SHUT UP AND LAUGH: or how I learned to stop worrying and love comedy
Comedy is not important. I was informed of this a few years ago when a Local Theatrical Luminary (LTL for short) put his hand on my shoulder and in a voice rich with authority said to me, “Joseph— er, I mean, Joshua— I like you. You do funny work. But I think it’s time you did something important.”
Wait, I thought, is he saying what I think he’s saying? That important and funny are mutually exclusive? And is he really touching my shoulder like some 1950s man dad?
As if reading my mind, the LTL gave me a solemn yet powerful nod. I was outraged. I wanted to eviscerate his pompous assertion with a double jointed display of mental agility… or at the very least cry bullshit and slap him one with the business end of a rubber chicken (which is actually either end – how sweet is that?) but so hypnotic was his Local Theatrical Luminescence that instead of arguing I returned his nod, silently accepting his ominous prophecy; it was time for me to do something important.
I spent the rest of the day kicking myself. How could I agree with him like that? Was I that much of a cliché— the insecure comedian desperate for the approval of my self-proclaimed betters? Shrouded in the shame of my acquiescence, I vowed two things:
- To never again use the phrase “shrouded in the shame of my acquiescence.”
- To show the LTLs of the world that comedy was just as important as legitimate theater and by legitimate theater I mean boring shit that’s not funny.
Here was my plan: I would force myself to create the kind of comedy that makes LTLs roll over and pee on themselves. A work of truly important comedy— important because it would be smart comedy, no wait, it would be more than just comedy, it would say something, something important, something… wait for it… dark and true about the human condition! Then, when I finished my Magnum Bottle of Opus, I would unveil it to the world… every Wednesday in March at the Bryant Lake Bowl! Boom! In your face, LTL!
Here was my problem: writing this work of Truly Important Smart More Than Just Comedy That Said Something Dark and True About The Human Condition meant turning my back on at least two of my long held beliefs. The first one was this: smart comedy is bullshit.
“Smart” is the adjective of choice whenever an LTL gifts a work of comedy with his or her praise (although so far it’s always “his”). This is a backhanded compliment of epic proportions. The only reason to label comedy as “smart” is to delineate it from the rest of comedy, which, by implication, is not smart. When was the last time you heard someone talk about “smart” ballet or “smart” chamber music? Even mime (the most hated art form on the face of the planet, people!) is never subjected to this kind of caustic compliment. Why? Because we give other arts the benefit of the doubt— they enjoy the presumption of intelligence while comedy gets stuck with the burden of proof. In short, comedians must accept the laws of a kangaroo court and defend their I.Q.s against a predetermined verdict of You’re Stupid.
But what exactly is smart comedy? My definition requires an apology to Mel Brooks:
“Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die. Smart comedy is when you make an allusion to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam then fall down an open sewer and die.”
See how it works? Some schmuck dropping to his death in fecal sludge makes you snicker while Omar Khayyam makes you momentarily smug about all that money you wasted on an English major. In fact, a lot of what LTLs dub “smart” comedy could be better described as “higher education” comedy.
It’s been fifteen years since I left school and in all that time comedy is hands down the most practical application I’ve found for an otherwise useless Liberal Arts Degree (or as I like to call it Jack of All Arts Master of None). But does my smattering of knowledge in a jumbled assortment of arts and sciences really make me smart? I don’t think so. Sometimes it makes me feel smart, particularly when performing for an audience who shares the same smattering of knowledge in the same jumbled assortment of arts and sciences. The only important knowledge in comedy is shared knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you’re telling a joke about Jersey Shore or quantum mechanics. If you and the audience don’t share the same knowledge, the joke is over.
For example, I’ve never watched Jersey Shore. All I know is that it features a person named Snooki and, based on my areas of knowledge, the name Snooki sounds like a dim witted chum of Bertie Wooster. “I say, old bean, that Snooki Wimbelton-Pipps is one long scream from start to finish, what?” This is hilarious to me and maybe to you unless of course you’re asking yourself, “What the hell is a Bertie Wooster?” In that case, I’m screwed. We don’t share the same knowledge. If I were truly smart I’d watch an episode or two of Jersey Shore before making a joke about it but I have this crazy theory that if I never turn on the TV, Jersey Shore can simultaneously be a popular reality show and a finely crafted adaptation of the Drones Club stories by P.G. Wodehouse. See how I did a Schrödinger’s Cat thing and worked my way back to quantum mechanics? Speaking of which, here’s one of my favorite jokes:
Werner Heisenberg gets pulled over for speeding. The cop says, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg says, “No, but I know where I am!”
Now is that smart comedy? Or is it simply physics comedy? And if you don’t understand physics comedy does that make you dumb or merely sexually active? Like Heisenberg, I’m uncertain. At my most cynical I suspect all this smart talk is nothing more than the Emperor’s New Joke and what theater in this town really needs is a few more drunks in the audience willing to stand up and shout, “Hey, Brainiac— we can see your dong!”
