Sunday, November 04, 2007

My Favorite Comedy, Explained

The folks at the wonderful site Newcritics are holding a Comedy Blogathon from November 6-11 and they have asked me and other bloggers to answer the question, "What is the purest comedic moment you have ever experienced?" (And they are also calling for entries from anyone and everyone who wants to participate. Answer the question on your blog and send your links to M.A. Peel at Because Jon Swift is a nominee for Funniest Blog in the 2007 Weblog Awards, I often get asked, "What's funny?"

Of course, nothing makes comedy funnier than to explain it. I often find that I don't get a lot of jokes until someone explains why they are funny, and sometimes not even then. According to scientists, this is the world's funniest joke. I still don't know why it's funny, but when I find out, I will probably laugh for a very long time.

The study of laughter is called Gelotology, after the Greek word for JELLO, nature's funniest food. Aristotle believed that only humans laugh, but scientists have discovered that other primates, rats, dogs and, of course, hyenas also emit sounds that might be called laughter. Although cats do not laugh out loud, many scientists believe that they are quietly snickering at us on the inside, though this has not been proven definitively. At one time physicians believed that laughter could be therapeutic. Reader's Digest even had a column once called "Laughter Is the Best Medicine," but most reputable scientists abandoned this theory after the movie Patch Adams actually made many people sicker. In fact, a number of people have reportedly died laughing, including Pecos Bill, King Nadabayin of Burma, Damnoen Saen-um, a Thai ice cream truck driver, and Alex Mitchell of King's Lynn in Norfolk, England, whose last laugh was triggered by a Scotsman fighting a black pudding with his bagpipe. Comedy is a serious business and could be dangerous if not handled carefully.

In order to scientifically analyze just how comedy works I'm going to dissect one of Woody Allen's funniest films, which is probably my purest comedy moment. Unlike many critics, I prefer Allen's older, funnier movies and I don't think he has ever topped his 1978 comedy Interiors. Interiors, which is about the madcap antics of three artistic daughters (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, Kristin Griffith) dealing with the disintegration the marriage of their parents (Geraldine Page, E.G. Marshall), was influenced by the films of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Bergman and Antonioni were often considered to be the pranksters of European art cinema until their recent deaths within a day of each other, which may have been their final practical joke.

A lot of Interiors' humor comes from the cinematography, which can make or break a comedy. Interiors takes place for the most part in darkly lit interiors (a visual pun, get it?) and uses a lot of black and white, which are probably the funniest colors. That is why black-and-white comedies are usually funnier than color movies. The movie also uses a lot of red, which is the third funniest color. The least funny color, of course, is blue, which is why getting the blues means being really sad. Green is also a not very funny color (which explains the name of the completely humorless Green Party), while orange is usually good for a giggle or two. There is quite a bit of controversy about yellow, however. Is yellow funny? That is a question that has haunted jokesters for centuries. I think yellow can be funny if used sparingly. A dollop of mustard skillfully applied, for example, can be quite comical.

Another thing that makes Interiors such a rib tickler is that the characters hardly ever laugh. A joke is usually funnier if the person telling the joke keeps a straight face, which is why Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show were so excruciating to watch, as you can see for yourself in these very unfunny clips. The actors in Interiors play it straight all the way through, which just makes the comedy build and build. If you watched Interiors with a laugh track it would be a completely different film. Allen must have done multiple takes of some scenes so that the actors did not crack up in the middle of a scene and break character. I would love to see a blooper reel of Interiors to see if I'm right.

There is one scene where the characters laugh at a joke that has just been told, but we don't hear the joke, which is yet another example of Allen's genius. Although it may sound counterintuitive to a layman, many experienced comedians will tell you that actually telling a joke can sometimes ruin the joke. I can't tell you how many times I have seen young comedians who didn't understand this simple rule and insisted on telling a joke when they would have been much better off not telling the joke at all. Not telling the joke forces the audience to imagine what the joke might be, and nine times out of ten the joke they imagine is much funnier than any joke the comedian could have told.

