Why define comedy?
Defining comedy seems like an impossible task. Or an annoying one. Or an unnecessary one. I mean, we know what makes us laugh, right? Maybe. But maybe not. American cartoonist Saul Steinberg once said that: “…trying to define humour is one of the definitions of humour.” E.B. White also said something similar: “Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Further to this, Johnny Carson, in a 1968 interview with Larry Wilde, once argued that:
…you just can’t define it. I have to go back to Stan Laurel when somebody says what’s comedy? How the hell should i know? What makes people laugh? I don’t know what makes people laugh. I know devices that make people laugh, but I don’t know why people laugh… I don’t think anybody knows why people laugh. They do…. Comedy is relative, everything is relative in comedy” (Carson).
Chris Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, in his introduction to screenwriter Brad Schreiber’s book, What are you Laughing at? also plays with the idea that defining comedy is a Herculean task when he said how: “There are two things to remember about comedy. No, three. Comedy is funny. Dying is hard. I forget the other two” (Vogler xi)." But perhaps the most important and poignant idea in Vogler’s brief introduction that I found resonated the most with me, is this: “People have forgotten how to be funny” (xi).
And that’s why I’m here - I want to know more about how to be funny. I want to scratch the surface of what defines comedy at its most basic level. And I hope to do that by summarizing and presenting different quotes and ideas from various books, interviews and online resources that I’ve recently come across while thinking about what comedy really is.
So without further adieu, here we go…
The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains how the term comedy was first used in the 14th Century, where it was defined at the time as “…a medieval narrative that ends happily.” Merriam-Webster notes how the etymology for the term comedy has its roots in Middle English, from Medieval Latin comoedia, (from Latin, drama with a happy ending), from Greek kōmōidia, from kōmos (meaning ‘revel’) or kome (meaning ‘village’) + aeidein (meaning ‘to sing’).
Merriam-Webster defines comedy as ‘…humorous entertainment’ and as ‘…a drama of light and amusing character, typically with a happy ending.” By comparison, the Oxford dictionary defines comedy as a humour invention, or ‘…professional entertainment consisting of jokes and sketches, intended to make an audience laugh.’ Wikipedia states that: “In a modern sense, comedy refers to any discourse or work generally intended to be humourous or amusing by inducing laughter, especially in theatre, television, film, stand-up comedy or any other medium of entertainment.” Wikipedia defines humour as “…the tendency of experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement.”
Some synonyms and words related to the word comedy include, but are not limited to: amusement, banter, burlesque, comicality, circus, drollery, enjoyment, farce, foolery, fun, high & low comedy, hilariousness, horseplay, humour, improv, jocularity, jokiness, parody, persiflage, playfulness, satire, shenanigans, slapstick, stand-up, waggishness, and wit (I plan on exploring these and other types of comedy in a future journal post).
Moving past the technical…
So, at its most basic level, it’s safe to say that comedy is any kind of entertainment that makes us laugh. But is there more to it than just that?
Matthew Bevis, in his book, Comedy: A Very Short Introduction, describes comedy as being a movement from drama to life where comedy can be viewed as both a literary genre and as a range of non-literary phenomena, experiences and events. To this end, Bevis asks his readers to consider several questions related to this line of thought, such as:
…how can humour be used? …when do we laugh, and why? …(and) what is it that speakers as well as writers enjoy - and risk - when they tell a joke, indulge in bathos, talk nonsense, or encourage irony? (Bevis 2).
Peter McGraw, in his TEDxTalk, What makes things funny addresses some of these questions when he notes how:
…answering (this) question is important for a few reasons - Humour is pervasive, people of all ages and culture experiences humour on a daily basis. Humour influences your choices, from the movies and television you watch to the people you date and mate. And humour is beneficial as it makes you happy and helps you cope with pain, stress and adversity (TEDxTalks - McGraw).
You can see the rest of McGraw’s TEDx here, where he explores what is funny, and what makes something funny as well:
Schreiber also emphasizes how: “..the curative power of laughter cannot be over praised” (Schreiber 2).
Making people think…
There was another quote by Bevis that aptly explored what might be the most important idea behind the idea of what comedy, where: “…jokes are one way of inviting us to think about what we know —- and what we think we know” (Bevis 3). Along this line, Bevis also notes how:
The surprise that accompanies getting a joke can prompt us to wonder about the expectations that were toyed with to get us there, and what these expectations may tell us about ourselves (4).
