How I Learned Humor.
I don’t laugh a lot anymore. I’m that asshole who says “that’s funny” more often then issuing a giggle chortle or guffaw. Technically, I laugh a considerable amount, but mostly in my interactions with my friends, coworkers and the conversations with my own brain. It’s at entertainment — TV, movies, magazines — that my laugh is less present. I used to think that it was because people today (writers and audiences) just weren’t as funny. Then I hefted the blame onto my white middle class first world disillusionment (I mean, complaining that tv doesn’t make you LOL anymore is pretty petty in the grand, blanket theory thing scheme of things). What I’ve grown to acknowledge and understand is that I laugh less now because of how I learned humor. And in how I learned humor lays the basis of my own definition, perception and standards for what is funny and what is just nice entertainment.
The Nerdist podcast recently interviewed Lily Tomlin. It was the first 20 minutes of that interview (which was all I got due to technology failing my need for her wisdom) that I thought about who taught me about funny. I had never wondered this before. Of course, Tomlin was a big factor. So were Carol Burnett, Steve Martin and Gilda Radner. As a child in the 80s, there’s no doubt that my burdgeoning humor taste was deeply influenced by my parents. I was exposed to what made them laugh, what they thought was quality comedy, who really spoke to their funny bones. What I realize now was a bit different than many of my peers was that my parents also explained the humor to me from early on. Sometimes it was as common as spelling out a play on words. Other times it meant outlining the socio- politic/economic/cultural context that took a simple joke to a heightened level. I grew up understanding the critique of suburbia and traditional gender roles at the heart of Rocky Horror Picture Show. I knew of current world events through Roseanne Roseannadanna. And that made it all funnier.
I owe a lot of my humor (and pop culture in general) education to my parents. But I am also indebted to the comedians who taught me through their talents. Tomlin as Edith Ann in her giant chair, Burnett as Scarlett O’Hara dressed in drapery, these characters were large but they were performed with such detail and nuance. it’s easy to play the over the top anything, but to truly make it hilarious you play the big small and the small big. They taught me more than iconic comic personas though. It was Radner getting devoured by the land shark, Martin in his 1977 Let’s Get Small album (which I would play over and over). Great humor was telling stories well, regardless of whether you were the only performer in an hour of dedicated stage time or one of many in a sketch ensemble. You take that story, your part in the joke and using it t build the humor. The decision to play it straight to make the situation even more absurd or to amp up your absurdity to create a farce of epic proportions…this was another big lesson in my curriculum of funny.
How I learned funny is why I laugh so hard at season 3 of Community. It’s why I can watch Shaun of the Dead 8,936 times and laugh out loud. And it’s probably why I say “that’s funny” to the Big Bang Theory and most comedies on Netflix Instant instead of laughing. Which is all okay, because that’s the real lesson of humor: you can’t expect something to be funny for everyone. If you try to make it that way, it becomes funny to no one. (Exception here for clips of guys getting hit in the nuts and babies laughing uncontrollably. Those are just comedy’s special gifts to all humankind.)