The Science of Comedy
Tough gig here. A weekend in Key West holding forth on the subject of humor with a lot of funny people. A pundit's work is never done.
Actually, being earnest about humor is deadly – if you have to explain a joke, you kill it. Fortunately, the participants in the Key West Literary Seminar did little analysis and a lot of rock 'n' roll. Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury, is also a comic essayist on occasion and was once inspired by Real Life to write the results of an interview of Madonna conducted by a Hungarian journalist. He asked questions in Hungarian, she replied in English, then it was all translated into Hungarian and then re-translated back into English.
Q: Let us cut towards the hunt: Are you a bold hussy woman that feasts on men who are tops?
A: I am working like a canine all the way around the clock.
There was some agreement, I think, on the proposition that jokes, though often funny, are inferior to wit and storytelling as comic art forms. I could be wrong about that. I have always aspired to wit and rarely achieve it – I'm one of those people who always thinks of the right thing to say 20 minutes after the opportunity has passed. Well, sometimes, hours after, days even, OK, years too. I would love to be able to come up with the right line at the right time and am in some awe of those who can. Roger Rosenblatt, the somber essayist on the Lehrer NewsHour, turns out to be surprisingly good at this. One of my favorite examples of wit came during a game played by the Round Table set at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in the 1920s. They threw a word at you, and you had to use it immediately in a funny sentence. Dorothy Parker got "horticulture" and promptly said, "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her drink."
For those of us who are not so much wit-impaired as just awfully slow about it, the French, mais oui, have an expression for it. L'esprit de l'escalier, the spirit of the staircase, refers to the fact that the salons and ballrooms of great French houses are on the second floor, so that it is while descending the staircase as you leave that the perfect line comes to you, once again, too late.
Several speakers tried to tackle the slippery topic of if, when and why there are times when humor is either inappropriate or just cruel and vulgar. I am so sorry I missed the opportunity to hear the beloved Dave Barry on this subject. Barry, to the devastation of all his fans, has at least temporarily retired from column writing, though he says he may be tempted back if he gets a particularly good run of booger jokes or some exceptional exploding cows. May he become the Mme. Schumann-Heink of his time. Schumann-Heink was an opera singer who was famous in the 1920s for frequently coming out of retirement to hold yet one more final, farewell tour.
In my opinion, nothing is off-limits in theory, but in practice, the dicier the subject, the funnier the material has to be. For example, the Holocaust: not funny. Not even time and distance have produced any Holocaust humor (though Zero Mostel did once observe that the chicken fat at a particular New York restaurant had killed more Jews than Hitler). If you're going to be funny about the Holocaust, it is necessary to be a comic genius on the order of Mel Brooks, author of the immortal love song "It's Springtime for Hitler and Germany." Note that what Brooks is being funny about in the The Producers is not Hitler or the Holocaust, it is show business values. Since few of us are comic geniuses, we should not try this at home.
Among the tangentially political types at the conference, there was general agreement that 2004 was a lousy year for political humor. War too upsetting. Too many people mad, too many people ready to take offense. People couldn't talk politics without getting all red in the face and the tendons popping out in their necks and their wattles shaking like a turkey gobbler's (an old John Henry Faulk description). I think the only natural joke set-up of the whole year was the time President Bush told the Amish in the Midwest that God speaks through him. A thousand instant punchlines occur, for instance: Darn, I thought the Almighty knew how to pronounce the word nuclear.
Nora Ephron, the wit and filmmaker, is an incredibly skilled debater: she just says, "I'm right, you're wrong," and so she wins. She says the trouble with the last election was bad casting and that bad casting can ruin any film. She believes the Democrats should have cast Tom Hanks as the candidate, or possibly Tom Brokaw, although there was a disturbing rumor that Brokaw was recently booed in Oklahoma. If true, things are worse in the Red States than even I had believed, and it's time to race home before they get even worse.
I took up the storytelling banner just because I cover Texas politics and so have better material than anyone else. It's really hard to miss with the Texas Legislature for ammo. John Henry used to say, "You don't need new stories, you just need a new audience."
I think the best humor comes from character. You have surely had the experience of sitting with two friends who both know someone you don't. They start telling stories about this third person, which you find mildly amusing, but your friends are laughing so helplessly they have tears running down their cheeks. Finally, one says, "Oh, you would know how funny this is if you just knew him," which is always true. The virtue of a story is that they give you the time to set up character, time for a quick sketch of the players, a little background. You can't do that with witty one-liners, so that means real stories are the best. I'm right and you're wrong. So start saving your stories now.