Doug Benson

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: Dinosaur Sonny Crockett, Murder Jokes, Awkward Reactions, Competitive Grannies

imageEach Friday, DCH performers, teachers, and students offer their recommendations for what to watch, read, see, hear, or experience. This week David Allison celebrates anachronisms, Ryan Callahan digs up literary treasure, Amanda Hahn avoids playgrounds, and Ashley Bright gets emotional about strange grandmas. 

Was_(Not_Was)_-_Walk_the_DinosaurThis past Sunday I had the pleasure of checking out The Benson Interruption of Jurassic Park: The Lost World at the Alamo Draft House Richardson.  If you’re not familiar with the concept of the show, standup comic Doug Benson (Doug Loves Movies, Super High Me, Last Comic Standing, w33d) invites comics to join him to provide commentary on a film of his choice.  Really fun show and I would highly recommend checking it out the next time he comes to town.  BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS WEEK.  If you’ve ever been to any Alamo Draft House, you know that instead of mundane movie trivia, they generally show a collection of shorts beforehand that ties into the film they’re playing.  And it was during this preshow programming that I was reminded of the most fantastic song; “Walk the Dinosaur” by Was (Not Was).

Was (Not Was) was (is no longer) a band consisting of David and Don Was that created such forgotten songs as “Robot Girl,” “Oh, Mr. Friction,” and, I’m not kidding, six different songs that include the word “freak.”  “Walk the Dinosaur” was their opus and they respected it as such by selling it out to any and every movie that had even a tangential connection to dinosaurs.  The Flintstones, Theodore Rex, Dinosaur, Super Mario Brothers, and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs all included the hit in one way or another.  There are many parts about the tune that I enjoy, but far and away my favorite is the blatant disregard for any sort of timeline.  Let’s take a look at the following verse:

It was a night like this forty million years ago

I lit a cigarette, picked up a monkey, start to go

The sun was spitting fire, the sky was blue as ice

I felt a little tired, so I watched 'Miami Vice'

I’d let the reference to a cigarette slide (Addicts, find...a way) but Miami Vice?  Why is that a thing?  But dropping in modern verbiage isn’t just a one off occurrence:

I met you in a cave, you were painting buffalo

I said I'd be your slave, follow wherever you go

That night we split a rattlesnake and danced beneath the stars

You fell asleep, I stayed awake and watched the passing cars

Where did cars come from?  I’m not a songwriter, but I believe that you could probably find another word to rhyme with stars.

One night I dreamed of New York

You and I roasting blue pork

In the Statue of Liberty's torch

Elvis landed in a rocket, rocket, rocket ship

Healed a couple of leapers and disappeared

But where was his beard

I think they gave up by this point, so I’m going to give up making light of it.  I genuinely think I put more work into this article about the song than they put into the lyrics. In closing, go to the Alamo Draft House in Richardson for the movies, get their early because the shorts they find are dumb, but great. - David Allison

anewleafA few months ago, I recommended the latest issue of McSweeney's, which featured sci-fi and mystery stories culled from anthologies edited by Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock. Thanks to that anthology, I have discovered the joys of reading Jack Ritchie. Mr. Ritchie (I don't know him well enough to call him Jack, with him being dead for 30 years I probably never will) wrote my favorite story in the McSweeney's anthology, "For All the Rude People," a wickedly delightful tale of a man driven to murder by rudeness. His books are out of print and hard to find, but I was lucky enough to find a collection of his stories at Half Price Books. 

Mr. Jack Ritchie's stories are a boon for  anyone who seeks to write stories or tell stories or be involved in stories of any kind. He is a master of economy. He can cover more narrative ground, with more wit and vigor, in 1,000 words than most writers can in an entire novel. And his tone! He tells stories of the highest stakes, stories of blackmail and murder and betrayal, and fills them with dry, sardonic sentences like, "It was another ten minutes before Francis was quite dead," and "He was, of course, referring to the body of my wife." The stories themselves read like crime stories created for The Twilight Zone. Nothing is what it seems, and there's a twist waiting at the end. If you're ever in a used book store and find a collection of Jack Ritchie stories, do yourself a favor and pick it up. You won't be disappointed. If you are disappointed, keep it to yourself. Nobody likes a whiner.  - Ryan Callahan

urlAll things involving David Mitchell and Robert Webb are so jaw-droppingly creative and enjoyable that each deserve their own 1,000 word post. But this week, the thing that I am loving the most from them is Peep Show. At the recommendation of a friend, I watched this British sitcom obsessively in college but only recently rekindled my passion for it. In Peep Show, the camera angle is always from the perspective of a character in the scene. This allows you to get the best possible view of everyone’s reactions to the awkward, petty, immature main characters and roommates, Mark and Jeremy. Mark’s dry cynicism foils Jeremy’s innocent optimism, but both men are horrifyingly relatable at times. In one episode, Mark gets repeatedly bullied by children in his neighborhood. They yell at him, calling him a pedo, as you hear his inner monologue reminding himself, “You’re definitely not a pedo.”  I, myself, avoid jogging by playgrounds in case any bold children decide to call me a fatty as I pass, and I think of that episode every time I do.

When watching, you’ll want to repeat scenes to revisit all the exclamations and facial expressions you missed when laughing the first time around. I have never paused and rewound anything as often as I do when watching Peep Show. Sometimes it’s for a longer scene where Mark decides that leaving a drawing of a swastika on his crush’s desk at work would be funny. Sometimes Jeremy has a mental breakdown and pisses himself. Sometimes it’s just for one, short line (“for better or for worse, the 60’s happened, and now sex is... fine”). But regardless of how absurd it can get, Peep Show is so smartly written and acted that it still feels realistic. The characters, as juvenile and selfish as they are, will grow on you and warm your heart. You’ll laugh when they (frequently) fail, but you’ll still cheer when they win. Waste no time! The entire series is available on Netflix and for free on Hulu.

For more David Mitchell and Robert Webb, watch the phenomenally clever sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look (also free on Hulu). For a quick work/study break, watch clips of David Mitchell being snarky on the game show, Would I Lie to You? - Amanda Hahn

chopped-logo1I'm what the internet folk call a "cord cutter."  I have not had cable for many years.  I'm not always hip to the know on new Comedy Central shows unless they're available online.  I have my mom's HBO Go login and her Netflix, so I'm current on HBO shows, but behind on most everything else.  I have my own Amazon Prime, which I use mostly to stay current with Mad Men.  I'd buy each episode the night after it aired.  Because I'm afraid of the word torrent.  This week I've used my Amazon Prime too much.  I've went on a Chopped spree.  I wake up in the morning and I watch an episode while I get ready.  I watch an episode while I'm winding down for bed.  I have judges that I love (Jeffrey Zakarian, Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli) and I get overly excited if all three of them are on the same episode.   I have judges that I dislike (Amanda "Fartbag" Freitag - I wish I could take the credit for that nickname, bald man that is so awful that I care not to learn his name) that sometimes I feel tempted to end the episode if there is a concentration of bad judges.  I never do.  I am way too invested in the basket ingredients.  I immediately start thinking about what I would make.  I love curve ball ingredients like gummy teeth or cheese doodles, but I prefer a well-balanced basket because I prefer to see good meals come out.  My blood pressure starts rising when it's down to the clock.  Though I'm certain some of the clock closeness is just editing.  I get very upset when someone doesn't get their food on the plate.  My emotions are far too invested into a cooking competition.  I recently watched an episode where all four of the contestants were grandmas.  I cried.  Actual tears touched my cheeks.  I cried watching an episode of Chopped.  Oh boy. - Ashley Bright