Laughter, Part I

I’m writing two posts (or more? I don’t know) about the funny. This is the first. The next one will be about gender and the funny, and why you should totally run out and see the new Aubrey Plaza movie “The To Do List” when it comes out this week.

In a recent interview with writer Owen Egerton (whom I would describe as a humane humorist, or a humanorist, please start spreading that word around, it’s going to be big), we talked about humane comedy. This is a discussion that usually revolves around “punching up vs. punching down.” (There are scads of essays about this online, but they all boil down to “pick on the big guy, not the little guy.” Here’s a nice one.)

Comedy, as the word “punching” suggests, can be a strong method for critiquing power. But is that all comedy is good for—punching?

What is it good for anyway?

Nicolas Cage as Sleeping Beauty asks, “What is funny for?”

* * * * *

I didn’t used to care about comedy. Not even a little bit.

I remember 15 years ago, when we were in college together, Shana Merlin, one of Austin’s luminaries of improv, said I was funny and asked why I didn’t do comedy. I was really surprised. Me, funny? No, ma’am. I was a very serious person, interested in feminism and suffering and feelings. Comedy seemed trivial, light, auxiliary. The (awful) novel I wrote for my undergraduate thesis was about loss and loneliness. I had taught myself to write songs on the guitar (I know) and the songs I wrote that I liked best were the angsty ones about traumatic breakups. The funny ones were just me blowing off steam, so they couldn’t be good. I am still kind of disturbed by the probably truth that my comic songs are actually better than my sad ones. (“When I Slept with the Cold-Side Guy” is my breakout single.)

Me pretending to be Mazzy Star at an open mic.

Me pretending to be Mazzy Star at an open mic.

So when my husband Curtis and I started dating, I confess I was a little daunted by his investment in comedy. He is a huge comedy nerd, raised on Monty Python and SNL and SCTV and Comedy Central. At the time when we got together, he was performing in multiple improv and sketch comedy shows a week. After years of knowing each other in a distant way, he and I had reconnected (I think that’s what the kids are calling it these days) when I was visiting Austin over Christmas. We got along so well that just a couple of weeks after I went back to my cold, lonely grad school existence in Chicago, I bought a plane ticket to come back down and spend the weekend with him.

There was one thing, though: he had a show that weekend. A comedy show. That I would have to attend.

Sitting alone in the audience with a six-pack between my feet, waiting for the show to begin, I was so nervous I was actually nauseated. What if I hated it? What if I got emotionally invested in this guy, and then found out I was dooming myself to years and years of comedy that I thought was dumb, boring, or even worse, alienating?

My husband came up on stage, and the Your Terrific Neighbors show commenced, and thank the merciful heavens, it was funny. And smart. (And dumb. But in a good way.) As the show progressed, I remember feeling an immense relief, a warmth spreading through my chest unattributable to the beer I was drinking. I felt, I knew, we could be good together.

And we are. We laugh and we laugh and we laugh.

* * * * *

Owen Egerton told me about two types of laughter. One is about making fun of someone–punching, as it were. That’s the one that gets talked about a lot. But the other, he said, is when you’re laughing with your family.

I grew up in a funny family. We are all very different from one another, but we all have one thing in common (aside from loud voices, hot tempers, and giant, beach-ball-sized heads): we all laugh a lot. Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike, but every family is funny in its own way.” (Watch out, I’m on a roll here. Try not to spit orange juice all over your keyboard.)

I mean, probably everyone thinks their family is funny, right? I’m not trying to suggest we were funnier than most families, but we had our moments. A highlight of my youth was the time my father started hurling Cool Whip into our dessert bowls from across the room, taking aim from progressively farther distances until there we all had Cool Whip in our hair. (Which reminds my of my theory that Cool Whip was created by accident in a Vidal Sassoon research lab, when a sleepy scientist, dumped a packet of Sweet-N-Low into a batch of hair mousse by mistake.) My mom used to take great delight in plunging a knife, theatrically, into the perfectly smooth surface of a newly opened peanut butter jar. My sister’s specialty was this one raspy monster voice that nobody else could do without hurting their throat. My brother did funny voices and faces, and quoted Monty Python where necessary.

Most often, though, we would play that most sophisticated of humor games: Stare At My Sister Lara Until She Laughs. It was always fun to play, because she had no resistance at all and would explode into giggles immediately, sometimes until tears came out of her eyes. Sometimes you didn’t even have to look at her; she would start laughing as soon as she could tell that you were about to look at her. That probably should have made it less fun, but then comedy is one arena where nobody likes a challenge. Watching Lara laugh until she cries is still a pastime I enjoy when we’re together.

Laughter is tribal. It establishes and enhances relationships, infuses social bonds with a sense of family and transforms people, however temporarily, into a community. Like anything else that cements feelings of belonging, it has two sides. With apologies to Heidi Klum, it can tell you who’s in, or it can tell you who’s out. (Are you reading this, Heidi? Everything going well? Do you ever miss Seal?)