Although Interiors is usually known for its slapstick and physical comedy, the wit of Allen's dialogue should not be underestimated. Allen is an expert at comedic wordplay and there is no shortage of it in Interiors. One line that always slays me is when Mary Beth Hurt's character says, "At the center of a sick psyche is a sick spirit." What makes this line so funny? It's obvious to anyone who knows anything about comedy. Give up? It's the alliteration of the "S" sound. S is probably the funniest letter in English, followed by the K sound, which also appears in this line, compounding the hilarity. (In Cyrillic Zhe (Ж) is the funniest letter and in the Xhosa click language it's the "ngq" sound, although some experts make a convincing argument that the glottal fricative "hh" is even funnier. It may just be a matter of taste.)

The number three appears a lot in Interiors and this is no accident. As any funnyman will tell you, three is the sacred number of comedy. There are always three people walking into a bar, not two and not four. The number 276 is also pretty funny but it's hard to work into a joke so it is rarely used. A joke in which 276 people walk into a bar would certainly be funny, but it would take a very long time to tell. Some mathematicians claim that the imaginary number 3i is also very funny but no one has yet been able to work it into a joke, as far as I know, although some students at MIT reportedly have tried.

In a recent episode PBS's American Masters about Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, Schulz said that what makes people laugh is suffering. I think Woody Allen would agree and what he once said about life could also be said about his film Interiors, that it is "full of misery, loneliness, and suffering -- and it's all over much too soon."

I have to admit that the first time I saw Interiors I did not get a lot of the jokes. I remember my initial reaction to the film was, "Is this supposed to be funny?" It was only after seeing the film a number of times that I began to realize just how funny it was. Often it is the case that if a comedy is not funny the first time you see it, it becomes funny after you watch it again and again and again. This film taught me everything I know about comedy and made me realize that if your first reaction to a joke is "Huh?" that often means that it is a very good joke indeed. In fact, the world's oldest joke is a Jewish joke found in a clay jar and written on ancient papyrus not far from where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Scholars are still studying this joke and not one of them has laughed yet. It may turn out to be the best joke of all.

Crossposted at Newcritics. Illustration by Blue Girl.

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Robert Green said...

you know, on a day when i watch two groups of shitheads kill my livelihood deader than a doornail (the apotheosis of deadness, the ne plus ultra of finality), i came to read this post to laugh.

and i was worried. it just wasn't funny. lousy first act, silence in the audience.

then you went into act 2 with your "woody allen's funniest movie" bit, and i thought, shit, he's jumped the shark at long last (the apex of cliched phraseology) with some post about how clever "Bananas" is or something. then you cited "Interiors." and i once again must bow to your genius. well played, sir, well played.

you aren't in the writer's guild, are you?

Anonymous said...

Can't tell if you're being snarky or sarcastic about the Korman / Conway clips but they are funny.

So funny they couldn't keep from laughing while doing them.

Maybe you find them excruciating but I find them hilarious. Thanks for posting the links to them even if we disagree on their funniness.

Erik said...

> Can't tell if you're being snarky or sarcastic about the Korman / Conway clips but they are funny.

He was being snarkastic.

Slim Chance said...

Not funny. Nor insightful. Sorry. Try again.

Dr Zen said...

I'd love to vote for you, but I don't want to help split the antiDUFU vote.

panzer commander said...

Is Jon Swift?

...I'll bet it was funny the first 8 times you heard it.

You got our votes. See you on the red carpet. Here's how to behave:


Jack (and Charmaine)

And what is Mary Worth? And when did Victor Mature?

Good stuff, uh?

(All my friends said I couldn't do comedy. Well, let me tell you: They're not laughing now!)

Jon Swift said...

Yes, Dr. Zen, it would be a tragedy if Sadly, No beat DUFU by only 4000 votes instead of 5000 votes. Is there no love left over for me?

WomanHonorThyself said...

voted for ya again my friend!..must see Interiors again as well~!

Grace Nearing said...

Yep. People keep telling me that My Night at Maud's is a comedy and I just snort derisively. And then they tell me that Interiors is not a comedy but an homage to Bergman, but I can't snort derisively twice in a row because it really hurts my sinuses. Instead I reply that Interiors is an homage to Carol Burnett's "Momma's Family" but with E.G. Marshall recast as Eunice and the whole family transplanted from East Texas to Manhattan and the Hamptons. Oh, and fine wines have replaced the canned beer and the young Sam Waterston has replaced Ken Berry.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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