Serious Business

Humor is harder than people think. That came to mind after Stephen Colbert’s rant on Trump. I was tempted to say that in my day late night hosts told the jokes and now they are the jokes, but I’ve seen Johnny Carson bomb quite often so that would just be mean. Humor can have a mean edge, but being mean doesn’t count as humor. It’s similar to the late George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV, which centers around seven words associated with coarse language. Carlin uses it to explore the meaning we give words and even word order, and that’s the source of the humor. Merely saying those words isn’t funny, but what he did with the words is.

The late Don Rickles based his act on vicious humor that worked because of his timing and delivery. It might come as a surprise, but Rickles also played non-humor roles, such as a ventriloquist in Tales from the Crypt’s “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” In that episode he gives a hard critique of a wannabe ventriloquist’s act that covers things such as knowing how to work an audience. That touches on the nuts and bolts of humor, which is far more than jokes (and if you watch Johnny Carson bomb on reruns, that becomes painfully obvious). I have a hazy memory of a comic who’s joke about a political figure got zero laughs, and after a beat recovered by feigning a nervous look and saying “Do I smell tar and feathers?” In the same way, Johnny Carson could often salvage a failing monologue by playing up that it was a flop. Red Skelton, as funny as he was, couldn’t quite pull it off because his delivery when he said “Another joke writer bites the dust” wasn’t funny, both his timing and body language.

One of the best things anyone interested in humor can do is to study that type of humor. We could analyze why Stephen Colbert’s Trump rant wasn’t funny all day long, but the best way to examine bad humor is by getting to know the good stuff, the masters, both current and past. Don Rickle’s remarks said straight aren’t funny at all, but combined with his body language it becomes funny because we’re laughing at Rickles and not his “victim.” Eddie Murphy is a hilarious comedian in large part because of how he acts out humorous characters in his monologues. As you watch them work, it becomes clear why what they say is funny, and if you see them bomb it becomes clear why. Just as it’s claimed that the best way to identify counterfeit currency is to become familiar with the good stuff, the best way to learn humor is to study what’s funny.

This holds for all forms of humor, from cartoons to writing. Both are in ways harder to execute than performing before an audience because you don’t have immediate feedback. Even when we study it, we can flop, just like a stand-up comedian, because what we think is funny sometimes isn’t.

Was it funny when Trump called Face the Nation “Deface the Nation?” I didn’t see it, so I don’t know. Back in the day we thought it was funny to call it “Faze the Nation.” But simply saying it isn’t enough, it has to be in a funny manner.

That’s where Mr. Colbert’s rant fell apart. Simply insulting someone isn’t humor (again, study the late Don Rickles). Even the line that brought gasps from the audience could have been implied in a manner that would have brought applause.

Yes, he could have done Trump jokes all night long and have been funny to all but the most staunch supporters. That was done over and over again toward the end of Nixon’s presidency, from a line in an episode of Sanford and Son about “executive privilege” (Nixon claimed it in refusing to release taped meetings to special prosecutor Archibald Cox) to more in-depth stuff.

Even Nixon understood the power of comedic timing. The night before the 1968 Presidential Election, Nixon appeared on the comedy show Laugh In and said, with a stunned look “They are going to sock it to me?” That was based on the show’s main catch phrase “Sock it to me.” Some have gone so far as to claim that helped win the election. Maybe, maybe not. But even today that clip is funny because of Nixon’s delivery.

The nuts and bolts of humor, the types and what works and what doesn’t, can barely be touched on in a blog post, and I’m no expert. But some things are obvious to even us who appreciate humor. Regardless of whether we want to inject humor into a speech, or in writing, or try our hand at cartooning, or even stand-up, it requires study. It requires practice, lots and lots of practice, to learn what works and what doesn’t. Humor is serious business, and to be good at it, we have to know what we’re doing. And the best way to do that is to study those who make us laugh the most.