Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"What I Like"

Yesterday, in an exploration of what it means to be old-fashioned, I offered my view of comedy’s current direction, ipso facto, situations wherein the audience laughs at the pain induced upon the central character (The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm) or the pain the central character induces upon others (Borat, the “remote” interviews on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.)

The recipe is simple. You torture somebody – emotionally – and the audience laughs.

I’m not in that. I’m not saying I’m a better person for not engaging in such laugh-getting techniques, I just don’t find them funny. I find them “ow-ey.”

It may be that, in the past, I’ve found myself being the target of the pain inducement – pledging a High School fraternity comes to mind – and I never cared for it. (I actually resigned from the pledging. The enticement of “When you’re a member, you can torture pledges” didn’t quite win me back.)

As a result of personal experience, when I’m trying to come up with funny situations, the pain-inducing option never comes to mind, relegated instead to a file labeled, “I Can’t Imagine That Ever Being Funny.” Such delineations, in the current comedy environment, classify me as being old-fashioned.

Well, okay, “Saint Earlo.” What is it then that you find funny?

Fair question, Mr. Italics. And I’ve been thinking about that. You have to offer an alternative. I don’t want to be grump, grump, grumplestiltskin, grouchity, grump, grump, grouchity, grump, grump, grump. I don’t want to be the Mr. Wilson of comedy. “Hey, you kids, come back here with my career!”

What’s my alternative approach? What other comedy option can I provide to today’s audience with the proposal, “I know there’s that, but what about this?”

I don’t want to give examples of movies and TV shows I found funny. I’ve done that already. I want to go beyond examples, to the heart of the matter. The fundamental core of the comedy. The wellspring of the hilarity. The underlying source. I’m talking “Down There.” Below the surface.

So here we go. My Kind of Funny. As best as I can communicate it. Today. (Not that the “kind of funny” will change, but I may find a better way of communicating it.)

Maybe it’s because hockey season just started, or because I’m going to Toronto at the end of the week, or maybe it’s just what floated up from my unconscious, but when I imagined how best to describe my comedic impulse, what fluttered into my awareness was ice-skating.

Stay with me. (And dress in layers.)

Here we go.

You step out on the ice. Not some big, fancy, schadenfreude guy with his custom built equipment. You. “Mr. Ordinary Person.” Going for a skate. You take your first stride.

You fall on your ass.

You’re embarrassed, maybe bruised, but, generally, okay. You pull yourself up, you dust the ice chips off your pants, you’re ready to go.

You take a stride. It’s tentative, but you’re fine. You take a second, slightly steadier stride. “Hey, not bad. I’ve got my bearings now. I’m okay.” Your confidence is beginning to build. You take your third stride.

You fall on your ass.


You look around. “How come everyone else here can skate and I can’t?” That can’t be, you just won’t allow it. You pull yourself up, you dust the ice chips off your pants, you take a breath, you take a stride.

It’s okay.

You take another stride. Then another. Then another.

Smooth sailing.

Your body’s remembering what this skating thing is all about. You’ve got your balance now. You’ve got your rhythm. You’re got your natural, repetitive motion. Look at that.

“Mr. Skater Man.”

It’s starting to feel easy. You’re picking up speed. The wind’s catching in your hair. You flash on Bobby Hull, “The Golden Jet”, whose locks flew skyward as he rocketed down the ice. A megawatt smile illuminates your face.

“Go, ‘Mr. Skater Man!’ Go!”

The end of the rink comes up quickly. It’s time for the turn.

You lose control, and crash into the boards.

You’re down again. The third time in as many minutes. It’s a definite low point; they’re skating around you. Then you remember. You’ve been down before. And when you tried it again, you got better and better. Only one thing to do.

You pull yourself up, you dust the ice chips off your pants, you steady yourself, and you take your first stride.

You lose your balance and take the biggest “flopperoo” of them all.

That’s skating.

That’s life.

And that, to me, is the essence of comedy.

Old-fashioned? I guess it could be, but I can’t see why? People are still skating, and they’re still falling on their asses.

And they’re still getting back up.

What am I missing?


Nicklaus Louis said...

Long time reader -- first time commenter.

I guess I don't see how this is any different than the uneasy comedy of "The Office". You're still laughing at someone's pain, are you not? In fact, this seems like a perfect joke for "The Office". I can actually see this happening to one of the characters (to bad they showed how good a skater Michael Scott is in Season 2).

I don't see how we are not laughing at the pain or embarrassment induced by the guy falling down. Is the funny part the getting up? Not really. The funny part is that no matter how hard he tries, he keeps busting his ass. Which is exactly why watching Michael try to woo a female...or why watching Dwight try to one up Jim...or watching Andy try to plan the perfect wedding for Angela so funny -- they keep busting their asses.

Nicklaus Louis said...

BTW, I don't mean to come off sounding snotty -- I just don't see a difference.

Anonymous said...

I think I see the difference. I believe you are talking about the optimism in getting up over and over. Or the hope in learning more each time. Not the pain and embarrassment of falling down. If your comedy depends on the pain, it's just painful. But we all thrive on hope and optimism. Therefore hope is funnier. I'm not sure I've communicated this well. Am I close?

Nicklaus Louis said...

If that is the case, then I don't think you can say "The Office" isn't optimistic.

Look at the current situation between Michael and HR Rep Holly -- the moments between them are awkward and sometimes painful, but you can see that there is a chance for them to someday end up together...if you're optimistic.

Even in the uncomfortable comedy between Dwight and Jim, there is a lot of optimism. There was an episode in Season 3 where it was shown that Dwight and Jim work well together as a team. I think Jim is always trying to make Dwight cooler, and Dwight is always trying to make Jim more, I don't know, Schrute-y.

I will wholeheartedly agree with the lack of optimism in "Borat" and even in most episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm".

Maybe I'm just a huge "The Office" fan that doesn't feel like my favorite sit-com should be thought of as simply about the pain being "induced upon the central character". I really feel like what makes "The Office" stand out are the moments we see through the humiliation and see the humanity of the characters.

One of my favorite scenes of the entire series is in the second season when Michael has to fire someone then goes home and hands out candy to kids on Halloween. That's when I fell in love with the show -- here's a guy who has a horrible day in which he fires one guy, then has that guy talk him into firing someone else, then has everyone get pissed off at him and tromp out to have a "hate the boss" get-together at a bar, then goes home and hands out candy to trick-or-treating kids. That's the epitome of "still getting back up".

Anonymous said...

Doesn't sound like you're missing a thing...except Toronto. Looking forward to a recap of the highlights.

Keith said...

I think the difference is that Earl doesn't like malice. Misery is enjoyable when the victim is also the cause of it. When the victim is the target of another, less enjoyable.

Nicklaus Louis said...

OK, that sheds a little light on it.

I can see why someone would not like a character being the butt of another character's joke or the target of malice.

But I would still maintain that most of the misery heaped upon the characters of "The Office" is generated by their own actions.

Webs said...

It's sort of like being a Leafs fan.

(Go Habs!)