Sunday, May 22, 2011

My reaction to yesterday's comedy test

Thanks to everyone who participated in yesterday’s Comedy Test. As always, your responses were fascinating. And ultimately, there’s a point to all this for you struggling writers. Stay tuned.  

I choose these scenes very specifically – showcasing different types of comedies and different eras. I try to select the funniest and/or most classic examples and yet, invariably, no matter what scene I present, there are quite a few of you who don’t find them funny.

And that’s perfectly okay There are no right answers.

But what it shows is how delicate the notion of comedy is. How many factors play into whether it works.  Here are just a few:

Your nationality.
Whether you like or dislike slapstick.
The performances.
The pace.
Your sensitivity to political, racial, or sexual material.
Your age.
The shock value.
The style.
The length.
Your mood at the time you’re watching.
Your history.
Your willingness to stick with a long set up.
The amount of similar material you’ve already seen.
Your prejudices.
Your level of intelligence.
How relatable the material is to you.
Your knowledge of the references.
The structure of the material.

And everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s.

Personally, I found yesterday’s scene amusing with some hilarious moments sprinkled in. The “Are you a racist?” test had me on the floor. Some of the other bits worked better for me than others. I happen to like Ricky Gervais. But completely understand that he’s an acquired taste. If I’m being honest, the pace was a little slow for my taste. But I was willing to give Gervais the benefit of the doubt and stick with it. Had it been another comedian I didn’t like as well, or had it been a comedian I didn’t know, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be grabbing the remote a couple of minutes in.

The Kate Winslet scene from EXTRAS that some of you made reference to is also inspired but I went with this one because it had the added spin of the racial element.

Anyway, here’s that ultimate point – I’m always asked: “when you write a script, how do you know if it’s funny?” Well, as you can see, nothing is funny to everybody. Some people hate Ricky Gervais, Woody Allen, David Hyde Pierce (they’re idiots), Jackie Gleason, you name it. There is no perfect yardstick. YOU have to think it’s funny. You have to believe in your material. I don’t think there’s a single stand-up comedian who hasn’t died on stage. There’s not a writer I know who hasn’t received dozens of rejection letters.

If you don’t like your stuff, no one will. No one might anyway, but still, you’ve got to please yourself first. Who knows? Just maybe you are right.

Tomorrow:  Roseanne wrote an article for New York magazine recently giving "her side" of the story re her series ROSEANNE.  I take issue with a lot of her points and will tell you why Monday.


RyderDA said...

I see and agree with your premise, as I found the segment neither interesting, nor funny, nor worth my time to watch it -- and I saw the "Are You A Racist" test (in fact I gave up not long after, thinking "well, if that's what this is going to do, I'll change the channel").

So is that how you explain shows like "Sports Night" that are brilliantly written, brilliantly assembled, with a killer cast, yet never find an audience and die a (far too untimely) death??

Mac said...

Very interesting, I love these comedy tests.
I avoid most online comedy debate as it's usually just people telling other people they're WRONG!! for finding something funny/not funny. As your list of 'factors' shows, there's obviously more to it than being 'right' or 'wrong.'
Having said that, I've always maintained that anyone who didn't laugh at the Larry Sanders Show should be taken out and shot. It's good to acknowledge subjectivity but sometimes you have the draw the line.

Mister Charlie said...

Cool. It seems my answer was close to what you are saying here. Which simply means you must be as brilliant as I am...hope that makes you feel good! heh

David in Taipei said...

I thought the clip was hilarious, and I actually liked the slow pace. A slower pace, for me, makes the situation more realistic and less like slapstick.

What I found interesting was that part of this scene was used as an example within a Garry Shandling interview, in which Shandling clearly implied that Gervais is racist and anti-Semetic, among other things. This from a comedian who himself made a career out of portraying awkward, pathetic moments within celebrity culture. His comment after the "black doll" clip was, "The comedy we're talking about comes from tragedy and suffering."

Google "ricky gervais garry shandling" and watch the highlights reel from Ricky's encounter with Shandling. It's as squirm-inducing as anything from The Office or The Larry Sanders show, you'd think it's a set-up, but I think not.

Ref said...

Like Gervais, find Shandling self-important and tiresome, liked early Woody, later not so much. How the hell can any sentient person NOT find David Hyde Pierce funny?

jbryant said...

I think a lot of us develop our comic taste when young, and a steady diet of, say, American sitcoms can make anything that's not paced and performed in that joke-joke-joke style seem like a Russian novel (the only explanation I can think of for those who thought the clip played more like a drama).

I've seen only a couple episodes of EXTRAS, but found them excellent. In the case of this clip, shouldn't it have been mentioned that it seems to be only about half the episode, with some pretty obvious ellipses where material not related to this plotline was excised? Might help explain why the pacing seemed "off" to some people. I would assume that the intercutting of the storylines would affect the comic ebb and flow.

Anyway, I thought it was great. Clearly, the "comedy of embarrassment" is not for everyone -- perhaps some people can't get past identifying too strongly with the embarrassed party? -- but I've never had trouble cringing and laughing at the same time.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I'm a fan of Gervais, and thought the best of Extras (Ian McKellan, Kate Winslet, a couple of others) topped The Office (though as I type this, I remember I was hugely disappointed in RG's standup-- mean-spririted and trying to hard to be provocative. IMHO.). The pace and tone of both shows is, as Ken said, an acquired taste, I suspect that's as true for Brits as for Americans. We weren't the ones who kept Benny Hill on the air for four hundred years

A couple of people have mentioned Shandling: If you're a fan or curious, he's going to be on Marc Maron's WTF podcast this week. Another comedian on an earlier WTF (forget who) said that Shandling has gone on a kind of spiritual quest and it's changed his outlook. I'm a huge Sanders fan, so I'm curious about it.