In the fall of 2002, when I was lonely, broke, jobless, and miserable in Portland, Oregon, my brother flew up to help me pack up my worldly possessions and drive with me back to Austin. We wound up driving 36 hours straight, with no overnight stops. (Did I mention I was in a hurry to get back to Texas?) During the alternating bouts of tedium and delirium, we kept each other entertained with a series of running  jokes that no one else will ever find funny (“Hornswoggled!” and “So good with fruit!” topped the list). It was like home had come to me.

We use lots of other methods to establish in-group connections–gossip and slang, for instance. But laughter is special. Laughter is different. Laughter floods your brain with all kinds of delightful chemicals, but it would be a mistake to say that it feels like a drug; rather, it feels like the thing that drugs are trying to give you. Laughter is social even when you’re alone.

* * * * *

In graduate school I studied structures of power and structures of language, ways of making meaning and ways of taking meaning apart. But I never studied the structure of a joke.

I did, on my own, read the philosopher Henri Bergson’s 1900 essay “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” on the slender pretext that it might be useful for my dissertation. (It wasn’t.) Bergson spends a lot of time talking about how the funniest thing ever is when humans act like machines. In fact, he goes so far as to define all comedy as “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” (Oh turn-of-the-century, how I love you!) I assume that he’s not so much talking about David Cronenberg-type stuff (although I do think horror and comedy have a lot in common), but rather about characters who act out their particular idiosyncratic modes of being over and over again, machine-like, ignoring the consequences. “At the root of the comic,” he says, “there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.”

This is similar in principle to what comics nowadays call “heightening.” Of course, it’s also how some people define insanity. (Maybe that Bergson essay had something to do with my dissertation, after all.)

Bergson also memorably claims that comedy “appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is incompatible with emotion.” The first part seems patently true. I have never felt so intellectually engaged as when trying to figure out why something is funny, or why it’s not funny, or why it’s almost funny. As my friend Jon (another funny dude) once pointed out to me, comic acting is harder than dramatic acting because it is highly stylized. It doesn’t work if the timing or the rhythm or the physicality is off. In comedy, you can’t get by on Method; heartfelt doesn’t hack it. The best comedians—the Buster Keatons and Bill Cosbys and Lily Tomlins and Maria Bamfords—are masters of the minute, paragons of precision. They are formalists.

But I don’t agree that laughter is incompatible with emotion.

The short-lived television show “Freaks and Geeks” is, to my mind, one of the most perfect comedies ever created. Like all great wince comedy, “Freaks and Geeks” is about alienation: two different types of outsiders, the burn-outs and the nerds, travel parallel paths of awkwardness and isolation in a Detroit high school in 1980. Examples of comic brilliance on the show are legion, and the then-unknown cast now forms a kind of comedy Justice League: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr. (Sarah Hagan must be Wonder Woman in that analogy, because she’s the only one that hasn’t starred in her own movie, despite her manifest brilliance. But more on gender next week!)

One of the most amazing scenes in the series is a montage of Martin Starr’s character Bill watching a Garry Shandling stand-up special on television after school. In the episode, Bill, an only child, latchkey kid, and perpetual punching bag at school, feels threatened when his mom starts dating his gym teacher. (I mean who wouldn’t.) As he eats his Sandwich of Loneliness on his TV Tray of Isolation, he starts to get absorbed in the stand-up routine. The Who’s “I’m One” is playing over the whole scene, so you can’t hear the routine itself; you just see  his slack, mouth-breathing Bill face dissolve into sandwich-dribbling, tear-squinting laughter. Screen shot 2013-07-22 at 9.35.15 AM

Starr is amazing to look at, and the scene would be hilarious enough if it were just him. But instead, the camera cuts back and forth between Shandling on the TV and Bill on the couch, showing how, as he gets sucked deeper into the routine, Bill begins to respond as if there’s an actual person in his living room. He nods along, raising his milk glass back when Shandling raises his water glass to the audience, and even points to himself, shaking his head as if to say “You got me, Garry.” The shots get tighter and tighter on both of them, Starr’s face framed by the television screen in your living room just as Shandling’s is framed by the television screen in Bill’s living room. As Bill’s laughter contorts his face, making him look progressively more hilarious, it almost seems like Shandling is laughing back at him. Toward the end of the sequence, matched shots almost create an eyeline between the two characters, angling them toward one another even when they look away, as you do when you’re laughing so hard you can’t look the other person in the eye anymore. It’s as if even the averted gaze of laughter–that acknowledgment of alienation and loneliness, our inability to connect–could actually connect you to another human being.

That’s the thing about comedy. When it feels best, it also kind of knocks the wind out of you. Like a punch, yes, but one that leaves us all gasping for air together.
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