“Look, man, I’m a college dropout. What the fuck do I know? I’m just saying, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that humor is connected to pain.” – Todd Hanson [The Onion Editor], in And Here’s The Kicker
I finally got around to reading And Here’s The Kicker, Mike Sacks’ collection of interviews with some of the top comedy writers in the profession. Just as I’d heard, it was a delightful, informative, downright fascinating read–equal parts wisdom and advice about how to write comedy (or write anything, for that matter), and behind-the-scenes peeks into the lives and legends of some of show business’s greatest entertainers. I’d heartily recommend it to anybody with an interest in either comedy or writing (or both). It’s funny, smart, varied, and has a lot of practical advice for aspiring writers.
One theme that pops up throughout the book is the connection between comedy and suffering. The interview most saturated with this connection is with Paul Feig, creator of short-lived NBC sitcom Freaks and Geeks. Feig discusses how he’s always used writing to highlight the humor he sees in the embarrassing, even mortifying experiences he had growing up. While some people might not be able to stomach the discomfort at the heart of Feig’s comedy, others find it to be realistic and relatable–they laugh at the absurdity of it while also knowing that they themselves have gone through very similar absurdities themselves (which is, perhaps, what enables them to laugh at it in the first place). As screenwriter Marshall Brickman says in his interview, quoting Tom Stoppard: “Laughter is the sound of comprehension.” And I think that rings true.
During his interview with writer Dave Barry, Sacks quotes Barry as saying, “A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.” Barry later adds, “I don’t know that you can explain why we, as a species, laugh. Maybe it’s just that there’s a disconnect in our brains when we realize that obviously we’re going to die but we can laugh anyway. There has to be a release. For me, it’s either you laugh or you become religious.”
And then, of course, there’s the classic Mel Brooks line: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”
I’ve never walked into an open sewer and died, but I am always realizing that I’m going to die. I’m also always twisting my ankle and tripping (though I’m not sure if the two are related). And since I don’t quite have it in me to go out in search of a funny new tripping experience for myself, I include here a description I wrote several months ago of something that happened to me at the time. I like to think it’s a serviceable example of suffering-as-comedy–but as Todd Hanson says, “What the fuck do I know?”
I had just passed a man and his dog on my street as I was leaving my house in Allston–a Boston neighborhood teeming with obnoxious, often under-the-influence college students. The dog expressed interest in me, while the man did not. Dilemma. Do I say hello to both of them, or do I say hello to just the dog and assume that the owner will take it as politely addressed to him as well? I decide to reward the dog’s tail-wagging enthusiasm with a personalized greeting, but two things happen simultaneously. 1) I realize that I haven’t spoken out loud since getting up from the nap I just took, and my throat is still feeling really wonky from having strep and massive amounts of congestion earlier that week; and 2) before even talking I immediately begin to feel anxious and guilty for excluding the dog owner from my greeting, so I fail to commit and fuck up the landing. So what happens is that I pass by super close to the dog, with my head staring down at it at a 90 degree angle (my pronounced, owner-friendly alternative to actually bending down and petting it), and my brain tries to make a cutesy high-pitched talking-to-puppy-dog voice and say “Well hi there!”, which the guilt-toward-dog-owner instinct transforms into “Evening!,” which the weird post-nap throat-mucus hurricane in my mouth transforms into a gurgling (but still high-pitched and cutesy) “Urrvnurrgg!” I hear myself, panic, realize that my head is still forced into this weird robotic dog-locked angle, look up to make terrified wide-eyed eye contact with the dog owner, who looks kind of cranky but also looks kind of like Al Borland which I find additionally distracting, and while distracted by all this I promptly lose my footing, twist my ankle, and fall to the ground. The dog owner says (I’m not kidding) “oh what the fuck”, the dog tries to come over to me, the owner doesn’t let him and they walk away.
The last thing I hear him say as he leaves? “Fuckin’ Allston.”