Friday, April 25, 2008

Funny Business

What makes humor work? First off, one thing that probably kills it is a serious discourse like this one. Oh well... deal with it.
Whether written or performed, the comic's chief aim is a smile, laugh, or outright guffaw from an audience of one or more by which the humorist understands that he has succeeded in connecting. To a certain extent, making humor is similar to that saintlike behavior of Mother Theresa whose life was given to lightening other peoples' burdens. Humor requires communication, which at a very fundamental level requires two or more persons, unless we're talking to ourselves in the shower.

There sure are a lot of funny people in the world. Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Dave Barry, Woody Allen, Johnny Carson, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Bill Cosby... to name a few of the comics who've impressed me. What's amazing is the range you find in styles of humor, from philosophical to zany, from slapstick to stylistic, from mannered to irreverent, from green to blue.

To some extent it's a mystery what makes humor work, though many people have studied it relentlessly, including Freud. Students of comedy will analyze others' routines, and break down the key variables. The element of surprise is one such factor that makes humor work. Steve Martin, that zany and wild guy, was (is) a master of the unexpected. Jonathan Winters' routines were like a wild roller coaster in the dark which threw you in unexpected directions with every turn of the track.

Most humorous material begins with a setup. In one way or another, the listener is led in a direction, but like a magician who uses misdirection, a magical effect is created through false expectations and tension. Timing is also an important variable. Even the best jokes can be badly told. I have been doing it all my life.

Most stand up comics tell stories. And all of them consider it plagiarism to not use their own original material. The beauty of it is right there. With so many comics in action, to see so much creativity being birthed week in and week out is somewhat of a wonder.

To watch comics in action is one thing; to be a comic in action is another. There is always risk. There is always uncertainty. And there's often a little tiny voice inside saying, "Am I nuts or what?" The answer to that last question waits to be seen.

In the meantime, let me tell you about my eggplant routine.

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