Comedian Ricky Gervais also believes that comedy is: “…about making people think” (Big Think - Gervais), as seen in this short interview:
In further exploring this idea, author Baratunde Thurston talked about how one can “…attack a serious topic with humour…” (TEDxTalks - Thurston) in order to make them think, in his TEDxTalk called Hacking comedy :
Further, John H. Foote, in his article for The Cinemaholic called Comedy Genres, Explained , traces the idea of using comedy as a tool for socal commentary back to:
Chaplin, who understood how to make comedy great, sneaking in his powerful social messages among the gales of laughter or happy tears. His gift for slapstick was genius, but he merged that with his ferocious social awareness to create some of the finest comedies of all time (Foote).
Making it personal…
Comedian Jonathan Winters once said: “Just tell the truth and people will laugh.”
Now I think we can add to the definition of comedy as being something that not only makes us laugh but makes us think not only about ourselves but about the world around us. To do that, comedy should be relatable and from what I’ve read it seems the best way for a comedian to do that is to keep their work grounded by making it personal. That is, to make it about their own experiences, observations and interactions with the greater world around them.
The late great comedian George Carlin, in an interview with Larry Wilde, also emphasized similar ideas about how comedy can be used as a means of not only providing a forum to express individual opinions that were thought provoking but also had a kind of social commentary built in, when he said:
All comedians are interested in justice. It seems to me that the whole reason for standing up and screaming even about your mother-in-law or crabgrass or these kids today, is justice. You’re looking to square the world, to make the world make sense to you. You’re trying to figure out this world and so you give a twisted version of it to people because the version you’re getting through your eyes doesn’t suit you, so you say ‘look at this, I can do this with it!’ So all comedians try to do that (Carlin).
Johnny Carson also said something similar when describing how comedians work:
…even though they may have come from different ethnic backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, different strata of income - basically they have that ability, I think, to see the ridiculous in a normal situation, that an average person would just look at it and observe it. The comedian looks at it, and looks at it in a little different way, and makes a comment on it (Carson).
In the first chapter of What are you Laughing at? Schreiber also discusses how he views comedy as representing a kind of “…skewed vision” (Schreiber 1) of life, events, people and possibilities. To this end, it’s not at all a stretch to equate Schreiber’s skewed vision with Carlin’s twisted vision or Carson’s ridiculous observation, one that is unique for every comedian and for every listener. For Schreiber, humour and humorous writing “…has few rules” (1) simply because “...humour is as personal as how we dress” (2).
Michael Young, in the introduction to his book, Become a Stand-Up Comedian in 1 Week, also describes how a comedian’s skewed vision can be rooted in the personal, as:
…comedians are just specialized introspective psychiatrists… pretty average people with an acute ability to analyze, dissect, and point out the eccentricities of the world (where) …creating and learning comedy is a rigorous exercise of self-exploration (Young).
Young also notes that:
Comedy is all about being a unique person, and stand-up comedy is all about taking your personal nuances, flaws, fears, hopes, dreams, aspirations, annoyances, pet peeves and sharing it with the audience.
In Hitting your Funny Bone: Writing Comedy & Other Things That Make You Swear, Geoffrey Neill discusses the idea of a worldview, noting how:
Wikipedia says that a worldview is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society's knowledge and point of view. When you begin answering (questions about your worldview), you find what drives you (Neill).
Neill also explains how:
Comedians have their eyes open to worldviews that are determining the pull of most of society’s eye and ear. They understand those worldviews and the cues that society is taking from these general philosophies… You hear laughs and “That is so true!” when someone is surfing the waters of worldview… Comedians tap their own passionate voice and react strongly to truth… Within the swells of a larger worldview, your funny bone is a compass that allows you to give your opinionated commentary on reality. It allows you to point out your true north when the larger worldview might be heading south.
I also liked how Neill emphasizes an important point, that while:
The funny bone can be commentary; however, it is less interested in changing someone’s mind and more interested in making them laugh.
Writer Kelly Carlin, daughter of George Carlin, reinforces this idea, that comedians just need to provide commentary – that is, the comedian has no direct responsibility on whether audience members actually think about any given act:
…a lot of people would question my father, saying ‘…you tried to change the world and make people think,’ and he would say ‘…no! that would be the death of it. I want to make people laugh and I’m here to express myself, to entertain and decide what’s funny and if (an audience’s) mind changes about something, that’s not my fault, it’s not my problem” (Carlin).
