesn't exaggerate much, at all, delivers mostly ordinary stories. If he delivered these stories like most people do, then they'd be flat. Oh, he had a bad time
as a beginning surfer. Oh, he watched a terrible movie with John Cusack.
Oh, he went to a pre-natal advice class with his wife, ho-hum. But O'Briain makes all of these stories worth listening to time and again,
because of the way he's often the funniest character in the stories. He didn't simply have the surfboard smack him;
he held it up in front of his face like he was trying to deflect the
entire ocean. He didn't simply watch a terrible movie, he claimed that
the greatest line in the history of cinema was "The neutrinos have
mutated." He didn't simply go to a pre-natal advice class, he imagined
what the wife in the back was going to do with her husband after he kept
revealing that his wife had many of the embarrassing symptoms listed by
the teacher. That kind of thing.
There is a fair element of
farce in O' Briain's work, moreso than in Regan's, because some of the
stories would be amusing just from the opening premise (like the woman
who wanted O Briain to cheer up a woman she just fired, and by the way
she's right over there). But for the most part I come to the Dara O
Briain comedy special for the same reason I watch Mock The Week -- I'm
there for the man, not just the story. O Briain doesn't just tell a
story, he performs it. He animates it. He makes it worthwhile because he
puts his soul into it, and because the soul he puts into it is extraordinary.
And here's a very good example from his Craic Dealer tour. A major retailer selling DVDs of the show didn't understand that "Craic" is an irish word for "good bit of fun". They didn't want to be promoting drug use. Oh no, no. Can't have any of that. And so --
Well, here's the straight-man bit that misleads people. A lot of people think comedy has to involve punching up because the Straight Man in comedy is often some kind of authority figure. Some guy who has a vested personal interest in getting our hero to sit down and shut up. And the hero is funny -- and this is where people miss the mark -- it's a comedy if you're laughing at how the hero resists. Not at the fact that he does resist, but the fact that he does it funny.
-- In this case the Straight Man, the major retailer, expressley refused to stock any DVD that was titled "Craic Dealer". The grumpy authority figures trying to squash our little hero! So what does O'Briain do?
He explains that a photograph of the show, as it appears on the back of every DVD box, would wind up showing the title in tiny letters off to the side, because the show's title is sitting on a table beside him, so of course he will pick a still that doesn't show the table --
and behind him the curtain lifts to reveal "CRAIC DEALER" in giant letters across the entire backdrop.
There's a punchline for you.
But that's the beginning of the show, and the good stuff doesn't stop until the end, because it's Dara O'Briain, and he's got a lot to say, and he barely pauses to breathe. His delivery depends upon him, not upon the jokes alone. Just like Brian Regan, or Gabriel Iglesias, or Mitch Hedberg -- even him! A lot of his jokes depend on his completely deadpan delivery! -- or Christopher Titus, or Andy Kaufman, or Bill --
Ah. That guy.
When a comedian turns out
to be a goddamn monster, their stuff is hard to listen to. In comedy you can't
separate the art from the artist. The art IS the
artist. It's very difficult to do a cover version because you can't get someone else to deliver it
the same way when the entire gag depends upon who's telling it. Kind of like trying to cover
hip-hop. Both art forms depend upon the original
performer(s).Comedy moreso, because the art, the jokes, the entire thing, is about the performer. About the specific performer. I can't tell a Louis C.K. joke. Only he can do that. I can't tell a Gabriel Iglesias joke. Only he can do that. (Especially if Iglesias is talking about being Fluffy. I'm as skinny as a stick insect. I can hide in plain sight by turning sideways.)
Getting back to the issue of Punching Up --
On the face of it, the basic mechanisms of comedy
have nothing to do with specific politics of the moment, or whatever the
day says is courteous. But there is something to a liberal attitude
that lends itself to stand-up comedy in the same way it lends itself to
literature -- you have to have a good understanding of the world to make
good writing. You have to have a wide perspective and you have to know
how people work in order to be able to say something that reaches them.
Conservatism, especially in its post-2000 American variety, does not lend itself well to literature unless it also takes
the wide view, and besides G.K. Chesterton (and arguably J.R.R. Tolkien)
there aren't very many conservative authors who can manage this because
their conservatism valorizes the refusal to understand things. So for example, the modern crop of conservative
political cartoons, which have me constantly wondering if these artists
have any idea how their world works.
Now the other part of comedy that liberalism lends itself to is the idea that you don't take yourself seriously. If you're the comedian, you're not the Straight Man, you're the funny. You've got to know how to laugh at yourself, becuase if you don't, then you're just a clown, right? And that's where Conservatism falls down as well, because too much of it involves taking things much too seriously. Also where left-wing politics tends to stumble, and you get Social Justice Warriors. And they tell you to punch up, not down, but somehow the stuff made with that in mind doesn't always work.
Is comedy supposed to punch up or down then? Neither! It punches at. Yourself. Because you're a dumbass. Stop hitting yourself.
There is a reason some of the best comedians of the 20th century died by their own hand. All too often the Funny Guy was suffering great emotional pain and walling himself off from the support of his friends, by telling jokes. As if every comedian is Pagliacci after all. So many comedians have the friends they do because they're The Funny Guy -- how the hell do you get someone to understand your own pain when you're supposed to be the clown?
The most consistently amusing conservative writers I encounter are all on 4chan where half the time they're making fun of themselves.
The most consistently amusing liberal writers I find are on Tumblr where half the time they're making fun of themselves.
There's only so much you can laugh
before you start to worry about being able to be serious. Someone who
laughs literally all the time is kind of disturbing. I get worried
sometimes about being funny all the time. Makes me shiver a little bit.
Makes me wonder if I have substance, or if I'm just telling jokes to
cover the silence. Ha ha! Ha! Ha!
So I really don't buy it when someone defends
something by calling it funny. Funny stands outside right and wrong. If
something is wrong and it's funny, sometimes it's double funny. If it's
wrong and it isn't funny, then it has nothing going for it at all.
*swipes hand up face*
*glower becomes smile*
Laughter is worth it, to take the edge off of sharp times and sharp
thoughts. Sometimes there's nothing better for that than a good laugh. I wonder if the guy who spent five years tunelling out of his cell, only to discover he'd been tunelling towards the guards' break room, had a good laugh before he was tossed into solitary.
*swipes hand down face*
*smile becomes resting bitch face*
You can only laugh so much before you get tired. So why do I keep going back to Dara O'Briain? Even watching Mock The Week, just to see him and his reactions? Maybe because I know he can take the sharp edge off sharp things. O'Briain is funny without having to be a dumbass. Much less unsettling than thinking about your reguar clown.
Yeah I don't know. The dark side of comedy and all that. Disturbing topic. Somtimes reading about gory war crimes is less disturbing.
I hope O'Briain doesn't off himself like so many people do in his line of work.