Tag Archives: comedy

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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The Blog Hop, or, All About My Mots d’Heures

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by Julie Gillis to participate in a “blog hop,” which is kind of like a chain letter without the threats of supernatural punishment should you fail to do it in a timely fashion. I was supposed to post last Tuesday, but I used Thanksgiving as an excuse to push it back a week, which meant I was supposed to do it yesterday. Then this happened instead. And then I got all hopped up on migraine meds and lost my fine motor skills for eight hours.

I’m supposed to answer questions about my work, which is a little daunting, because I’ve got a zillion half-baked projects right now and I can’t tell which ones I’m supposed to be concentrating on getting totally baked. (Wait, that didn’t come out right.) The YA novel? The non-YA novel? The freelancing? A non-fiction book? (I hope I don’t lose all credibility when I say that my iPhone tarot app keeps showing me the Two of Wands and the Seven of Cups. Yeah, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, closet tarot addicts.)

But I don’t want my dog to get cancer or whatever happens to people who break the chain, so here I go.

What do you write about and why? 

Apparently I write about violently severing ties with institutions that have supported me in the past, like CultureMap and the University of Chicago. (And yeah, there were people who nurtured and supported me at the U of C. Some of them were the same ones who made life miserable, which is complicated.)

But seriously. Looking over my posts from the year, I write about two things: things I love and things that make me furious. The fact that the latter posts generate far, far more site traffic is something I feel very . . . conflicted about. I am what they call a “passionate” person. (Cue theatrical eye-roll: “Typical Aries.” Followed by sarcastic eye-roll: “Stop talking about horoscopes and tarot. They are, empirically speaking, dumb.” Followed by bored eye-roll: “Why so many parentheticals today, Amy? Get it together.” Get off my case, imaginary people!)

So anyway I am “passionate,” which means I get angry about things, and when I get angry I cannot seem to shut my mouth. And for some reason when you’re angry and sarcastic people are far more likely to listen to you than when you’re blissfully chirping about art and life, which are both things I enjoy. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t actually enjoy feeling angry. It gives me a headache and makes my stomach hurt. So I try to save my anger for the things that matter, like when someone disses The Hunger Games.

I have never claimed to write because I can’t help it, or because I would die if I didn’t. Most of my writing is just for fun, and I feel good when I’m doing it. But honestly, when I write a post like the one from yesterday, it’s because I feel like there’s something fighting to get out of me and if I don’t let it out it will tear me to pieces.

Most often the thing that makes me feel this way is misogyny. I’ve seen it wreck women’s lives on a micro- and macro-level, in the news and in the neighborhood, as it were. But it doesn’t wreck every woman’s life. More often I’ve seen it chip away at their confidence, their pride, and their precious energy. Energy they could be putting into daily tasks and daily joys, loving relationships and flourishing careers. Every woman I know is tired. “Winning” patriarchy means losing yourself wholesale, but fighting it means you lose a little of yourself every day, in the energy you expend trying to pick your battles, fight the good fight, be generous where possible and harsh where necessary, and above all stay open and loving in the midst of it all. Fighting patriarchy means you also lose its compensatory pleasures, or cling to them defiantly only to feel them randomly betray you, like when you walk out of the house feeling confident and beautiful in high heels and five minutes later get a lewd comment about them.

(Side note: In 2001, alone and friendless in Portland, Oregon, I went to a co-worker’s fancy party out of desperation and loneliness. It was some kind of gallery or restaurant opening, held in a fancy modern building packed with people I didn’t know. I wore a skirt that went past my knees, a dressy, form-fitting tank top, and a pair of high heels. I was neither over- nor under-dressed for the occasion. What I was, though, was alone. As I stood in the buffet line, a complete stranger came up behind me, leaned in close to my ear, and whispered that he could tell from looking at me I was a “dirty girl.” That pearl of wisdom dropped, he sauntered back over to the corner and resumed leering at me from a distance with his buddy. I grabbed my fringed shawl and left the party without even hitting the ice sculpture martini chute on the way out. End of side note.)

I get angry about racism and poverty as well, but I write about them less, because I’m a white woman from an upper-middle-class background in a comfortable living situation and those things are not burned onto my skin or into my bones by daily encounters. My persona on this blog has thus become “angry, comfortably well-off white woman.” I feel ambivalent about that. I’d like to be smarter about race, especially, and other issues that matter to me. But even more so I’d like to invite women who have experienced racism like I’ve experienced sexism to guest on my blog. (I’m not outing you here, but You Know Who You Are.)

Where besides the blog do you write?

Ah, that is a good question my friend! I wrote a lot for CultureMap Austin this year, but I want to be completely clear about why I have moved on from that. I said in my last post that I had already started pitching elsewhere before the incident, and that is true; I have a piece in the works for the Austin Chronicle right now, and I am working up pitches for other places. I had a few minor frustrations with CultureMap, but mostly I just felt like it was time for me to try other things. However, until yesterday I was planning to keep writing for them to promote people and events—they do more cultural events coverage than any Austin news source that I know about, and it’s easy to get an article in with them quickly. By saying publicly that I do not want to write for them any more, I did not feel like I was sacrificing anything career-wise, because I was not counting on a long-lasting relationship with them. I did, however, sacrifice relationships that I value, which does not feel nearly as noble as sacrificing my career. But there it is.

