Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The single most important truth in comedy

It comes from Larry Gelbart in his eulogy for Billy Wilder.

If what you're writing isn't likely to offend or annoy anyone at all, go back and start again.

My AMERICAN IDOL finale review also ran last week in the HuffingtonPost. It received a ton of comments. A number of them ripped me for being “sarcastic”, “mean”, “snarky”, and “disrespectful”. I figured, “I must be doing something right”.

Comedy by its very nature is subversive. The network note I always dreaded the most was “Could she be more likable? Could he be more nice?” Nice isn’t funny. Nice is death. Angry is funny. Jealousy is funny. Conniving is funny. Vanity is funny. You’re pointing out flaws. You’re zeroing in on weaknesses. You’re holding a mirror up to all the absurdity and ridiculous behavior we human beings exhibit. You’re trying to tell the truth (at least as you see it).

And if you are the least bit critical you are going to offend somebody. You don’t have to be Andrew Dice Clay to be accused of being too mean. Charles Schultz received those same accusations for writing PEANUTS.

It’s a judgment call. You know there are lines you can’t cross. Topics too sensitive.

But over time even those lines blur. In 1969 Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge and his car plunged into the water off Chappaquiddick Island. He escaped but his passenger, a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne did not and lost her life. Kennedy compounded the offense by fleeing the scene. It was a national scandal. No one dared make fun of it. This poor girl died. It was a tragedy.

A few years later Volkswagen had an ad campaign boasting the fact that their cars could float. The National Lampoon did a take-off of the ad showing a VW floating in water with the tagline: “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today”. Many found it hilarious. Not surprisingly, the Kennedy and Kopechne families did not, and I suspect still wouldn’t.

Everyone has a different sense of humor. Just the diverse reactions to the comedy tests I post prove that. You truly can’t please everybody. And when you try you end up pleasing nobody.

My only rules are that (a) I have to be willing to take it as well as dish it out, (b) I won’t purposely try to hurt someone, and (c) I have to be willing to accept the consequences of what I write.

Look, sometimes I’m sure I go too far. On the other hand, I occasionally pull back too far. But if there’s a joke in an article that gets the most criticism it’s almost always the one that receives the most praise too. And be honest with yourself – how many times do you laugh at something really sick or mean or tasteless and say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this” and then go right back to rolling on the floor?

So I guess what I’m saying is, if I’ve written anything on this blog that has offended you I’m truly sorry. But I warn you, there’s a real good chance I’m going to offend you again. Maybe I already did with the Kennedy ad.

45 comments:

Cooper said...

I missed that National Lampoon ad and I'm still laughing 10 minutes after I read your notation of it!

A. Buck Short said...

In the ’72 presidential campaign, Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton was bounced as the Vice Presidential candidate from the McGovern ticket and replaced by Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver after it was divulged that Eagleton was on Thorazine and had been administered electroconvulsive therapy at least twice for severe manic depression and suicidal tendencies. One wag suggested that they should have left Shriver where he was, gotten rid of McGovern and run Ted Kennedy for President with Eagleton still as VP. They would be known as the Timex Ticket – waterproof and shockproof. Come to think of it, when you see a “wag” it’s usually just above an a-hole.

Richard J. Marcej said...

Well, nice can be funny if it's so extreme that it's absurd, like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons.

Kevin Arbouet said...

I don't think I've ever been offended by anything if it's truly funny. Glenn Beck says things that are supposed to be comedic.

But he's not funny.

He's just dumb. And offensive.

Some people were offended by Chris Rock's bit about "Black People vs. Niggas". There wasn't a huge uproar because it was fuckin' funny as hell. He made it clever and biting. But if somebody just writes one sentence, a little punchline without much to support it, well then it's really not that clever is it? If I say, "Gabourey Sidibe looks like a gorilla in a dress", it might make a couple of people smirk but on a whole it will just come off mean and assholish. Wny? Because that line is not very funny. It's not thought out at all. It took me about 2 seconds to think of that and it shows. And that's what most people like Glenn Beck do.

So here's the formula:

The more funny it is, the less offensive it will be.

It ain't exactly calculus but it'll keep you from getting audited by the NAACP.

Mary Stella said...

For weeks, the media has been filled with devastating story after devastating story about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

People in the northern Gulf states are losing their livelihoods, the environment is getting trashed, wildlife is dying and BP can neither get their head out of their ass or a cap on the well.

