The Nature of Comedy

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2000px-Emojione_1F602.svgI’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!”

 

 

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Gen X Comic Gets the Laughs

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My stomach still hurts. Last night I watched two stand-up comedy specials on Netflix featuring the up and comer John Mulaney. Full disclosure here: I know John’s parents. So it was with a certain knowing glee that I listened to his loving but biting anecdotes about being raised by his stern, devoutly Catholic parents.

John Mulaney has some serious comedy cred. He was a writer for Saturday Night Live for many years and had a short-lived TV series cleverly named Mulaney. And nowadays, he can fill the Chicago Theatre and Radio City Music Hall for his hilarious observations about modern life as well as his reminiscences from the distant Eighties.

I think the secret to Mulaney’s success, besides some clever voice impersonations and a certain controlled mania, is his ability to straddle the generations in appeal. Mulaney, 35, is still young, and he is clearly immersed in the present. For instance, he makes an off-hand joke about how in college, everything is just your own opinion, a knowing mockery of today’s coddled university student. And he even wades into politics in his Radio City Music Hall special “Kid Gorgeous” with a hilarious and extended comparison of Donald Trump in the White House to a horse in a hospital.

But for my money, his funniest and most endearing stories involve his childhood, which seem to echo my own years as a young Baby Boomer with Depression-era, hard-line parents. He describes sitting on a sofa with his mother and eating Triscuits in dead silence. And he horrifies the youngsters in the audience by describing how his cold-hearted dad could go through a McDonalds drive-thru and pick up only a coffee for himself. (The irony in his jabs at his father are that, physically, John is a Chip off the old block.)

The helpless and trapped nature of childhood are a theme in Mulaney’s comedy, including the description of a “stranger danger” assembly that served to scar a generation of young kids for life. Or the adult size XXL t-shirt he was forced to wear as a nightshirt.

Many of Mulaney’s references speak directly to the generation known as Gen X. He riffs on the plots of such movies as  The Fugitive and Back to the Future. He references his Aladdin wallet. And most memorably, he reminisces about meeting the future president Bill Clinton in 1992.

I’m sure the Yale-educated lawyers who raised John Mulaney are bemused by his choice of careers. But I would say that those of us seeking some comic relief in these troubled times are lucky to have Mulaney’s irreverent, witty, and hilarious take on life to make us laugh.

My stomach still hurts.

Anne of Green Gables a Great Female Role Model

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Somehow in my childhood, I missed out on reading the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Written in 1908, Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels tell the story of a young, red-headed orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to an aging brother and sister who live on a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Last week, I watched two delightful Canadian mini-series based on Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, and I fell in love with Anne. While her story seems conventional enough and has a happy ending, Anne is a heroine to be reckoned with. Young girls would do well to use her character as a model for themselves as they grow into young women.

One trait I love about Anne is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. Even though she is an orphan and dependent on the mercy of the Cuthberts, who take her in on a provisional basis even though she is not the boy they had requested to help them with the farm, she asserts her opinions to the cantankerous Marilla and refuses to allow their gossipy neighbor, Rachel Lynde, to make her feel small. Later in the series, she continues her forthright and assertive ways, whether or not they lead her to trouble in school or to be fired from her position as a teacher.

Anne’s sense of self is especially impressive in her dealings with the opposite sex. On her first day of school in Avonlea, class hunk Gilbert Blythe pulls her red hair, and in response she breaks her slate over his head. Even though Gilbert insists he was only teasing, Anne refuses to back down and insists that his behavior is unacceptable (#MeToo). Gilbert is awed by Anne’s character and falls in love with her, not for her beauty, but for her brains. Throughout Anne of Green Gables, the two of them vie to be first academically.

In a rural 19th century environment, Anne is not content to be courted, settle down, and marry. She has dreams of bigger things and leaves the island to continue her education and be independent. Within the strictures of her time and place, Anne continues to insist upon following her own path, a path which eventually leads back to her beloved Avonlea.

But if Anne were simply an assertive go-getter, her value as a role model would be limited. What I love most about Anne is her unfailing kindness and respect for others. It is a respect born not of fear, but of compassion and empathy. In her young life, she too has suffered from others’ cruelty and indifference, so she refuses to be indifferent to the plight of others. A notable example is when she takes her first post as a teacher at a girls’ boarding school and wins over the cold and lonely spinster, Miss Brooks.

Watching the story of Anne Shirley unfold on the screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern heroine in an old-fashioned setting. Far from being out of date, the stories in Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and others in the series are just the ticket for young girls and boys to experience today.

For my part, I intend to correct the lapse in my youthful reading endeavors and pick up these timeless gems by L.M. Montgomery. Happy summer reading!

 

 

Great American Read

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Summer is the time for reading. There is nothing better on a lazy, hot day than to loll around in a hammock or beach chair and plow through a stack of good books. I favor more light-hearted reads and thrillers in the summer, but in the past, the summer was the only time I could master a tome such as War and Peace.

PBS is kindling an interest in literature through its program “The Great American Read.” Through a survey of random readers, it has culled a list of the most popular 100 books (or series) in America and is asking everyone to vote on their favorites. A series of television specials on PBS will explore people’s love affairs with the written word, and on October 23, the results of the survey will reveal the most beloved book or book series of all.

