I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes something funny. In a previous post, I extolled the comic genius of John Mulaney, a stand-up comic and former writer at Saturday Night Live, whose shows have had me in stitches. But when I shared one of Mulaney’s comedy specials with my husband, he barely laughed. Clearly, he and I have different ideas about what makes something – or someone – funny.
Then the other day, I decided to read the comics in my local newspaper. As a child, I liked to check out the “Peanuts” comic strip and “Family Circus.” I also spent my hard-earned allowance money on “Archie” comic books. But I find that the humor in comic strips is more understated. In my recent perusal of the “funnies,” I didn’t laugh or even chuckle once reading the likes of “Dilbert,” “Peanuts,” or “Baby Blues.” Comic strips are more wry social commentary than entertainment designed to make you laugh out loud.
The comedy I love most is the kind that revolves around family life. Whether it’s the zany and unpredictable relationship between Lorelai and Rory on The Gilmore Girls, the antics of the Pritchett clan on Modern Family, or the challenges of being an upper middle class family that’s only Black-ish, the everyday ups and downs of family life make me laugh with rueful recognition.
That is the secret of my favorite comedians as well. Both Mulaney and Jerry Seinfeld mine their childhoods as well as their current relationships for laughs. Ditto with Chris Rock, whose short-lived but hilarious series Everybody Hates Chris detailed the daily humiliations and deprivations of Rock’s childhood.
I often wonder what comedians’ families think about their using their intimate relationships to get laughs. In the wonderful new series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the main character achieves success in stand-up through her no-holds-barred description of everything that is happening to her in her personal life. When her horrified husband, an aspiring comic himself, catches her stand-up act, it’s clear that there will be no “happy ever after” for this couple.
I admire comedians, comic actors, and humor writers. They don’t get a lot of respect as artists. For instance, what full-blown comedy has ever won a Best Picture Oscar? Yet comedy, which is fraught with political incorrectness and subject to the variable tastes of audiences, can be much edgier and make more pointed social commentary than many other genres. There’s something more palatable about biting criticism when it goes down with a hearty laugh.
I think what makes something funny is that embarrassed recognition of our own human insecurities, prejudices, and foibles in the words and actions of someone who is not afraid to “go there.” It’s a way of laughing at ourselves but not at our own expense. I don’t envy the life of a comic. It’s a tall order to follow the dictate of Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!”