Down here in the Florida Keys, we're having to plan for what could happen while already dealing with people cancelling vacations or simply not making advance plans -- critical to a tourism based economy -- and we haven't seen a single tar ball from that specific spill. My day job in media and marketing means I have to follow all developments every single day.

Last night I was awake later than usual and caught the first 20 minutes of Letterman. His monologue featured a lot of oil spill jokes. At first I was all, "What the hell. This is no joke." Then I realized that it did me good to laugh about the crisis -- like a break from the constant stressing over it.

Comedy is a good coping mechanism.

Emily Blake said...

That's it. I'm never reading this piffle again. GOOD DAY, SIR.

Lairbo said...

Along similar lines, if I've written something only people who agree with it find funny, I believe I have failed on some fundamental level.

As for the Lampoon spot; yes, it was (and still is) hilarious because it is both a dead-on spoof of that ad campaign (more so when it was current) and gets at the undeniable (and to some, painful) truth about Kennedy's being unelectable as president because of Chappaquiddik.

Rick said...

That's revisionist history about "nobody" making jokes about Teddy Kennedy's hiding for twelve hours after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Sure, Johnny Carson mostly left it alone for a while--and nobody mocked Kopechne--but ridicule in the form of "black humor" of Teddy was commonplace immediately...

ajm said...

The Lampoon nearly "got away" with the Volkswagen ad -- but they used the actual VW logo in it. Volkswagen sued them for trademark infringement and won. IIRC, the Lampoon was obligated to run several prominently placed VW ads for free.

Gary said...

Glen Beck may not be intentionally funny, all the time, and he's certainly not going to please most people who went beyond the tenth grade. He's an entertainer. He's got his shtick figured out and is taking over 20-million to the bank each year. It's a pretty simple formula, but it took some smarts to reach the right place from which he could incite the masses and make those big bucks. He may be an idiot, but he's certainly not stupid.

YEKIMI said...

Reminds me of the time I made a joke about the Space Shuttle about 6 hours after the Challenger exploded. People yelling I was an "insensitive asshole", all sorts of histronics from almost everyone, although a few laughed but then said it was in poor taste and morbid. 8 months later I tell the same joke; laughter all around, no one said it was disgusting or sickening. Guess it's all in the timing.

J.J. said...

You can't offend the stupid or the mentally retarded... But you still gotta try.

Anonymous said...

Yekimi: tragedy + time = comedy.

WV: adidi; more than one pair of Adidas.

benson said...

I wonder if David Lloyd and the MTM crew got a negative comments from "Chuckles Bites the Dust".

Again, a different era, but I would still get an offended call or two even into the '00's when I commented on an absurd death. (Always amazes me what offends people)

Ken, from the radio portion of your career, do you have any funny stories from things you said that may have offended sensitive listeners?

benson said...

the next WV after I posted popped up
"ummatio". Not exactly sure what kind of sex that is, but I'm willing.

Tully said...

I don't think there's any calculus for "too soon"...it was hard to laugh at all the "what you 'talkin 'bout?" jokes on the day Gary Coleman died, because it felt like piling on a pathetic guy. It's a tightrope act, joking about tragedy. When it works, it relieves a lot of tension, though. My favorite story about JFK's assassination, one that I'm not sure is true or apocryphal, was Lenny Bruce's first time on stage after the murder. Supposedly, the audience sat in silence, nervously awaiting Bruce's take on the incident, and he kept them waiting for a minute. Then, he took a deep breath, sighed, and said, "Poor Vaughn Meader, huh?". Vaughn Meader was an impressionist whose career doing JFK skits on his "First Family" albums, came to a screeching halt on Nov 22, 1963. The story has always gone that the audience laughed their heads off, mostly from the tension being broken in such a unique way.

Lee said...

I think there is an element of the old comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable maxim, too. No one will get mad at mocking Simon Cowell, an inarticulate bully whose trillion dollar fortune is built on insulting teenagers, fighting Ryan Seacrest to a draw in a battle of wits, and giving the world its supply of David Hasselhoff albums. On the other hand, making fun of the same kids on a talent show will win you some disapproval.

To kick it up a notch, To Be Or Not To Be is funny (either version) because it makes fun of Nazis. Hard to imagine a real laugh riot making fun of Nazi victims. Joking about sensitive situations is a necessary part of comedy, but it does matter who the butt of the joke is.

A.Buck Short said...

AQUAMAN PART 3 (OF 3)

But why should Floridians, not to mention Louisianinians [citation needed], employ the stick (fear of amputation) in going after the competition, when one could just as easily invoke the Red Lobster’s own carrot enticement. As reported by Newsweek in its recent article: Red Lobster Faring Just Fine in the Post-Spill World:

”According to Rich Jeffers, a spokesman for Red Lobster, the casual-dining seafood chain gets very little of its shrimp from the gulf—or any ocean for that matter. Instead, it grows "farm-raised" shrimp in ponds throughout South America and Asia, and at any given moment, the company has enough shrimp to meet the demand of all 700-plus of its locations worldwide for at least six months.”

Mmm, mmm good. The magazine does, however warn that,

“In order to keep so many crustaceans alive—there can be up to 170,000 shrimp larvae in a single pond an acre wide and a couple meters deep—antibiotics are pumped into the water. Environmentalists have decried such practices… but Jeffers says all their farms are closely inspected and certified by the Aquaculture Certification Council” --- quite possibly a division of the Interior Departments acclaimed Minerals Management Service (MMS). In any case, in maritime public relations parlance, the video footage of the above is known as a spinning reel.

The article added that although Long John Silver’s “was not so forthcoming about the source of their shrimp,” the national fast food chain did email they were “not affected by the oil spill.” Arrrrrgh! For some reason the magazine failed to take note of the late Arthur Treacher turning over in his grave.

I hope that clears things up. Sleep well Ms. Stella.

A.Buck Short said...

AQUAMAN PART 2 (OF 3)

To modern divers, mantis shrimp are better known as “thumb splitters” (go ahead, look it up), because of the frequency with which they have been known to severely mutilate human appendages or pose a risk thereof (see Paris Hilton, op cit?) with one of their claws of preference: the spearer used for stunning, or the hefty smasher most adept at dismemberment. According to USA Today, "There are a half dozen species capable of breaking a standard glass aquarium" with that sucker. In its seminal article Mantis Shrimp: Pet or Pest(not an Ed Wood production), About.com describes said blow as having the force of a .22 bullet. Just what the world has been waiting for, drive-by seafood. And yet, nowhere have I seen the word “tasty” employed anywhere in conjunction with this delicacy.

On the plus side, these critters have been known to remain monogamous for more than 20 years (do not bother seeing Pamela Anderson). Also, Mary, on the plus side for competing shrimping centers, the Manti are likely a bitch to catch – and not just because of their preference for sequestering themselves in rocks or other dark and out of the way places (see Tommy Lee). Noting that many a home hobbyist has been “pinched, slashed and attacked while trying to remove a Mantis Shrimp from their aquarium,” About.com further offers this caveat for removal and “disposal”:

-- First and foremost…it is wise to ALWAYS wear a pair of heavy gloves!

-- If you have found it has taken up residence in a piece of rock…. Pick up the rock, and using a turkey baster or syringe, squirt freshwater into the hole…. [or] Use the same method, but with carbonated water or club soda instead (honest).

And there you have it ladies and gentlemen, when you thought you had exhausted the myriad uses of club soda! Has BP tried that in bulk?

jackscribe said...

Funny's funny - your use of humor to lampoon AI's lameness was well-targeted. The show 'jumped the shark' this past season...but it's still a valuable franchise with a loyal fanbase.

A.Buck Short said...

Right -Dyslectica: the #1 crippler of assbackward commenters.

That VW isn’t out to see. Just getting an oil change, and by way of apology for that to Mary Stella. here's the actual beginning.

AQUAMAN PART 1 (OF 3)

[In 3 parts – attempting reverse order posting for continuity -- because blogger apparently has the 60 votes to cut this short.] Gee, thanks Mary S., just what I needed. While your cohorts are no doubt out in skiffs and trawlers laying oil booms, you’ve got me off on two-masted tangent. I don’t know if the same spots are airing where you are, but here in Texas, Red Lobster commercials are assuring all that the $11.99 “Festival of Shrimp” is proceeding on schedule. Gulf Stream be damned.

With one minor qualification. The spots are careful to allude that the chain is featuring “Chesapeake” shrimp – apparently not only to the casual diner but to the fear of anything emanating the slightest bit west of Tampa. Thereby also subscribing to the old nautical adage not to put anything in your mouth until you know where it’s been. (I say nautical, because I believe this was stressed in a Pamela Anderson video aboard some sort of small pleasure craft.)