One of the things I love about reading is that it inspires conversation. I had been unaware of “The Great American Read” until my brother brought it up at a family dinner. What ensued was an animated discussion of various books. When Gone With the Wind came up, there was disagreement about whether it was a great novel. One sibling averred that it was a false and racist depiction of the South and America during the Civil War. Another countered that you can’t change history and that that was the prevailing sentiment in the South when the book was written in 1936.

The 100 book list is certainly diverse – not at all a snobby English teacher’s syllabus. I was personally appalled that Fifty Shades of Grey made the cut. I’m not a prude, but the writing style is atrocious. I couldn’t get through more than a chapter before I fell over laughing. On the other hand, some of my favorite novels are on the list: Beloved, The Joy Luck Club, To Kill a Mockingbird. And popular series such as Harry Potter,  The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones show that the list has mass appeal.

The list of 100 favorite novels for “The Great American Read” is posted on pbs.org. You can vote for your favorites every day from now until the final results are tabulated in October. You can also find out how many of America’s favorite books you’ve actually read. I was disappointed to find out I’ve only read 43 of the 100. I guess I’d better hop in that hammock and get cracking!

 

Who Needs Roseanne When We’ve Got The Middle?

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The surprising popularity of this spring’s Roseanne reboot, followed by its swift cancellation, has some critics regretting the loss of a TV comedy that depicted life for working class Americans. Little did they realize, we have already had a hilarious take on life in the fly over zone for 9 great seasons: The Middle.

The Middle is the story of the Hecks from fictional Orson, Indiana. When we first meet them, dad Mike is working at a rock quarry and mom Frankie is having trouble selling cars at a local dealership. Their three kids are a popular slacker (Axel), a klutzy positive thinker (Sue Sue), and a brainiac with social problems (Brick).

The Hecks are always just barely scraping by. Their appliances don’t work unless large amounts of duct tape are involved. Their cars are serviceable clunkers. Frankie brings home questionable meat and produce from the Frugal Hoosier. And throughout nine seasons, their financial fortunes don’t improve much.

Premiering around the same time as Modern FamilyThe Middle has always been like the less glamorous, less popular younger sibling. The Hecks lack the snappy repartee of the Pritchetts. Their stories are not as manic and zany. But the Hecks, with all their problems, dysfunctions, and squabbling, give Middle America a family it can relate to.

Who among us has not fought with siblings in the back seat of the family car on long, boring road trips? Who cannot relate to being an overwhelmed mom whose idea of making dinner is picking up fast food? Don’t we all have weird relatives that only add to the dysfunction of stressful family gatherings? Isn’t there always another family in the neighborhood who puts us to shame with their cookie-baking, high-achieving, wholesome ways?

What makes The Middle such a relatable show is the deep affection the Hecks have for each other. Despite their near-constant bickering, they weather the storms together and identify as a family unit. I recently watched the final episode of The Middle, which sees the Heck family grappling with a child leaving the nest and the knowledge that their close-knit clan will never be the same. It’s a heartfelt episode, and it made me cry, as did many touching moments in the series over the years. It’s a kind of laughing through the tears experience.

There is absolutely no politics in The Middle. Religion is treated with respect and gentle humor. The one gay character in the show has a slow and unspectacular awakening to his true identity. The Middle is not a show about issues, but simply about family. And it’s a gem.

I’m sure The Middle will find its way to Netflix or late night TV.  And when it does, I’d highly recommend viewers give it a try.

The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

White Like Me

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Dear Black People,

After watching season one of the Netflix series Dear White People, I want to apologize for my ancestors having screwed up your lives for the past 200 hundred plus years and for making race relations so fraught to this day.

Watching Dear White People made me uncomfortable, as it is no doubt meant to do. Episode after episode, I squirmed as well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) white students try to relate to their black counterparts at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester. (The gun comes immediately to mind.) Whether getting called out for partying in blackface or learning that only blacks get to use the N word, the white kids at Winchester are alternately baffled and angered by their black classmates’ refusal to go easy on them.

The premise of Dear White People is that a mixed race student named Samantha White hosts a regular segment on the college radio station that starts “Dear white people” and  gives her a platform to air her exasperation, dismay, or outright disgust at the way people of color are treated at her school. Her show – and indeed the series – force whites to look at their privilege in a sometimes humorous, but always uncompromising, way.

What I love about the show is that each episode is told from the perspective of one student at the school. Even the black students at Winchester are not united in their views of how best to advance black causes at the school. Some are assimilators who want to find diplomatic solutions. Some are activists who wish to be confrontational. All have unique stories, and learning their stories is perhaps the most instructive part of the show for whites who might be tempted to paint all African-Americans with the same broad brush.

A twist in the show is that Sam, the radio personality/activist, is secretly dating a white grad student at the beginning of Episode 1. Once they are outed, Sam’s boyfriend Gabe tries to walk the tightrope of being sympathetic to the black students’ plight without being patronizing. But he learns that, as a white person, he just doesn’t get it, and probably never will. The same can be said for white audiences of Dear White People. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

While the show has deadly serious moments, it’s also very funny. The repartee among the students is topical and witty.  And the characters totally won me over. There’s the shy gay student who has a crush on his roommate, his equally gay newspaper editor who is constantly yelling at him for not doing the story he was assigned, the Buffy-like girl who gets an Emotional Support Animal to handle the stress, the Kenyan who insists that his people are superior because “we did not get captured” in Africa.

Dear White People is a sly, witty, earnest, and well-acted comedy-drama and a must-see for anyone who wants to examine modern race relations in America. I can’t wait for season two!