Writing Funny!

I’ve signed on for a creative writing course at Kwantlen Polytechnic University on “Writing Funny!” that starts in January 2019, and I’m at best, both excited and terrified about it. I’ve always loved to laugh, joke around and overall in life, I generally try not to take things too seriously. As such, over the next few months, I hope to post a number of journal entries about my exploration of trying to write funny. With this first post, I want to briefly define the term “humour” and explore what humour from different forms of media have influenced myself over the years.

Make ‘em laugh!

Many of us love to laugh, and it’s amazing how old of a concept of humour actually is. Wikipedia traces the term back to the ancient Greeks. Psychologists Polimeni and Reiss, in their article, The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humour not only confirms this, but traces the origins of the concept back to the Greeks, where they state how "...Humour has been part of the behavioral repertoire of modern Homo sapiens for thousands of years" (Polimeni & Reiss 348) and even longer, as they also trace a line going back to the Australian Aboriginals, where, "...if genetic factors dictate the fundamental ability to perceive or produce humour... then 35,000 years may reflect a minimum age for humour in Homo sapiens" (348). In terms of the etymology of the word humour itself, both Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary confirm Wikipedia’s crediting of the ancient Greeks as being the ones who: “...taught that the balance of fluids in the human body, known as humours (Latin: humour, 'body fluid'), controlled human health and emotion.” More specifically, the Online Etymology Dictionary refers to this notion of emotion as representing a state of mind.

The idea of an altered state of mind certainly holds true today when one explores a more concrete definition of the term that fits our modern sensibilities. Going back to Wikipedia one finds a specific definition of humour as representing "...the tendency of experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement;" whereas Merriam-Webster describes humour as "...that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous... a funny or amusing quality."

Make me laugh!

Personally, I've found many things to be humourous. Growing up, I remember watching TV-Shows such as THE HONEYMOONERS (1955-56), GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1964-67), ARE YOU BEING SERVED? (1972-85), FAWLTY TOWERS (1975-79), SCTV (1976-82) THREE’S COMPANY (1977-85), CHEERS (1982-93) and NIGHT COURT (1984-92). I remember staying up late to catch CHEERS, which was on past my bedtime, but I could watch it by carefully cracking the door to my room open where I could get a clear view of the television in my parent’s bedroom if they had their door open.

I’ve also gotten a kick over the years from movies such as anything by Charlie Chaplin, such as THE KID (1921), to HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), THE JERK (1979), AIRPLANE (1980), POLICE ACADEMY (1984), WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1986) as well as BRAIN DONORS (1992) which was a film that was conceived in part by the Zucker Brothers as a homage to the old Marx Brothers comedies such as A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935). But aside from these and probably hundreds of other comedy films that I've seen I'll always remember one comedy in particular, one that I saw with my Dad. As a medical doctor, he didn't often go to the movies with me as he really didn't have the time. But he saw this one with me during a high school drama trip to New York City way back in 1992. 1992. It feels so long ago, but in many ways it feels like yesterday. My Dad had decided to go with us as a chaparon, and as a teenager, I was miffed by this. Most teens, like myself at the time, want distance and independence from their parents and I viewed the New York trip as being one way towards that independence. It could have been my first trip without my parents. So when he did decide to come, I felt like he was being a helicopter parent of sorts (even though that term probably didn't exist then - it feels like it fit the bill for how I felt). But looking back on it now, I know he wasn't. He was just older, in his mid-60s at the time and likely knew he should do what he could with his son while he was still healthy and well enough to do it. Because 10 years later he wasn't really able to travel anymore, and 12 years later he would be gone. And looking back on it now I really do wish I had appreciated that chance and opportunity to spend time with him more than I did. But seeing this one movie, MY COUSIN VINY, during a free afternoon we had when the city was experiencing a torrential downpour, would be something I would appreciate and remember. It's something I'll probably remember until the day I die. MY COUSIN VINY was a 1992 film starring Joe Pesci, Marissa Tomei, Ralph Macchio and Fred Gwynne. It was about a pair of young men who get accused of committing a robbery and murder of a convenience store clerk in the deep south of the United States. There only hope is their cousin Viny, a new lawyer who barely passed the bar exam to practice law. The film is a great example of humour as it created an interesting situation within which a myriad of interesting characters have to navigate. The film draws on a number of types of humour including situational comedy, wit, sarcasm, slapstick and even a bit of satire. But for me, most importantly, it made my Dad laugh and laugh a lot. The only times I remembered him laughing as much was when we used to watch reruns of the television show, ALL IN THE FAMILY. You can see several clips from MY COUSIN VINY on YouTube, such as this one:

During that same trip to New York City I also got to experience live improv for the first time when we attended a performance of the CHICAGO CITY LIMITS improv group. Being a drama trip, our class had done our own improvisational games as a part of our drama classes but we had never really seen it up close. This was in the days before WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY? hit the airwaves as a means of promoting improv. But it was from seeing CHICAGO CITY LIMITS that had me later discover comedic plays such as THE BOOK OF MORMON and countless smaller productions as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival, as well as improv on the VANCOUVER THEATRE SPORTS LEAGUE on Granville Island where I've seen countless shows, and in 2018 got to meet one of my improv heroes, Colin Mocheri when he came back to Vancouver last month to do a number of shows with the VTSL which was one of the venues where he got his own start performing improv.

Meeting a local hero - Colin Mocheri on May 24, 2018.    Left to right: Shannon Cawley, Colin Mocheri and Steven Lee.

Meeting a local hero - Colin Mocheri on May 24, 2018.