But Mary, I’d like to offer some reassurance to you and everyone in the Keys – Largo, Plantation, Marathon, Alicia…. Having once before gifted byKenLevine with an overly comprehensive foray into cetacean mating rituals, I’ve been chomping at the bit to once again trot out the old marine biology credentials. And no guff about mixed metaphors – what you never heard of a seahorse? (That turning sound you hear is Bennett Cerf in his grave.) Pay no attention to that man with a propensity for the arcane behind the curtain.

From what I know, there are basically two kinds of shrimp inhabiting Chesapeake Bay and the immediate Tidewater region – although others are rumored to visit during Fleet Week.

1) You basic Grass Shrimp - generally known as “grass shrimp” until making an appearance on the Red Lobster plate as “Popcorn Shrimp.” In other words shrimp shrimp – in culinary terms, a redundancy.

2) The more formidable Mantis Shrimp, generally approaching 12” in length and in rare cases up to a yard (always order the footlong – they’re meaty enough). Not a true shrimp, but a crustacean so called because of their uncanny resemblance to the terrestrial praying mantis. Realizing that the praying mantis analogy might prompt the local chicks to literally cap off a meal by biting their date’s head off, the ancient Assyrians referred to these creatures as sea locusts. (As you may have gathered, the concept of a focus group was unknown to Chaldean culture. See also, Pamela Anderson.) At any rate, hardly a competitor for America’s palate

Charles H. Bryan said...

Is it too soon to hit on Tipper Gore?

w.v. - "britcha" - Term used by someone who is going to force you into trousers, e.g., "I'm gonna britcha."

Anonymous said...

Comedy is cruel... it's always at someone's expense.

How funny do you want to be?

Mel said...

Just curious what you think of shows like South Park and Family Guy that seem to exist solely to push the envelope of taste.

Sally creeping down the alley said...

@Mel: Who's taste? Yours? Mine? The FCC's? And that envelop? Who gets to say how big it is or how much it can hold?

If I'm not offending someone, then I'm not doing my job. Somebody famous said something like that anyway. It applies.

bevo said...

I would rather you go too far than be Gallagher.

Question for Friday: There is an episode of MASH where Hawkeye walks around camp in the buff. The episode is very well shot and very funny. How did the idea come up? Did the censor people have an issue with it? Did anyone think the idea overwhelmed the story?

wv: likert - a scale used in psychographic research where respondents select from numerical anchors such as a 1 to 5, 1 to 7 or, 1 to 9.

Folks, I am not making that one up.

Anonymous said...

Steve Martin - Comedy is not pretty.

Mark Bennett

Rebecca said...

On the weekend, a friend of mine told me a story about his aunt who received a copy of a magazine that both my friend and I each had a story in (two separate stories). His was first and being a story about construction workers, contained the f-bomb. The aunt, a staunch Catholic, refused to read it and moved on. To my story. Which was about cloning.

The aunt was SO incensed, she called the publisher and told him she was NEVER going to read his magazine again and to cancel her subscription, even if it was a gift.

Some people are going to be upset about your writing, no matter what.

D. McEwan said...

"Richard J. Marcej said...
Well, nice can be funny if it's so extreme that it's absurd, like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons."


There's nothing "nice" about Ned Flanders. If he were my neighbor, I'd hate him more than Homer does. He's busy warping his two poor kids' minds with his sick, anti-pleasure/anti-brains/anti-Life religion. In this season alone, when given access to a citywide surveillance system, the real Ned Flanders came out, as he tried to micro-manage the lives of the whole town according to his warped views from his stupid Bible and idiot church, turning of course, into the religio-Fascist he's always been at root.

Ned Flanders is Evil. There's a very good reason that, whenever Satan appears in a Simpson's episode, it's always Ned with horns and goat hooves. I've known a lot of "Ned Flanders" over the years, am related to tons of them, and they are all Evil!

Well fortunately, I never offend anyone, and no one ever takes me to task for my more-outre japes.

Well, not today, anyway.

I've been fighting this battle for years, since the time, 40 years ago, when the administration of my college tried to get the editor of the school paper to kick me off the staff for my weekly humor column, in which I often rather savagely went after the administration. (My editor stuck up for me, and my column ran for four years, and was HATED by the administrators for its entire run.)