So! What besides the blog do I write, that might be a better question for me. Like many writers, I have a couple of novels languishing on my hard drive, because I can’t decide which one to really put my back into. I wish I could discuss them in detail, but I’m too chicken and I don’t want to drain the magic, if there’s any in there. One of them is a vaguely sci-fi-ish YA novel (Hunger Games meets Gossip Girl! That’s going to be my elevator pitch, if I ever find myself in an elevator with a person who you give elevator pitches to). I have a handful of ideas for a grown-up novel, including one that’s been percolating for years but that is too scary and sad for me to have written yet.

And oh yeah! I also have a semi-erotic adventure thriller set in the imperialist world of Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Little Princess meets King Solomon’s Mines. (That’s more than an elevator pitch. It’s the whole outline. Don’t worry, the sequel includes characters from the Secret Garden-verse too.)

Additionally, I’m working on a long, angry, funny essay about women’s writing and the culture of misogyny, but it just keeps shifting and changing and somehow Lacan and Althusser keep showing up, and I am so mad at them I can’t tell whether they belong in the essay or not. Maybe I’ll finish it and pitch it, and then when it doesn’t get picked up I will post it here.

Oh yes, I am also co-authoring (and performing in!) Blood, Sweat, and Cheers, the exciting brainchild of Austin’s own awesomely talented one-woman superlative-generator, Kaci Beeler. It’s an original play about the cut-throat world of competitive cheering, and YES it will involve actual competitive-style cheering by actual competitive cheerleaders, and YES I will play an angry cheer coach, and YES you will very much want to see it in 2013.

Your bio lists a lot of things you do besides writing. Are you a writer, a performer, a singer, a comedian, or just an a random angry person with a degree she doesn’t know how to use?

I’m glad you asked that, self! I am a writer who is re-finding her voice. I’m also a singer with a not-great singing voice who doesn’t really write and perform songs anymore because people only liked the funny ones and the sad ones made her cry when she practiced them. Also I don’t think I’ll ever be able to try hard enough to get better at the guitar. I am a rusty performer who has tried to get back into the game by taking improv classes, but I don’t think I’ll ever get great at improv either, mostly because I am unwilling to put the time in. I am really good at drawing mermaids and unicorns, from years of practice as a child. I write comedy but can’t call myself a comedian because I only started taking comedy seriously as an art form, like, two years ago.

Oh hey, I just realized a thing that I love about comedy! It’s this: When I hear jokes about misogyny, I feel happy, not angry. The funnier the joke and the truer it is, the happier and more recognized I feel. I now have some idea of the prodigious skill that goes into great comedy. But the most important thing it has taught me is that you don’t have to yell about misogyny to critique it. You can also make fun of it, you can taunt and tease and torment it like a bully until it runs away crying like the wuss it is. BUT you have to be really smart and good at comedy, or it’s not funny. So I’m working on that. I performed my first sketch comedy show “She-Mergency!” this summer with talented funny lady Lydia Nelson, and since then the amazing Valerie Ward of P-Graph has joined us to form our sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual. Performances forthcoming at This American Live and an upcoming classic sketch cover night.

Which authors do you find inspiring?

Dead? Henry James. Willa Cather. James Baldwin. George Eliot. Marianne Moore. Gwendolyn Brooks. Jane Austen. James Agee. Octavia Butler. James Weldon Johnson.

Living? Sarah Waters. Libba Bray. Emma Donoghue. Jennifer Egan. Doris Lessing. Ursula LeGuin. Alice Munro. Others!

What is your writing process?

I try to write “morning pages” every day. These are the three daily pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness journaling advocated in the cheesy yet wonderful self-help book The Artist’s Way, which I highly recommend. Emotions come out in the morning pages that don’t come out on the screen. When I find that my hand is shaking and I am frowning and writing really fast, it’s usually time to post something that’s going to make my stomach hurt.

The rest of it, the articles and posts that don’t come from the angry place, is all write, write, write, reviserevisereviserevisereviserevise, post, revise again. I would like to figure out how to stretch out that energy and harness it for slower, steadier work, on novels or longer non-fiction, but I am dumb and it is hard.

Boring part over! Here are some fantastic blogs you should check out:

Julie Gillis: Austin-based activist, performer, and sex-positive feminist writes about politics and her own spiritual path.

She Makes Me Laugh: A newly minted comedy blog by improv impresario and puzzle-mistress Valerie Ward. (Be the first kid on your block to put it on your RSS feed!)

Incremental Catastrophe: Smart, interesting, in-depth posts on media, culture, and politics by funny dude Ben Blattberg.

Skoolaid: Melissa Barton is a smart cookie–no, an intelligent layer cake!–who chronicles her fascinating experiences teaching in Chicago public schools.

Aptal Yabanci: Michael Meeuwis blogs quite wittily about being a professor in Ankara, Turkey–where apparently they actually value teaching!

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