Key & Peele

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.

The Brick Wall and the Water Cooler

comedy I was on the UIL Spelling team in his school (nerd alert). I walked in for an exam once and sat next to my classmate. She informed me that I couldn’t sit next to her. I thought she was joking, so I responded in my bitchiest tone, “Whatever, Jennifer. I don’t want to sit next to you anyway.” She stared at me with a slight look of disgust. And though this was not a look I was entirely unaccustomed to coming from a female, I quickly realized that she’d been serious.

So, yeah. A high school academic competition probably isn’t the ideal place for humor. And that’s an important distinction that people often don’t think about. Space can be just as important as content when it comes to comedy.

As an audience—and we’re all audience all the time, but more on that later—we go into every new situation with a set of predetermined expectations. Stuffy academics (like me, sometimes) call this Audience Expectancy, and it’s actually closely related to the “frames” I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Basically, when you walk into a comedy club, you expect to laugh. Therefore, you’re more inclined to laugh. Even at things that aren’t necessarily that funny. But you want to laugh. And in that case, you probably even paid to laugh. So dammit, you’re gonna laugh!

And if you’re about to take a test you’ve studied your ass off for, you probably won’t find much of anything funny.

Of course, there are always exceptions. After all, laughing is a way to release tension. But there still needs to be an element within your expectations that allows for the possibility of finding something funny.

Some of this depends on the individual. People have different senses of humor. I’m one of those people that is inclined to try and find the humor in everything. Other people are more serious.

One of the things that increases the expectancy for humor is the security of the space. A comedy club is safe, because you expect to be challenged by humor. So you’re more geared to adjust that frame and laugh.

The same works for TV. Sitcoms, short for situational comedy, are funny at least in part because we typically watch them sitting on our couch. It’s safe, so we’re more inclined to be receptive to humor.

Beyond just the feeling of safety, company is also important. Laughter is cathartic, but it’s also a unifying action. It’s an indication that we’re all OK.

See, our inclination toward safety goes beyond the physical space into the psychological, as well. We naturally want to get along, and acknowledging to others that we’re all in on the joke is important. This is again in play with the comedy club, but it works in other places, too. You may be alone when watching the latest episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but the next day at work when you’re talking about it “around the water cooler,” or any other requisite space where you gather with co-workers and friends, you re-hash the jokes from the show to confirm that, in fact, yes it was funny and we’re all OK.

Of course, this concept extends beyond just how we look at comedy. We spend so much of our life just trying to get along that we almost go into autopilot sometimes. And that’s the point here.

Being aware of why we laugh can make the laughs much better and more meaningful. It can help the truly funny stuff stand out.

Because, here’s the deal. We’ve all been out at the comedy club and heard that comic who gets most of his laughs from dropping an f-bomb in the middle of the joke. It’s cheap. Bad language makes us snicker, but it’s not actually funny…unless, of course, it’s used as a perfectly placed punctuation to a joke. But, in general, there are a lot of people out there who get laughs simply by trying to shock it out of people.

For audience and performers both, thinking about why we laugh, and what causes us to laugh, can improve laughing. It holds all of us to a higher standard and, hopefully, raises the level of our comedy.

Look at TV comedy. Seinfeld found humor in the everyday mundanity of our lives. Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer particularly show what happens when the boundaries are pushed just perfectly. There is some language and racy subjects, but they’re still hemmed in by network standards, so it makes them have to get laughs through the content more than the shock of broaching a taboo issue.

It’s a subtle thing, granted. But thinking about the places we laugh and what expectations we bring to those places can enhance our understanding and appreciation of humor. And that increases our identification and inclusion. For anyone practicing comedy, whether in improv, stand-up, or acting, knowing how to use this to your advantage can take your performance to an entirely new level.

Think about audience. How are we an audience? What does it mean to be an audience? It’s about connection. So, connect with your audience. It doesn’t take much scrolling through BuzzFeed listicles to see that we all deal with the same crap day in and day out. So, use that and the audience’s desire to laugh to achieve new heights in comedy.

The Top Five Places I Laugh the Most

  1. Dallas Comedy House (of course)
  2. At the bar with my friends
  3. Listening to the Ticket
  4. My apartment
  5. The Margo Jones Theatre

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.