by @kelsocks

Tag Archives: comedy

Freedom of Speech in Comedy

Why do we laugh at such terrible things? Because comedy is often the sarcastic realization of inescapable tragedy.

-Bryant H. McGill

As the purpose of comedy is to correct the vices of men, I see no reason why anyone should be exempt.


Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.

-Mel Brooks

Recently I heard someone say flat out that there were at least two subjects they would never make a joke about.  My gut reaction was a suppressed eye roll followed by disappointment that this individual couldn’t understand how comedy is a healthy way of confronting the worst parts of existence.  If we can’t talk about these things in the pleasurable medium of humor, how much harder will it be to talk about them coldly and seriously?  Laughter helps us cope with tragedy. Have you ever seen someone so furious, crestfallen, or full of despair that all they could do is laugh at their situation? It releases tension and brings us back from the edge (serotonin or whatever).

As I mentioned in my post I Fucking Love Cursing, I believe that when we designate certain words, or in this case subjects, as off-limits and unmentionable, we cede them control over us.  If we’re afraid to talk about them, then these concepts have the power to hurt us.  That’s why Harry Potter doesn’t pussyfoot around like the rest of the wizarding world by allowing the taboo of Lord Voldemort’s name frighten him. Adoy! Furthermore, the more taboo a subject is, like say erectile dysfunction or girls pooping or (ready?) abortion, the more shame is experienced by those whose lives are affected by those subjects.  Another example is how shame-based religions that refuse to address sex in an honest, healthy way can create sexually dysfunctional individuals that are afraid of the subject (That’s probably the point, but I digress…).

Comedy is not only indisputably intertwined with tragedy (there’s about ten million BrainyQuotes on the subject), but it’s also sewn into the fabric of truth.  There are different reasons things can be funny, but one thing for sure is that we like relating to jokes.  How many times do we basically think “that’s so true!” in reaction to a good comedian?   We like it when they talk about things relevant to our lives, and sometimes there’s a lot of terribleness in people’s lives– so why ignore the truth? We also use jokes as a way to say what we really think under a the guise insincerity.  Just think of the ol’ sassy-remark-followed-by-“just kidding.”

The primary requisite for comedy is observation.  Comedians look at the world and point out the (many) ridiculous things about it which can be a huge benefit to society if it inspires them to think differently or if it gives a voice to the voiceless. Names that come to mind are Bill Hicks, David Cross, Louis CK, Tina Fey, Dave Chapelle, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Rob McElhenney and the Always Sunny writers, and a shitload of Saturday Night Live.  They can reach people and make them think about issues because when we’re relaxed and enjoying ourselves we’re more willing to hear an opposing viewpoint than if we were being sternly debated.  Humor helps people lower their guards and open their minds.  It can make a huge difference; just consider how SNL’s portrayal of Sarah Palin affected the entire 2008 election.

Consider the welfare state.

In sum, comedians should be able to talk about whatever the hell they want with one stipulation: it should be funny.  I realize what’s funny is subjective, but the goal should be to amuse, not to hurt.  No flat-out-meanness or irate rants without a sense of playfulness.  My dad once told me a quote and although I have no idea where it’s from (and Google isn’t helping), I think it nails down this issue completely: “The only joke that’s in bad taste is the one that isn’t funny.”


Humor As Your Worldview

Humor is the affectionate communication of insight.

-Leo Rosten

Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.

-Mark Twain

Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end.

-Sid Caesar

I think comedy is about empathy.  I can’t laugh with people I don’t like.

-Ricky Gervais

Do you think this is funny? If you do, you'd probably have a few things to talk about with anyone else who finds it funny too (hint: not this gal). Side note: how did Christopher Lloyd get tangled up in this mess?

Ever notice how the people you laugh with the most tend to be the people you have the most in common with?  Our sense of humor stems from how we view the world– our values, beliefs, assumptions, culture… pretty much everything. It’s also a lens through which we see that world.  When we laugh, we acknowledge the same perspective on an issue or observation.  Humor can bond us together.

Because there are so many different kinds of people, not everyone finds the same things funny.  The more personally specific a joke is, the narrower its appeal. But how rewarding is it when we encounter someone else who finds the same obscure thing amusing? That’s basically the definition of an inside joke.  Think of all the inside jokes you have with your siblings and closest friends. For me it’s one of the most rewarding kinds of personal connection.  I know that when I reference Jiggy Nye, Merrylegs or Ken V., there’s only a handful of people in this world who will know what I’m talking about, and that makes it special.

But beyond the concept of inside jokes which stem from overlapping experience, when people find the same thing funny (for the same reasons) it means that everyone involved has the same framework of perceptions/evaluations/knowledge about the world (or at least finds them reasonable and/or relatable).  Consider the Ricky Gervais quote from above.  If comedy is about empathy, that necessarily means comedy is about “the ability to understand and share feelings with another.” The common ground is necessary for the joke to appeal to a group.  This is why some people are offended by certain jokes: because they don’t agree with the principles behind it, they can’t allow themselves to empathize with the humorist’s perspective, ergo they don’t find it funny.  Because of this, sense of humor can be an excellent barometer of how much you have in common with another person.

