After two sappy end-of-school-year posts this week, I promised to be light and witty. I’m about to head out to Eastport for my annual and long-anticipated writers’ retreat, so to tide my faithful readers (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) over the weekend, I thought I’d post something funny.
Except then I started to wonder about what’s funny.
A little while ago I got a package from Amazon with some books I’d ordered. The package also contained a CD – “The Best of Dr. Demento.” It’s a survey of some of the high points in twentieth-century novelty tunes, from “Shaving Cream” to “Fish Heads” and much, much more.
My acquaintance with the good Doctor and his radio show – a compendium of all that is bizarre in the world of music – goes back to my college days at Andrews University in the early 80s, when we used to hear Dr. Demento on a Chicago station on Sunday nights. I’d grown up appreciating the fine art of musical parody — my father used to sing the odd few lines of various Allan Sherman songs (not just “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda,” which everyone knows, but more obscure things like the one about the knight who wanted to give up smoting). Alan Sherman was kind of like the Weird Al Yankovic of the 1960s, and Dr. Demento provided me with a link to the great novelty artists of the past as well as current performers.
Our “Greatest Hits” CD includes, besides a bunch of great novelty songs, a few spoken word comedy sketches. One of these is “Bulbous Bouffant” by the Montreal comedy troupe The Vestibules (formerly Radio Free Vestibule). Jason and I first heard this on the radio a few years ago and almost drove off the road laughing. I said to Jason, “You know, the English-speaking world is probably divided into people who think this is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard, and people who would listen to it and go ‘Huh? What’s funny about that?’”
The second time we listened to the CD, we were gratified to learn that our two children were firmly in the first category. By now they practically have “Bulbous Bouffant” memorized and will happily perform it for you if you ask. Or even if you don’t ask. Sometimes they’ll perform it even if you ask them not to.
This got me thinking about the whole business of humour – what we find funny. Any of my college-era girlfriends can tell you that my number-one quality in a prospective boyfriend was always “sense of humour.” It was really the deal-breaker: does he laugh at the same things I do? I still think it’s one of the best indicators of connection between two human beings: you may not find all the same things funny, but if you can’t share at least a few laughs, why spend time together? It’s certainly the cornerstone of my relationship with Jason – at the end of the day, no matter what’s going on and how crazy we’re being driven by the kids, work, and each other, we can always share a laugh. We laugh at the same TV shows, the same comedians, and, most importantly, at each other. Laughter is definitely the glue that holds us together.
But even with Jason, there are things one of us finds funny that the other doesn’t. Everyone I’ve ever known, no matter how closely their sense of humour matched mine, has had these “blind spots” where we couldn’t agree on what was funny. For example, most of the people who laugh at the things I laugh at, also like Mel Brooks movies. I can’t count how many times people have told me, “Oh, you would love Blazing Saddles!!” Nor can I count how many times I have watched the first 15 minutes of Blazing Saddles and turned it off, thinking, “This is just not funny!”
Usually the sense of what is or isn’t funny is so vague and indefinable that you can’t put it into words, but my cousin Jennifer made a valiant effort one time, and it has provided me with food for thought ever since. It was, again, the early 80s, and I was reading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series for the first time. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I shared it with Jennifer, and she, too thought it was hilarious … for the first couple of chapters. Then she stopped laughing. She tried to explain that it was funny while the action was on earth and Arthur Dent was trying to prevent the destruction of his house. As soon as they left earth, it became so bizarre, so detached from reality, that it wasn’t funny anymore. The humour, for her, came from the juxtaposition of the everyday and mundane with the ridiculous. Out in space, it was all ridiculous, so there was no more incongruity.
I’ve spent more than 20 years playing around with this idea and trying to figure out exactly what makes things funny, for me. (Some might suggest I have too much time on my hands). All I’ve come up with is a few broad generalities. For example, the humour I like is almost always verbal. If it’s not about words, it’s not funny. So for me, mimes can’t be funny. (Well, that’s me and about 99% of the world, I think).
