Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Laugh a Minute With John Lennon

**I'll give credit to anyone who can tell me where the title of this blog originates from in Beatles lore.

We can all thank our parents for a variety of things. We can thank them for our good looks, our bad looks, our low self esteem, our sense of confidence and many, many annoying moments that are somehow brought to an equilibrium with the endearing ones that come to mind when you are far away from them. What I can always thank my parents for is the strange attention I have towards what is actually funny.  My parents are not particularly “funny” people. They have moments of comic genius, sure, but moments do not make a person funny—it requires a greater prolonged commitment and torture.  However, what my parents constantly reminded me of (and continue to remind me of) is the fact that I should write comedy.  When it became quite clear I would only want to write and would do whatever it took to write, my parents were naturally worried.  They didn’t want me becoming a completely serious (self-serious?) destitute. So, they would remind me that I was in fact funny and could write funny things.  We would watch Saturday Night Live, various Late Shows or a funny movie and they would say, “You could write something like that.”  For so many years, I took their encouragement as the greatest form of insult they could possibly toss at me, knowingly or not. It should have been clear to my parents of all people that I was the heir apparent to the most serious of artists; that my vision burned stronger, my heart beat more wildly; my desire for independence was so fervent that I could do nothing but create sprawling works of intense brilliance.  Yet, it is after years of being with friends who are varying degrees of funny, making jokes at the expense of adults and other bystanders and paying attention to works of comedy that exhibit the many perspectives of what is funny, that I realize how important it was that my parents repeated their mantra.  I don’t think I am capable of creating anything that is truly funny or that could be enjoyed any group of people beside myself—I simply don’t have that kind of talent or patience for finding the joke.  However, with my own sense of humor, I believe that I have learned to enjoy deeply what things are funny.  And, sometimes simply enjoying a thing or virtue is one of the hardest defeats we have to admit in life.

I eventually want to write a book about humor (just as I want to write the definitive book on Dwayne Wade), but the easiest way for me to present my ideas here is to start with a sketch by the 1990s’s comedy group, the State.  The comedians in the State and all of their subsequent works have been perhaps the most profound impact on my idea of what is funny (especially acting-wise).  Very often, this involves the most juvenile or simple joke and even more frequently, it involves the most absurd.  The State sketch I want to refer to is called “The Restaurant Sketch.” In this particular sketch, we are shown the comedian David Wain in a restaurant.  He speaks to a waiter, played by Ken Marino, in a normal voice, but the waiter acts as though he is shouting, as do the other restaurant goers. Marino comes back to the table with a megaphone and begins reciting the specials in order to combat Wain’s supposed yelling.  At this point, Wain turns to the camera and explains that the scene is funny because he is not actually yelling.  Wain explains that anything that isn’t true is funny and anything that is true isn’t funny.  He gives a few examples of this logic, like the waiter saying one of the specials is, “fish sautéed in paper clips, seasoned with garden tools.”  The waiter explains that they don’t serve it, which makes it by nature something funny to say.  Wain then turns to the diner behind him (played by the always amazing Michael Showalter) and tells the man to ask him what he had for breakfast.  Wain replies, “eggs,” and the man immediately laughs.  We are told this is funny because Wain actually had waffles for breakfast, not eggs.  Wain then tells the man to ask him the same question about his breakfast. This time, Wain replies that he had “waffles” and the man looks disgusted and disappointed because “waffles” aren’t funny since Wain actually had eggs.  Then, Wain welcomes in a person dressed in a chicken costume who is wearing a priest’s collar and who opens a book and says, “Please open your hymnals,” as though he were a priest.  This is funny because it is a chicken acting like a priest inside a restaurant.  However, Wain reveals this isn’t funny because he is actually in a church and the backdrop immediately changes to a church, so what was actually funny was anything that was in reference to a restaurant. Yet, Wain further reveals that even the church references were funny because they were actually in his bedroom the whole time and he promptly crawls into bed, “with the knowledge that this has all been very funny.”  He then says, “Good Morning,” curls up in bed as all the actors in the different scenes laugh behind him since he said “good morning,” when he was going to bed. Clearly, this entire sketch features the State exhibiting all facets of their craft: stupidity, pointlessness, puerility, absurdity and yet still something influential.  What this whole sketch points out is that it can be very pointless to try to boil down or define what is funny, because literally everything that isn’t true isn’t funny, though an obvious example like Wain stating the opposite of what he had for breakfast, a very normal breakfast like eggs, is made funny because of the absurdity of the simplicity of this “formula.” What makes this sketch more than trivial is that fact that we do often find something that isn’t true, that isn’t normal funny.  An infant thinks its funny when you hide your face and then pop it out because it seemed to be gone, but then, it wasn’t! As we grow we still find things that aren’t true funny.  A comic will exaggerate a situation or perhaps make it up because it is funny. How often have you, someone who is not a comic, told a small lie and found a listener engaged or gullible? Once they have that hook in your story, how many times have you dragged it out, built upon it, in order to present a scenario that slowly dawns on your listener as being ridiculous? I’ve irritated plenty of girls doing just that.  A comedian like Louis CK, tells the story of his wife giving him “the world’s saddest hand job.”  The story is so exaggerated that we as a listener are left to wonder if it is even true.  A great comedian will make that territory a bit murkier and we are left with an impression that the story may just be true and may just be that funny. The State and one of the comedy groups that it begat, Stella, are very much based on this idea that the absurd or the untrue are at the heart of what’s funny, even if its obvious.  One of my favorite State sketches is a sketch simply called “And,” where a man who works at a magazine finds out that his coworker doesn’t know the word “and.”  This sort of situation is clearly “not true” and, in all likelihood, impossible, which makes it funny.

(Abbott and Costello always got in trouble with Mr. Fields or Mike the Cop.)

This sort of humor can be traced all the way back to Abbott & Costello, who eventually begat the comedy of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, or the comedy of Seinfeld.  The jokes here come from mundane situations that are slightly to majorly exaggerated—there is always an element of “untruth.”  Abbott & Costello episodes mostly center on the duo avoiding their landlord so they don’t have to pay the rent.  Let’s look at a few episode synopses to get a better picture of what I am referring to about this brand of comedy:

Barber Lou - Lou tries to give Bud a rubdown following instructions from a radio show, but he's tuned into a program explaining how to paint a car at home.

Pest Exterminators - Bud and Lou are pest exterminators who are mistaken for psychiatrists when they attend to Mrs. Featherton's "aunts".

Lou's Birthday Party - Lou throws a birthday party for himself, but nearly poisons his guests when he puts ant paste on his hors d'oeurves instead of antipasto. Bud throws him out and Lou consoles himself by ordering a giant decorated cake.

Each of these episodes is based around a pretty ordinary occurrence (Giving a “rubdown” years ago was part of a barber’s routine. Today, obviously it is a joke Tobias would have fallen into on Arrested Development, which we’ll get to.) that turns absurd.  The Abbott & Costello Show and the comedy of Abbott & Costello in their stage routines were both based on the comedy of errors that made something simple become absurd, something not “true” to life.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have both openly admitted that Abbott & Costello influenced them.  You can easily break any Seinfeld episode down to an entertaining synopses such as the ones above (Jerry, Elaine and George get soup but Elaine antagonizes the owner of the store who is known as the “Soup Nazi”; Jerry and George take a limo from the airport that isn’t theirs but have to pretend to be Nazis, while Elaine and Kramer try to go to a basketball game).  There is the same exact formula: people living in an apartment building, in a self-contained universe interact with all the characters in that universe in situations that seem like normal day-to-day situations but are enhanced by absurdity.  Instead of Mr. Fields the landlord, in Seinfeld we have Newman, who Jerry is trying to avoid.  There is “Crazy” Joe Davola instead of Mike the Cop.  Seinfeld has The Maestro, Puddy or Mr. Costanza, while The Abbott & Costello Show had Stinky, the guy who wore a Lord Fauntleroy suit.  Their world resembles ours, but it isn’t ours, it isn’t true. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are hailed as being keen observers of the mundane, about revealing some kind of truth about people in general, through the situations they present in their shows.  However, there is a certain exaggeration of their respective shows and their self-contained worlds that leaves the viewer feeling a sense of exasperation, a sense of “Oh, come on!”  Seinfeld is less guilty of this than Curb Your Enthusiasm, but you already knew that.

("Look at banner, Michael!")

Arrested Development is a finer example of a show with an exaggerated, self-contained take of the everyday.  The world of Arrested Development is placed in the world of a wealthy family in California, but it is the dynamic of the family and Michael Bluth’s need to escape, yet still remain close to them that makes it seem so real to us. The “truth” of this situation is pulled away when we are introduced to characters such as GOB, Tobias, Buster, George Sr., Lindsay and Lucille.  What I mean to say is that these characters aren’t real; there is not real depth to them, which makes them funny.  There is nothing funnier than the Season 3 joke of George Sr. using a man as a “surrogate” of his presence in the other room of his apartment while he watches the baseball game in his room only a few feet away, especially when the Surrogate repeats his refrain of “Don’t come in here, I’m watching the game. Don’t come in here,” as the family opens the door to reveal George Sr. saying those words himself until he finally resigns, “I told you I was watching the game.”  What Arrested Development does to transcend this mere “falseness” is to build such a tightly referential world that at every turn, you are faced with some detail that reminds you of another part of the Arrested Development universe.  Season 2’s themes of hand (Buster loses his hand to a seal, has a hand chair in his room) and of seals (there is news of a seal attack on TV early in the season, Lucille’s name, Lucille “Lucille 2” Ostero’s name, Buster winning a seal in the claw game) are probably the most tightly constructed jokes in the history of TV or maybe in the history of comedy in general.  However, you can also say that about the running “Franklin” joke from Season 2 to Season 3, where Franklin, GOB’s black puppet, actually ends up being a pimp for the family prostitute — the pimp’s nickname is Mr. F, which was early used to describe Michael’s retarded girlfriend, Rita, and involved a similarly intricately wound joke on the identity of Mr. F, which ended up being Rita (Mentally Retarded Female).  Why go into all this detail about the jokes of Arrested Development when you can just rehash them with your own friends and have a lot more fun?  Because I want to prove the point that while the State were right in poking fun at the fact that you can easily break down what is “funny” and “not funny” to things that are “true” and “not true,” it can become confusing when you are simply enjoying the intricate jokes that a show like Arrested Development structures for you.

There are shows like Arrested Development, Seinfeld, The Abbott & Costello Show, The State, Stella, and even The Chris Elliot Show that revel in degrees of the absurd and pull off comedy that is truly enlightening (I’m not mentioning Monty Python because I don’t like Monty Python, although Cleese will always be the man in some way or another).  While Arrested Development and Seinfeld are much more polished, there is something in the acting of Stella or the State that has always appealed to me.  These comedians are clearly not good actors, but over time they developed an aesthetic of acting, something that is right-of-smartass that has become engrained and immediately accessible by my brain.  Its an attitude of “the world spins and continues around me, but I have the ability to separate from it, slow it down, and make a stupid face while trying to interact with people who are serious.”  There is nothing more juvenile than that sensibility, but it is something that can instill a great deal of invincibility in you. When I look to comedy, I look for “good” acting like that—which I can wrap my mind around—and also an absurdity that I can then take into the real world to make me better equipped to deal with assholes and people who are impatient or miserable.  What those shows like Arrested Development or moreso Stella taught me was the element of timing.  Comedy is airspace.  The air in any moment is made to insert comedy into.  You wait for pockets of timing, you listen to what others are saying and then you jump onto it, you repeat phrases, you listen to the spaces in the air and repeat a phrase in a way that is new to the people around you so it becomes funny—it is “not true” because it is not said the same way as something that was just perhaps said.  The next time you are with friends, try to notice this as you stand in a circle at a party or sit at a table for some dinner.  You all stand in relation to each other, you all have words to direct at each other in some angle or another and, in the spaces of those relationships, those intersections, you fit the jokes in. There is a rise of laughter and you slip in a perverted or dark phrase underneath the din; someone says a phrase, but you turn it so that it rhymes in a way.  That is elemental, but it is comedy.  Something as stupid as this party trick will work: next time you have a party, play a super popular song like “Hey Ya” or “Fuck You” two or three times in a row.  The first time, everybody is excited.  The second time you have some people still digging it and maybe it was a mistake it came on again.  The third time, people see that it’s a bit so you’ve drawn attention.  Then, you let three to four other songs play.  The rhythm of the party has resumed. People feel drunk, they chatter, they fall in love briefly or get hard-ons.  Then, you play “Hey Ya” or “Fuck You” one more time. And, that’s the joke.

(The Larry/David Duchovny storyline was a classic ongoing joke on The Larry Sanders Show.)

