I’ve often pondered the question of what’s funny, what makes people laugh? Why is it that the same situation can make one person laugh, another angry and a third person react with disgust? Wow, this sounds like a heavy subject. Way too psychological for an old man, author and retired pharmacologist who got lost and somehow found himself living in a 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo in Florida; but I digress.
I’m an old guy that grew up with the Three Stooges, Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, The Marx Brothers, Martin and Lewis, the Smothers Brothers and others. The answer to the question of what’s funny was somewhat different back then. Some of this is generational. The collective social conscience and political correctness have changed things considerably during my lifetime. Then there’s the issue of personal taste, which has always had an effect on what’s funny on the individual level. I believe that the subject matter of the comedy can also make a difference.
So-called slapstick comedy was big back in the 60’s, when dinosaurs roamed the earth (as my daughters will happily tell you). This is a style of humor that involves exaggerated physical action, above and beyond that of normal physical comedy. The Stooges, Bowery Boys, and Marx Brothers were especially good at this. Their comedic gags included everything from slipping on a banana peel to being run over by a truck, falling off a ladder to having a building fall on you, being shot in the rear to being blown up, smacked in the head with a hammer to a pie in the face…well, you get the idea. I grew up with this type of comedy, and I loved it. As the collective social conscience became more aware of the issues of child abuse and spousal abuse, these fake beatings and prat falls ceased to be as funny. You still see it once in a while, but this is one of those generational things.
In the 50’s and early 60’s, things like black-faced skits and poking fun at Native Americans and Chinese Americans were popular in the comedy industry. Back then, this type of humor was considered funny. But, we also had the Klan, Viet Nam war, beginnings of Nixon, so… Due to an improvement in our social conscience, these things are no longer considered humorous, or acceptable. Just ask Governor Northam of Virginia. This too is one of those generational things, and a move in the right direction.
The comedy of Jerry Lewis was much gentler; The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, The Disorderly Orderly. Lewis’ characters started out as loveable losers, and through a series of comedic events often found fame, success and the love of a good woman. I was especially drawn to this type of sappy comedy, for lack of a better word, where there was nothing particularly offensive and you could always count on a happy ending.
The Smothers Brothers were into political comedy. They were left-leaning, irreverent of the government, and used the same vulgar words that are now part of every other sentence in all of today’s TV sitcoms, mysteries, sci-fi or full-length movies. Their show was canceled in 1969 due to pressure from the government. I guess this is kind of similar to Bill Maher losing his late-night show, Politically Correct, after making a provocative comment about AlQaeda and 911. The lesson here might be that it’s not a good idea to poke the bear too hard, no matter what generation you’re living in. The government and TV networks don’t appear to have a great sense of humor, no matter what the generation.
Personally, I prefer to avoid politics altogether. I don’t see any humor in the current climate, no matter what one’s political leanings. I use comedy to escape all the political crap, and including it in comedy seems counter to that goal. However, it’s a fact that when it comes to the question of what’s funny, the subject of politics is timeless. Think Saturday Night Live, John Stuart, Colbert. The government has apparently given comedians through the ages a fertile field of material. Actually, come to think of it, the term ‘fertilizer’ does come to mind in this regard.
I’ll bet that anyone reading this is thinking at this point “Man, haven’t you watched TV or a movie since the 1960’s?” Well, I most certainly have. I’ve watched the Pink Panther movies, both generations, Animal House (John Belushi) and The Blues Brothers (Belushi and Dan Ackroyd), everything directed by Mel Brooks, movies with Steve Martin, Gene Wilder (be patient, I’m slowly approaching the present), John Candy, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray (Caddy Shack comes to mind), Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, etc. Now for some more current comedy; Melissa McCarthy, Jerry Seinfeld, Matthew Perry, Chris Rock, Tim Allen, Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler and so on.
A couple of things that I’ve noticed as comedy, what’s funny, has progressed from the 60’s to today; there’s a lot more sex and bodily functions in comedy (vomiting, sitting on the toilet, standing at the urinal). Back in the 60’s, men and women seldom, if ever, showed up nude in a comedy. Today, when we’re not supposed to objectify women, or men, comedy includes a helluva lot more sex and nudity, both male and female. There’s even one female comedian whose entire routine includes her talking about her lady parts. And, a movie where a male comedian exhibits the full monty.
This seems to be somewhat contradictory to me, but as my daughters would say, “Oh Dad, you’re just old and don’t get it.” I wish I had an argument against this premise, but not-so much. I’m just confused as to why Hollywood puts out movies with so much sex and nudity, and when I pay twelve dollars and up (a hundred with popcorn and a soda) to watch I’m labeled a sexist that objectifies women. Seems to me it’s Hollywood that’s doing the objectifying. I’m just there for the popcorn. (Maybe I should rename this blog What’s Popcorn Got to Do With Comedy?).
Another personal preference thing with respect to what’s funny is the bodily function comedy, what my wife calls ‘potty humor’. It’s a mystery to me why some find it funny to watch a person vomit, or go to the bathroom. Whenever I encounter this type of behavior in a TV show, I immediately turn it off and watch something else. I’m usually eating popcorn and it ruins my appetite for my favorite food. If I’m at the movies, I close my eyes and try to think about something, anything else until it’s over. I could go my whole life without watching anyone throw up or on the toilet. I guess this is where I draw the comedic line between what’s funny and what’s disgusting. If it puts me off my popcorn, it’s not funny.
My current favorite comedy comes from the mind of Seth McFarland, as seen in the TV show The Orville. I confess that I haven’t seen much of his other work, but as a fan of all the Star Trek stuff I really enjoy what he’s done with The Orville. It started out a little rough, but to my mind he’s found just the right combination of sci-fi, thrills and comedy. And, there’s hardly ever any alien vomiting or bathroom going, at least not that you can tell (they are aliens). I don’t know if aliens like popcorn or not. Maybe Mr. McFarland could do an episode on that.
So, this should give you some idea of where I was when I wrote PLEASURIA: Take as Directed, a comedy murder mystery staged in the biopharmaceutical industry. I included a little bit of slapstick comedy, hopefully the non-offensive kind. I went heavy on the comedy of the absurd, the main character being an amateur sleuth along the lines of Inspector Clouseau meets Adrian Monk.
To make it a current comedy, I included sex. But, only in terms of silly situations of a sexual nature such as a NASCAR driver hallucinating a friendly blonde in the car with him during a race. He pulls into the pits at 200 mph so they can get a room, surprising and killing several members of his crew, and himself. Was this a murder? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
And, I left out the bodily function stuff altogether. After all, I often eat popcorn while I’m writing.
You can buy PLEASURIA: Take As Directed on Amazon at http://bit.ly/pleasuria. If you read it, I promise you’ll laugh:)