Thursday, February 19, 2015

It's So Nice Here Down Off The Shore

Just so we get off on the correct tone, the initial title for this was going to be I'm Fucking Hilarious, But Only On The Worst Days - but cribbing from one of my favorite recluses seemed to fit the bill much better.

When I was going to school, defining myself by my physical prowess, and establishing myself though intimidation wasn't really my scene. In fact, I used to leave that to others - usually those whose fists I was staring at right before the moment of impact. This left me to hone my mind. (As a matter of fact, numerous instructors told me without flowery language that because I had moved into the school district rather than growing up with my classmates from day one, that I would never fully be accepted, and my choices were either to toughen up physically, or start utilizing my brain.)

The problem with this was a hardwired contrariness, mixed with severe depressive swings, and a fantasy prone mind that wanted nothing than to make the synapses stop (or at least slow down for a few hours). This resulted in perceived laziness from the outside (the truth was that I devoured information of all kinds, just not necessarily what was assigned at any given stage of my life), a low value of oneself on the inside, a mountain of quiet anxiety and all the symptoms that entails, and other things which would only impact the point of this post in an "ALL I WANTED WAS A PEPSI" kind of way.

Questioning authority wasn't necessarily my hobby. Undermining people in positions of authority was. You can't humiliate a fist into submission by showing off your immense vocabulary, nor can you dodge academic repercussions for presenting facts that were outside of the curriculum. (This was a rural location that didn't experience the economic and informational benefits of the first half of the Reagan administration - it went right from Carter to the mid-80s recession with experiencing any of the party, good times, technological innovations, or livestock on cocaine). I had to fight tooth an nail to prove I could read, write, and comprehend words in order to take 100-level Lit courses when I was 18. If you've read this far, you may now disagree with the administration's judgment.

I had a lot of time to myself. I learned how to sing, how to write, and - perhaps the most empowering thing I uncovered - how to make things funny. I wasn't the class clown, by any means. Something like that involves not being afraid of speaking in front of people I otherwise could not have given two shits about in the real world.

This is comedy!

I worked at comedy writing throughout high school, on through college, and even in my post-college life. Someone thought my writing was worth something - or they had no other entries - because I have an award for the best comedy from the Hollywood International Digital Film Festival, or some permutation of that name. I remember the people who did the real work - things with cameras, computers, editing, and logistics - flew out to California to receive the award while I did something comedy writers do very well: I drank, slept at weird hours, and shunned social events, and still managed to work a 9-5 job.

Hmmm. I'm reading over the past few paragraphs, and I think we need to get any Holden Caulfield bullshit out of the way, as well. I managed to avoid that book until I was 28, and I still think A Clockwork Orange is a better coming-of-age book. Just as self-centered, but less Hot Topic-angsty than Catcher In The Rye, and so removed from being whiny. (Do not judge your protagonists by their eyeliner.)

I have two really good friends from my teens, and none from college - which is kind of the opposite of how I saw things happening, given my experiences. I fell in with my brother and his friends, and together we developed routines, wrote scripts, created albums, had a few things published outside of my own blog(s), and a host of other things in the name of entertainment. I jumped into leadership roles at work - never afraid to roll up my sleeves with the people I was managing, nor to make decisions - if anything because I have always hated feeling like there is zero direction in my life, and the feeling of abandonment (no matter how small the project) just plain sucks.

I'm a people pleaser, and probably would've been popular in the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts, had I not lost a taste for both religion and camping (but not knot trying), respectively. Still, I kept to comedy.

Society has changed over the years (this is not my big revelation, so bear with me). No one's being funny by making "ironically" racist statements. No one's really getting laughs for pointing out physical differences in others. That's just low hanging fruit.

Frank Conniff - someone I've always found funny - tweeted last night, asking what an ableist joke is? Granted, his reference to Margaret Dumont scores major points with me, but I have to explain it, because I only started wrapping my head around it a year or so ago.

(I'm getting off on another tangent, so welcome to my blog.)

If a person makes fun of a Governor of New Jersey for any one of the myriad things he's done that were deplorable in the name of the party line, or simply because of a lack of moral character, that's fine. Political satire at its best!

If, instead of that, I keep hammering on the same Governor of New Jersey because of where he registers on the Body Mass Index, that's not funny. Even if the person making the joke is considered overweight, it's not funny. Making fun of the handicapped - not funny. "Women, amirite?" Not funny.

This is funny!

Welcome to comedy: evolved, where we're no longer playing the Catskills (I would've been HUGE in the Catskills, between Newburgh and Greenport). The Headstrongs are no longer marrying the Armstrongs. Again, if you take out the low-hanging fruit jokes, you still have a veritable treasure trove to work with to make with the funny and get the laughs.

Now, inevitably someone will speak to this shift in society, and some pedant who perceives context as much as a spoon perceives the taste of food, will go on a rant about walking on eggshells, political correctness, and not hurting anyone's feelings.

If you're a comedian (and even more so if you're a good one), odds are you see something wrong in society. You see inherent failings in human character in every crowd, when in line at the grocery store, and when getting dressed at the start of the day. Resentment. Loathing. It's all about how we take it. It's all about how we skew it. And it's all about how we serve it. Do you hate the audience? To a degree, probably. Either as a preemptive defense mechanism out of apprehension that they won't get what you are saying, or that they will simply perpetuate the shit you're railing on about on stage.

Is there self-loathing? My gods yes, mostly because - apart from seeing the world in a cockeyed manner, aligning myself with organizations that (I believe are) doing good in society, and putting in time and money where I can to make a difference so my rants do become irrelevant (it's a self-loathing dream, this "influencing change for the better," ain't it?) - the best I can offer is a snarky line here, an editorial there, and to make people ask why they are laughing (or make them just as uncomfortable as I am). Unless the audience is reacting, it's still a pretty depressing and powerless feeling.

This is also comedy, especially starting around the 6:40 mark.

I can get into the minutia of language, where phrases like "turned a blind eye toward," or "fell upon deaf ears," or "fresh off the boat" - or any number of offensive prepositional phrases really need to be reconsidered - but if you take it all in at once will leave you resigning your art altogether - like a reverse version of the bends -  and the world needs to be poked with swords and made to laugh now more than ever. Comedy shines a big light on those subjects that otherwise leave us crying or foaming at the mouth in anger.

You don't have to worry about alienating those doing the oppressing or those committing the crimes. Cosby's not going to call me up to be an opening act. Ever. I don't have to lose sleep over turning down opportunities to write speeches for republicans. HOWEVER - and this is the big one - I'm not going to drive away people who want a good laugh at the things that piss them off (because those things probably piss me off, as well) simply because our daily routines are different, or because of our abilities, looks, genetic luck of the draw, etc.

Comedy is an art, a craft. People ignorant of technical things, like me, would even call it a science. People ignorant of everything, like republicans, would probably call it seditious devilry. Yes, there are some great staples of comedy, and some would even say it takes wit to be intentionally witless. But you cannot let your material become so ossified that the ones who laughed with you think you're falling in with those you made fun of in the first place.

I'm going to call this Part I of an ongoing series. I derailed myself here, because this was certainly not what I started writing about. It was initially a piece on depression and anxiety, and I got distracted because I've been mulling over exactly what makes something funny, as opposed to what makes something hateful, and that weird realm between vitriol and humor.

I'll continue this at some point. Maybe a year from now. Maybe a decade. Maybe tonight. I've learned not to hold my breath about this sort of thing.

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