comedy mask

Does this make you laugh?

A boss escorts his secretary into the office. He smiles as he asks her to sit; she is nervous, apprehensive. For good reason as it turns out, as he immediately tells her she’s fired. She begins to cry, defending her work ethic and attention to detail. His response is to giggle uncontrollably.

“Relax. It’s just a joke,” he says between giggles.

“You bastard!” she yells, “That’s not funny.”

I didn’t think it was either. Did you?

What I’ve just described is the opening bit in the original British version of The Office. The giggling boss was Ricky Gervais, the series creator. The humor in the rest of the program runs down pretty much the same path. Boss Gervais finds ways to be petty, vindictive and mean to his workers. The UK Office boss in is not at all the amiable dimwit Steve Carell played in the US version. Boss Carell is over-the-top absurd. Boss Gervais is cruel.

Forty years ago, Britain sent us the maniacally absurd Monty Python. Their humor wasn’t always easy to follow, but it was always self-sufficient. A situation was set up, an expectation was delivered. And then the rug was pulled out. What happened was a surprise, completely different than expected — absurd. Hence their catchphrase, “And now for something completely different.”

Men ride to the sound of coconuts clapping, instead of on a horse. A knight shrugs off the loss of his arms and legs as “a mere flesh wound.” Possibly cruel, but mostly irrational and unexpected, and therefore funny. It is the comedy of the Pythons and their forebears, the Marx Brothers.

That, to me, is humor, the best kind, anyway. It is hard work. Neither the Pythons nor the Marxes could keep it going forever.

But now we are in an Age of the Cruel.

Ricky Gervais’ humor is mostly about someone in power being aggressively cruel to someone weaker. In his new HBO series, he plays a retarded man. It doesn’t look funny to me. I did laugh when he hosted the Golden Globes. Because then he was tripping the stronger, not the weaker.

An old theory about humor is that we all enjoy seeing someone else in pain. The strong exploit the weak, aggression, revenge. I don’t buy it. I don’t laugh when I see someone get hit and neither do you. We call the cops.

Charlie Chaplin was historically a comic genius. Alistair Cooke said the biggest crowds he ever saw weren’t for FDR, the Pope, Elvis, or the Beatles but Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin movies are about a poor little tramp getting ousted by his betters. A bouncer throws him out of a restaurant. A rich guy throws him out of the parlor for wooing his daughter. And so on. Eventually Charlie gets his revenge by kicking his tormentors in the ass.

That’s pretty much The Joke in most Chaplin movies. He gracefully winds his stumpy little leg and delivers a roundhouse kick to his enemy’s butt. It was why W.C. Fields dismissed Chaplin as “a goddamn ballet dancer.”

Now, if you ever seen a Chaplin movie, did you laugh? No, you did not. If you did, we’d have a platoon of Little Tramps pushing Louie C.K. to the back of the bricks at The Comedy Cellar.

Aggression is an easy form of comedy. But as more and more venues for humor open up, online and televised, a void forms. Nature and Hoover abhor a vacuum, so it must be filled. It’s mostly filled by an aggression that borders on nihilism.

Nihilism is now the dominant form of American comedy. It’s impossible to estimate, but I estimate that 95 percent of everything you see on television is nihilistic. From South Park to Family Guy to even The Daily Show.

By nihilism I do not mean the 19th century Turgenevian radicalism that dismissed post-Tsarist political stratagems as insufficient in their ambition to redesign bourgeois-proletarian society.  And I don’t mean the moral ambiguity that results in the embrace of relativism, as supposedly preached by Nietzsche.

I mean the philosophy of 14-year-old punks.

The cry of the Nihilist is “All things are equal, nothing is of value.” It’s the sneer of the adolescent who looks at an achievement and says “So what?”

You’ve eliminated all childhood diseases that have plagued mankind for thousands of years? So what? Put an end to wars? So what? You’ve designed a city with buildings so environmentally sound they may transfigure human culture? So what? You’ve painted an exquisitely beautiful rendering of Madonna and Child? So what? You’ve founded a charity to end human misery and suffering? So what?

Like its twin Family Guy, South Park routinely degrades any and all beliefs as essentially equal and essentially meaningless. Not because the writers want to advance a Nietzschean “All truth is relative” agenda. They just think attacking is funny. Nothing is worth believing in. Nothing is funny.

Don’t mistake satire for nihilism — satire believes.

Satire has a long and distinguished history. I use it myself. In a free society it’s basically harmless. In an unfree society, like Egypt, Iran or Utah, it is subversive.

I have a theory of what real humor is. There is a scientific test to perform. It is scientific because it produces predictive and replicable results.

You will need a small child between three and four years old at a large social gathering, a birthday or a holiday feast.

The scientist approaches the wee child from behind while they are distracted by cake, taps them on the shoulder, then quickly turns away. The child turns to see who is trying to get its attention but––there’s no one there! Repeat this procedure once more. Pause so the child can see you. Then look away, thereby effecting the laboratory attitude termed “nonchalance.” Now make eye contact with the child. Smile. If performed correctly, the subject will likewise smile because she knows that you know that she knows that you are pretending to not know.

(CAUTION: This science only works once per child. Do not use a test subject over four as they wise up pretty fast.)

In that single instance of eye contact, across the void of existential consciousness and the chasm of age, two human beings have shared a complex social interaction without expressing a sound. A joke free of aggression, a small “pop” of irrationality. The genesis of funny.

An expectation is set up but not delivered. The fancy term for this is paraprosdokian, “in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase [or action] is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener [or participant] to reframe or reinterpret the first part.” (Wikipedia).

Irrationality is not the only source of humor, but I think it’s the best. And I don’t think I’m alone. But it’s hard work to write unexpected things. It’s easier just to attack.

by Lance Grider