Monday, February 8, 2016

"The Eternal Mystery... Or At Least One Of Them... At Least For Me"

I watch this documentary on TV recently and the question leaps once again to my consciousness, not, this time, a question I have already answered but I have forgotten I have already answered it because I’m old.  But a question I have never satisfactorily wrestled to the ground.

The documentary I am referring to is Showtime’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead – The Story of the National Lampoon.

And the still unanswered question for me is this:

What exactly does it mean when you say,

“That’s funny.”

If memory serves – and it occasionally does – I never read a single issue of the National Lampoon magazine.  I never heard them on the radio.  Nor did I see them on stage, or listen to any of their records.

So I am not an expert on the National Lampoon.

But I am aware of their reputation.  And I, as mentioned, experienced the documentary.  I may have dozed off a little at the end because the thing finished at one A.M. so what do you want from me?  

I do, however, recall numerous comedic selections from the documentary that I did not find in any way identifiable with my personal understanding of the word…


This documentarial evidence provided a direction for my inquiry.  It turns out to be a “dead end”, but few investigations proceed comfortably in a straight line, “wrong turns” being virtually inevitable.  The “dead end” in this case is the following:

“A thing is funny is when Earl Pomerantz says it’s funny.”

That answer is incorrect.

It is apparently bigger than that. 

Though, as to a more accurate answer, I remain entirely in the dark.

Allow me to provide an example from the Lampoon documentary that came nowhere close to tickling my funny bone.

One of the revered Founding Writers for the National Lampoon (who went on to become the original head writer for Saturday Night Live, a position for which I myself was once considered… but that has nothing to do with this story) was Michael O’Donoghue.

There is a memorable O’Donoghue offering involving what it might sound like if longtime CBS variety-show host Ed Sullivan were to have steel needles inserted into his eyes.  Agonized screaming, it turns out, is what it would sound like.

A lot of people thought that was funny. 

I personally did not.

Pointing to the diametrical opposite of my original question.

“For a joke to be funny – and I am using the word “joke” as an ”comedic umbrella” covering everything from a stand-alone punch line to a conceptual premise – is it necessary for everyone to believe that it’s funny?” 

That is kind of a rhetorical, and, if there is room for it to be something else as well, also a disingenuous question.  Why?  Because there is nothing everyone believes to be funny.

“Don’t talk to me about two noses.  My brother has two noses.  And his life, believe me, is no laughing matter.”

Trust me, because I’ve been there.  As hard as you may try not to offend, every joke will inevitably upset somebody.  Putting the “universal” criterion for what’s funny unequivocally “off the table.”

The next question is, hopefully, better.  It should be.  I have had some preparatory practice.

My hopefully better question is,

“If not “everybody” has to find a joke funny for it to be considered funny, exactly how many people – or an approximate number even – would have to find a joke funny before it is declared certifiably and indisputably funny?”

Now that I think of it, that is a somewhat disingenuous question itself.  Or at least a provocative question in its own right.  Because the answer to that question – at least the one that comes immediately to mind – is,

“Gimme a break, will ya?”

Which, coincidentally, speaks precisely the problem I am driving at.

I realize there can be no determinative “number” establishing a joke as undeniably funny.  But where exactly, I am querying, is the “Dividing Line”?

Sliding sideways for a moment, there is a practical element to this conundrum.  For example, Lorne Michaels is the Executive Producer of Saturday Night Live.  To the question, “How many people have to find a joke funny for it to appear on Saturday Night Live?” the irrefutable answer is…


Lorne Michaels.

But that’s a “power” answer, not an existential answer.  (And I am not sure I am using “existential” correctly.)  By which I mean this.

A joke appears on Saturday Night Live because Lorne Michaels determines that joke to be funny.

But Lorne Michaels, like Earl Pomerantz, is a one person, albeit a person with more determinative power than Earl Pomerantz.  But what does that matter?  Lorne Michaels is still just one person.  And as it has been heretofore stipulated:

One person’s reaction – no matter how high or low on the hierarchical food chain  can not and does not make a proposed and purported joke funny.  (Although it can get it on Saturday Night Live.)

This brings us “full circle”, although no closer to the answer.

What appears to be true is that, although there is at least a theoretical number, a number above “one person” but less than “everybody” that defines a joke as being incontestably “funny”, even I, a longstanding professional in the comedic arena, have no clue whatsoever as to the nature or specificity of that number.

At this point – or maybe earlier even – you may be screaming at your computer screen, “Comedy is subjective!  (The words “You idiot!” being easily understood.)  Of course you can decide for yourself whether a joke is funny or whether it’s not.   But that just makes that joke funny or not funny to you.  (Again, one person.)  This gives you the answer to my question, but does very little for me.

If no specific or even “ball park” aggregation of people determines definitively what’s funny, what I am asking you to ponder and perhaps enlighten me with your conclusion, is…

 What does?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Not sure I can answer *this* question of yours, but having seen STEVE JOBS last week I'm now in a position to answer an earlier one. The movie didn't do well because it's boring. Endless yapping with the only real source of tension whether ol' Steve is going to get on stage on time.

Plus, of course, a substantial dollop of disregard for facts. I wish they'd make fiction instead of fictionalizing reality.


FFS said...

I find it hard to believe that even Lorne Michaels finds some of the sketches funny. In the old days we just suffered through but thanks to technology we can fast forward.