On Humor

If I were to explain my childhood to other people, the most understandable story I could tell would describe my relationship to television.

Both my parents worked, and I generally preferred to spend a lot of time by myself. My parents always had cable TV, and I gravitated towards the typical kids’ shows: Peewee’s Playhouse, Muppet Babies, The Real Ghostbusters, Dungeons & Dragons — pretty much the entire Saturday morning lineup. I think for the weekday lineup I watched a lot of Voltron for some period of time.

But as I got older, I gravitated towards comedy. I watched the Comedy Channel, which eventually turned into Comedy Central. The main draw for me there was a constant stream of clips of comedians’ best bits: Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres, Larry Miller, Brian Regan, Sam Kineson, Denis Leary, Richard Jeni, Gilbert Gottfried, Kevin Pollak, Sinbad. I knew episodes of Spitting Image and Saturday Night Live by heart. I’ve watched Police Squad, Sledge Hammer!, and Night Court probably thousands of times. The Naked Gun series defined my adolescence, and it was only later that I realized just how poignant the baseball game scene was in Hollywood history.

I was a little too young to understand Andy Kaufman, Garry Shandling, Andrew Dice Clay, the HBO adult series like Dream On (which was a titty landmine for me to navigate if my parents were home). It really wasn’t until I was older that I learned how important Shandling, Joan Rivers, Bob Hope, Redd Foxx, et al were for comedy.

For what it’s worth, I also seemed to skip the generation that was really into MST3K (I felt it was trying to be too clever), Bill Maher, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (too uncomfortable). I loved Jackass but none of its descendents, and I never could get into Impractical Jokers or other awkward-bait.

I used to listen to Howard Stern daily as a high schooler. By sheer good luck, Stern’s show was played in Dallas, and it served as my wakeup at 5-6am and as the tail end of my drive from one high school to another around 9:30-10am.

All this is to say my childhood was saturated with comedy. While at work and school I am overcome with professionalism and trying to be a good role model and being overwhelmed with fulfilling responsibilities, I feel as though privately I depend on comedians to get me through the ugly, intentionally cruel world that I often witness. I think it would surprise a lot of people I know that I love slapstick comedy, puns, and joking around and being silly.

As a life lesson I feel as though growing up in Dallas in a fairly serious academic family, I could not overcome the environment to realize that comedy was a viable option or humor as a desired trait or feeling. My family loves puns but I see this as a degree of intellectualism and showmanship.

I now live in New York City, and for a spell, I lived in East Village. Walking to the Comedy Cellar was a casual thing — I saw Chris Rock try out some early jokes, and I got to know Gary Gulman as the funniest comedian most people don’t know. I got to see Reggie Watts and Hannibal Burress perform at UCB West at a very small show. Louis CK filmed his show in my hood. Comedy is a viable way of life in NYC.

I interned for a writer at The Colbert Report to work on developing software he started to handle script ideation, writing, and production. Being able to watch the creative comedy-writing process in the context of technology was fantastic.

I mean, I get it. We get interns at work who have lived in NYC their whole lives. If you grew up here, you would have had access to industries and domains like comedy, and you would have potentially been able to explore it and see people you recognized get stable careers there. Not that I would have necessarily gone into comedy, but I think it will stick with me for educating my kids that they will have less opportunity perhaps if they’re just exposed to less.

Let’s classify types of people by their humor.

There are people who are intentionally funny and unintentionally funny. You can also focus on slapstick humor or high-brow intellectual humor. But let’s collapse that for the purpose of discussion and focus on the energy certain types of people create to continue humor? Does the humor end with them, or can they recycle it into something funnier, or can they create humor from nothing at all?

Non-Funny People

This is most people. Perhaps they can tell an okay story, or even a joke, and they generally laugh at things, but they don’t create humor out of nothing on their own initiative. If they are exposed to humor at all, they are only passive consumers of it.

