Wednesday, August 16, 2006

On Comedy

Paula had a post recently about the subjectivity of comedy, and while I and others have given her an endless amount of sarcastic shit over it ever since (out of love!), she's right: What one finds funny, another may not.

So then, over at Sour Grapes, we got to talking about comedy some more, comedy of the stand-up variety.

All this comedy talk got me thinking about, er, comedy. While I know very little about a ridiculous amount of things, I know a little more about comedy. I'm not talking in the gut-feeling sort of way, either. I've written and performed comedy -- for stage, screen, radio and stand-up -- for many years, so I watch comedy differently. I study it. Word choice, subject matter, sentence length, timing, tangents, improvisation, patterns, audience reactions... All the ingredients that go into making good comedy.

Four paragraphs and I'm finally getting to the point. There is such a thing as good comedy, just as there is such a thing as bad comedy. While I'm sure there are many who would scoff at the idea, I view comedy as an art form just as music, painting or writing. Whether or not you enjoy or appreciate certain works from any of those art forms is a result of your own taste. But that's not the same thing as whether or not something is artistically valid.

Most popular music out there, musically speaking, is utter crap. Complete rubbish performed by mongrels who know a few bar chords. Ask them about the circle of fifths and they'll think you mean rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey and gin.

I love a lot of that music. It's fun. I'm glad they're making it because it gives me a reason to sing loudly in my car. But it's crap. Fun crap, but crap.

The painting I had on my wall in college of a tiger holding onto a keg while in a swimming pool? Art? Uh, no. But I loved it.

Comedy is the same way. There are good comedians (be they stand-up comics, comedic actors or comedy writers) and bad comedians. There are comedians who have chops and ones who don't. In other words, there are comedians who have mastered the art of comedy, and comedians who definitely have not.

And as we all know, mastering the art of comedy does not necessarily translate to success or popularity, just as being a cliched hack doesn't mean you'll wallow in obscurity. One only has to look at the state of the sitcom world for evidence of that. For every well-written, well-acted artisticsitcom through history -- Frasier, for instance -- that actually enjoyed commercial success, there are hundreds of hackneyed sitcoms that were wildly popular.

Stand-up comedians like Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, Brian Regan, Steve Martin, Robert Klein, Steven Wright, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Bob Hope, Chris Rock... these guys were or are artists. You might not find their stuff funny, but they're so goddamn good at what they do (or did). They know every nuance of what their act needs to have. It's like a musician who knows that, while a major chord here would be accepted, a minor seventh is the right chord.

I guess what I'm ultimately driving at is, if you want to know whether something that you think is funny is actually good, ask me.



No comments: