What is comedy? Comedy is something that is funny. But what makes something funny? Depends who you ask. What never changes are the underlying elements that make up a joke.
Tragedy is when I get a paper cut.
Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.
Nothing is funnier than seeing a person walk into a lamppost. Why? Because it didn’t happen to you. Laughter is a natural response, a giant “Whew!” But not all physical comedy has to be about concussions. Physical comedy at its best is an art form and no one did it better than Buster Keaton.
Buster wasn’t his real name. You wouldn’t name a kid Buster, like the poor kid would turn his head every time he heard, “Look here, Buster!”
His parents named him Joseph. Legend has it the great Harry Houdini called him “Buster” when he saw the toddler tumble down a flight of stairs with nary a scratch.
When it came to pratfalls, Buster was a natural. He started working in his parents vaudeville act at age five. The act involved his mother playing a saxophone and his father throwing him around the stage. Literally! He threw his own son around the stage and even into the audience. He really did! He launched him! And Buster lived!
Keaton learned very early that he could not be in on the joke, though. As a five year-old being tossed about, it was hard for him not to laugh. But he noticed the audience did not. No, he couldn’t enjoy his own downfall. Also, he could not lie on the ground screaming for a medic. Somehow he needed to succumb to and defy gravity all at once. And when he stuck the landing he needed a stone-cold response.
Comedy is about timing. It’s what separates the masters from the rest of us. Not many people have the ability to create a scene about a guy coming into town to look for work like this:
No stairs to leave the train, no newsstand to buy a paper, Keaton instead kicks off The High Sign with a plop in the dirt and a poach of want ads. The scene highlights what Keaton thought most important when doing comedy: be precise and always zag when the audience expects you to zig.
A sense of humor is common sense, dancing.
Another way to be funny is to look at the mundane and take it out for a spin like Mitch Hedberg’s thoughts on dry cleaning:
I walked by a dry cleaner at 3am and the sign said, “Sorry we are closed.”
You don’t have to be sorry. It’s 3am and you are a dry cleaner. It would be ridiculous for me to think that you are open.
I’m not going to walk in at 10am and say, “Hey man, I walked by at 3am and you were closed. Somebody owes me an apology.”
Sometimes comedy can be found by not looking at a situation through a distorted prism but a clear lens. Bob Newhart perfected this view with The Button-down Mind of Bob Newhart, the only comedy album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. The only one. Really! He beat Frank Sinatra. And lived!
How did he do it?
Before he was a standup comic, Newhart was an accountant, and he brought understated common sense to comedy routines like:
- A driving instructor trying to prevent a student from killing them both
- Abraham Lincoln sitting down with a Madison Avenue ad agency
- A night watchman calling his manager for there appears to be a rather large ape climbing the Empire State building
Then there is Sir Walter Raleigh trying to explain to his boss at The West Indies Company the many uses of the recently discovered tobacco leaf. In this routine Newhart follows a comedy golden rule – keep it simple. How? By having a telephone conversation where the audience only hears one side, the side of the confused boss who raises a legitimate question in regards to Raleigh’s recent purchase:
Now let me get this straight. You bought eighty tons of leaves? This may come as a kind of a surprise to you Walt, but come fall in England here we’re up to our…
Newhart never finishes the sentence for why bother when the audience is already laughing.
I used to think it was clever to confuse comedy with tragedy.
Now I wish I could distinguish them.
John Le Carre - A Murder of Quality
If you are looking for the gas to fuel comedy, look no further than Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” In the skit Bud Abbott tries to tell Lou Costello the nicknames of the players on a retirement-home baseball team. Here’s a partial list:
- “Who” is the name of the first baseman
- “What” plays second base
- “I Don’t Know” is on third
What ensues is a complete misunderstanding. Abbott is giving the players’ nicknames while Costello thinks Abbott is asking a question. It’s intricate. It’s precise. It’s insane for screwball comedy only works when all parties are completely in the dark. This is how we are introduced to Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski’s bowling partners, Walter and Donny in The Big Lebowski.
WALTER: This was a valued rug. This was –
DUDE: Yeah, man, it really tied the room together.
WALTER: This was a valued –
DONNY: What tied the room together, Dude?
WALTER: Were you listening to the Dude’s story Donny?
No he wasn’t. Donny doesn’t listen to Walter or The Dude and Susan certainly doesn’t listen to David in Bringing up Baby when she accidentally plays his golf ball and then tries to drive off with his car.
DAVID: What do you think you are doing?
SUSAN: I’m trying to unpark my car.
DAVID: This is my car.
SUSAN: Then would you mind moving it out of the way.
DAVID: No, no, this is my car.
SUSAN: Yes, I understand that.
No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t understand anything. David is a paleontologist trying to secure a grant from Mr. Peabody during a round of golf. Susan will waltz into his life, mistake him for a veterinarian; then ask for his help with a leopard her brother sent as a gift from Brazil.
Why a leopard? Why not? The plot doesn’t matter. The Big Lebowski will have a marmot swimming in a bathtub. Screwball comedies do not have to make any sense but they do need to fit together, not through any coherent story but through precise, air-tight dialogue.
DUDE: Walter, what’s the point?
WALTER: There’s no reason. Here’s my point. There’s no reason—
DONNY: Yeah, Walter, what’s your point?
DUDE: Walter, what is the point?
A repeated phrase is the anchor to keep any moment from spiraling out of control. It’s the one thing the David can hold onto as keeps reassuring Mr. Peabody that he will be with him even as he moves further and further away.
My favorite comedy is comedy where nothing is achieved and there is no point.
I find it easy to laugh at a polished routine, but I am moved to tears when a comedian moves towards improv. I don’t know why. There must be some behind-the-curtain moment when a comic creates a joke for the very first time.
