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You’re A Funny Guy

Well you know she still laughs with me / but she waits just a second too long” – John Prine

One of the funniest things I ever read was an Onion headline back in 2004 during the Jim McGreevey scandal: “Homosexual Tearfully Admits To Being Governor of New Jersey.” It works on so many levels .. which was what Homer Simpson said about Hans Moleman’s short film “Man Getting Hit By Football.” But I digress. Solidly humorous material can be rendered a fail given the wrong audience. The same person laughing uncontrollably at my Herve Villechaize M&M’s joke (“The plaaaaain … the plaaaaaain!”) won’t crack a smile at my “snail chucked over a fence” bit. Neither is mine of course, except by virtue of being in my limited joke wheelhouse. So it is with outdated trepidation and non-sequitur ease that I accept responsibility for some hate-mail I received last week objecting to something I wrote four years ago on infamous Marin Country outlaw high schooler Max Wade. I won’t recount the post in question or my failed attempt at tongue-in-cheek humor. This guy let me have it for being a trust fund kid and waste of space. In my defense I’ve lost some weight of late, so that’s less space being wasted. Point is, in this case anyway, it missed the mark.

Comedians benefit from a lack of neediness. This isn’t the same as not giving a shit. Plenty of comics adopt the guise of defiant, tough-guy indifference yet aren’t particularly funny. But in the case of some — think Norm MacDonald — this absence of the need for reassuring laughter combined with genuine talent is a powerful combination. There are also those who are both needy and occasionally funny. The late Robin Williams comes to mind. But pure “needy” rarely works. People like to think they’re special when it comes to laughing. Nothing kills a comedian’s appeal more than seeing your idiot neighbor coming unglued over one of his bits. Said neighbor might be laughing at the inflated surgical glove atop Howie Mandel’s head while totally missing the subtleties of his discourse. It’s been said that there is no greater aphrodisiac than laughter, but this too comes with caveat. Woody Allen’s brand of nebbish, self-effacing, pseudo-intellectual hilarity didn’t have the same end-result when he was Allan Konigsberg, and this has little to do with practiced timing. If women respond to humor they respond even more to power. (See above for hate mail address.) Yet many powerful men just aren’t funny. If you can get the two working in conjunction it’s a license to print money.

Women’s humor is a somewhat controversial topic. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a (partly) satirical piece for Vanity Fair titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Predictably it got a lot of blow-back, but that was the point. While I’d never put it in such certain terms, it’s an idea that’s been floated before. Some years prior a slightly less articulate but more disheveled John Belushi made the same claim. Is there a biological imperative, as Hitchens claimed, that men work on their sense of humor more than their female counterparts? Perhaps, but I don’t find gay guys particularly funny either. And generally speaking they’ve got more testosterone flowing than a small engine repair school dropout at a Black Sabbath show. There aren’t as many women who can make me laugh, but there aren’t as many trying. Sarah Silverman once had a line that broke me up. Again, in deference to the hate mail, this was her bit: She was speaking plaintively about rape and observed “No woman asks to be raped. Some women are asking to be motor-boated, though … ” It’s a line that could only work for a strong, female comic, just as some material can only work for a black comedian. Chris Rock’s infamous “black people vs niggas” is another example. Only part of his audience is “allowed” to laugh, and in both cases (Silverman and Rock) the result is potent. Suppressed laughter was the central thesis for George Carlin’s “Class Clown” routine.

Nothing is less funny than someone attempting to dissect humor. (See “Crystal, Billy: ‘Mr Saturday Night’ “) But I defend my efforts here on the grounds of laziness and having nothing else to write about. If ever there were a time for laughs it’s now. Images of Harvey Weinstein’s mug beg for comic relief yet none arrives. Saturday Night Live, after brief reprieve, jumped the comedic shark post election night with Kate McKinnon’s tearful rendition of ‘Hallelujah’. It simply hasn’t been funny since. Where have you gone, Chris Farley, with your “I want Holyfield!” Norman Schwarzkopf impression and coffee table destroying belly flops? Our nation turns its unamused eyes to you. These were simple premises with big returns and they are all but gone today. The recent mass sexual misconduct allegations have landed comedian Louis CK in hot water. I never found CK as amusing as some do and his material seemed to have a preternatural obsession with dicks and masturbation. What are the odds, then, that he’d be accused of taking his out and doing so repeatedly and without invitation? Where do these people think “art” comes from — thin air?

“Taking the piss” or “winding somebody up” are British expressions for humorous attempts at another’s expense. “Breaking balls” would be the American equivalent, though it’s always risky equating colloquial English with colloquial American. An over the top example that comes to mind is Joe Pesci’s “what the fuck is so funny about me?” scene with Ray Liotta in the film “Goodfellas.” Pesci goes from being laughed with to feigned paranoia over being laughed at back to the relief and release of being laughed with again. It’s a real tightrope walk and underlines the idea that humor is serious business. If you laugh hard enough you’ll eventually cry and comics are some of the saddest people going. Just ask Louis CK.

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