The whole character of Super Dave is a takeoff on people who pontificate. So one thing I never want to do is pontificate why this works, why this is funny. I have no idea what the appeal is. All we are trying to do is make people have a good time and laugh.
–Bob Einstein on his most famous character
Comedy is a very powerful component of life. It has the most to say about the human condition because if you laugh you can get by. You can struggle when things are bad if you have a sense of humor. Laughter is a protest scream against death, against the long goodbye. It’s a defense against unhappiness and depression.
–Mel Brooks in his autobiography
For the holidays this year I have been taking a deep dive into what exactly is funny.
Actually I’ve spent a good amount of my life diving into that pool. From the time I could talk I liked to make people laugh. Being funny was my defense mechanism against bullies, teachers, authority figures, any and all who would try to knock me down both physically and spiritually. I am Jewish, so I come by it naturally.
What prompted this particular dive was being given Mel Brooks’ autobiography All About Me. Brooks has always been a hero of mine. I mean come on, he wrote one of the funniest routines in 2000 years of western civilization and got to perform it with his best friend of 70 years, got to work in a legendary writer’s room on Your Show Of Shows, created a TV series that we still quote lines from 50 years later (“sorry about that chief”), is one of the few writers to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for a comedy, turned that screenplay into a blockbuster Broadway musical, and on top of all that looked like he could be my cousin Shecky from Williamsburg and STILL got to marry a shiksa goddess named Anne Bancroft. I mean who wouldn’t want to be this guy?
OK, Adolph Hitler maybe not, but, hey, you never know.
The other prompt for this E-Ticket ride was a new documentary on HBO called The Super Bob Einstein Movie. For those who don’t know, Bob Einstein is probably most famous for creating the character of Super Dave Osborne, a perennially pompous stuntman in the vein of Evel Knevel whose ridiculous stunts inevitably were wretched failures. While I liked Super Dave, I loved Bob’s character Officer Judy on the Smothers Brothers Show (on which he was also a writer) and more recently the character of Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He was the very epitome of what is referred to as a comedian’s comedian.
The two could not have been more unalike. Mel was born in Brooklyn during the Depression, faced consistent anti-Semitism, worked his way up from bussing tables in the Catskills to headlining there, and had to fight for every chance he ever got. Bob was born in Beverly Hills, the son of a famous though now unfortunately forgotten comedian who went by the name of Parkyakarkus, stumbled into comedy writing through being in advertising, was a TV star almost immediately, and oh yeah, had a brother who decided Albert Einstein wasn’t a good name for a comedian so he changed it to (ironically) Albert Brooks.
On the other hand, they both knew funny. They understood what makes people laugh. More importantly they understood why people needed to laugh. They even understood why some people can’t or won’t laugh. It’s that need to laugh that has been working it’s way through my brain these past days.
And let’s face it, we need to laugh more these days.
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We as a society don’t laugh enough. We’ve become so beholden to all kinds of correctness, on both sides of the political spectrum, that we’re actually afraid to laugh less we be thought insensitive or worse. We’ve lost the understanding of the line that exists between laughing AT someone and laughing WITH someone. This problem negates the basic chemistry of comedy. In order to make someone laugh you have to either step outside the lines of “proper” society or you have to step on someone’s toes. Stepping on toes has been the basic job requirement for a comedian since the days of court jesters and ribald troubadours. The jesters and troubadours were the ones who stepped outside properness, they were the truth tellers, the ones who could mock the king and mock the commoners. Same as the comedians who host the White House correspondents dinners each year take swipes at both the president and the general populous.
Which is why Trump never showed up to one while president. Put a pin in that, we’ll get back to it in a minute.
Just because I make a joke about one group of people doesn’t mean I dislike or want to somehow undermine them. It means it was just their moment for mockery. If you can’t stand the funhouse, well, what fun are you having in life?
I want to point out that if all you do is make fun of one particular group then yeah you are a racist. Or a sexist. Or a homophobe. Or whatever kind of ist/phobe you would need to be called. But if you point out the foibles of a particular group and then point out that the audience is just laughing at a variation of a foible they themselves are guilty of, well as far as I’m concerned you are doing a service to humanity.
Bob Einstein’s laughs were with a wink of the eye to what you were laughing at. Of course this pompous asshole stuntman with his super serious admonitions for kids to lead good clean lives was a figure of mockery, but it was an understood that we laughed with the guy making the joke. We don’t laugh at the “common folk of the new west, you know, morons” in Blazing Saddles, we laugh with Black Bart and the Waco Kid as they try to navigate around the prejudice those folks put upon them, like Bugs Bunny outmaneuvering Elmer Fudd.
Look at the comedy the right wing, and especially Trumpers, find funny. Yeah I know, it’s hard to think of a Trumper comedian. I mean the entire movement is comedic in itself, but really think about what the far right thinks is funny. They can’t see the humor in themselves, let alone the humor in the world around themselves. So Trump not only can’t “take the heat” so to speak of the White House Correspondents Dinner and schedules a rally to not have to listen to “all the negativity”. Not even Bush Jr did that and he was responsible for a phony war no one liked.
You have to understand and appreciate your own humanity in order to laugh at yourself.
To the right wing what’s funny is “owning the libs”. Memes and second rate jokes, putting Trump’s head on video game hero characters, this isn’t done to elicit general laughter, it’s not even funny to them. It’s what makes them feel good about themselves because they can’t find the humor in their own lives. They talk about how they are tired of being made the butt of jokes, but that statement right there shows how indoctrinated they have become in their own misbegotten logic. Everyone is the butt of a joke from time to time. Today it’s you, tomorrow it’s me, the day after is someone else. It’s as if they are saying “I’m a serious person and don’t need to see myself in any other way”. Jeez man, that’s a pretty crappy way to go through life. Also pretty childish if you ask me.
Call it the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” lifestyle.
Honestly if you can’t find the whole Four Seasons Landscaping debacle funny then there is just no hope for you. If you didn’t laugh at that image of Giuliani standing at the lectern in front of a gardening warehouse you have spent way too many hours with Fox News. Meanwhile, liberals stop making every one liner about someone’s race, religion, height, weight, social security number, Safeway Club Card membership etc into a reason to send the speaker into the sin bin of history. It’s a joke, meant to elicit a laugh and take some of the somberness out of life. You don’t the joke, don’t laugh. But if you laugh at a joke that makes fun of your political opposite, well then you better learn to check your privilege at the coat room of the local Giggle Hut.
And as we head into the new year with a pandemic still raging, a cold civil war getting hotter, an environmental disaster right around the corner, oh I could go on and on, make one more resolution but don’t add it to the ones you have already decided to abandon in two weeks time. Try to keep this one.
Make time to laugh. Laugh at the world, laugh at your spouse, laugh at your kids, laugh at your friends, laugh at everything around you. And let the world laugh at you. Because when the world laughs at you, they’re really laughing with you. You’ll feel better, I promise.
Happy New Year one and all