Consider a scene from season five of 30 Rock.  Surprised to hear Liz plans on breaking up with her longterm boyfriend Carol, Jack exclaims, “You two seemed so happy. The other day I saw you in the lobby laughing together..” to which she explains, “A guy on crutches bit it in the revolving door and he was so scared…” The primary characteristic of Liz and Carol’s relationship is that they’re extremely similar, hence why they laugh at the same things even if it is a bit cruel.

This leads me to my next topic: a dark sense of humor. I know I have it, and most of the company I keep has it. Some of the best comedians have it, too.  But unfortunately I see a lot of people confuse this brand of comedy with just being negative.  If a sense of humor is a manifestation of a person’s worldview, then a dark sense of humor which confronts the undeniable and abundant darkness in the world is the most in touch with reality.  According to the most reliable source on the internet, Wikipedia, black humor is an offshoot of “gallows humor.” Gallows humor is defined as:

 …the type of humor that still manages to be funny in the face of, and in response to, a perfectly hopeless situation. It arises from stressful, traumatic, or life-threatening situations, often in circumstances such that death is perceived as impending and unavoidable. (source)

Thus, it seems that a dark sense of humor follows from the acknowledgment and acceptance of the uncontrollable things in life i.e. our own mortality.  Personally I think that’s beautiful, and I’ll be laughing at my own decaying body all the way to the grave.


Black humor is also a great genre of film/TV.  For excellent examples, see stuff by the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Tarantino, Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaborations, I ❤ Huckabees, Beetlejuice, Trainspotting, Dr. Strangelove, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Little Miss Sunshine, and lotsmore.


SNL Isn’t Funny Anymore (Repost)

That’s what they say, right? They say it now, they said it when Amy Poehler was at the top of her game. They said it when Will Ferrell was creating legendary characters and impressions like the Spartans, Robert Goulet, Gene from Blue Oyster Cult, Harry Carry, James Lipton, the Roxbury Guys, and Roger Klavin “the Lovah” just to name just a few. They said it when the Bad Boys of SNL (Sandler, Farley, Spade) took center stage after the Meyers era.
In fact, since SNL’s debut in 1975, the show has been largely disregarded as “not funny.” Almost 35 years later, nothing has changed.

How has a comedy show with consistently bad reviews lasted so long?
It’s simple: Lorne Michaels is a genius. He studies comedy and he knows what is cutting edge. The truth is that majority opinion is broad and tasteless. As a whole, popular TV and film comedies aren’t actually that funny, they’re just watered down enough to appeal to the largest audience possible. Why? Money of course! Some of the most popular TV shows are absolutely mediocre. For instance: Friends, The (American) Office, King of Queens, and pretty much everything on ABC and CBS, are just funny “enough” to get by. All of these shows are successful and receive consistently high ratings. However, they contribute nothing to the evolution of comedy because they are too focused on mass appeal. Mass appeal = no edge, no controversy, no bad words, nothing political, nothing new, and, for the most part, nothing interesting. In a way, if EVERYONE thinks you’re funny, you’re doing something wrong.

Arrested Development and The Office (UK) are two of not only the funniest, but two of the best (I would go as far as to say THE best) TV shows of the last decade. AD got cancelled due to low ratings despite multiple Emmy wins. The Office got terrible reviews and viewership upon first airing, yet is now considered a masterpiece. Ratings don’t mean shit! And neither does the opinion of some schmuck who tunes into SNL for 10 minutes a season.

The evolution of style in a show like SNL is like a course in the history of modern comedy, and thus, American culture. The progression from slap-stick, to catch phrases, to awkwardness reveals not just what makes for great TV, but how we as viewers have become more sophisticated.

Most of us know at least a dozen famous (and sometimes infamous) SNL skits. What’s unusual is that the majority of these skits were not actually that popular when they first aired. Take for instance the world-famous “More Cowbell” skit. This aired during the 1999-2000 season finale hosted by Christopher Walken. It was well-received at the time, as it is really a great skit (and who doesn’t love Walken), but it wasn’t until several years later that it totally blew up and the catchphrase actually made it’s way onto t-shirts at Hot Topic (I specifically remember this happening in Fall 2004, nearly four years after originally airing). It took the rest of the country several years to figure out how truly funny this skit was, and thus how to make money off of it.

A more recent example of this delayed-recognition is the Lonely Island’s digital shorts. “Lazy Sunday” was absolutely groundbreaking (and certainly pretty popular, especially thanks to the internet) upon first airing. However, critically most of Samberg’s shorts were initially disregarded as “weird.” Several shorts and years later, his work is highly anticipated and acclaimed. “On a Boat” (perhaps my least favorite short) is an example of how mass appeal has affected the work. This short was through-the-roof popular, yet it was less revolutionary, and in my opinion less funny, than the original “Lazy Sunday.”

