That’s not me talking.
I’ll say it straight out for the record:
Alone by myself, I’m not always sure what’s funny.
The quote in the title is pulled from the article I mentioned yesterday about superstar sitcom director, Jim Burrows. In the article, Burrows makes that exact claim:
“I know what’s funny.”
I was going to move on today. I was going to write an important post about my near immobilizing fear of the new, giant bar of soap Dr. M has just placed in our soap dish in the shower. But that one will have to wait. I simply could not leave “I know what’s funny” without comment.
Bitterness Alert: Jim Burrows is stupendously successful, older than me, and still working in television. So there’s that. How much of “that” there is, coloring my angry response to “I know what’s funny”, I will leave to your sound judgment.
My fundamental claim is this:
Nobody knows what’s funny.
Not even Jim Burrows. Though he may be the closest to knowing.
My view on the matter is simple. It is not “If it’s funny, you laugh.” It is, instead, this:
“If you laugh, it’s funny.”
The audience’s laughter is… I’m not sure of the word, it’s more than a confirmation, or a validation, it’s that it’s the laugh that defines the “funny thing” as being funny. Without that laugh, all you have is a hypothesis, a guess as to what might be funny. An educated guess, if it comes from a professional, but a guess nonetheless. And only a guess.
You can’t know what’s funny. Because you can’t guarantee a laugh.
(Exception: All jokes about, or relating to, sex. In that case, clever or not, original or not, coherent or not, you are absolutely guaranteed a laugh. I used to stand on the stage, there’d be a sex joke, the audience would roar, and I’d turn around to them and say, “Shame on you.” They were just so easy. The sex jokes and the audience.)
The primary point here is this: “Funny” is not in the material. It’s in the receiver’s reaction to the material. I will give you one example, where the same material triggered two entirely different reactions.
The funniest book I ever read is the classic, anti-war novel, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. In Catch-22, the protagonist, Yosarian, demands to be dismissed from military service, on the grounds that he’s insane, but his claim is rejected, because a desire be released from military service is sane, and can therefore not serve as acceptable grounds for dismissal from military service. And it gets crazier from there.
My first reading of Catch-22, often while using public transportation, elicited uncomfortable looks from fellow passengers, due to my sudden – and frequent – thunderclaps of explosive laughter. There was no doubt in my mind. Catch-22 was unequivocally hilarious.
During the early years of my career, I would sometimes find myself unable to write. I had an assignment, but I couldn’t get down to it. Why? I didn’t feel funny. And if I didn’t feel funny, I was convinced that I couldn’t write funny.
“What would make me feel funny?” I pondered. What would put me in the mood? I know. I’ll read Catch-22.
I now had a plan. Catch-22 would get me laughing. The pump would be primed. And I would get down to work.
I opened Catch-22 at one of my favorite passages. It comes early. There’s a casualty in the hospital, encased from top to toe in a full body cast. You cannot see an inch of him. Beside his bed are two plastic bags of unspecified liquid, hanging from a metal pole, leading to two tubes, inserted in the patient’s body. One tube feeds the patient intravenously; the other collects the waste. When the feeding bag is empty, and the waste-collecting bag is full, a nurse comes into the room and switches the two bags.
The first time I read that scene, I almost literally fell on the floor. Which means, there I was on the bus, shrieking with uncontrollable laughter and actually thinking of falling on the floor, but stopping myself, because I felt it would be embarrassing to live out a cliché in front of strangers. So I remained in my seat. But I held on tight.
The second time I read that scene, seeking comic inspiration, the exact same material seemed, to me, disturbing and sad. It took me by surprise. The same words. Describing the same situation. The first time, side-splittingly hilarious; the second time, gloom inducing.
Turns out, the “funny” was not on the page. It was my reaction that made what was on the page funny. Or on the second reading, not.
Jim Burrows can say, “I know what’s funny.” Anybody can say anything. But I believe, to be totally honest, he can only claim this:
“I may not know what’s funny, but my extensive experience indicates that this joke or piece of physical “business” is very likely to elicit a laugh from the audience.”
The shortened version being:
“I know ‘funny’ when I see it.”
The even shorter version being:
A powerful reassurance in the uncertain world of comedy.
But no slam-dunk.
A professional evaluation is definitely persuasive. But in the end, it’s the audience, and the audience alone, that tells you what’s funny.
Recently. I took in the second episode of the new comedy Mike and Molly, directed by Jim Burrows. (Mike and Molly’s premier was the reason for the newspaper article.)
There was some sweetness to the two plus-sized leading characters, especially the male lead. And there was one moment where Molly, doped up on cold medicine on the couple’s first date, reaches over the table in a restaurant, and snatches a protruding hair from Mike’s nose that was deftly executed and caught me off guard.
But other than that, I didn’t laugh much.
It doesn’t matter what Jim Burrows thinks. Or what I think. Unless there’s an overwhelming number of “me’s” in the TV viewing audience. If there are, then the verdict is in:
Mike and Molly is not funny.