Also, slapstick isn’t funny for me. I don’t laugh at pratfalls. This may be partly a gender thing – virtually every man I’ve ever known (except my father) laughs hysterically at the visual image of a person falling down or getting hit in the head. I think of Jamie rewinding a scene in Throw Mama From the Train to rewatch someone getting hit in the head about 15 times. I just didn’t see what was funny about it.
I’ve mentioned my dad twice so far in this essay, which is far from coincidental in an essay about humour. If you asked five people to describe my dad in three words, I’m pretty sure everyone’s list would contain the word “funny,” and certainly both my parents, and my extended family, were instrumental in shaping my concept of what’s funny and what isn’t. As we say, “There’s only two kinds in this family – the quick and the dead.” If you’re not “quick” – i.e. quick-witted, sharp, fast with a comeback – you’re destined to fall to the bottom of the Morgan family food chain. (Fortunately this rarely happens, as we are genetically programmed to marry funny people so we can breed funny offspring).
And yet, while you might think my sense of humour was shaped by the Morgan family ethos in general and my dad in particular, there are still areas where we don’t meet. I’m sure my love of verbal humour and my distaste for slapstick comes directly through the genes, but a lot of things that make me laugh – Hitchhiker’s Guide, the more off-the-wall Monty Python skits and movies – leave my parents cold. I’m not even sure they’d like “Bulbous Bouffant.”
Whether it’s nature or nurture, I have to conclude that each individual’s sense of humour is as individual as a fingerprint. I also have to conclude that I promised to write a funny blog and instead I wrote a blog about being funny, which is not the same thing at all. So I think now, I’ll just conclude with my own personal Top Ten list of the funniest books, movies, TV shows and music I know.
10. Mad About You. One of the truly great sitcoms of all time, especially in the early years. Later…not so much. But still a treasure trove of brilliantly funny lines.
9. Fawlty Towers. “Don’t mention the war!” Pure comedy classic, and a lesson here for American TV producers who always seem to believe they have to milk a show for seven seasons or more. Fawlty Towers has earned a permanent place in TV heaven with only 12 episodes, ever.
8. The Far Side by Gary Larson. If there’s a dictionary definition of “off the wall,” a Far Side cartoon panel should be in the column next to it.
7. The Princess Bride. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This is the movie that probably spawned more quotable one-liners than any “cult classic,” ever. And now our kids love it too….
6. Early Friends. People like to snark on Friends as the ultimate neurotic-yuppie sitcom, but in the early seasons, the one-liners were pure gold. (“You’re…over me? When were you…under me?”) Sadly, it long outstayed its golden years (see comment above about Fawlty Towers and the shortcomings of American TV).
5. Weird Al Yankovic – the complete works. Remember my comment above about nearly driving off the road while listening to Bulbous Bouffant? That was the second time that happened to me – the first being when I first heard Weird Al’s “One More Minute.” The only reason it didn’t happen more often was that I learned not to give my first listen to a Weird Al album while driving! The man is a genius! A genius I tell you!!!!
4. The West Wing. Surprised to see a “serious drama” so high up on the comedy list? Don’t be. True Wingnuts know that the humour in this series (especially in Aaron Sorkin’s first couple of seasons writing) was unparalleled. Actually, to a true Wingnut you wouldn’t need to say that. You’d only need to say, “Shibboleth – the turkeys – CJ’s office?” and you’d both collapse in gales of helpless laughter.
3. This is Spinal Tap. “These go to eleven!!” And so does the humour in this classic “mockumentary.” Christopher Guest, who stars in this one (but didn’t direct it), went on to make a long line of funny mockumentaries with some of the same cast members, but Tap is the gold standard.
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” by Douglas Adams. Five cheers for the five-volume trilogy that redefined space travel. And RIP Douglas Adams, a militant atheist who I expect will be thoroughly surprised when he finds himself in heaven, admitted on the basis of being the funniest man ever.
1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There aren’t even superlatives in the English language to say how funny this movie is. But … “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down ‘ere!”