austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Just be a real Punchinello, fellow

I suspect that the History Channel's History of the Joke was a foredoomed effort for me in part because of the choice of Lewis Black as host. I suppose Lewis Black is a comedian more than he is anything else, but he has never really struck me as a guy who tells jokes or funny stories. He seems to more start with some topic, start going back and forth in shorter and more frantic sentences, until finally he explodes, leaving behind a little blackened mark on the floor, like in a Tex Avery cartoon. I don't know who among modern comedians I'd ask to be centerpiece for a two-hour documentary about ``the joke'', but I think his style clashes with mine enough that I was guaranteed to watch more than anything else to see what I would disagree with.

And, oh, there was a good bit to disagree with. First is the title, which suggests a description of how comedy has evolved. There are a few trinkets tossed in that direction, mostly in what the Greeks thought were appropriate Comic Personas, or how Shakespeare Revivals made it possible to have women performing on stage, but there wasn't much history, which I wanted. It can take a small battalion of graduate students doing elaborate forensic analysis to successfully identify an 18th century joke except when it involves puppets whacking each other with sticks. Why couldn't we have some cues to how to decode what we can't figure out? But the show they wanted to make was more of contemporary comics making guesses about why we laugh at jokes.

Here's the only theory about why we laugh at jokes that I believe: we laugh at jokes because that is the proper response to jokes. It would be odd to respond to a joke by flapping your arms instead. The documentary tried in part to push the ``we laugh at jokes because of the surprise'' theory. While I'll admit that surprise can strengthen a joke's impact, the theory fails to explain why people ever find a joke funny the second time, and spectacularly fails to guess why a joke might be funnier on a repeated hearing. Or why it's possible for a joke to be funny even when you see the punch line coming -- or why some jokes are funniest when you know what's coming. Also, the surprise theory lends itself to what I find a particularly tiresome style of joke, the endless stream of non sequiturs.

Yeah, yeah, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, except if you actually watch that Monty Python episode you'll notice the Spanish Inquisition barging in was set up so it was a sensible consequence. And I realize I may be suspected of hypocrisy given how often my weekly humor pieces make use of big logical leaps between subject and predicate. At the risk of discussing my dull working habits, though: they're logical leaps, generally derived by thinking carefully about how to exaggerate one trait or another until it strikes me as silly. I don't typically drop in a random walk of words and trust they'll somehow be funny. They may not be funny, but it's not for want of design.

The documentary also tries to push the theory of really funny jokes being ones that expose taboos. Again while I agree taboos can provide good joke fodder, they also can be quite tedious. Touching close enough to a taboo can be exciting, and that's good for a laugh, but that can be more the laugh of getting away with something and less one of hitting something funny. I think it's overrated as a comic source, and I'd rather that it wasn't given quite so much emphasis.

The effect of the whole thing -- which included a lot of comedians performing basic jokes, and guesses about what can and can't be used to produce comedy -- was to make me wonder what it is I'm not getting. Except I'm pretty sure I understand what it is I'm not laughing at, so the question becomes: what's the gap between identifying a joke and finding it funny?

Part of the background meant to give the piece academic credentials were segments from those professors who hoped to find ``the funniest joke in the world'', although what their methodology was actually geared up to find was a joke which would reliably get laughs, a different affair. The professor's presentation gave rise to the question of whether it's possible for absolutely everyone to learn how to tell a joke. I'm inclined to think there may be a few people perfectly unable to, the way there are tone-deaf people who try though they might wouldn't have the knack of playing a piece of music, but past that pretty near anyone could learn to be at least competent. If you can teach most anyone to give a speech (granting this may not yet be proven possible), they can certainly put the setup and the punch line together accurately.

So there it is. I suppose they were successful in making the show they wanted, but it wasn't the show I was hoping they would make.

Trivia: After John Glenn's Mercury spacecraft reached orbit, the Goddard Space Flight Center computers estimated that his trajectory should be good for almost 100 orbits. Source: This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, Loyd S Swenson Jr, James M Grimwood, Charles C Alexander, NASA SP-4201.

Currently Reading: A History of Pi, Petr Beckmann. Man, he's angry with all kinds of people, maybe more upset with circle-squarers than with hippies, if you can imagine. (The book was originally published in the early 70s.)


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