My Sense of Humor
What is funny? While people
written volumes on the subject, a while back I started realizing that I
could at least answer this as it related to myself. The following
taxonomy grew out of an email on the subject.
is part of my recipe for what makes me laugh. You don't have to
all of the elements, but the more of these are present in any show, the
better the effect on me:
"Faster, more intense."
is reportedly the only directions George Lucas ever gave on the set of
the first Star Wars movie. By way of counter-example, Mel
Brooks movies by and large do not do it for me. They take the
to put the camera on the other actors to show their reaction to the
That time could invariably be better spent writing a follow-up joke for
those actors. If you ever see stand-up comedian Dave Attel (now
on Insomniac), you'll see some of what I mean; his set-ups are
in and of themselves. And the punchline is only something to tack
a follow-up zinger onto.
The unexpected. If
I see it coming, I don't care. It amazes me that people can watch
a comedy a second time and get the same laughs from it. I can
the humor, but rarely can I get any additional amusement.
phone calls, Tom Green's practical jokes, Candid Camera,
They all have in common the setting up of someone in a loosely designed
psychology experiment just to provoke a reaction. The thought of
temporarily turning someone's world on its ear always gives me the
Oh sure, you could stage it, but it just wouldn't be the same. I
have to feel that the mark's reality has just take a jump to the left.
Randomness. A close
cousin to the "unexpected." The less grounded the next item is in
a series, the more I enjoy it. Think of "British humour,"
things like Monty Pythons. The Arnold ("Ahnauld") celebrity prank
calls fit this very well in that the callers often resort to hitting
clips they have available regardless of the reasonableness of the
More often than not, this act of desperation provokes the most
of the responses on the other end of the line.
Found media. You
may have heard of "found art" in the form of sculptures made from bits
of junk, music performed on household items, etc., but the internet has
lead to a proliferation of found media given the malleability of
elements. The Ahnauld clips are assembled in real time to create
something unexpected. Similarly, there are a variety of Flash
just dropping whatever clip art they find on the web into goofy
This is obviously an off-shoot of the pure randomness vein, but it is
to specify that the piece must be built around independent constructs.
One of my favorite
memories was watching the first episode of Cartoon Planet or Space
Coast 2 Coast I ever ran across. I caught it almost right
from the beginning and had no idea what it was. If you've never
the show, it was just Space Ghost, Brak, and Zorak sitting around and
lame jokes, singing silly songs, and occasionally pretending to
live guests. This episode was a little different.
The characters were holding
a contest to pick their favorite cartoon of the ones presented by the
animators. All of these were first time cartoonists, guys who
for Cartoon Network for whom this was their first original creation to
receive air time. They sat down and told Space Ghost about their
show while the panel of judges (all of whom were former villains from
old SG series in the '60s) listened to the interview. The whole
Brak was saying (yelling!) out random things. Things were coming
so fast that I couldn't keep up with what all was going on. If
hadn't been any commercials, I honestly could have died. I
pulled muscles trying to get breath back into me, I was laughing so
The Space Ghost episode
touches on almost all of these; that's why it had such a powerful
on me. There was so much going on in that episode that it
the "faster, more intense" approach. Not only that, it also kept
changing gears so you couldn't tell where it was going next.
only a portion of the show was actually scripted; all of the interviews
with the cartoonists were spontaneous and bordered on guerrilla
The episode also inserted completely unrelated elements (notably,
outbursts). Finally, the fact that this program was developed
existing characters and re-edited interviews made it all the more
Were it composed of original characters and conducted interviews in a
manner, it would not have had the same effect.
The flip side of
this is that there are a number of things that just do not work for me,
but the common thread through all of these would be that they are based
around the idea of making the protagonist uncomfortable. That's
too much of a sad reality. For example, movies like Meet the
thrive on this when there really isn't much there to draw from. A
better version of the entire movie can be found in the scenes in Annie
Hall where Alvy visit's Annie's parents. Rather than just
there uncomfortably, we see Alvy viewed as a Hassidic rabbi through the
eyes of Annie's anti-Semitic grandmother. It's a quick, random
that makes its point and the film keeps right on moving.