Comedy Is Supposed to Be Mean Unless It’s for Morons

Comedy Is Supposed to Be Mean Unless It’s for Morons

By Don Hall

"To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and laugh with it!"
— Charlie Chaplin

My first experience with the elusive muse known as Comedy was when I was four or five years old. My grandpa would get the entire family to wait for me to come inside the house and, no matter what I did when I walked through the door, the whole gang would crack up like I had performed the funniest goddamned thing they had ever witnessed. And my response was to, of course, try to figure what I had done to get such an ovation. Instead of asking what was so funny, I would go back outside and try to do exactly what I had done before. I'd enter and see what happened and they would laugh even harder. And I would keep trying until the whole family was roaring — not due to my Grand Comedic Chops, but because I was such an obvious Whore for Laughs even at five years old.

The joke was on me. This was how my grandpa worked. He knew that most people were just a little bit thick and had no end of fun fucking with them. And, it can certainly be argued that my love for the guffaw and my genial disdain for stupid people comes from him.

In seventh grade, I was once again the new kid in school and had found my smartass attitude both got me into trouble with authority and endeared me to the unpopular kids. My friends were the band geeks, the stutterers, the kid with one arm, the girl with the Coke-bottle glasses. And I recall a more popular kid cracking up the entire classroom by quoting Steve Martin's latest album Let's Get Small. I thought that that was kind of cheap. Sure, he was getting the laughs I craved but he was getting them by simply repeating someone else's jokes.

In high school and college, I became a fan of The Pythons, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and George Carlin, and the thing that consistently amazed me was that their comedy was both juvenile and adult; dick jokes and intelligent and biting observations about the darker absurdity of human nature. It was original, it was fast and, rather than me thinking the work was smart, the fact that I found it funny and meaty and lasted longer than the quick belly laugh made me feel smart. They were also mean.

In 1993, after moving to Chicago, getting my pizza and Second City tee-shirt, and starting a theater company, I auditioned for Chicago ComedySportz. The night after I was cast, I went to see my first show. The audience was thoroughly entertained but the schtick was... dumb. Not bad, necessarily, but filled with puns and intentionally bad jokes and jokey improv bits. It seemed a bit desperate; too eager to please. But I joined with gusto and discovered in no time that if I lifted my shirt and smacked my stomach, I could get the audience laughing like drunken chimps. That if I squirreled my hair up and looked like a crazy, wild man, the crowd ate it up (my onstage nickname was 'Taz' and it fit the character I played in the show.) 

Once in a while, during a CSz show, I’d go for the darker edged humor and invariably I would get called on the carpet for it later. This was a family-friendly show, which I was supposed to understand that, despite the fact that children are the most cruel little bastards on the spectrum, we were dumbing things down so as to avoid traumatizing them. 

Eventually, CSz and I parted ways. 

The most overused and tired quote when it comes to comedy is probably the “Tragedy plus time” one, but the second most beaten horse is that of Mel Brooks (arguably a comedy demi-god for writing/director any one of his masterpieces of laughter): "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die."

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die."

At it’s level best, comedy is mean. Used to mock ideas and people and oneself, it is an attempt to point out the ugliness of the world and those in it with mockery. If done right, there is laughter generally at the expense of someone else. Even the least offensive bits of humor have a victim whether it’s the Coyote blowing himself up or the Minions fucking something up in the most adorable way. The cast of the long-defunct Jackass television show and movies made their living getting tased in the nuts and blowing up fireworks in their ass’s — yes, it was voluntary but the funny came from the one’s not getting gored by a bull laughing at the one in pain.

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Python’s Life of Brian isn’t directed at any one person but, if you happen to be a follower of Christ, it’s hard not to feel tarnished. Cleese has been quoted, "Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited." Say what you want (and this being the Zombie Faceborg, I know that you will) Don Rickles is a hoot. Lisa Lampanelli? Funny. Triumph the Insult Dog? South Park? Chelsea Handler? Dick Gregory? Sarah Silverman? All mean, all funny as hell.

Name one truly funny comedy written that didn’t make fun of someone or of an ideology that someone believes. Yes, those on the Far Right and Far Left will say that making fun of the Other side is funny but mocking their side is cruel. Case in point, the White House Correspondents' Dinner and Michelle Wolf’s brutal takedown of pretty much everyone in the room. Comedy is subjective as is all art so I can only speak for myself but I laughed out loud at least 20 times in her 20 minutes, which seems like a solid set.

The Far Right cries “Out of bounds,” as if comedy is a game of rules and fouls. (ComedySportz?) The Far Left does the same when someone makes fun of them. Both sides accuse each other of being thin-skinned. The fact is, if you can’t laugh at yourself — the misunderstood stereotype of who you represent on some level — your sense of humor is stunted like a under-developed limb you can’t grab a cup with.

The simple fact is that if someone laughs, it’s funny. Like that nutty dress that some people saw as gold and some saw as blue, comedy is really in the eye of the beholder and, if you can’t take being made fun of, best to quietly hide from the rest of society, content to be left out of the discourse and live out your life pain-free.

If you decide to put yourself out there in the world of ideas and opinions, piss off if you get your feels all bruisy over a taunt. Nature wants you dead because your death means food for the plants so thicken up and steel yourself. Someone’s gonna make fun of you and you can either laugh it off or let it skull fuck your self-esteem. 

"In Washington, XXX was playing to a different crowd, and XXX failed dismally in the funny person's most solemn obligation: to use absurdity or contrast or hyperbole to elucidate — to make people see things a little bit differently. XXX had a chance to tell the president and much of important (and self-important) Washington things it would have been good for them to hear. But XXX was, like much of the blogosphere itself, telling like-minded people what they already know and alienating all the others."

That quote was regarding Stephen Colbert in 2015, now lauded as one of the landmark comedy moments in the history of the White House Correspondents' Dinner and sounds amazingly similar to the criticism of Wolf’s set.

I’d say that Wolf’s mean spirited, hysterical, polarizing set just launched her into a whole new tax bracket. If she’d been nice, no one would remember her.

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