Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Things Are Funny

Things that are funny are most often so because of their incongruity. That is, we don’t expect things to turn out the way they do and there is something mirth-provoking about the unexpected happening. Thus, stand-up comedy is the hardest kind because the audience expects the comedian to be funny. It is as if some members of the audience are saying either, “We came here to laugh, give us an excuse to do so,” or, “I’m here smart guy, make me laugh.”
For awhile in our country, stand-up comics relied on ugly words to get laughs, because dirty language was unexpected in polite society. Lenny Bruce started the foul mouthed trend and Richard Pryor perfected it. Since then almost all comedians drag their routines through the gutter. The same pattern happened with sexual innuendo until it got so blatant as to be completely humorless.
Ventriloquists have the toughest job as comics, even though the incongruity feature is built in and should work to their advantage. Edgar Bergen, with his Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, used to rely on language games, witticisms, misunderstandings and social blunders for laughs. Bergen had Charlie make some comments from time to time about his amorous aspirations with an audience member, but never to the point of bawdiness. Bergen was so skillful with his act that across the popular culture world, it was as if his dummies were real people.
Modern day ventriloquists should recognize from the history of their trade that suspension of disbelief is a must. People have to believe the dummies are real people. The audience should not say, “Charles is really a good ventriloquist, he didn’t move his lips at all.” Rather they should say, “Do you remember what Bingy said to Charles?” The dummy Bingy should be real in the minds of the audience. The humor comes from the incongruity implicit in one individual being able to project multiple believable personalities through blocks of wood.
Professional funnymen with their staff of writers, egoists like Jay Leno and Conan O’Brian, are just not funny. In fact, they are boring, especially with all the self-pity they are currently spewing across the networks. David Letterman is, however, quite funny, not so much when he does the jokes his tawdry writers produce, but when he is spontaneously stupid, which happens often. The incongruity feature is something like, “How did a dolt like that get and keep a job and why am I watching and enjoying this?”
Our forebears in the forests and fetid caves probably guffawed when someone stumped his toe, not because they enjoyed another person’s agony, but because they expected the victim to have been more careful walking. The incongruity was the joke. The most hilarious episode in my recent life was when I fell backwards while sitting on a stump in the back yard. Family members aided, abetted and prolonged the incongruous episode. I was not a stand-up comic there on the ground, flat of my back. But I made people laugh, including myself.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

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