Comedy is a Unit Test

I’m a fan of comedy, but I hate dumb guy comedy. I’ve always preferred smart guy analytical routines. There’s a reason why George Carlin and Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and any comedian pushing the boundaries are important. You can think about their pointed explorations of taboos and the edges of what makes us uncomfortable as unit tests for a society. These are the things the challenge the atomic beliefs and the intrinsic operations that make us tick. If we don’t know how to deal the questions they pose in this isolated, entertainment framework then how the hell will we deal with them when they matter?

I found it very distressing in the days and weeks following the death of George Carlin that no one seems to actually know the name of his most famous routine. It’s not “The Seven Dirty Words”. There are way more than seven of those and Carlin knew that. He did a routine where he named hundreds. It was “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” and it was a very specific examination of hypocrisy of the time, pointing out that you couldn’t use the word “fuck” on network television but most television shows insinuate the act constantly. Three’s Company was about nothing else. That is a unit test, and listening to it is running the test. (As an aside, in the 35 years since the routine came out I’ve never heard anyone but myself notice that the list is in iambic hexameter.)

Dumb guy comedy does nothing for you. At its best, it makes you chuckle and then you forget it. Larry the Cable guy and Jeff Foxworthy and Gallagher come and then are gone. The best of smart guy comedy makes you sharper, it hones your edge and teaches you how to think. I credit some of whatever analytical, skeptical thinking ability I have to guys like Carlin and Bruce. A while back I pointed out that its insulting to talk about “colored people” but perfectly fine to refer to “people of color”, noting that apparently “of’ is the magic preposition that makes everything all right. That line of thinking is pure Carlin. Now that we don’t have him anymore we better grow some more quickly. Our society needs all the unit testing we can muster.

One Reply to “Comedy is a Unit Test”

  1. What makes jokes funny is a specific kind of surprise. With most dumb humor, that surprise comes only in things like: how far will the watermelon bits fly or in guessing which celebrity the impression is of.

    Most smart humor requires more “work”. You have to figure out how the various bits of the joke fit together and connect. The further you have to “travel” to gather those bits, the funnier it tends to be, but only if you don’t get lost on the trip. Quite literally, the journey IS the reward.

    I tend to go out of my way when telling a joke or making a funny statement to require several leaps in order to get it. That means that about half of my jokes aren’t “gotten” or that nearly everyone in the room doesn’t get it.

    However, the one guy who has all of the necessary pieces tends to nearly fall out of his chair. That need to have the right bits to connect up points to genuinely smart humor being a pretty niche thing.

    Every once in a while, some humor works on multiple levels at once. There’s often a smart joke sitting underneath a dumb one. I think a great current example of this working is Big Bang Theory.

    Lots of the jokes are of the sort: “Geeks are obsessed with Star Trek and ‘regular’ people aren’t” and don’t take much to get. However, there are usually several other jokes underneath. When I watch with people who aren’t geeks or physics nerds or comic book fans, etc. they tend to miss the smart jokes.

    The Simpsons (during the good years, for whatever definition of that variable you assign) also pulled off the layering pretty well.

    And then there’s stuff like Family Guy where not only are the jokes dumb, but they repeat them, and highlight the path between the bits needing connection.

    Consuming really smart humor takes more “work” than dumb and most people aren’t willing to put in that work.

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