August 11, 2017
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Before we even begin, I feel that I have to apologize…today’s post takes the fun out of humor. In analyzing what makes a joke funny, we are pretty much surgically separating humor from the joke. So, having said that, let’s dive in…. To better understand today’s conversation, you might take a peek at the following video of Jerry Seinfeld talking with Alec Baldwin in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 11 minutes).
Jerry Seinfeld started Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee after a successful career as a stand-up comedian and television star. Each episode highlights a car which he uses to pick up another comedian. The show documents them discussing what makes a good joke. Sometimes, however, humor is best left to demonstration, as in the episode with Alec Baldwin. Instead of defining what makes a joke funny, they demonstrate how to tell a humorous story. The viewer is along for the ride, and hopefully, attentive to the demonstration. It’s the old adage of show, don’t tell. Of course, it helps that Baldwin also does impersonations. The ability to reenact a story is one aspect that enhances the stand-up routine. In other words, reading the story off of a page would probably be funny. But seeing the story, and hearing a variety of accents from a single actor, transcends funny. Baldwin makes the humor come alive.
The episode with Alec Baldwin begins with an inside joke. Since Seinfeld and Baldwin grew up in the same neighborhood, they share a personal history that the viewer does not. In this case, we laugh along with a discussion of their shared hometown. As they recreate a physical setting based upon their shared reality, the viewer constructs something similar. Though they are not identical settings, the jokes work because of a shared narrative. We each know a little bit about the dividing line between poverty and wealth. We envision the poor kid spying on the rich kid (who is, by the way, squandering his wealth and toys by singing into a fake microphone). This type of joke may require less foregrounding between the two speakers because of a shared history. In other words, the joke works on a meta-level that includes everyone, but is perhaps more powerful to those within the circle. So, while Baldwin and Seinfeld grew up with different circumstances, they have a literal terrain in common. Yet, the story works for us too because: a] we are included in the dialogue and b] most of us share some basic communal terrain and c] the delivery is well-crafted. This last part is, without a doubt, an art form. Knowing how to deliver, how to read, how to create a persona that gets a laugh and underscore it with some harsh truth, is, as Seinfeld indicates, probably unteachable.
Seineld notes his friend’s story-telling talent when Baldwin retells a story of Rip Torn’s bar fight. As Baldwin knows exactly what details to add (or more likely, what details to remove) in order to create a suspenseful and hilarious story. He re-enacts the bar fight, imitating Torn’s voice and expressions. Narrative alone cannot create humor. Rather, a joke is shared. If something gets a laugh, then two people have held a single truth, at least momentarily.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humor as something “absurdly incongruous” or “ludicrous”. Much like Rip Torn, a man in his 70s cracking jaws in a bar fight. Though the two actors know Torn better than the viewer, we definitely share in the joke. It seems very important to highlight the places where humanity connects like this. These absurdities enlighten our view of the world while also removing elements of fear. One can, of course, describe a bar fight in any number of ways. This version certainly aims to draw out the humor of the situation. But to what end? What is the point of creating a shared space, especially one that is funny?
In response to his reenactment and imitation of Torn, Seinfeld comments: “This, by the way, is your curse… you’re a gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” I have been puzzling over the idea that Baldwin is, in some way, cursed. I can see how it would be difficult to act if one disagrees with the vision of the director. I can also see how the character that one envisions no longer fits into the play with other dramatic interpretations. But I am not exactly sure how Seinfeld intends to separate actor and writer. Obviously they are different, but in what ways? People publish and read novels at rapid pace. Likewise, we consume television and movies at fast speeds. So, what exactly is the difference, and how does it affect our interpretation?
There are many types of humor. Slapstick can be overplayed successfully, whereas other jokes require subtlety and finesse. In most episodes of Seinfeld’s show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee he asks for more than a chat. Seinfeld is trying to understand how humor works, and it is worth our attention, because humor may very well be an essential form of human connection.
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