Of course, the only way to poke a hole in that pompous windbag of an LTL was to stay off the sauce and embrace “smart” comedy. Could I do that? Could I sacrifice my own self-respect for the begrudging respect of someone I never respected in the first place just to prove comedy was important? Oh hell yes. This was personal now. I’d show that LTL what comedy was made of if it was the last funny thing I did.
More than just comedy
All I had to do was violate one more of my long held comedy beliefs and victory would be mine! This was a hard one though. It required me to do “more than just comedy” and I’ll tell you right here right now nothing in the theatrical world irks me quite like the dismissive phrase “more than just comedy.” Nine times out of ten this phrase is used in the following context:
ME: (laughing and a little drunk) Ha! Ha! That was a funny show!
LTL: (stroking the spot on his chin where he used to have a goatee in the nineties) Yes, but it was more than just comedy… It really said something.
ME: (still laughing because I think it’s a joke and of course I want to be in on it because I’m a comedian and still a little drunk) Yeah, something dark and true about the human condition… Ha!
LTL: (blinking audibly) Yes.
(Slow fade on awkward silence.)
Again, comedy is praised for distinguishing itself not from poorly crafted comedy but from comedy as a whole. “Just comedy” is all comedy— a form so base and pedestrian it’s below the perception threshold of an LTL’s heightened aesthetic senses. Only when comedy becomes “more than just” is it palatable and worthy of cautious endorsement.
A contemptible premise indeed.
ALL comedy says something dark and true about the human condition. I don’t care if it’s Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or a YouTube video of some fat kid farting the 1812 Overture. Actually, I think the farting kid says more. Every time we laugh at flatulence we’re really laughing at the strange and disturbing machinery of our own bodies. We are wonderfully and fearfully made, yes, but one day we’ll be unmade and that knowledge lurks at the heart of every joke, every laugh, every absurd bodily function. We don’t whistle past the graveyard, we lift a cheek and let one rip.
So that was the test. Bullshit or not, I could pass myself off as a slick purveyor of smart comedy, no problem. I’d just fall on my ass and call it Movement Theater. Bam! Smart! The real question was could I actually betray my chosen form of expression by claiming to be more than just comedy?
Melodramatic crapola, I told myself. I’m not betraying anything. At worst, I’m playing a prank on a bunch of pseudo-intellectual penis pullers. Once I’d finagled my way into their inner circle jerk I’d reveal myself as a comedy true believer. Then I would use my newfound importance to change the way comedy is perceived. I would educate the masses. I would be king and jester. My reign would be equal parts benevolent and hilarious. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Before I could e-mail the Bryant Lake Bowl to lock down a date for the world premiere of my Truly Important Smart More Than Just Comedy That Said Something Dark and True About The Human Condition I inadvertently became embroiled in a conversation with another LTL. Not the same LTL who foretold my imminent ascension into important theater but a distinguished and much lauded LTL all the same. Giddy with anticipation, I let slip my plans. This is what the LTL told me, his voice heavy with the burden of truth:
“Nobody in the theater community will ever take you seriously if you keep performing at the Bryant Lake Bowl.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the deal breaker.
I’ll give up my integrity, sure. And my principals— those were just holding me back. But the Bryant Lake Bowl? Over my drunk body. What other theater in this insecure over compensating red headed stepchild of a metropolitan area embodies the comic spirit more than the Bryant Lake Bowl? The crash of bowling pins, the bussing of dishes, the Doppler effect of police sirens as they whip down Lake Street—rapturous chaos, my friends! And there’s food! Really good food! Where else can you make your audience laugh so hard that free-range organic bison comes out their nose? And booze! Booze makes everything funnier— it’s the MSG of comedy! Fact! And holy shit there’s an emergency exit onstage— ONSTAGE, PEOPLE! How awesome is that!?! And then there’s Kristin and Bryon and Kia and Barb and a whole bevy of super hot waitresses and when you don’t strike your show fast enough you get trampled by a rampaging herd of dykes in drag and you know what? I LOVE THEM ALL!
It was a rare moment of clarity— the silence before a storm that embarrasses the weatherman by passing over and not really being a big deal after all. My LTL was right. Comedy is not important.
Comedy is not important
Comedy is ordinary. Everyday. Familiar. Life is lousy with comedy. First dates, job interviews, family holidays, trying on new pants. Comedy doesn’t need a big expensive theater with some super fancy unobstructed view of the stage. It doesn’t need an audience of overly educated Mensa members who ruin the aforementioned view with their huge, bulbous heads. It doesn’t need to justify every poo joke and it certainly doesn’t need a condescending pat on the back for every Code of Hammurabi joke. You know what comedy does need? It needs you to shut up and laugh.
So to all you Local Theatrical Luminaries I say thanks for the feedback. I appreciate your concern but I’m perfectly content to do nothing more important than make a room full of people laugh. Don’t worry, though, I’ll be sure to invite you to my next talkback. Bring your bowling shoes.