I think a comedian’s work ought to be well written and provide the opportunity for further reflection and thought. And this is true for any artistic endeavour in which an artist or writer puts something out in the world for others to interact with. Some will love it, some will hate it, some ideas will go right past some audience members and others will eat it up and talk about it for days. But there’s one last thought I think is worth mentioning when considering a definition of how good comedy works. And this was brought up by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, in an interview with Larry Wilde, where Seinfeld emphasized the importance between the audience and a writer in developing a dialogue from which laughter can thrive:
(There was) a rerun on Letterman the other night that I watched, and (my) pacing was completely off. I was completely out of rhythm with the audience… It’s like a conversation. The laughs and the comedy have to have a nice balance to it. And if the comedian pushes his act too much into the laughs, it hurts them. So you have to let the laughs breathe, and then the comedy breathes. And every performer has his own organic rhythm and you have to know it and be true to it… (and that night) I wasn’t paying attention to the audience. To me, really good comedy is a dialogue, it’s not a monologue. There laughs are just as important as what I’m saying because laughs contain thought. They have different shapes, sizes and sounds and colours, and each one says something. So that’s there part and I say my part and it has to have a nice rhythm to it. That’s how you develop a roll (Seinfeld).
Finally, comedian Phyllis Diller echoed a similar sentiment when she said, in an interview with Kelly Carlin, how comedians needed to have: “Sensitivity to the audience… you must learn from the audience, you must learn who you are and how to take them with you” (Diller).
Ultimately, at a fundamental level, it is a given that the best comedy will always attempt to make people laugh. But if that same comedy also makes people think, explore ideas and personal worldviews held by both individuals and societies, as suggested by and explored with an audience by a writer-comedian, then that’s even better!
A comedy as old as time?
To end this piece, I think it’s important to note remember that while the idea that comedy can be rooted in a comedian’s thoughts about the world around them seems old to us, it is actually a fairly new concept. Specifically, in the introduction to Kliph Nesteroff’s book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, I found that prior to the 1950s, comedy was not rooted in what was personal for the writer as it was simply a series of one liners and jokes, “…stuff now associated with Fozzie Bear…” Specifically, Nesteroff notes that:
Eventually men like Lenny Bruce, Mort Saul and Jonathan Winters came along and led a revolution by developing their own material, derived from their actual personalities (Nesteroff).
I’ll talk a bit about this history in later posts, with a view towards exploring censorship in comedy but I’ll end this post by saying this - while the 1950s was only around seventy years ago, it was still a relatively slow progression to our contemporary world today where the barriers of what comedians and comedic writers can explore seem almost limitless.
Bevis, Matthew. Comedy: A Very Short Introduction. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013. 1-5. Print.
Big Think. “Ricky Gervais: The Principles of Comedy.” YouTube. 20 Jun 2011.
Carlin, George. “Lenny Bruce.” George Carlin on Comedy: Interviewed by Larry Wilde. Laugh.com, 2002.
Carlin, Kelly. “George Carlin.” Phyllis Diller on Comedy: Interviewed by Kelly Carlin. Laugh.com, 2009.
Carson, Johnny. “Technique.” Johnny Carson on Comedy: Interviewed by Larry Wilde. Laugh.com, 2001.
Diller, Phyllis. “Tool Kit for Comics / Confidence.” Phyllis Diller on Comedy: Interviewed by Kelly Carlin. Laugh.com, 2009.
Foote, John H. “Comedy Genres, Explained.” The Cinemaholic, https://www.thecinemaholic.com/sub-genres-of-comedy-explained/. Accessed: 17 Jan 2019.
Neill, Geoffrey. Hitting your Funny Bone: Writing Stand-Up Comedy & Other Things That Make You Swear. 2015. Amazon Kindle e-Book.
Nesteroff, Kliph. The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. New York: Grove Press, 2015.
Schreiber, Brad. What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Humor for Screenplays, Stories, and More. New York: Allworth Press, 2017. 1-11. Print.
Seinfeld, Jerry. “Technique.” Jerry Seinfeld on Comedy: Interviewed by Larry Wilde. Laugh.com, 2001.
TEDxTalks. “Hacking Comedy | Baratunde Thurston | TEDxKC.” YouTube. 27 Aug 2014.
TEDxTalks. “What makes things funny | Peter McGraw | TEDxBOULDER.” YouTube. 12 Oct. 2010.
Vogler, Chris. Introduction. What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Humor for Screenplays, Stories, and More. By Brad Schreiber. New York: Allworth Press, 2017. xi-xii. Print.
Young, Michael. Become a Stand-Up Comedian in 1 Week. DoStandUpComedy, 2017. Amazon Kindle e-Book.