Friday, October 8, 2010

"I Know What's Funny"

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:

“Trust me.”

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.


Neal said...

Could it be that the claim 'I know what's funny' is intended more as an internal boost, rather than a 'trust me, I'm a comedian' statement to reassure other people?

I could see how if you need to make decisions in a world where every tiny piece of minutiae (as opposed to those giant boulders of minutiae...) is analysed to death to try and extract the most comedy value, having an inner certainty that the decision you make is the right one is essential so you can move on. And if it doesn't get a laugh, you can always blame the audience.

The stereotype of writers is that they could spend an eternity debating whether using a moose or a skunk would be a funnier animal to have invading someone's yard in a scene, but somebody has to make that decision if it's ever going to be shot, and don't they have to believe they're right?

Oh and PS. You answered a question I left on here a while ago on pure comedy, so thank you for doing that.

Mark Caldwell said...

You have to be so careful with that laughing on the bus thing. I was reading a book and laughing at it and a woman in front of me was convinced I was laughing at something he'd said to her friend.

Of course after that it was really hard not to listen to what he was saying to his girlfriend since clearly that had to be funnier than a book. It was mostly about sex but not one word of it was funny (or instructive).

PG said...

I can't agree more with you about 'Mike and Molly'. BIG disappointment (get it?). I actually found it quite gross and offensive at times. Being fat doesn't automatically make you funny. This show is actually making fun of its characters, which is cruel and tasteless.

As for Mr. Jim, I guess everyone has to eat.

I still laughed OUT LOUD quite a few times at the new episodes of 'Modern Family'. Even the background reaction shots of the cast are amusing. Somehow, it avoids that set-up/punchline approach and just rolls along, deep in character revelation.

The kids are wonderful....and as soon as baby-Lily regains consciousness, I'm sure she will be funny too. (Have you ever known such a deadpan baby? Is she on tranquilizers? You were one of the first to try using a real baby in a TV sitcom, even before 'Full House'. You should write a little about that experience.)

Interesting people are funny!

And Nathan Lane?? Icing on the cake!

Joke said...

I have a finely calibrated Magic 8 Ball, so *I* know what's funny.

Dimension Skipper said...

Re the overabundance of sitcom sex jokes: "They were just so easy. The sex jokes and the audience."

THANK YOU for that!

Take the sex jokes out of 2.5 Men and you're left with the decimal point. And speaking of 2.5M, I wonder when they're gonna realize they need to re-title it 3 Men.

For whatever it may be worth to anyone I thought the 2nd ep of M&M was easily the weakest, but then I never really go for the "accidental drunk" storyline anymore. It's been done to death over the years.

I'm not lovin' M&M, but I think I do see some potential in it. It doesn't overly bother me like it appears to bother others w/regard to how the weight issues are presented and dealt with. (And I say that as someone who has lost 70-80 pounds---which was my goal---and subsequently kept it off for 5-10 years and counting now.) I've found a few chuckles in the show, but it's not appointment TV either, especially with 2.5M ahead of it plummeting to greater and greater depths of disgusting non-quality.

2.5M has become one of my inertia shows where I watch it just because I used to like it, got into the habit of watching it when it was good, and still wish it could somehow find its way back to its early days in style where it wasn't credits-to-credits sex jokes... at the same time knowing that's just not gonna happen. I know I should just cut my ties and abandon it and every week I keep wondering to myself why I haven't.

Unknown said...

It turns out that I am also guilty of laughing out loud surrounded by oblivious passengers.
Once, on the bus, I was reading A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When Pseudolus enters a scene exclaiming that he can provide the required sooth, a character asks "How did you know we needed a sooth?" Pseudolus replies, "I'd be a fine soothsayer if i didn't!"
I had to get off at the very next stop.
Another occasion leaps to mind.
I was flying an airplane...and was listening to Mel Brook's rendition of the title track of his film, "High Anxiety".
I was so shocked at the perfection of the Riddle-like chart (maybe it WAS by Nelson Riddle) that I laughed completely out loud...and because I was wearing a headset, I had no idea I was laughing out loud until my neighbour pointed it out to me...jabbed me in the ribs in a warm-hearted way! I got off the plane at the very next stop, too. Four hours later.

Unknown said...

Re: High Anxiety.
It was "Hey Ziety!" That did me in!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I see you very cleverly did not say YOU thought Mike and Molly isn't funny. I liked the pilot, mostly because I have no issue with the fat jokes (and agree with Burrows' statement: "Where else?"). Good comedy always acknowledges the obvious and not having characters make mentio of their own size would make it less truthful. But my main reason for liking it, is my liking the actor who plays the main character. I get the impression some commentators try to sell us the idea that some subjects are funny and others aren't (fatness, the conomy, foreigners). This leads to some very dumb decisions by networks. It's not the subject that makes a comedy, it's the execution.