Although this post is about humor, I’m not going to attempt to make it funny. Too many people think they’re funny when they’re not. So, you must lurk elsewhere for some chuckles.
Most of the time, humor isn’t seen as an elevated art form. Obviously, where art is displayed or performed has an impact on its relative sophistication. We house Michelangelo’s masterpieces in museums, play Bach’s pieces in beautiful concert halls and keep Shakespeare’s plays in leather-bound books. Comedy is seen most often on tv, where you have to comb through a lot of crap to find the gems. However, good humor depends on brilliance and should be respected as much as any Picasso or Coltrane piece.
In college, one of my good friends and I decided on the best type of humor. Ours, of course. Our type of humor centers mostly on the deadpan. The deadpan is successful when all parties are involved and no one breaks the serious façade. My friends and I idolized Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), which have perfected the deadpan. Guest depicts eccentric folks who speak and act in unusual ways, but never acknowledge the departure from normalcy. The situations and conversations do not have to be outrageous—often the best laughs come from subtle comments. In one a good moment from Best in Show, one of the actors describes the beautiful weather at the dog show with “You couldn’t have ordered up a nicer day.” His tone of voice combined with the absurdity of the notion that you could demand and buy nice weather is very funny. One of my favorite moments comes from Jennifer Coolidge talking about her relationship with her husband, who is at least forty years older than she. She says, “We could not talk or talk forever…and still find things to not to talk about.” The veracity of the statement is mind-boggling, and only Coolidge could deliver it.
What makes Guest’s movies so remarkable is the fact that the actors improvise the entire script. They’re given guidelines for each scene, but no actual script to read. Larry David’s television series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, works on the same principles. The actors involved must be very talented to pull off humor at this level. We’ve all seen parts of Whose Line is it Anyway? that have made us cringe. This comedy form is difficult—there are few easy laughs, which seem all too bountiful in slapstick comedy.
Another hilarious deadpan artist is Stephen Colbert. He conducts his fake news show as a conservative who worships Bill O’Reilly. Never breaking his conservative perspective, he manages to deliver the news, make you laugh and point out the absurdity of some conservative political positions.
A recent cartoon in the New Yorker sums up my sense of humor. Rarely do I laugh out loud from reading literature or cartoons (major exception being David Sedaris books), but I laughed heartily when I saw this cartoon. Of course I called up my good friend from college to show her, and we agreed that it was the funniest cartoon either of us had ever seen. (Hopefully the New Yorker won’t mind that I didn’t obtain permission to use this image…)
I realize all humor is subjective. The only thing that I’ve found that everyone laughs at is the fact that during college I moved with my parents to a retirement community, where I got hit on by 80 year-old men named Vinny and Murray. Still sweethearts, though. In the meantime, while you are on your own quest for non-offensive, yet hilarious anecdotes, I urge you to respect the deadpan, and maybe even chuckle a little.