I have a confession to make. I don't find comedy funny. There are exceptions - Gilbert Gottfried and Louis CK can occasionally reduce me to putty - but, by and large, I appreciate comedy from a technical rather than aesthetic standpoint, combined with an admiration for and empathy with the drive that compels people to perfect their craft.

I have similar feelings about magicians. Having spent a significant portion of my youth reading about and reverse-engineering illusions, before concluding that certain qualities necessary for success in the field are innate rather than learned, and I would always lack them. For example, I am pathologically bad at misdirection, a failing which I like to spin into an ode to my defining commitment to honesty, but in truth is just an example of something I do badly, despite having tried quite a bit. As a result, my only aim in watching magic shows is to convince myself that I understand what happened at a mechanical level. It's mildly satisfying, but not sufficiently so that I would ever seek out such performances.

In the same vein, while I never made a serious attempt at stand-up, I am deeply familiar with the fundamentally manipulative nature of comedy, having consciously deployed it throughout life to compensate for the absence of certain other social skills. I understand the process of iterative refinement, the accrual of mental notes on the difference a pause or a rewording makes, or the resigned conclusion that a particularly promising "bit" just doesn't work in practice. I do this consciously. I'm just not as good as the professionals.

Many years ago, I read a profile of Joan Rivers. It contained quotations, none of which I found any funnier than what I'd heard her say on television over the years, but I was deeply struck by the description of what she did after each show. She kept a notebook, in which she would methodically examine every aspect of her act, noting what worked better or worse, recording any innovations that emerged spontaneously. Comedy as craft was a revelation for me.

The frequent, perhaps unavoidable, offensiveness of comedy presents a conundrum, with which I deal semi-successfully. Fortunately, the most offensive performers (say, Andrew Dice Clay) are usually technically unimpressive - they successfully bond with an audience over shared prejudices, but nobody without those prejudices would ever deem the jokes funny. It's not comedy, but tribalism. Other situations (some illustrated below) are more difficult. I like to think that the best comedy exploits the existence of prejudices for comic effect without endorsing or enforcing them, but in truth I don't know that. It may in fact be doing harm.

Herewith, a brief syllabus on comedy as craft.

  1. First, and most topically right now, is Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The title gives away the message: she is a consummate professional with a fanatical drive for perfection. If you ignore everything else on this list, please watch this film. It's on Netflix.

  2. Comedian documents Jerry Seinfeld's "road trip" (actually he traveled by private jet) after the end of his TV series. He has committed to rebuilding his act from scratch, discarding all previous material, and the only way to do this is to experiment on a huge variety of audiences. The most striking moment for me is when he tells an anecdote to a much younger (and, frankly, not all that promising) comedian, about Glenn Miller's airplane making an emergency landing in field, forcing the musicians to hike the rest of the way to their next gig. At one point, they pass a farmhouse, through the big front window of which is seen a happy, extended family eating and laughing at a large dining table. One of the sax players turns to the guy next to him and asks, "How can people live that way?" The story is an insiders' joke, highlighting the difference between performers and "ordinary people."

    The best part, however, is Jerry muttering to himself after delivering the apocryphal story that it would have worked better with a bus instead of the airplane. Here is the richest comedian on the planet obsessing over his delivery in a casual conversation with someone he'll never see again.

  3. King of Comedy is also important, if only to hear the "Rupert Pupkin" many times over 109 minutes and to remind us that Robert De Niro used to be an amazing actor. This is not a documentary, but it's a relatively early depiction of comedy as something more complex than funniness.

  4. I Killed is a not particularly well edited compilation of anecdotes from road comedians of varying levels of fame and talent. As you read, you realize how apt the book's title is. Many of the stories are not pleasant at all, displaying the naked aggression behind this fundamentally manipulative craft. Misogyny is on prominent display and often horrifying.

  5. Louie, episode 2, season 1, like many episodes of the show, has an extended scene that is just a conversation among a group of professional comedians after night's work is done. The conversation becomes serious, as Rick Crom, the one comedian among them who is openly gay, is asked to comment on a variety of homophobic riffs. There is quite a bit of nuance in the scene, which doesn't end up explicitly denouncing such jokes, and leaves the viewer to guess at what's going on in each comedian's head, especially Rick's.

  6. Louie, episode 9, season 2 reunites Louie with an old friend, Eddie, who has, it turns out concluded that suicide would be preferable to the ongoing arduousness of life as a semi-successful road comic. At one point, Eddie has himself inserted into the roster of a comedy night (he is well known enough that the request is immediately granted) under the name Shitty Fat Tits, and proceeds to demolish the audience - which essentially means causing them to keep laughing, despite growing and profound discomfort. This is comedy as expert violence. Is the combination of craft, cruelty and self-loathing inextricably linked? We're left to piece that out on our own.

  7. The WTF Podcast, with Ben Stiller answers the question of what this definitively benign, audience-friendly clown shares with the archetypal stand-up comedian. The answer is a lot. You'd never imagine that Marc Maron and Ben Stiller would have anything to talk about, but they're both practitioners of the same craft, differing only in details of implementation.

  8. In The WTF Podcast, with Judd Apatow we learn the incredibly successful film producer started out as a stand-up comedian and approaches film production with the same level of methodical, hyper-obsessive detail that characterizes all professional comics.

  9. Seriously Funny - Rebel Comedians of the 1950s just landed on my Kindle, so this recommendation is only second-hand. I'll let you know...


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