Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What is funny?

Defining humor has been on my mind quite a bit these days for a variety of reasons. As a comic, I'm always looking for ways to turn my daily frustrations into good material, and as a blogger, I want to be as entertaining as possible for those three or four people who might actually read my posts. Then I've got two sons who have a very different view of humor than I do (which tends toward inappropriate and offensive episodes of Family Guy). Plus I'm starting to teach workshops to professional speakers on how to use humor - and as I've been researching the subject, trying to pin down 'what's funny' gets more and more elusive.

There are books and websites galore out there, analyzing humor's history and components (irony, slapstick, parody, incongruous juxtaposition). The more analysis I read, the more I agree with E.B.White, who said "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. No one wants to watch and eventually the frog dies." So instead of reading dry academic experts, I decided to see what made me laugh - and that's where YouTube is great. Sure, there are thousands of really inane videos of people burping or putting strange things in blenders, but there is a huge trove of old footage, everything from classic standup comedies to old sitcoms and TV variety shows. I spent an absolutely delightful half hour watching everything from Ernie Kovacs (weird, funny show from the 50s) to Carol Burnett Show out-takes, and I don't know if I gained any insight into how to teach humor, but I laughed until I cried, and therefore (according to all that dry academic stuff) I reduced my blood pressure, released toxic stress hormones, and lowered my neuroendocrine levels. (Or at least I didn't yell at my kids for a few hours!)

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