As I've told everyone who ever tried to censor me, those that failed and those that succeeded: "I offended someone? GOOD! If they're offended by what I've written, then they were SUPPOSED to be offended. It's good for them"

And I do enjoy the irony that the book I dedicated to my parents is full of jokes that attack the religion which killed them (and is the reason they didn't live long enough to read it themselves), and that there is much in it that would have offended its dedicatees. Good Heavens, if something I'd written hadn't offended Mother, it would be lousy indeed. Mother actually understood this, and would ask permission before coming to see me in shows, particularly if they were improvised shows, because she knew I might be inhibited by her presence. In my younger days, I would ask her to stay away for that very reason. By my mid-30s, it was a dead issue. I would no longer censor myself onstage for any reason (and seldom offstage either), and if my parents WERE in the audience, I would then use that to give a shocking joke a caper twist. "Look, my mother there in the second row just turned scarlet!"

WV: dergree: Der third is der worst.

D. McEwan said...

Well, not yet today anyway.

SuperBK said...

I don't remember anything offensive, except maybe political statements, but I think you made only one in the last five years. So here's mine: "Maybe we need a couple of oil men in the White House - they'd know what do do with the spill.

brickben said...

Tragedy plus time equals comedy. So sooner or later there will be some decent jokes about Obama...

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

All good stuff, but the correct expression is "champing at the bit."

The Milner Coupe said...

More offensive than that VW ad was Kennedy's long senatorial career after showing such cowardice.

That Vaughan Meader joke shows shows how funny Bruce was even without the controversy. Brilliant.

Patrick said...

@ Gary: Glenn Beck makes $20 million a year! Now if I have ever heard anything so unfunny and offense, AND never to be repeeated again ...

On a lighter note, at least AI is done for a few months, and the oil spill is almost capped.

Greed and pop culture rule America. I think we should all take a time out and visit the nearest museum. Just a thought.

Peace to all you fledglings and nominally paid talents.

Tom said...

Whatchu talkin bout, Willis?

Anonymous said...

Hey, wasn't it actually one of your jokes about...

"yeah, and they said Thomas Edison was nuts too!"
"well...they also said that about a lot of NUTS!"

Just saying, people being offended is not a good guage of quality. Whether they are or are not.

Anonymous said...

Canned laughter is an insult to comedy on TV. The constant laugh track trys to portray the lame dialogue on the equally lame sitcoms as something highly hilarious.
One can just imagine an audience being paid to provide laughter, and being unable to laugh at a truly funny and clever satirical program because they just don't get it.

spreng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
spreng said...

As my late friend Jimmy Pearson liked to say, "If you can't be offensive, why bother?"

Bill Peschel said...

Let's go back to Larry Gelbart's point and look at it again:

"If what you're writing isn't likely to offend or annoy anyone at all, go back and start again."

Is this "the single most important truth in comedy?"

Let's see, if it is, then we might as well dump all of P.G. Wodehouse. Who can get offended by Wooster and Jeeves?

Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat"? Sink it. It must suck.

Bill Cosby's monologues about growing up, including the classic album "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With." Fugetabout it.

Well, except for "The Chicken Heart that Ate New York City." That probably annoyed New Yorkers, so maybe that should be disallowed.

Ah, is "Tom Sawyer" funny? Twain's "Huck Finn" got a lot of grief from the moment it was published (did you know an engraver etched a penis in the illustration of Uncle Silas 'presenting' himself before Huck? It actually made it into print, but not to the readers, before it was discovered. Twain was able to get rid of every copy so that even now an example doesn't exist.)

Anyway, "Tom Sawyer" must not be funny, since no one is offended by it.

And didn't you run some scenes from "Frazier" that this crowd loved? Were the manufacturers of irons offended when Niles burned his pants?

Or maybe we should admit that Roger Rabbit nailed it on the head when he got out of those handcuffs, and explained that he could only do it "when it was funny."

The Kid In The Front Row said...

This is great. It's something I already know, but-- it's good to be reminded of this simple fact.. to push that boundary a litte...

Tom K Mason said...

Just to give props to the writer, the VW-Ted Kennedy ad - which I find laugh-out-loud funny - is credited to Anne Beatts.

Anonymous said...

If you really want transgressive humour, look at http://www.sickipedia.org/ - there's a lot of unfunny offensive "jokes" there, but there's some incredibly witty ones too. No topic sacred, the only common theme is that they're in screamingly bad taste.

Katlyn Tillman said...

Couldn't agree more with what you wrote in this blog. Comedy is Offensive. Simple as that. And the more funny it is the less offensive it is. :-) I have a friend Tristan that always jokes around and his jokes are offensive but they're funny so I never get mad. But whenever he makes a joke and I'm not in a joking mood. I end up biting his head off for it XD