So What, Exactly, is Comedy?

Arrested Development

As I climbed aboard a crowded Megabus, prepared to make the trek from Cleveland to Chicago, I found myself in the unusual position of sitting on the lower level. Furthermore, I was in the face-to-face section, so I was sharing a table with two strangers across from me, just like eating at a diner booth.

Across the table were two women of Chinese descent – one about 50 years old and her mother, presumably in her 70s or early 80s. The mother lived part of her life in China and was a native speaker who didn’t know much English, but the younger woman had lived in the states and didn’t carry much of an accent as she spoke clearly and comfortably.

The younger woman asked me which of the two cities I lived in and then what I did in each city. Her ears perked up a little bit as I mentioned that I was doing improv and sketch comedy in Chicago, via the Second City Training Center and IO Chicago, which is always one of the fun parts about strangers asking that question. While it no longer feels notable after living in Chicago for a few years and seeing 5-10,000 people go through the same training, it still holds some interest to an outsider. She was an outsider, and she wanted to know more.

Her interest was piqued, and she leaned toward the table and asked the most fundamentally important question – the one I’d never been asked before, and the one I’d only ever thought about while listening to an episode of the Nerdist podcast.

“So, what is comedy? What makes something funny?”

We were due to arrive in Chicago in just over six hours. Perfect.

By taking “comedy classes” and having people talk to you about the strengths and weaknesses of your comedic ability, there is an inevitable level of feeling jaded. The more creative the comedy gets, the more the improv community appreciates it: a knock-knock joke won’t get the same respect as a three-minute, character-driven monologue that ends with one beautiful punch-line.

This carries over: if someone thinks The Royal Tenenbaums is the funniest movie of all time and their roommate thinks it’s the timeless Sandler classic Grown Ups, those two are fundamentally different people with different views on comedy. And if you didn’t know, the Tenenbaums one is the comedy-nerd. The Grown-Ups fan is a gorilla.

But how can we discount a certain type of comedy? Isn’t all comedy an effort to make people laugh? There are two extreme ends of this equation – on the one hand, you have the slapstick, face-in-the-pie, simple comedy. Something looks funny, so you laugh. On the other end is the complex joke structure and timing of a show like Arrested Development, where the jokes are unrelenting, foreshadowing, and retroactive to things that have already happened. Both are funny in their own right. As someone who has aggressively watched Arrested Development, I find myself laughing just as hard at something that happened on Nickelodeon, where the formula is laugh tracks, bright colors, and people falling down. There’s nothing “wrong” with either one.

Taking YouTube as a measuring stick, let’s look at two quick pieces of information that illustrate the above divide. First, I say we take a look at Bo Burnham, a comedian who rose to fame as a kid with a keyboard and some raps that were creative and fast-paced enough that he had to put the lyrics in the description just so people could understand all of the jokes that he fired off in 3:30 doses. He got good enough, popular enough, and “funny” enough that he made the list of cameo-comedians in Funny People alongside Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, and about 20 other big-name comics.

Second, type in the word “kicked” on YouTube and four of the first eight results involve kicks in the crotch. Somehow each of these things would be described as being funny. Someone can sit down for months and pen a witty album, top to bottom, or they can throw their cat in the bathtub and both will get 10,000,000 hits and laughs.

So what exactly is comedy, then?

I’ve heard that comedy is simply the release of built-up tension. That is, the tension builds as you tell a story or set up a joke. The punchline allows the release of the tension in the form of laughter. However, the tension doesn’t ooze out the way sadness does – for whatever reason, comic tension produces laughs because of blah blah blah brain stuff.

A Google search will show millions of results for either “What is comedy,” “Comedy is…” or “Quotes about comedy” so that’s not really a good place to start. It’s the impossible question. It might as well be the meaning of life.

Wait a sec. Is comedy the meaning of life?

I took a literature class in college, taught by a really interesting guy whose name I can’t remember (and for future reference, always use their real name when comedy is involved – it makes things more real and much funnier), and I took away one thing from his class. We read In Cold Blood, something by Joan Didion, and a few others, yet he kept circling back to the one question – what will you do with your one wild, precious life? I don’t even remember which book that came from, but it stuck with me five years ago and I still think about it regularly.

Believing in comedy is something of a religion in itself. By believing in laughter as a healing mechanism, a therapy, or a way to just make other people feel good, you need a sense of either the big picture or the small picture, and oftentimes you need to toe the line between them.

In the big picture, no one will remember me in 100 years, let alone 1,000 or 100,000. No one will remember anyone except for the most important 5-10 people of the 21st century by the time the year 6,000 comes around (Gregorian calendar, that is. Pretty sure Judaism is closing in on 6,000 now. Fact check? I’m busy.), and I’m making peace with the fact that I will not be one of those 5-10.

Try as I might, that’s a lot to compete with. Frankly, that might be why Kim Jong Un does all of the crazy stuff he does – if nothing else, he’ll be remembered far more than any US Congressman who didn’t get heavily involved in a sex scandal, and even most of them are forgotten pretty quickly.

Kim Jong Un

Being soon-to-be-forgotten is a perk though, in the big picture. I am of the belief that I do not matter in the big picture of life as we know it. Because of that, I feel the freedom of knowing that I’m inconsequential and I may as well just have fun with what I’m doing here. If making people laugh makes me happy, then that’s the important part. If watching things that make me laugh will improve my life, then that’s what I’m going to do because there’s no sense being miserable at my only shot at life.

The flip side is the small scale. We do matter on the small scale, because we only have this one life and we do need to enjoy it. Being miserable is…well, it’s being miserable. We hear a lot that the only news that gets reported is bad news* and if the only thing we hear about is the bad news, it’s easy for people to get into a funk, or feel depressed, or any number of things. Anti-depressant use is on the rise, alcoholism and self-medication aren’t going anywhere, so how do we make people feel a little better?

*In addition to sites like Upworthy making waves by reporting only good things, it bears mention that when I was in eighth grade, my social studies teacher, Mr. Dingman, gave us a weekly assignment to find something good from the newspaper – a story about something good that someone did each week – and clip it and bring it in. First, this is crazy because that was about 13 years ago and I’m chuckling at reading hard copies of newspapers and bringing in clippings instead of just getting a link to the article and sending it to the teacher or whatever kids must do now. Second, this is crazy because it feels like the news has gotten worse and worse over these 13 years and I remember it being depressing and difficult to succeed in this assignment. That was the point, of course, because the news was constantly reporting the bad news. As an extended point, has anyone used lately? Holy crap, that site is unbearable with its scare tactics and clickbait. Someone needs to be fired.

To me, the answer is to make them laugh. Sometimes making them laugh makes us happy; other times it’s to make that person’s day better. In either case, someone is coming out ahead. If I can stand in front of a room full of strangers and make them happy for 15 minutes, then I ought to do it.

Occasionally you may see/hear/read about comedians who are terribly depressed and are fighting through all kinds of demons, and it’s true that some are. I believe that the reason for this is the above paragraph – they decide that the greater good of a group of people is bigger than their own well-being. It’s a sacrifice that’s hard to quantify until you really break it down, and it’s one that doesn’t come into play until you hear about people like Greg Giraldo overdosing despite being so loved, respected, and accomplished.

What I’m getting at is this: I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, let alone later today. I might board a plane that disappears forever. I might mistake my girlfriend for an intruder. I might secede from Ukraine. I might get hit by a taxi cab. I really don’t know what’s next for me or anyone else. Louis CK famously started one of his specials by saying, “there are about 2,500 people in here, so odds are that at least one of you doesn’t make it to Christmas.” It’s a funny way to get things started, but it’s true. You don’t know what’s coming and you never will. So enjoy it. Play. Have fun. Make laughs for others and laughs for yourself.

As you’ve seen everywhere, “live, laugh, love,” but, you know, do that in such a way that’s less like a tween on AIM and more like someone who’s really thought about it and realized that laughing is really important to your daily life and well-being.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go slip on a poopy diaper and land face-first on a birthday cake.

And in case you’re wondering, I told the Asian woman that I didn’t know and immediately faked falling asleep.

Kevin Nye

Author: Kevin Nye

Kevin Nye grew up near Cleveland, was educated at Ohio University and was re-educated by living in Chicago and doing improv and sketch comedy. He is a triple threat of mediocrity.

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