It’s a dangerous assignment, though. Stand-up comics will rarely go on stage and completely free-form. Even improv troupes will hammer out routines before going on stage. Then there is Conan O’Brien who will gleefully work without a net.
When it comes to a comedy resume, O’Brien checks a lot of boxes:
- Writer for the Harvard Lampoon magazine
- Member of the Groundlings Improv group
- Writer for the Simpsons
- Writer for Saturday Night Live
- Talk Show Host (25 Years+)
What do all the accolades mean? O’Brien is a self-contained comedic unit. At any moment he can write, produce and bring a joke to life, instantly. Most will fizzle, but sometimes he’ll strike gold like when he when he visited the American Girl Store.
In this routine O’Brien takes something practical (a toy store for 10-year girls) and pairs it with the impractical (Middle aged man with a mop of red hair). No script. No rehearsals. It’s all performance as O’Brien selects an American Girl doll to have lunch with.
O’Brien picks a doll that like him has red hair, some skin damage and is prone to depression. Then he decides to name her Agnes Schvietzhoffer, a German National who illegally enters the United States. From there, he completely goes off the rails as Agnes becomes the dummy in his ventriloquist routine.
CONAN: Let’s do the gluten-free chicken tenders. What’s that?
AGNES: I don’t want it.
CONAN: You’re just going to have to have it. You can’t be this way every time –
AGNES: Don’t want it.
CONAN: You have to try something. You have to eat something.
AGNES: Want desert.
CONAN: You can’t have desert until you take three bites of the chicken.
At that point Agnes starts spouting German and pounding her tiny fist on the table like a tiny dictator. It’s a lightning strike, complete lunacy. It’s a moment all comedians seek and viewers will play over and over and…
The human race has only one real effective weapon - that is laughter
There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ movie, Blazing Saddles, where a henchman (Lyle) takes a railroad handcart to oversee a group of Black, Irish and Chinese laborers who are working on a railroad. The men are naturally lethargic under the desert sun. Lyle tries a pep talk:
Now come on boys. Where’s your spirit? I don’t hear no singing. When you was slaves, you sang like birds. Come on, how about a good ol’ n---- work song?
Right there! Right in the middle of a zany parody of the Old West Brooks takes on the ugly world of racism. And just when you think a riot is about to break out, Brooks zags:
But why? Why traverse political and cultural minefields just for laughs? Why would Brooks in his first movie The Producers build a plot around a Broadway musical called Springtime for Hitler?
As a Jew growing up in Brooklyn, Brooks had a straight-forward response. What’s the worst thing you can do to your oppressors? He believed it was to laugh at them, to insulate yourself with a wisecrack, to laugh to keep from crying, to deflate evil one joke at a time.
In high school I took an oral interp class. What’s that? It’s a drama class. But instead of acting with others, you do do the scene by yourself.
I took the second semester class with a bunch of guys who were only looking to fill a requirement, guys like Morgan, Todd and Quentin.
Since none of us knew the first thing about acting, the teacher, Ms. Spelts, brought in one of her prized pupils from the first semester class. He stood in the middle of the room with a scene from Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs in his hands. He was silent, eyes closed. Then Ms. Spelts told him to begin.
He launched into a scene with not two characters, but four, bringing them all to life, his voice, face, posture, his whole body changing with each role. He was brilliant. He was fantastic. He was well on his way to working on Broadway with an out-of-control cocaine habit. His performance was to be the highlight of the semester for none of us would be able to top his technical and emotional bravado.
Still, I liked the class. It was good to stand in front of others and get outside myself. I also liked how I could hold the typed scene in my hands and not memorize the lines. I didn’t even have to emote. Quentin never did. I don’t think he emoted a day in his life. He acted out a scene from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman like he was reading the instructions to a riding lawnmower.
Ms. Spelts didn’t care. She was happy we were willing to participate. She was the kind of teacher you want in a class like this. But when she told us the semester final would require two students and the scene would need to be memorized, everything changed.
I teamed up with Todd. We picked Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Todd would be Oscar and I would be Felix. There would be a fight and Oscar would take a plate of linguini and throw it into the kitchen (off stage). The problem was Todd didn’t. He didn’t remember the imaginary plate of pasta at all. He just stood there staring at me staring back at him.
I honestly don’t remember what happened, but somehow I stumbled into a comedy technique known as breaking the fourth wall.
The fourth wall is what separates the audience from the actors. To break through it is to acknowledge a world outside the scene, which Mel Brooks did in Blazing Saddles when his Western spilled onto the streets of Burbank, CA.
So what happened to our scene? All I remember is I somehow broke character with a word, a glance or an unrehearsed gesture. Then the class erupted. Laughter spilled all over the room and kept rolling and rolling, building into something beyond the original laugh, turning into a cathartic upheaval, a tidal wave where nobody could stop.
If I had to pick a moment where I laughed the longest and almost lost consciousness, it would be Monday morning, 8:32 am, oral interp class, semester final, my sides hurting, trying to catch my breath, everyone in tears except for one.
Ms. Spelts eyes darted around the room, unsure as to what was happening to her class. She may have been with us in body, but in spirit she was still with the first semester class, the class with the drama jocks who would help her win awards and sell out shows. To her I broke a golden rule of acting by not staying in character. She couldn’t understand why it was all so dang funny.
The reason she didn’t understand was due to her proximity. Ms. Spelts was on the outside of an inside joke, which is best kind of joke; a joke shared among comrades; a joke when asked what’s so funny, the only response is more laughter.
Todd, Quentin, Morgan and I were beyond any self control for we knew we were never going to master the dramatic chops of her first semester class or even this furry thespian: