Amy Schumer

A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Puppet Walk Into a Bar…

Avenue Q “Everyone’s a little bit racist. It’s true. But, everyone is just about as racist as you.”

If you haven’t seen the hit musical Avenue Q by now (Geez, we’ve had like a dozen local productions lately), I’ll give you a quick rundown. It portrays the world in which puppets and humans live side by side. Like Sesame Street, but decidedly more realistic and adult. It features songs like the aforementioned “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want When You’re Making Love,” and “What Do You Do With a BA in English?”

The basic plot is a young puppet, recently graduated from college, is trying to make his way in New York City. But not in the entertainment industry. He has a BA in English - hence the song - and just wants to find steady employment. In search of a cheap apartment, he finds himself on the titular street where he rents a small efficiency unit from one of the few human characters, Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman. Usually played by a woman.

Arguably, if this were just a human story, it wouldn’t be as good. Sure, it aims for biting satire of modern society, but there’s something about the fact that most of the cast is puppets that allow them to approach delicate subjects that humans find to be more of a minefield. Subjects like race and sexuality are handled in hilarious - yet cathartically educational - songs. And themes like trying to find one’s purpose in life, that usually come off as hokey, are called out for their ridiculousness without seeming cruel and heartless. And it’s all okay because the characters involved are puppets. Hence, they’re not real.

Greg the BunnyThis is hardly the only example. Another instance of puppets and humans sharing the world came in the form of Greg the Bunny, the IFC hit that eventually became a short-lived and vastly under-appreciated sitcom on Fox in 2002. That show is all on YouTube now, so I’ll wait here while you go watch it real quick. Back? Funny, right?

In the Fox version of Greg the Bunny, featuring Eugene Levy, Seth Green (more on him in a sec), and Sarah Silverman in human roles, the puppets actually are in the entertainment business as characters on a children’s TV show that also stars Bob Gunton and Dina Waters in more human roles. Gunton is especially great. But, once again, by making a majority of the characters non-human, they’re able to approach sensitive subjects like racism, interracial relationships, addiction, etc. with a deft comic flare.

The Simpsons BookAnd there are so many more examples. The Simpsons is the Godfather of animated or non-human comedy at this point. There are entire academic books written about its greatness. Really. Then, Family Guy picked up the torch and later gave birth to two lesser shows. The Simpsons actually gave birth to a - in my opinion - superior show in Futurama.

Then, there’s the entire phenomenon that is Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block that features/featured Sea Lab, Harvey Birdman, The Venture Brothers, Rick and Morty, and Green’s dark, stop-motion cultural commentary, Robot Chicken. And, then there’s FXX’s Archer, another favorite of mine.

All of these shows feature adult content in one way or another. But one thing that stays pretty consistent is that these shows have approached subjects - with varying degrees of comedy/seriousness - that are, at the very least, much more difficult needles to thread with human characters.

So, why? I’m not the first person to notice and write about this, but it’s still a subject that isn’t talked about much. It should be, though. I think there’s something to learn in this. Why is it so easy for puppets to have a scene about racism, but when humans do it on a sitcom, it becomes a “very special episode”?

It’s all about, like, reality, man. Puppets and cartoons, no matter how close to humans they look, aren’t real. So, that distance somehow makes it more okay to talk about why we still harbor some less than OK stereotypes about other people. As Avenue Q teaches us, we all do it.

How do we talk about it in a comedic sense, then? It’s a tough nut to crack. Amy Schumer recently came under fire for how she talked about race in her jokes. This, naturally, was in the context of her sleeping with black guys. Still, though, people took offense at how casually she seemed to play with stereotypes. Even a very talented comic like her couldn’t get out of it unscathed.

But, besides not real, puppets are also silly. They’re absurd. So are the cartoons, but let’s focus on the puppet examples. Now, humans can’t help but be human. Even in a big costume, they’re still human, and we all know it. So, we can’t attain the unreality of “Fabricated-Americans” (to borrow a term from Greg the Bunny), but we can use absurdity.

A sketch I admittedly keep coming back to - because it really is genius on so many levels - aired during the last episode of Key & Peele. The “Negrotown” sketch is a perfect application of absurdity to talk about a serious issue, the disparate targeting of young African-American men by mostly white police forces. Instead of making the passively racist police officer the butt of the joke, the comedy duo went in a completely fantastical direction, as Peele’s homeless onlooker transformed into a garishly suited “magical negro” - an old stereotype that still enjoys a robust life in modern cinema in the guise of Morgan Freeman, and a great example of how we white people are, at the very least, still passively racist - that transports the recently arrested Key off to a magical world full of only black people. The residents of this magical Negrotown then sing a song about how they can wear hoodies without getting shot, qualify for bank loans, and their culture won’t get re-appropriated by white people.

Basically, it cranks the conversation up to 11. No room for subtlety. Just pure fantastical absurdity.

So, does this have any application to comedy, and more specifically, improv? I think it can.

I’ve seen people try to broach sensitive cultural subjects in improv. Many time, it relies on the unspoken agreement that we’re all on the same side, and that by making jokes about these issues we’re taking power away from them. But that results in subtle digs that are easily misunderstood. So, take it to an unrealistic place.

Another good tip is to always turn the lens on yourself. Be the absurd version of your own character.

Of course, the natural reaction is to say, why don’t we just avoid sensitive subjects and stay with safe stuff? Well, because it’s not as funny. As I’ve written before, the funniest jokes are the ones that push the boundaries and poke those uncomfortable places. And the comics who figure out the right balance are the famous ones like Pryor, Carlin, Murphy, CK, Schumer, Key & Peele, Jeselnik, etc.

So, next time you’re doing a scene, try a hyper-unrealistic caricature. Be a puppet, essentially, and try to approach those weird places we don’t like to talk about with a new, fuzzier, perspective.

My Top 5 comedies featuring non-human characters:

  • Futurama
  • Avenue Q
  • Greg the Bunny
  • Robot Chicken
  • Rick and Morty
  • Archer

So, sue me. I get to change the rules of my own lists. Have a good week.

Kris Noteboom is a Level 2 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

Over The Line

Over the Line “I’m so glad Kennedy finally got it through his head that we don’t want him in Dallas.”

Too soon? Over the line?

Ah, but here is the million dollar question. What is “the line”?

We fall into bad habits sometimes. One of those bad habits, a consequence of immersive language learning and a not so great education system, is that we sometimes say things we understand the general meaning of, but not really the specific meaning. We know context better than language, because we’re Americans, and by definition, are lazy.

Just think about the emotions attached to the line. What’s on either side? Well obviously, not “over the line” probably means something is funny. So, “over the line” means not funny, right? Well, sort of…

Our reaction to things that aren’t funny is usually mundane. The shoulder shrug and barely audible “meh” that signifies utter boredom. But when we say something is “over the line,” that’s not usually how we respond. That response is usually something akin to anger, disgust, appalled, etc. It’s not just two sides of a coin.

The opposite of funny is not un-funny. Think of it in terms of “comedy.” And, the opposite of comedy is tragedy.

A short disclaimer: This is a blog on a website for an improv club. Therefore, you probably expect to laugh. But, in this particular article, we’re talking about the art and science of comedy. Asking the big questions.

E.B. White (who wrote Charlotte’s Web, among other books), once said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.”

So someone strap Kermit to the table, and let’s look at the stuffing.

There was a guy named Kenneth Burke. He was a literary theorist, hence not funny. But, that didn’t stop him from coming up with the idea of the comic frame.

What’s that? Basically, we all go through our daily lives with this imaginary frame around us. That frame encompasses our accepted reality. What we’re cool with. The things that we understand and ascribe some sort of meaning to. Beyond that frame is the Real, the ineffable, things we have not encountered yet and thus have no way to conceive.

And the line between these two planes, that frame, that’s the line we’re talking about when we say something is “over the line.” This is the realm of comedy.

Comedy - or, good comedy - exists on that edge, at that line. Think about some of the currently great comics right now. Amy Schumer shatters traditional gender roles and stereotypes with a crude sledgehammer of funny. Louis CK says out loud a lot of our weird inner thoughts. Key & Peele (RIP that show) took the very real dramatic and often violent struggle of race relations and race identity in America and used laughs as their artillery. Patton Oswalt is the nerd culture spokesman, who helped an entire generation/social classification emerge from their moms' basements and into Hall H at Comic-Con. Doug Benson similarly brought pot culture and movie nerd-ness into the mainstream. And then, of course, Anthony Jeselnik is there to tell all the morbid jokes you’re definitely not supposed to laugh at.

We could take it even further back to Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, etc. But that’s an article (the standup revolution of the 1960s and 1970s) that deserves its own column (comimg soon, maybe).

Humor has to exist on that boundary, but it’s a thin line between humorous and horrifying, between comedy and tragedy.

A good joke challenges an audience by presenting a situation that is outside of their reality. So technically, it starts over the line. But, if it’s close enough to that line (reality), the reaction is that the audience readjusts that line, moving it incrementally out so as to now include that joke and comic. It has been accepted. And that tension created by the joke is released in the form of laughter. Everything is good with the world.

But, if someone takes it too far, the audience is horrified and does not adjust that line. The comic fool becomes the tragic hero (in Burkian terminology) and is left alone in the wasteland. Think of Michael Richards’ n-bomb laced rant, or when Bill Maher got kicked off of ABC for saying the 9/11 terrorists were brave.

Likewise, all of the people listed above have experienced controversy as well. Schumer takes flack for embracing her liberal sexuality. Key & Peele caught some heat for their brilliant “Negrotown” sketch. Oswalt has become a go-to social media critic, often getting into battles with “news” sites like Salon. Benson is a marijuana ambassador, which still plays poorly with some people.

Key and Peele

Then there’s CK and Jeselnik. CK’s comedy, at its core, is a blend of storytelling and observational humor. It’s pretty standard. But, as much as comedy is about reflecting on the absurdities of life (What is the deal with airline food?), CK is willing to go to more taboo places. In his most recent monologue, closing out Saturday Night Live (SNL) last season, he admitted to being mildly racist, compared his daughters to Israel and Palestine, and tried to reason why people are child molesters. He also joked that this was probably the last time they’d ask him to host. I doubt it. The episode was generally considered to be very strong. And, for a show that has become desperate for any sort of ratings, they can’t afford to keep CK away. He’s just too good. He raises the level of that show, because he’s willing to push those boundaries. Another great sketch had him pretending to “talk black” for five years in order to cover an offensive impression he was doing of Leslie Jones. That’s the kind of stuff SNL has been too scared to do for some time. But, CK isn’t afraid to go to awkward, dark places. And, that’s why he’s so beloved.

Jeselnik takes it a step further. He’s built his entire career on making jokes that you’re absolutely not supposed to make. For example, he basically opens his new Netflix special, Thoughts and Prayers, with dead baby jokes. In that same special, he talks about why his former TV show, Comedy Central’s The Jeselnik Offensive, ultimately didn’t last past season two as he constantly fought the network and further upset them with his habit of specifically subverting the “too soon” charge by making jokes about tragedies - the Boston Marathon bombing specifically - the day they happen.

He’s a good example of this principle because he’s actually been bitten by it on more than one occasion. Whereas Key & Peele just voluntarily ended a highly successful five-season run of their titular sketch show on Comedy Central, Jeselnik was unceremoniously cancelled after two seasons. Comedy Central cited low ratings, despite the fact that no one has ever expected a show that comes on at midnight to have great ratings.

Despite our love for pushing it, there is a line. And comedians occasionally cross it, which has the tragic quality of ostracizing the comedian. Jeselnik has risen above it because he’s simply that good. But many others have failed. Kevin McFarland of the A.V. Club put if perfectly when he wrote, “Jeselnik and his writers prove that the key to making jokes about touchy subjects is actually being funny instead of simply trying to be edgy.”

That’s a big distinction to make. Even when facing controversy, many of the comics listed above survive because there’s a genuine honesty in what they’re saying. They’re not necessarily trying to shock so much as they’re shedding light on a truth. We can empathize with them. Even Jeselnik. Who hasn’t made a joke at a funeral before? There’s always someone. Humor - and laughter specifically - is our reaction to stress. Laughter breaks the tension created by a situation. A comedian’s job is to exploit that by using tension to challenge perception. Set up shop just outside that line and then let audiences know it’s OK to join. Then that frame/line gets readjusted and we now accept a new truth - or are more comfortable with a previously hidden truth - and we confirm this discovery with our approving laughter.

And to that end, I’ll leave you with a perfect example from Dallas’ own adolescent comedy sensation, 10-year-old Saffron Herndon: “Online dating is tough. Every time I meet someone new, they end up in jail.”

Laugh. You know you want to. It’s OK.

Five really good examples from the above comedians:

  1. Anthony Jeselnik - Shark Party
  1. Patton Oswalt - Gay Marriage and Green Lantern Rings
  1. Key & Peele - Negrotown
  1. Amy Schumer - Black Guys and Asian Vaginas
  1. Louis CK - Offensive Words

Kris Noteboom is a Level 2 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

(Top image: Namelas Frade/Creative Commons)

What We're Loving: Factoid Scavenging, Angels With Dirty Mouths, Vague Wedding Memories, Old Books Made New

Each Friday, DCH performers, teachers, and students offer their recommendations for what to watch, read, see, hear, or experience. This week David Allison learns, Jonda Robinson professes, Amanda Hahn sways, and Ryan Callahan loves.  imgresThis week, I'm loving another Podcast.  I know that I probably recommend more of these than anyone, but that's because I really feel like the medium has grown so much over the last few years and is genuinely a legitimate source of entertainment now.  No longer are Podcasts just something that your friend does and no one listens to (Though that still happens sometimes).  Today,there are many examples of smaller podcasts that are really creating some amazing things.

My favorite of the week is called No Such Thing as a Fish and it's created by the QI Elves.  I've long been a fan of the BBC program QI (Which stands for Quite Interesting), a hilarious show that has been providing fascinating factoids for eleven seasons now.  And while No Such Thing as a Fish isn't hosted by the incomparable Stephen Fry, it's still a great listen.  Each episode tackles a different genre of knowledge and you learn a ton of random things, like Ghanaian coffins or how the Battle of Hastings was in Battle, not Hastings.  If you enjoy the tv program QI or you just enjoy broadening your horizons, I'd definitely give the Podcast a shot.  Bonus!  They just completed a run of episodes centered around the World Cup.  Each installment would pit two countries against each other, the hosts would scavenge for the most fascinating tidbits they could find, and at the end, a winning country was chosen. Double bonus, none of the facts were about soccer.  Or futbol.  - David Allison

imagesThis week, I’m professing my love for Amy Schumer. My mom refers to her as “that girl with the angelic face who says really dirty things,” and if you’re familiar with her stand-up or Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer, then you know that description is pretty accurate. I first stumbled upon her in 2007 when she was a contestant on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, and I felt a connection with her girl-next-door looks. While on the surface her humor can sometimes appear to be crass, at its core it’s always smart, and it demonstrates that Schumer has a good grasp on the big picture of what it’s like to navigate the world, especially as a woman.

From the beginning, I was in “like” with Amy. I appreciated her wit, admired her boldness, and wanted to be friends with her (I imagined us getting pedicures while sipping champagne and discussing the complexities of dating, with her saying something like “It’s 2014, you know! You’d think we’d have come up with a better system by now!”). Falling in love with her was something that happened for me during the second season of Inside Amy Schumer, as she, along with her brilliant writers, avoided the sophomore slump by taking things up a notch and leaving viewers asking “Whoa--did she really just go there?” One of my favorite examples of this is her sketch “A Very Realistic Military Game,” which does an excellent job of presenting a hot button issue in a lighthearted way, forcing you to think about the bigger idea.

I’m super excited that Amy is bringing her comedic stylings to Dallas this November, just in time for my birthday. Fingers crossed I can come up with a plan to make my champagne-and-pedicure dreams come true while she’s in town. - Jonda Robinson

Last weekend, I went to the Dominican Republic for my cousin’s wedding. Dominican weddings aren’t very different from Catholic, American ones. The wedding occurs in a church, then there’s a mass, followed by a reception. Typical. But receptions at Latin American weddings are not like the typical Catholic, American ones. Dancing starts immediately and continues all night. The bride and groom stick around for the whole reception. Colored lights are everywhere. Sometimes rappers show up. Sometimes the DJ hops onto the dance floor. Sometimes there’s a giant cake surrounded by spotlights. Sometimes Go Pros on helicopters fly past your head. And every single time, it’s a blast. The most energy filled part of the night is La Hora Loca, or The Crazy Hour. Music picks up, and people pass out hats, masks, glasses, disco ball necklaces, and shots. Lots of shots. I wish I could say more about La Hora Loca, but I can’t. Because I don’t remember much of that or the rest of the night. Because I made great use of the Brugal rum at the open bar and excellent use of the shots being passed out.

I have a vague memory of dancing while someone rapped and suddenly realizing that I had never seen a live rapper at a wedding, and this was a something new I should be paying attention to. I found out later that the Dominican rapper, Mozart La Para was the performer. Just right there. Rapping away. I also found out later that we left the reception at around 4:30 or 5 am, and my 80-something year old grandma with a recently broken knee had partied all night along with everyone else. I’m so proud of her. I’m so proud to be Dominican. I’m not proud of this video of the wedding/me doing whatever the heck I’m doing, but feel free to watch and enter the wedding along with me. Bienvenidos a la Republica Dominicana. And farewell to my sound state of mind. - Amanda Hahn

NYRB CLASSICSBy now it should be no secret that I love books. Old books, new books, used books, fresh books - I love them all. I love the way they feel in my hands. I love the way they look on my shelves. I love they way they rest on my chest when I take a nap. But my favorite books of all come from the New York Review Books Classic series. NYRB Classics offers an eclectic selection of books from around the world, most of which have been long out of print. The books are re-released with new art, and some kind of cover stock  that seems to have been lowered from Asgard. I cannot describe the way the books feel in my hands other than to say perfectly.

I was first made aware of NYRB Classics in an essay by Roger Ebert. In praise of the works of Georges Simenon, the French master of the roman dur, Ebert mentioned reading a recent NYRB Classics reissue. Now that I was aware of Simenon's existence, I had to go out and buy his books. That is how my brain works. After reading Red Lights, a nasty little tale of a road trip gone wrong, I discovered, in the back of the book, a list of all the available NYRB Classics. Now I had to get all of them. At the time I lived in New York. My local used book store, Mast Books on Avenue A, carried an impressive selection of NYRB Classics. I picked up everyone I could.

This wonderful series has introduced me to so many new books that I never would have discovered ob my own: Max Beerbohm's Seven Men, a wistful and witty series of fictional biographies, Kingsley Amis' bitter and funny Lucky Jim, which became one of my favorites novels the moment I finished, Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines, true stories of crime and corruption told in three lines with prose carved out of stone, Dwight Macdonald's Masscult and Midcult, a collection of essays from the 50's and 60's so prescient and incisive they could have been written last week, Robert Sheckley's Store of the Worlds, sharp little science fiction tales so smart and weird and human.

These days, I have my NYRB Classics delivered. Each Christmas my aunt enrolls me in the NYRB Classics book club. Each month, a new book arrives in the mail. This week's selection is The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette, another master of French crime. Last week it was a collection of Montaigne's essays. Next month the selection is a World War I memoir. If you are a book lover, or you know a book lover, I cannot recommend NYRB Classics enough. Your favorite book is out there waiting for you, and you don't even know it yet. - Ryan Callahan