They’re Dying Up There

At last a TV series about comedy. Not of comedy, but about comedy. Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here premiered last Sunday, and took viewers back to 1970s Hollywood to follow the lives and loves of a group of standup comics as they struggled to achieve comedy’s golden ring, a spot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The show is based, in concept at least, on William Knoedelseder’s 1994 nonfiction book, I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era. Leave it to Hollywood’s infinite wisdom (read: pandering to puerile tastes) to turn an excellent work of reportage into a formulaic, predictable, and hugely overacted (I lost count of the exclamation points in the teleplay after fifteen minutes) paean to drugs, booze, cheap sex, and the word “fuck.”

Steve Martin produced an album in 1979 titled Comedy Is Not Pretty! Apparently it’s not funny anymore either. True, the show’s focus is dramatic, but it is also about comedy and features many scenes of comics performing. In fifty-plus minutes I got three grins, one chuckle, and zero real laughs.

Too bad. The premise had promise.

But I’m not writing this review/blog to skewer the show (although it is fun to expose the self-proclaimed “tastemakers” for the ratings suckups that they are). Instead I want to pose a question about the timeframe of the show. Before it even aired I wondered, why the 1970s? That’s almost fifty years ago, and whether or not that decade truly was the “golden age of standup,” hardly anyone remembers, especially the under-fifty crowd this show seems to be aimed at.

As always, I have a theory (not a conspiracy theory, just a regular one).

Good humor is (or was) largely absurdity or irony. Popular humor of today, however, seems a lot like popular film and books today, which I find increasingly polemical. The premise too often seems not to be that something doesn’t make sense, but that something is wrong and someone else (or some group) is to blame.

What passes for comedy these days on TV are political shows (which is ironic in its own way). I’m talking not only about The Daily Show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, and even good-old Saturday Night Live, which has experienced something of a renaissance now that it has some true political targets to lampoon, but also the supposedly mainstream political shows like Hannity and Hard Ball, which take themselves far too seriously to be anything but comedy.

It’s all part of a cultural shift in the last couple of generations that has moved away from humorous concepts and focused instead on targets of derision[1]. It’s fostered by that relentless corporate marketing strategy that tells every man, woman, and child in America, regardless of education and experience, that your opinion matters and that however crappy your life is, it’s not your fault. (Okay, so it is a conspiracy theory.)

What I think is that maybe producers Jim Carrey and David Flebotte missed those old days when humor was about stuff and not enemies, and that’s why they cleaved to a twenty-year-old nonfiction book’s nostalgic take on a tough business, rather than try to portray standup from the perspective of the 21st century. I’m probably wrong about that, but it’s nice to hope.

 


[1] Yes, there are exceptions in both times, but I’m talking about general trends.

Urgent Humor, or Why I (Try To) Write Funny Stuff

Why, with the world in the shape it’s in, do I write funny stuff?

I suppose I should be angry, like so many other people these days, but I just can’t. Sure, I care about the injustices that seem to be everywhere, but I wonder about the best way to address them. That’s where the humor comes in. I see it as kind of a way to open a dialogue, and make people comfortable, and once you’ve got them involved you can start to sneak in little absurdities. If they’re creative, they make people laugh, and if they’re poignant, they make people think.

Speaking of absurdity, you might be surprised at how many of our disagreements are simply language issues.

Case in point, here’s a recent phone conversation I had with a medical center receptionist. (It’s edited for brevity.)

Me: We recently switched insurance, and I need to see a doctor. So I need to get a new primary care physician, right?

MCR: Yes, however, there’s only one doctor in your area who’s accepting new patients.

Me: Well, that’s fine.

MCR: But she doesn’t have any appointments available until August.

Me: Umm, but I need to see a doctor sooner than that.

MCR: You should go to Urgent Care.

Me: But it’s not exactly urgent. Just a neck pain.

MCR: Oh, that’s okay. Urgent Care is for things like colds and strains; it isn’t really for urgent matters.

Me: So that’s why they call it Urgent Care.

MCR: Huh?

Me: So can I just drop in at Urgent Care?

MCR: Yes, but you may have to wait an hour or two to be seen.

Me: What if it was really urgent?

MCR: You’d have to go to the emergency room of course.

Me: Why don’t they call that Urgent Care?

MCR: Then what would they call Urgent Care?

Me: How about, I Can’t Wait Three Months for an Appointment Care?

MCR: Huh?

I can’t guarantee that the MCR got my point, but at least we didn’t get in each other’s faces (metaphorically speaking), and it lessened my pain and anger to get a laugh out of the situation.

That’s one of the great things about humor, in general—it lessens the pain and anger. What pain and anger? Whatever you got.

I suppose I should tie this into my forthcoming novel. Here goes: Mr. Neutron—the book I wrote that is the motivation for this series of blogs and which is coming out in the spring of 2018—is a satire. So it’s full of pain and anger-lessening yucks that are designed to make a point.

What’s So Funny About That?

My wife was watching one of those Sandra Bullock comedies recently, The Proposal, she says. I was nearby, earbuds oozing jazz while I wrote—such is family time at La Casa Ponepinto. And she was laughing at this scene: Sandy B carrying a little dog and trying desperately to conduct a cell phone call, when a hawk swooped down and carried the dog away. She managed to save the dog from the bird, but in the process dropped her phone, which the bird snatched up. Frantic at losing her conversation, Sandy tried to convince the hawk to exchange the dog for the phone.

Funny?

My wife thought so. Maybe I’d missed something in the dialogue by listening to music.

Flash back to a week before, when we went to a performance by John Cleese, the now 79-year-old comedian best known for his part in the 1970s BBC series Monty Python, and the troupe’s movies of the next decade. During the show he screened a variety of clips from the old shows and movies, including one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur faces off against the Black Knight in his quest for the grail. They battle until Arthur hacks off one of the knight’s arms. Undaunted, the knight keeps fighting and Arthur is forced to dismember him, limb by limb, down to a head and torso. Still the knight taunts the king to come back and fight.

Funny?

I, and the rest of the audience howled, in part from the memory, but also because, yeah, it’s hilarious.

Why one and not the other?

As Cleese explained, the Black Knight, despite his loss of limbs, exhibits not the slightest pain. A garden hose of blood spurts from his wounds, but all he can do is fight on, mindlessly. But should the injured party show pain, the dynamic shifts from absurdity to cruelty. I’m not so sure about offering a small dog to a ravenous hawk. Maybe that’s what made the Sandra Bullock scene unfunny for me—no way the dog wouldn’t feel the bird’s talons embedded in its flesh. No way it deserved that treatment. The Black Knight? Well, he started it.

I also think the pure absurdity of the scene has something to do with it. The Black Knight’s reactions are so far from reality that they can’t be taken seriously. In the Bullock scene, the danger is exaggerated, but not to absurd proportions (except perhaps for the fact that a 10 pound hawk cannot fly off with a 20 pound dog).

But who knows? There are so many types of humor, so many styles of funny, and so many different tastes. What’s funny to one person might be stupid or insulting to another. I’ll take a look at that aspect of humor in future posts.