Influences: Comedy

If I strip it down to bare bones and avoid the whole nature vs. nurture, parents and childhood thing, there are two great influences on my life: comedy – specifically stand up comedy – and science fiction. Certainly other forces and factors impacted who I am and helped shape my worldview, but the bedrock, the things that have given me succor when I was most lost or most in need of a new perspective are comedy and science fiction.

Each has a pinpoint specific moment of origin, a demarcation that definitively separates the before from the after.

For science fiction, it was, like so many of my generation, seeing the movie Star Wars for the first time. I was ten years old. Mind. Blown.

But that’s a story for another time. This blog is about Comedy with a capital C. The significant moment occurred when I was eight or nine and riding in a car with an older cousin while visiting my grandparents. He, being a sixteen year-old, too-cool teen that wanted nothing to do with kids, had been forced to transport me from one location to another. Totally indifferent to my presence or my young, virgin ears, he listened to Richard Pryor’s Bicentennial Nigger on his car’s cassette player. It boggled my Southern Baptist mind. I’d never heard such language in my life. And it was funny, the parts I understood anyway.

Looking back, I doubt that car ride lasted more than ten minutes, but the damage was done. I had to hear more. It took some time to save allowance money and find something my parents found suitable, but eventually I acquired Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy. That’s when I fell in love with comedy. The non-sequiturs, the silliness, the energy, the humor, the skewed perspective, it captivated me, intrigued me, made me yearn for more. I was addicted.

It wasn’t until decades later when I read Steve’s book Born Standing Up that I understood how intentional and thoroughly thought out what he was doing actually was. He wanted to deconstruct comedy, refusing to follow the established setup-to-punchline formula that was considered sacrosanct by so many before him and since. Unknowingly, I’d begun my comedy education at the avant-garde end of the spectrum.

I’ve explored all colors of the comedy rainbow since. Funny is funny. Period. That’s the glorious, wondrous thing about humor. There is no one and only one way to be funny. Comedy is totally and completely subjective. No one can say ahead of time that they will or won’t laugh at something. When humor hits you, when a joke or story or situation resonates in the depths of the brain and triggers the comedic synapses to fire, laughter just happens. It’s like accidentally striking your thumb with a hammer or stubbing your toe. You don’t ponder the events and say, “Oh, that hurts,” you scream and curse and yell instantly. Laughter is the same way. It’s immediate and visceral. The anticipation of the laughter, the wanting and waiting for it to happen, is part of the joy of comedy. No one sits in a comedy club saying to themselves, ”I’m going to laugh at this next bit, but I won’t laugh at the one after that,” unless they’re a repressed, angry, antisocial prick with incredible control of their mental faculties and their funny bone. Most of us want laughter to happen and we’re never quite sure when or if it will. It’s like riding  a roller-coaster. You know you’ll scream, but you aren’t certain when or where, or what specifically will trigger the response. It could be a double loop, or a steep plummet, or an unexpected turn.

That’s comedy. I love it. I study  it, consume it, revel in it, respect it, appreciate it, and am continually fascinated by it.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that comedy can’t be taught. Like perfect pitch, math, or foreign languages, you either have a knack for it or you don’t. Sure, you can be taught the mechanics of telling a joke, but you’ll never be really funny because comedy is far more art than science. Truly funny people have a sixth sense. The just “know” funny.

Side Note: I’ve also learned that anyone who tells you they’re funny probably isn’t. And, sadly, far too many people think they are funny. Then there are those few jaded types that have seen and heard it all and, instead of laughing, will simply say, “that’s funny.” Those people are often comedians and they are the harshest critics of comedy and the toughest crowds. However, they do tend to know, respect, and acknowledge good material when they hear it.

But this is – or was supposed to be – a blog about influences, not the nuances of comedy. I’m sure I’ll muse/blog about that subject at length in future posts.

As for what I find funny, it runs the gamut from raunchy, filthy, profane, to silly, situational, satire, sarcastic, and sardonic, to clean, mean, and lean, and almost everything in between. Here’s a partial list of comedians that have made me laugh out loud over the years. And yes, that’s my only criteria comedy – “Does it make me laugh out loud?” – because what other measuring stick is there? If I laugh out loud, I obviously find it funny. I don’t question why.

Current Top 3 Comedians
This changes from time to time but the comedians I’m most into now (those still alive and working) are: Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, & Iliza Shlesinger.

Other Stand Up Comics
(These are in no particular order and off the top of my head. I have a bet with my wife that I can name 30 without consulting the internet. I’m not listing every comic I know, or have ever heard [that would be a loooong list], just the ones that have resonated with me the most over time. Here goes.)

George Carlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Johnny Carson, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, Dana Carvey, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, John Oliver, Steven Wright, Sam Kinison, Don Rickles, Lisa Lampanelli, David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Robert Schimmel, Weird Al Yankovic, Rodney Carrington, Flight of the Concords, Ron White, Jeff Foxworthy, Greg Giraldo, Sarah Silverman, Bill Hicks, Amy Schumer, Anthony Jeselnik, Dane Cook, Dave Chappelle, Jim Jefferies, Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard, Trae Crowder, Denis Leary, Zach Galifianakis…

…and I’m sure I’m forgetting several dozen more, but I won my bet and made my point.

TV, Movies, Etc.
The Carol Burnett Show (Possibly my earliest exposure to great comedy. Carol Burnett is a national treasure, and the skits with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman are comedy hall of fame worthy), Monty Python’s Flying Circus (the show that influenced an entire generation of comedians), The Simpsons (the first 7 seasons or so, when it was truly groundbreaking and fresh), South Park (scathing satire at its best), Family Guy (Monty Python in cartoon form), Archer (a wonderful, unapologetic adult animated series) David Letterman (the early years when he was still on NBC), Superbad, Robot Chicken, Michael Keaton (his early movies display great comedic sensibilities), Mel Brooks, Seth Rogen, SNL alum known more for movies than stand up such as: Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Billy Crystal, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray, Animal House, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, History of the World – Part I, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, National Lampoon’s Vacation, All the Monty Python movies: Holy Grail, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life

…to name a few. Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I haven’t even mentioned books or web content! It’s just a small glimpse into my comedic taste. I’ll delve into that more in another post since this one has rambled on far too long.

– T

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