Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"Why I Do Not Teach Comedy Writing"

During the Cold War, a comedian told this joke on The Ed Sullivan Show, premised on the deadly competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Russians were kicking our butts in the “Space Race”, rocketing monkeys into the stratosphere and being an estimated two years ahead of us in their development.  At the same time, there was serious concern about Soviet spies pilfering our secrets. 

The comedian’s joke on the subject:

“The Russians are stealing our secrets?  I say, ‘Let ‘em.’  Then they’ll be two years behind.”

Without embarrassingly overhyping myself, I believe I could definitely teach writers how to write successful comedy for 1989. 

Then they’d be twenty-six years behind.

Why, he inquired redundantly, would they ever want that?

I agree there is a teachable common denominator to good comedy.  It has to be truthful and it has to be funny.  The problem is, the essential nature of what those words are describing has changed.

A startling “Truth” of the past is now thuddingly “Duh!”  And as hard as I try – and I recently watched two Inside Amy Schumer episodes and one Hannibal Buress and laughed at none of them – although I have always taken pride in “getting”, I sadly do not “get” comedy today. 

Because it has changed.  (And I haven’t.  Which I shall rationalize shortly.)

Today’s comedy is fundamentally different.  Notice that I am not saying “worse” – paraphrasing ventriloquist Senor Wences, “For you, hilarious; for me, “I don’t get it.” – it is simply and essentially different.  “DNA-caliber” different.  Not just the externals. 

I was unaware that innate responses to things could mutate.  Sneezing is the same – you smell pepper, you sneeze.  There is also a reliability to your reaction to pulchritude. 


What you laugh at continually varies. 

Why?  Because of an incompatibly altered sensibility, some rearrangement in the processing system making current comedy indecipherable to an “Old Brain” and the comedy of the past incomprehensible to a new one.  (That’s why I can’t change.  You can only have one brain.)

What exactly is different?


The distinct use of language.  The speeded-up thinking process, the reflexive leaps in understanding.  What is considered a joke versus what is perceived as “too jokey.”  What’s surprising – and therefore laugh inducing – and what isn’t.  The comedic “engines” underlying the storytelling.

All of them… 

Not the same.

A random example.  This one goes back a ways, but it is illustrative. 

I refer you to a classically constructed episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show entitled “That’s My Boy???”, considered exceptional, as it kicked off the “Van Dyke” show’s third season.

Rob and Laura Petrie bring home their newborn son Richie from the hospital.  Due to an escalation of evidence, from “because he didn’t look the same in the crib” to the fact that flowers, intended for the “Peters”, had been mistakenly delivered to the “Petries”, hyper-anxious new mother Laura becomes convinced that the hospital has given them the wrong baby.  Laura badgers Rob into contacting the Peters so they can ameliorate the mix-up, and in episode’s payoff, the Peters come over to the Petries’ house, and they’re black.

Focus exclusively on the issue of “generic comedy.”  (This was 1963.  “Civil rights” was still on the horizon.)  From the unilateral perspective of generic comedy, with its impeccable structure – its believable (for its era) premise, its accumulating complications, and its climactic – you did not see it coming – resolution…

You could teach “That’s My Boy???” in a comedy writing class.

Not anymore.

“So they’re African-American.  What’s funny about that?”

Today, nothing.  It may even feel condescending.  But back then, it was explosively “through the roof.”

If I were in contact with Lorne Michaels, who has presided over an evolution in comedy ranging from “The Coneheads” to “What are yew doing here!?!”, the question I would ask him – after “Why I haven’t heard from you for forty years?” – would be, “How can you, a seventy-year old man, continue to evaluate ‘What’s funny?’”

To paraphrase Butch Cassidy:

I can’t do that.  Can you do that?  How can he do that?”

That’s why I don’t teach comedy writing. 

What helpful advice could I give them other than “Keep doing it”?

Which I can tell them right here. 

Everything else would put them twenty-six years behind.

Or, possibly,

Even further.


The Beat Makers said...

Great article....thanks

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Earl...I hate so much to say this, but I think you have the plot of that DVD episode slightly wrong: it's Rob who becomes convinced the baby has been swapped. Laura is going along perfectly happy, while Rob becomes more and more obsessed with his theory.

That said, it's worth noting that the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW still entertains audiences today. Last year, Ken Levine conducted a poll on his blog, and it was voted the best sitcom of all time (personally, I voted for YES, MINISTER, which was not only brilliantly written and acted and outrageously funny but *also* changed how an entire nation understood the inner workings of its government). People still laugh at the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, the Carol Burnett Show skits (people watch today the same movies Burnett and crew made fun of then - and still laugh at their spoofs), and much else from the history of TV and film. *Topical* humor dates badly, which is why the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW is still funny (even if the punchline in your episode is no longer the shock it was, the build-up of watching Rob get more and more anxious as Laura bonds with the baby still works, as does the tag), but ALL IN THE FAMILY or MAUDE probably don't.

In the era that produces TRANSPARENT, I find it hard to believe you couldn't write *a* successful character-based 30-minute show. You have often written that one of your recurring themes is the fish-out-of-water. In what era is that not relevant?


JED said...

I'm not in show business and I'm not a writer but I'm a pretty good amateur musician and I think of all the musicians I know who were classically trained that later go into different genres. There isn't much that changes styles as fast as music. Learning the classics and using classical teaching methods is still respected as a way to learn music in the first place. It doesn't mean you're going to be a classical musician the rest of your life but it's a great jumping off place.

Studying Bach can still teach you a lot about how to change keys gracefully. And listen to Oscar Peterson in jazz and just imagine how long he practiced his two-octave scales.

I think you'd make a good teacher, Earl. You would teach more than just how to tell a joke.