Understanding Comedy

I know some funny people. My buddy Dustin is a whole lot of funny, and he has a knack for making people laugh. I like to think that from time to time I can crack wise fairly well.

But there is one area of comedy that constantly leaves me befuddled. Namely, famous comedians and their determination to destroy everything funny about them. It’s like they find that little nook in their soul where comedy’s been hiding all of those years and they torch it like a Japanese soldier’s nest in World War II. (Too soon?)

There’s a veritable laundry list of comics who get famous and then get famously unfunny. Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Al Franken. (Bill Maher doesn’t count because he’s never been funny and always just a pretentious d*ck. Seriously, if the guy slid under a gas truck and blew up into flames, it would be the funniest thing he ever did.)

There are a couple of different pathways to un-funniness in the list above, but they all seem to reach the same goal of tarnishing our memory of people who once made us laugh with what seemed hardly any effort.

I mean, you remember Eddie Murphy, right? He was a rock star, sliding neatly into the place carved by Pryor and then expanding it. Then he got a big head, made Boomerang, and everything’s been down hill since then. Sure, I liked the Nutty Professor remake for a few chuckles, but that’s also where his “funny man in a fat suit” obsession started, so now that’s all but ruined for me as well.

Steve Martin starred in some epically classic movies. He’s one half of the duo that put together my favorite comedy of all time, Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Then he got all full of himself and remade The Pink Panther. I watched it for free, and was so unspeakably angry at the end of it that I wanted to smash the DVD player into shards and cut myself like a teenage girl who just found out Robert Pattinson’s gay. (I can see the future!) The only time he puts out the effort to be funny now is when he hosts an awards show. This is doubly maddening because it proves he can be funny still but is just too lazy to try regularly.

Jim Carrey, meanwhile, just seems to have lost his mind. Jenny McCarthy is likely responsible for making sure it never comes back, but he’d lost it right around Truman Show. Suddenly he was a “serious actor” who was just using comedy to deal with things. Well fine then. I want President Obama to convene a special panel of Nobel Prize winners to examine the law and see if we can ban funny men from therapy and anti-depressants.

Al Franken lost his sense of humor back in the 1980s (with a brief resurgence in 1990/91). Then he too became a humorless jackass. I’m not too sure what the story is with him, but at this point no one was listening to him anymore. Maybe that prompted him to go into politics, the profession where speaking nonsense is a serious job. Actually, let me back date that. He stopped being funny in 1979 and lived off the Saturday Night Live teat until he came into the political ring.

So what is it that breaks inside a comedian? What type of voodoo hex has been cast on them that if they reach any sort of large success, the Devil comes and takes it away again? It makes no sense. None at all! I know that Robert Johnson sold his soul for guitar skill, but did all of these guys go to the Crossroads? If so, would it have been such a problem to hit Eric Clapton with their car before the acoustic version of “Layla” was released?

There are comedians who achieve a fair level of success and still manage to completely kill it. Jim Norton, Bill Burr…and so on. But I’d be sad if another another comic I enjoy hits “superstar” status and just completely burn it out. That would suck, because real comedians in the mold of Carlin — the ones that challenge you, that say uncomfortable things — are in short supply. We live in an era when a movie like Blazing Saddles would never, ever get made, because we’ve actually regressed in terms of free speech as a society. No one would have the brass ones even to try it now, because The View would start pecking like a bunch of hens at it and there’d be this faux outrage that swept the nation.

Maybe that’s what does it. Once a comedian is successful, to retain that success they have to be “safe” since they’ve popped up on the radar of the cultural elites who always need to say something about something. Carlin was entrenched and so they couldn’t dig him out once the pendulum swung backward on what was “acceptable” comedy.

And no, I don’t lay all the blame on “social conservatives” for the squelching of the communal comedic voice like a lot of people I know. When was the last time they were even allowed on the stage? The Married…with Children flap? The days when Howard Stern was still funny and relevant?

It’s the Left that determines what words are OK, and which torches people for saying unpopular things. Just ask Don Imus. (The only example I can think of that draws fire from both sides equally is the Opie & Anthony show, which is the only reason I’m even an XM subscriber.)

The government doesn’t even need to step in an at all. We police ourselves so badly to be PC and avoid “offending” anyone that we’ve sucked all the humor out of the room. Comedy is uncomfortable. It’s talking about death. It’s revenge. It’s the only tool that the outcast or the lonely kid has or had to cope with, and strike back at, the “stronger” kids that made their lives difficult. It’s how the “fat kid” got remembered as the “funny kid.” It’s a release valve for all the crap you have to put up with on a daily basis, all the disappointment that can come with realizing that not everyone gets to be rich or famous, so let’s make fun of those that

So to all the comedians out there whom I still enjoy: I wish you no more success. May all of the contract negotiations for your big break movies fall through, so that you’re stuck with the bitter remembrance of working alongside a dachshund in a love story involving a horse. No wait, then you might go Bobcat Goldthwait on us.

Tell you what, run all contracts by me. I’ll tell you what’s acceptable without being a career killer. 10% is all I’ll charge (off the gross amount).

And to my pal Dustin — I wish you moderate success, because I think you’re funny and I’d like you to remain that way.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding Comedy

  1. I’d add Chevy Chase to the list, although I never found him funny at all. Apparently a bunch of people did. Talk about a humorless guy. I still remember that trainwreck talk show he did. Worse than the Magic Johnson talk show. Horrid.

  2. Denis Leary still manages funny in that Carlin way, when you get him off the set of his Dramady on FX.

    And I agree with what Thomas said. Chevy Chase should be on that list, and I would add Denis Miller. He was okay for a few laughs, but has since lost that edge that made him funny. Now it’s just highbrow attempts at humor that have w-a-y too many dated references.

    1. Chevy Chase is a good catch. He’s been so unfunny for so long that it was easy to forget him, but at least he’s making an effort again on that NBC show (is that still on?).

      I have a hard time with Miller because it really is stagnation, but every so often he hiits an obscure reference that’s so obscure that it’s funny in itself. Definitely not as funny as he used to be though.

      And in terms of female comics, as soon as I find one that’s funny at all, I’ll speak to whether the principle applies across the sexes. 🙂

  3. Re: funny female comics: Ellen DeGeneres is legitimately funny. I seem to remember that her stand-up in the 80’s was pretty good, but she’s taken a wiser career route by just being a funny personality rather than taking roles/jobs that would inevitably distill her talent into goofy schtick (see: Adam Sandler – another guy who is legitimately funny but went for the dumb joke for nearly his entire career; you can say the same about many others, but I’ll throw in Mel Brooks simply because I know it’ll piss off a lot of people).

    (Ellen’s work is very derivative of Bob Newhart, by the way, but never feels stale or stolen).

    I think what it comes down to is this: few artists in any popular genre actually lose their talent as they age, but they do lose focus, lose discipline, and make poor career decisions that diminish their artistic output. Comics might be the most guitly of all.

    And just to be contrarian, I’ll throw this out there: I never got the circle jerk over Carlin. I thought that he was very funny, but I never understood the reverance for him as a genius, especially when his entire generation of comics was so utterly fantastic. It’s cool to prefer Dominique Wilkins to Larry Bird, or Magic to Dr. J, but to pretend that there was a Michael Jordan of that comedic era has always befuddled me.

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