Monday, May 24, 2010

something about comedy

OK so awhile back I was talking to my bosses at the job I had on co-op. Pretty typical conversation, about video games or something and my one boss mentions that he worked on The Godfather, the EA Game. He said he did the door opening animations.

Now, the fact that he mentions it is almost already funny, just because it's a pretty funny thing to really consider someone's task being. It was more of a setup, though, and since my other boss had already known this factoid, the task of the punchline fell on me.

As far as I'm aware, I had four routes. The first one is just stupid, something like "Ha ha, you worked on doors the whole time?". Simple reinforcement of the existing humour. Dumb. The next two would be to somehow overemphasize the door thing, since the ridiculousness of the task had already been somewhat established. I saw three ways to play pretty much the same joke:

1) I heard that game had some of the worst door physics the industry had ever seen.

2) Didn't that game win "Best Door Physics of the Decade"?

3) Didn't that win game of the year due to the impressive door physics?

The first one I disregarded pretty quickly because it was mean spirited. The next two are pretty similar, but have a key distinction. One mocks again the idea of spending so much time just working on door physics, albeit in a flattering way. The other does so as well, but instead of mocking my boss's devotion to door physics, plays up the importance of door physics. It was somewhat wordy and maybe I blew the delivery more than I would have on something simpler, but I still think going with the fourth option was the best choice.

What was my point again? Oh yeah. Essentially given any setup, there's about four basic directions you can go:

-Restate the setup

-Mock the setuper

-Flatter the setuper

-Mock the setup

To use another example:

Person A says something like "I was up all night on Youtube so I didn't get any sleep", a somewhat humourous thing that can act as a setup for various punchlines. Person B has four basic directions to go in, exemplified here:

-"Haha, how could you be so irresponsible?"

-"Yeah, I heard they have some pretty good guides for HOW TO BE A LOSER."

-"Yeah, I heard they have some pretty good guides for how to be awesome!"

-"I guess the series they had on combating insomnia wasn't too useful, eh?"

Ok, these are all pretty horrible punchlines, and the setup doesn't make a lot of sense, but I'm not a comedian. You see what I'm going for. Anyways, it seems to me that most old-school Marx Brothers-type comedy falls in the fourth category - either one person is a straightman that just sets up, or both keep building on each other's premise, but the end result is the same: the situation, not either of the speakers, is kept as the premise of the joke. This is really banter-y material, and it kept on for stuff like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy.

Then, near the birth of "family" sitcoms, where we see this sort of setup/punchline exchange most often in modern history, things were most often in the third category: child character says something adorable, the setup, and a good-natured comment is made about it in jest. The reverse happened equally often.

Modern sitcoms began squarely in category 2 for the most part. Think Seinfeld dialogue - there's quite a bit of the old category 4 stuff, but a lot of it is just the straight man - now usually the wackier character - setting up insults to be shot back at him with every line. George ranting and Jerry commentating was the most common example, of course.

Nowadays I feel a lot of humour is category 1, and it saddens me, because I feel like a good joke really drags after a few of those throwaway confirmations. What we're looking at here is the idea that the audience needs some sort of explanation for what sort of emotion they should have. This goes back as far as live tapings and laugh tracks, but nowadays people need more than "this is funny", they need to be explained why it's funny. Is this because audiences are getting more dumb? Maybe.

More likely, though, it's because humour in sitcoms is getting weirder and more obscure. Since all the good sitcom interactions and plotlines have essentially been played out, the new domain for humour is references and randomness. These sort of things can be difficult to get, I agree, so the common technique is for the show to surround wacky events with straight men and present references as their own joke instead of the basis of the joke to cut down on the understanding required. And by now you know I'm going to mention Family Guy, because Family Guy does this, so I'll go ahead and mention that Family Guy does this sort of thing.

So I pretty much feel like the current situation with mainstream comedy is that all the good insults, clever praise and banter has been somewhat worn out. This leaves parody, absurdity, current events, awkward humour and setups without punchlines, all of which seem to be very popular now, and they're all being done both very well and very poorly by a variety of people. Family Guy, I think, for the most part, shoots for a lot of these and scores a lot of hits and misses. I think a lot of adult swim shows also shoot for the whole gambit and mainly succeed, but I'm a big adult swim fanboy. Lots of sitcoms are based entirely on character interaction in the awkwardness genre and they seem to be doing alright.

So no, I don't have any intrinsic beef with new genres of humour, especially when I feel like there's only so many ways to play the setup/punchline routine and something new does need to be done. What I have beef with is the forcing of new and dynamic humour into the old style of setup/punchline. And now I speak directly of The Hangover, which is a pretty good movie on a lot of levels but is probably the guiltiest offender of this beef-worthy sin.

Most people I've talked to agree that the best part of that movie was Alan, played by the legendary Zach Galifrinakis. And why shouldn't they? The man is consistently hilarious, and he has been for over a decade of playing these sort of roles. This is probably the first time that I feel like any significant percentage of the population would find him funny, though, even though he's doing the same sort of humour he always does. Why? Because of the straight men they surrounded him with.

A typical Zach skit is him being weird and everyone else being slightly confused or afraid. Look at "Between Two Ferns" or any of his excellent roles as Tairy Greene on Tim and Eric Awesome Show - Zach acts irrationally, everyone else has to do very little. Contrast with The Hangover: Zach acts irrationally, all the other characters point out that he's being irrational. This helps the audience laugh as it confirms that, yes, what he said makes no sense, you can laugh. It kills me, though, because all of these throwaway comments and even the mocking facial expressions are just category 1 lines that don't really add anything to the comedy. And really, that's all they can do: if they let him run wild, it would be as inaccessible as anything else he did. If they tried to actually play off the weirdness, it would still be pretty inaccessible and would require writing of unfeasible quality to actually be good.

It's something that's happened in music time and time again: the mainstream culture burns itself out and latches on to the most convenient obscure scene. Mainstream humour has dried the well on insults and banter and now subverts awkwardness and absurdity into a digestible package.

And yeah I'm not too happy about that but whatever, there's still good stuff out there. Tim and Eric Season 5 started with the tagline "Now everyone can laugh!" which then lead to some of their most disgusting and ridiculous skits yet, so I've got a lot of faith that we're still in good shape.

Anyways updating my blog oh wow. I've been thinking about this for awhile and figured I'd maybe put it on the "legitimate blog" I mentioned earlier but that doesn't look like it's happening and this isn't really insightful or even logical material anyways. Mainly just put it here because pqqu guilted me into wanting to update it =)


Anonymous said...


Alyssa said...

Hooray for catholic guilt!
I like this, I like that you just throw out a hypothesis and play with it, try to give it different contexts or scenerios.