This begins an occasional series in which I, Dan, one of the foremost comic voices of our times, expound upon what makes various comic works of interest to the general public either funny or not funny, and on comedy in general.
Let me begin with some remarks on satire, which is a form of comedy to which I am particularly drawn. A later post will discuss narrative television/film, but this post concerns more sketch/variety/internet videos/The Onion kind of stuff. Satire, broadly speaking, presents some slightly altered version of the real world in a humorous way that usually sheds light on/pokes fun at some aspect of the real world. In my mind, the best satire knows its target very well, and presents its form of an alternative universe in a relatively deadpan way, as if what we are watching is not an alternate reality but actual reality. But to this (and I've only recently realized this as a general principle), you have to add an element of the absurd in some character(s).
Straight satire that nails the tone of a subject but is relatively dry and lacks heightened absurdity in any of its characters will be very funny though ultimately not brilliantly hilarious. In this category I would place the Onion News Network (sorry Nostradamus I know you are a huge fan). It is very funny but if you watch a solid piece like this, the reporter ultimately is not that absurd. Much absurdity comes from characters being delusional or acting in some way against the prevailing expectations of the audience. This anchor person is saying funny, out there things, but ultimately the performance does not convey enough absurdity, and reads a little dry. That being said, it is extremely well written and nails the 'knowing your subject' and 'deadpan' aspects of satire, which make it quite funny nonetheless.
Horrific 120-Car Pileup A Sad Reminder Of Princess Dianaâ��s Death
Speaking of The Onion, in print form, the most brilliant satirical pieces of The Onion add that element of the absurd to the usual 'knowing your subject' and 'deadpan' elements that many funny but not brilliant pieces possess. Compare this brilliant piece to this merely quite funny piece to see the difference (note: most of the humor in these things can be gleaned from the headline and picture). That headline "Rumsfeld looking forward to Secretary's Day" and the picture of Rumsfeld gleefully reading a card are not only presented in a deadpan way, but also are just patently absurd. Imagining Rumsfeld in this situation is hilarious, because it is so far from our expectations.
Speaking of brilliance in satire, I bring you a skit from Mr. Show called Mustardayonnaise.
This skit is mocking the silliness of Dijonnaise, a product from the mid-90s that combined mustard and mayonnaise into one jar. It is poking fun specifically at the idea promoted by Dijonnaise's marketers that the current situation of having separate jars of mayonnaise and mustard is some sort of time-consuming, work-intensive burden. Of course it nails the style of an Apple 1984 type of ad and it is presented in a deadpan way that does not "wait for laughs" but rather powers through just as a real ad would. And again those are necessary elements of good satire. But what kicks it up to a whole other level of brilliance is in its absurdity. The absurdity here is they've taken the modest notion that using separate jars of mustard and mayonnaise is a work-intensive burden and taken it to an insanely heightened level. With the "Tired of being a two-jar slave" and the shackle imagery, they are comparing using two jars of condiments to slavery, which is hilariously absurd because it is so far from reality and shows a level of delusion on the part of the marketers of this product. Similarly, this brilliant follow up sketch takes the idea of the two condiment jars as time-consuming to heightened, absurd levels, buoyed by the extra joke that now we have to combine two jars of condiments that are already combinations of mustard and mayonnaise themselves into a new condiment.
This tiny problem in the real world of it taking a little extra time to use two condiment jars is heightened to absurd levels by literally having a man miss out on his entire life because he's spent it making mustard and mayonnaise sandwiches using two jars.
Another brilliant satirist is Stephen Colbert. Take this video- just watch the first 45 seconds or so,
In it, Colbert asks various liberals whether George W Bush is "a great president, or the greatest president ever?" Again, there is an absurdity here (in addition to deadpan-ness and knowing the subject) that gives this piece its extra comic brilliance. The Colbert character's delusion and pomposity are patently absurd, and upend our expectations about what a real reporter might ask a liberal about President Bush, who they of course perceive as the worst president ever. Asking "good president or great president" would be funny, but the pomposity of "great president or greatest president ever" is genius, and Colbert's sincerely arrogant performance sells the thing. Also, it is funny for absurd characters to interview real people, as we see with Borat or Ali G, because the satirist is now upending our expectations about the real world (sort of) within the context of that real world, rather than in a facsimile of the real world as most satire does, which adds a new level of absurdity and heightens the similarity to the thing being satirized and the deadpan humor.
Compare all of this to a couple examples of what I consider bad satire. Take this MadTV parody of Deal or No Deal (don't watch the whole thing clearly not worth it but get a little flavor).
Several elements make this skit unfunny. First of all, it doesn't nail the deadpan aspect of good satire. You can see the two actors who play the contestants are hamming it up and enjoying themselves on a personal level outside of the needs of the skit; you can see that they are even sometimes laughing at their own jokes. This sort of thing kills satire because it takes you out of the mindset that you are actually watching something real, albeit in an alternate universe, and reminds you that you are watching a comedy sketch. Beyond that, the skit is poorly written and its central conceit is not absurd at all. They've taken the idea that some black contestants on the real Deal or No Deal are loud and silly, and then only made these contestants a tad louder and a tad sillier. Well that's not absurd and is not funny. SNL often suffers from a similar problem of taking a current event like a debate and tweaking it a tiny bit to make it sillier but not committing to a full-on absurd take which really heightens the disconnect between the world of the skit and the real world. What could have made this skit funnier? The actors being more committed to their roles rather than their own personal glory, and an absurd conceit like for instance the contestants asking Howie if they can have their whole family onstage to help make a decision and the family ends up being 30-people large, and he asks every single one of them what they think. Not that great I know but this is not very fertile starting material!
Finally, a handful of points about a few other comic voices/performers whose satire I have qualms with. Jon Stewart lacks Colbert's genius because, although he is often quite funny, his character (the newsanchor) is fundamentally not that absurd and he often breaks deadpan character. We see Jon Stewart, the acerbic liberal guy who agrees with us and makes quips about the idiots running our country. Fine, he says some funny things yes. But there is nothing in that setup that is heightened absurdity, and he makes too many asides that may be sort of funny in a one-off way but he often laughs at his own jokes and this all contributes to a general sloppiness that takes away from the similarity with a real newscast. Jimmy Fallon used to do this to a far greater extent on Weekend Update, which I found far more egregious.
Now let's think in this final section about Will Ferrell. In his early performances, such as in Zoolander or as George W Bush, there was something fundamentally absurd and delusional in his characters. Bush the dim witted frat boy ran the country but cared more about how cool the car he'd get to ride in would be, or Mugatu ran an international fashion company but cared more about his poodle, etc. And Ferrell committed to these performances, losing himself in the roles in a deadpan way. But now since Anchorman, he has been playing the same boorish character over and over again and it has morphed, especially in this latest movie Semi Pro, into basically just Will Ferrell. He can no longer do deadpan- you watch him and you can tell how funny he, Will Ferrell, thinks he is being as you watch the performance. There's nothing clever in these characters, they are just arrogant buffoons, but lacking the subtelty of his earlier, more vulnerable, buffoons. They're not really absurd from an intellectual standpoint, they're just dumb.
Well, that was longer than I expected. I hope you enjoy this and maybe next time I'll release these things in shorter installments.