Remixers

People who memorize common response humor patterns to questions or prompts (e.g. “ur mom”, “tell that to my wife”). People who read reddit a lot and are attuned to the memes. This would also include people who iterate on memes, or who make self-aware over-played memes to be ironical.

This can go badly (as I will write about below) or produce the latest in internet content (meme lords). I think the latter grew out of youthemannowdog (RIP) and the former became big once reddit hit mega-mainstream circa 2015?

Artisans

Comedians like Gary Gulman talk about how they perfect the telling of their jokes. Each word is chosen for a reason, like poetry. Timing can make or break a joke.

Timing can make or break a joke, as Sacha Baron Cohen talked about. (~8:40 mark)

Story-Tellers

I would also consider comedians like Gary Gulman to be story-tellers. They might tell one story throughout a whole set. The story may not even be funny. But the story acts as a framework that the comedian can go back to. It keeps the audience engaged. This is a decent trick to use for anyone trying to speak in public. Tie it all back together, like Al Madrigal does in his shrimp special, which he sort of describes here:

Careerists

This is one of the benefits of living in NYC. You get a better sense of the different industries you’ve never had exposure to. You begin to realize that people you know are spending years performing, doing improv, doing shows, working through all the permutations of their ideas and talents and opportunities looking to find breakthrough. People like my friend Michael Bird, whose show I’ve only managed to see once but I thought it was some of the most impressive stuff I’ve ever seen.

If you watch shows about comedy, or listen to podcasts, or whatever, you get a feel for which comedians came up together, which generations they were a part of, which clubs they cut their teeth in.

Emcees

Emcees aren’t necessarily funny, but they have enough knowledge of working a crowd to know how to run a performance from start to finish. They can get people involved or cut boring people off. They set the pace and flow. As comedy relies so much on timing, emcees are crucial to maintain a dynamic flow that enables humor to occur naturally.

I’d also include terrible humor emcees here. The people who keep talking, long past the duration people want to hear it, but they are all hostages until the emcee is done. You’ve been in a meeting with one of these.

Therapists

Some say comedians are all in therapy, or need to be pretty fucked up in the head to be funny. But comedians are also the truth-tellers, those who say what no one else will. Patrice O’Neal for me was an exemplar of this.

Goofballs

I’ve known less than 5 goofballs in my life, but if I’m around them, I can’t stop laughing, and, for the most part, other people can’t either. Any little thing they say, even not meant in jest, has me dying with laughter. It’s the timing, the intonation, the inflections, the subject matter, the originality. A rare talent.

Cheetahs

One of the most reliable indicators of humor to me is how long it takes someone to get a joke. Watch this interview with Orlando Bloom, Zac Efron, and Zach Woods.

Bloom and Efron are savvy enough to know how to turn someone else’s comments into something to say, but it’s a) not funny and b) does not lead to more conversation.

Zach Woods, the least famous person on the stage, however, is captivating. He’s truly listening to the conversation and creating avenues for more.

Whenever you watch interviews involving comedians, just pay attention to how much faster they react to the joke. They’re major league hitters used to hitting fastballs.

Another venue for this: watching films, particularly comedy films. See if the audience laughs immediately, or avalanches onto laughter once enough people start laughing.

Ghosts

Ghost comedians can only be seen by certain people like Bruce Willis. They talk about something, crack some jokes, and no one’s laughing except that one person, who’s dying with laughter.

Alright, so where was I going with all of this?

Humor as a profession is at new heights right now. We live in seemingly dark times, across the political spectrum. Humor for me is an escape; I don’t particularly enjoy watching horror movies, or the local news, or cable news, or whatever. Comedy keeps me going. Captivation keeps me going. Innovation and trying new things keep me going. I spend a lot of time in meetings now and have talked to tons of people in the past. Now I’m getting a lot more deliberate about how I spend my time and I’m just really appreciating the people with the skills, experience, and talent to inject humor into my day. To better understand why they make my days much happier, I just want to disaggregate them a bit and get to know what it is that gives me so much joy.