Left to right: Shannon Cawley, Colin Mocheri and Steven Lee.

But my early experience with humour and comedy moved beyond the experiences I've described above, both in New York City and Vancouver. For example, as a young teenager I fell in love with stand-up comedy. I remember watching Caroline's Comedy Hour on A&E with my Mom whenever it was on. That show played host to so many stand-up comedians who I would fall in love with. I remember two of the first comedy albums I ever purchased were by Robin Williams, THROBBING PYTHON OF LOVE and LIVE AT THE MET, both on cassette tape, which I must have listened to hundreds of times to the point where they were so engrained in me that I could recall lines from them at a drop of a hat. I also remember making a copy of a comedy album I stumbled onto at my high school’s library - TEN CLASSICS IN TEN MINUTES by John “Mighty Mouth” Moschitta,  simply so I could listen to it again and again. I also got to share with my Mom a number of live performances as we went to see stand-up comics such as George Carlin, Jay Leno, as well as my Mom's all time favourite comic, Joan Rivers.

My Mom has often described to me how she followed Rivers's career from her days doing standup on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where she later served as a guest host. Rivers also eventually had her own late night talk show, and later a daytime show, both of which my Mom watched religiously. I think my Mom liked her comedy so much because Rivers was never afraid to push the envelope - her comedy was sharp, edgy and witty. She was both a shock comic and an insult comic. But she could also weave interesting stories that always paid off with a good laugh. My only regret was never being able to secure the chance for my Mom to get a meet and greet with Joan - which was something the local casino regularly organized whenever she came to town. But thanks to YouTube, you can also see many bits of Rivers's work, such as this one:

As I've become my own man, I've come to purchase and listen to so many different comedy albums, from Russell Brand to Russell Peters to Richard Pryor to Bob Newhart to Steve Martin and so many others. One of my favourite documentaries about humour and comedy is a movie called THE ARISTOCRATS (2005) which follows an infamously dirty joke of the same name which is known by almost every stand-up comic, as a kind of right of passage.

I've also been fortunate enough to meet some of my comedy heroes, such as Conan O’Brian, who I met in 2010 when he went on tour following his exit as the host of The Tonight Show:

Meeting Conan O’Brian on the eve of my birthday: April 14, 2010.    Left to right: Jessie Smith, Conan O’Brian and Steven Lee.

Meeting Conan O’Brian on the eve of my birthday: April 14, 2010.

Left to right: Jessie Smith, Conan O’Brian and Steven Lee.

Late night comics of the early 90s had a big impact on me. I started watching Letterman on his Late Night program which used to air as re-runs on A&E every afternoon at 4pm. Then, in the evenings I would record Letterman and O’Brian, and during the lunch hour me and another friend would watch them in the art room while eating lunch (the best recording was the infamous 1994 episode featuring Madonna). Overall though, I loved his cheeky irreverence, and his assorted skits, from ordering hot dogs to having fun with Rupert Jee of the Hello Deli (when I visited NYC on the same high school trip I described above, I got to see them hanging the LATE SHOW signs outside of the old Ed Sullivan Theatre). O’Brian too had a similar feel to Letterman with a similar oddball world view.

More recently, I’ve developed an appreciation for Russell Brand. On stage, he has a similar energy to comics such as Robin Williams, but he also crafts well thought out pieces that can be funny as hell. I still remember when my former and I went on a road trip across parts of the Southeastern United States in 2009, when she nodded off I’d pop on a different CD of Brand’s BBC show. Since that time, I’ve seen him live a couple of times and got to meet him each time. After each of his shows, he goes out into the lobby of the venue he’s playing so fans can get a chance to meet him and get photos with him. So the first time I saw him, I ended up in the lobby and somehow ended up right next to him. But I couldn’t snap a photo as my iPhone was full - so I was trying to make room, while others were getting photos with him, mainly young women, and I remember ending up pressed against him with many women pressed up around me. It was awkward but fun, and eventually we did get a photo. A year or two later, I got to see him again, and won a meet & greet package, where I could get a photo without being caught in a sea of people:

Meeting Russell Brand on September 29, 2012.    Left to right: Shannon Cawley, Russell Brand and Steven Lee.

Meeting Russell Brand on September 29, 2012.

Left to right: Shannon Cawley, Russell Brand and Steven Lee.

That same night I was going to try and get back to the front to meet a friend, as during the first show I saw him at he did say he would sign anything - even body parts. So I thought it would be great to have him sign my friend’s ass cheek with Brand, and mine with Russell, so we could stand side by side and you could read his full name across both of our cheeks. But somehow, Brand was able to get to the front of the theatre after the meet and greet before guests could. And then I couldn’t get through the crowds to get to my friend, as there were too many people - but he did sign her ass and she got photo evidence that she’s proudly displayed ever since it happened:


And I’ll never forget how I got asked by Don Rickles to get up from my seat and move to the other side of the theatre, just so he could safely hit on the girl I was dating at the time, similar to how he does in this clip I found on YouTube:

Ultimately, I think we all can respond to humour. It truly is a mind-altering mechanism, especially when you see how it can provide a means of breaking tense moments by putting people in those moments at ease.  It also provides us with memories - we could be at a funeral, crying in grief over the loss of a loved one when someone says reminisces about something the deceased said, or did, that was so silly and stupid that we just can't help but laugh through the tears. Humour is something that can connect all of us as it not only has the power to put just the slightest bit of a smile on our faces, but it can also make us break out in belly aching fits of laughter. And that's why humour is so transformational and wondrous.