What this all leads to is the comedy that, to me, stands apart from anything else that’s funny and that is The Larry Sanders Show.  Sanders and Seinfeld were the twin pinnacles of comedy in the 1990’s and represent a sort of Stones/Beatles dynamic.  I don’t know which is which. Seinfeld was so wildly popular and critically accepted that you could call it the Beatles, while Sanders was darker and also critically acclaimed.  However, Sanders consistently surprised you like the Beatles and surprised you at such a high level.  When I watch The Larry Sanders Show, it reminds me of listening to the Beatles because I look for the little nuances. I look to see how Hank reacted in a certain scene the way I listen to why Ringo played the drums so curiously in that one little part on “Hello Goodbye” (both probably happy accidents) and I listen for nuances in Artie’s ass-kissing of Larry just the way I listen for that out-of-nowhere piano hook towards the end of “Dear Prudence” that I never heard before.  To basically spell it out and get my fawning out in the open, Garry Shandling’s brand of comedy on The Larry Sanders Show is the brand that I subscribe to more than any other. The characters seem to grow organically as the seasons go on.  Hank becomes so much of a pompous, stubborn and ignorant ass that you are surprised and delighted in a scene where Larry and Hank are in Hank’s car after Larry returns from his hiatus in Montana.  Hank has been a mess while Larry and the show have been on hiatus. Hank is smoking in his car and listening to heavy metal (two things his character hasn’t done) and Larry asks him to come back to the show.  Hank, who is hurt, gets this incredulous look in his eye and goes to mouth the phrase “You pulled the wool over my eyes.” Jeffrey Tambor’s acting shows that the character wants to use and say this phrase, but then ends up saying “You really pulled the rug out from me.”  It’s a heartbreaking and genius piece of comedy.  It might not make you laugh out loud, but it is funny precisely because it is true!  One of the peak moments of the show is the episode "Arthur After Hours" where we follow Artie, Larry’s rock-solid, ass-kissing, show-biz chiseled, producer after he gets mad at Larry when Larry makes him bump his friend off the show.  Artie is sick of being disrespected and taken for granted and we watch him get drunk in the studio and the office after everyone leaves. Artie loves the show and he loves show business, all of this we know because we know his character so well; we know his character so well after only about two or three episodes—the catchphrase of The Larry Sanders Show could just be Garry Shandling saying, “Artie?” in a helpless, panicked voice.  So it is funny and yet touching to watch him go through the paces of venting his anger and even coming to a sense of drunken brotherhood with a Russian janitor. Artie says at one point, “we’re brothers, you and me, because we both clean up messes.” And that is something so poignant Matthew Weiner would have written it on Mad Men.  Then, as Artie and the Russian janitor hug, Artie knocks the bottle of scotch they have been sharing to the floor, smashing the bottle.  He says to the janitor, “It’s alright, I’ll get the mop and you’ll clean it up.” He immediately breaks their bond and resumes the show hierarchy he was so upset about and he and the janitor begin to fight as the janitor says, “fuck you.”  The next day, Artie, with a band-aid on his forehead from his fight, returns to work the same as ever.  If you haven’t seen the show, there is no point in going on about jokes and episodes. What is important is the fact that this show treats sadness, darkness and comedy in equal lights.  Many may say that the British Office does the same thing. I have seen that show and it doesn’t make me feel the same levels of comedic glee while at the same time bringing me to a point of darkness and strangeness that The Larry Sanders Show does.  Shandling has said that the show is all about the characters and he pulled it off. You know each character, however small, in full, by the time you have finished only one season.  That makes it that much more enriching and thrilling when they do something unexpected or different or bad or good in a later episode. Its one of the strangest phenomena I can think of in any form of comedy I’ve watched.

In the end, The Larry Sanders Show makes me feel human, while Stella, The State, and to a lesser degree Arrested Development make me feel a false sense of juvenile invincibility that his hidden behind humor.  And the art that I’ve been the most thankful for, the art I have thrown myself most fully at, has been the art that reminds me I am human and that it is OK that I am that way (see Levin in Anna Karenina or Ulysses as a whole). Since comedy may the art that I love in some ways more than writing itself, I see it as only fitting that I grow into the type of sense of humor Garry Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show can offer.  And now you can thank my parents for making you sit and waste your time reading through all of this.

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