Forum: Joke's over
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In the fey and greedy 1980s, I made my first visit to a comedy club. A friend's brother was part of an act in Providence. Our party walked into the club and my friend immediately motioned us to seats in the back. I was puzzled: as guests of the house, we could have been up front, hard by the stage.
Two hours later, after a cascade of humiliations -- religious, political, sexual, physical -- had stained the occupants of the front tables, my friend gestured to his wife.
"You don't want to be up there when they're doing that," he said. "I sure didn't want her as a target."
When Michael Richards melted onstage last weekend and sent shards of his inner self flying into the faces of his audience, commentators asked how it could happen. I wondered why it doesn't happen more often. Constantly looking for new ways to evoke laughter, comedians have run out of idols to smash and have begun breaking the worshippers.Michael Yarish, NBC
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Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1965).
Confronted with hecklers, slightly off balance, Mr. Richards reached into the depths of his desire to demolish something. First there was the allusion to lynching: "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a ... fork up your ass." What is telling here is that the audience laughed. He went on, screeching a racial epithet no longer considered printable. A bit of laughter followed. Then he thrashed his way through the word over and over, until, at long last, the audience realized it wasn't part of the act and, in short, lost its cue to laugh.
"Those words, those words, those words," Mr. Richards muttered, wandering away, a self-broken man.
Cruelty and humor exist in a strange balance. Aristotle nailed it when he described comedy as an imitation of inferior action, an aspect of the ridiculous which he calls "a species of the ugly."
That balance has pretty much come undone in the world of comedy. We no longer distinguish between a laugh of derision and a laugh of delight, just so long as someone is laughing.
Laughter has many functions. Growing up, I knew a mentally challenged young man, all but incapable of speech, who would double over in purposeless laughter at the words "Westwood Plaza Shopping Center."
Jump forward one generation to the Comedy Central roast, wherein professional comedians, B-list actors and up-and-comers lacerate guests for amusement. This sort of thing used to be done by Dean Martin and his friends 35 years ago, but they managed to do it with a level of affection, a sense of fun. A few months ago, watching assorted guests "roast" Star Trek's William Shatner, replete with gratuitous and unfunny lines about a guest's homosexuality and proctological addenda by Sandra Bullock, it was impossible not to think that, with little effort, the folks on the dais could resist laughing. They were trying their best to laugh, they were faking it well, but the fake laughter was put there to disguise the fact that the humor was phony, and phony humor is its own variant of cruelty.
There is, too, genuine laughter that perhaps should not be. The top grossing film of the month is "Borat," in which a fake Kazakh newsman travels the United States mistaking toilets for sinks, insulting women and luring drunkards into making bigoted comments.
Borat satirizes prejudice and smugness, but does so by victimizing the unwitting. Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian who portrays Borat, will not come out of character to explain his work. Humor is often used to hide our feelings. Using it to hide the evidence is another thing. I saw "Borat" and laughed so hard I sprained my conscience.
Nobody is laughing just now at Michael Richards. His public dissolution has been analyzed by scholars as august as George Lopez and Sinbad. Their conclusions by and large have been that actors doing standup run the risk of failure, and that a trained comedian knows how to put away a heckler. Note here that the swatting down of a heckler becomes part of the art, an art in such high stages of development that the real sin of Michael Richards seems to be not that he hurt someone, but that he publicly disgraced not others but himself.
That's not comedy, either. Aristotle explains as much because, while defining comedy as an outgrowth of the deformed and ugly, he also notes that it does not cause pain. In the post-classical world, we have rewired our heads to laugh at our own suffering in the least noble ways.
First Published November 26, 2006 12:00 am