This is the first time I've seen Roseanne's piece described as an "article"-- all the other commentary I've seen said "rant", "tirade" or "screed". But I'm going to read it 'cause I'm interested in Ken's take, and whatever happened behind the scenes to produce that train-wreck last year, the middle seasons of her show were funny, and as she says, one of the few times in recent years that non-yuppies had a presence in sitcoms.

Sarah said...

I'm glad you are giving your opinion on the Roseanne article. I was going to ask you to comment on it, but saw others had beat me to it.

And for the record, I LOVE Extras, and actually think it is overall a much better show than the original Office. One of the things I love about Gervais and Merchant is their ability to sneak in a lot of depth and heart into their comedy. (Which is a big reason why I am a Cheers/Frasier fan as well)

Kirk said...

It reminded me a little of the Seinfeld episode where George tries to convince a black co-worker he's not racist. This was funnier, though, because, quite frankly, the girl in the piece is more likable, and thus you feel for her more as she digs a hole for herself. Plus, although I've never seen any other episode of Extras (based on this clip, I'm going to have to make a point of watching it), I get the impression her character is not neurotic all the time, as was the case with George Costanza. Situational neurosis is sometimes funnier. And while I don't often like the slow, cinema verite approach to comedy, I thought it worked well here. It allowed the humor to sneak up on you.

D. McEwan said...

I'm a sucker for Ricky Gervais, and the girl is wonderfu. It's an old comic premise she has to play, the embarassed person who only digs her grave deeper every time she tries to make it better, but she pulled it off. I love that the test is itself racist, or at least the way Gervais uses it. (He, not the test, equates the nice young actor with OJ. And WHY would she own that doll in the first place?)

Also, I would so want to pick up that actor also. He is very gorgeous.

And the girl kind of deserves what happens to her for taking out her petty revenge on the petty bus guard on a comletely innocent third-party instead of on the person she's angry at. (The way to react is to let EVERYONE on your bus, be better than the jerk, not become a jerk also.)

Fist time I ever saw Gervais, on his first Letterman appearance, his every word made me laugh, and I've been a fan ever since. But then, I've always been more into British comedy than American.

D. McEwan said...

PS. Looking forward to your Roseanne-screed thoughts. I read the article, and while I sympathized with a lot of it, there were a number of comments that made me go "Hmmm?" or even "Excuse me?" She does seem to think that no one ever actually legitamately disagrees with her. If they disagree with her, it's ONLY because they're part of a sexist plot to undermine her.

cshel said...

I found the racist test scene hilarious, too.

In commenting on the comedy test yesterday, I said I love British humor. Then someone today brought up Benny Hill and I realized, well, not all British humor. I thought that was pretty stupid. I'm a love the Marx Bros., hate the Three Stooges kind of person.

So, has Gary Shandling just aged poorly, or has he had bad plastic surgery, or is he ill?

jbryant said...

D.: It wasn't revenge on the petty bus guard. The girl was deliberately getting revenge on the black woman, because she saw her laughing and hitting it off with the black guy on the other bus earlier.

Also, I assumed Gervais' character was making up the racist exam as he went along, for his own amusement, knowing she would think it was a real thing. Maybe I missed something in the set-up.

Brother Boomerang said...

also there was the subtly of the fact that G and the girl were playing cops. I mean they were dressed as cops. so it was kind of funny how they were extras so the actors were above them but by wearing the uniform of authority it was ironic that they were kicked off a bus and then funny the woman was dressed as a police officer telling someone higher up in the organisation she couldn't enter.

I thought a few bits were really clever but some things were a bit too obvious. it makes more sense knowing there were other scenes cot out that played between. I guess the woman only came to the other bus they day later or something.

Thanks for the exercise.

Roger Owen Green said...

US, Masters degree.
The pace didn't bother me. Jokes about race can, in the right hands, be very funny, but I didn't find this to be so.
I like Ricky Gervais, at least on Jon Stewart and like shows, but I've never seen the UK The Office or Extras.

LisaB said...

I thought this was hilarious in parts, though I agree it was a slow build. I do think part of the humor was that Gervais' character was making up the racist test as he went along.

I already love Gervais, and now I will have to track down Extras.

Speaking of trying to write humor: In college I wrote a short story in which a character has just gotten in the car with a guy on their first date, and she cracks a joke. In her head she thinks, this isn't so bad, as long as I keep being funny, the date should go just fine. My professor wrote in the margin: "This would work better if she had actually said something funny." Ouch.

Johnny Walker said...

Heh! Excellent. I was thinking about this myself, recently... and wondering just how "selfish" a writer should be.

It sounds dangerous to let go and completely write for yourself. Maybe that would be a good Friday question:

It's often said that writers should write for themselves, but is there a danger of being "too selfish" and only writing something you personally think is good, or should you balance what you want to write with what you think will "work" for other people?

(Sort of the difference of writing to entertain, and writing purely for yourself. The idea of writing purely for myself makes me think of a bore at a party, who isn't remotely interested in the reaction of the audience to his dull anecdote. How far should a writer go?)

bummer said...

"And everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s."

That sucks, Ken. What's the point of living then?