[On a side note, the reason I hate reoccurring skits is because it is the epitome of laziness and the sacrifice of creativity for popularity (or a need to fill time, which is likely the cause for a their use in a 90 minute live weekly TV show). Like film sequels, these skits reuse the material that “went over well” and repackage it. People who haven’t seen it get a chance to “see it” (since it’s essentially the same skit) and people who have seen it are expected to like it simply because they liked the original. There is nothing creative, interesting, innovative, or admirable about this. Hence, why I dislike “On a Boat.” The Lonely Island took all the elements they knew would be a hit (i.e. white guys rapping about inane or off-the-wall subjects, inappropriately great production quality, and celebrity cameos) with a large audience, ESPECIALLY people who don’t regularly watch SNL, and rolled it into one marketable package]

After Will Ferrell left, people clung to the idea that “SNL isn’t funny anymore without Will.” While people were moaning about the loss of a big gun to the film industry, the ladies took over and changed the show, and comedy, forever. While Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were creating brilliant skits and proving that women are funny (30Rock best comedy 3 consecutive years- HELLO?), people were too busy complaining to notice; or they did the classic move of watching-one-skit-per-episode-and-disregarding-the-entire-show. By the end of these ladies’ great run, people finally realized and acknowledged that they were the real deal. The cycle repeated AGAIN after they left, and most people were once again too busy bitching to notice Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen. But now that Wiig and Samberg are getting their due props, you can probably guess what will happen once they leave for film careers…

People hate change. Because of this, many TV shows follow a pattern. They are formulaic so that everything is back to equilibrium after 23 minutes, and, if they can, they drag on milking their success as long as possible without “trying” for anything new. The American Office is one example of a show that is currently outstaying its welcome. Lorne Michaels, on the other hand, knows that comedy is not static. He consistently predicts the trends in comedy and finds cast members with something new to offer. SNL goes through phases of popularity with the masses, but the in-between transitions are the times that yield true innovation. It is when the big guys graduate, and the younger cast struggles to find its footing, that you can be sure fantastic new things are happening in Studio 8H

So what am I getting at? Trust Lorne Michaels. He is a genius with one of the best eyes for talent in the entire business. . This years cast, like most years, is chalk full of incredibly talented individuals (Wiig, Samberg, and Armisen as previously mentioned, but also Will Forte, Jason Sudekis, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Kenan Thompson are all fantastic). Watch the entire show, and watch the new guys, see who sticks around, because they will be shaping comedy in just a few years. Of course there will always be bad skits, sometimes entire episodes will be bad, but can you even comprehend what it takes to produce a topical 90 minute live comedy show every single week? It’s not easy, to say the least. Most of all, saying “SNL isn’t funny anymore” doesn’t mean you’re better or more sophisticated than one of the most successful television shows in history, it means you either A) don’t know what’s funny, or B) don’t pay attention to the show, C) happily make snap judgments, or D) all of the above.


[PS- I forgot to mention how Tina Fey was simply a writer before Lorne picked her out of obscurity. Now she’s one of the most successful women in the business. Oh, and you know Conan O’Brien? Another brilliant writer-turned- famous comedian handpicked by Mr. Lorne Michaels who, like so many of Lorne’s picks, was extremely unpopular for years until the rest of the country caught up.]

Amy Poehler, A Tribute (Repost)

I realize she isn’t dead or anything, but this is the end of an era for SNL.

It seems like just yesterday the perky blonde from Upright Citizens Brigade landed one of the most coveted positions in the entire comedy, perhaps even television, world. In 2001 Amy Poehler became a featured player on Saturday Night Live premiering in the first episode after 9/11. In just one season she was upgraded to a full cast member, only the third person in the history of the show to accomplish this (Harry Shearer and Eddie Murphy were the first two).

I don’t remember the first skit I saw her in, but I do know that after seeing her original character Amber, the one-legged hypoglycemic, or as a redneck in America Undercover with Chris Kattan, I was forever sold. Poehler helped usher in a new era for the show: one where women were the funniest people to watch. No longer just playing pretty or being the straight-man, Poehler, along with Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and now Kristen Wiig, showed an extremely-male dominated industry that women are funny. Instead of props, they became the stars. Poehler’s daring and creativity, and perhaps most notably her willingness to be “ugly,” has given us characters and impressions that will be remembered not just by SNL fanatics, but by lovers of television and comedy everywhere.

It’s sad to see her go, but I’m pretty sure her child is the messiah of comedy. Hopefully it doesn’t go crazy from having two of the funniest people in show biz as its parents.

Below are some of her most notable and some of my favorite skits (I tried to embed the clips however it wasn’t working. Click the link if you know what’s good for you. And please excuse the brief ad at the beginning, I assure you the comedy gold is worth the wait):

America Undercover

The Dakota Fanning Show

EPT ad


Good Morning, Meth

Palin Rap – what great way to end an SNL career