Richard Pryor

If You Want to be a Comic, Be a Philosopher

George Carlin If you read the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) blog, it’s probably safe to assume that you’re into this stuff. You look forward to every practice, class, and performance with giddy anticipation. If you could, you’d probably even do this for a living. Most of us are smart enough to know that comedy as a full-time career isn’t the highest percentage choice.

And it’s not as though had we known at age 16 that we would develop a passion for comedy we could have been taking the right standardized tests and applying to universities. Improv and stand-up classes at places like DCH are the closest things we have to a technical school for comedians. Only experience can truly make you better at an art form.

However, academia is not entirely secular for members of our religion. Comedians tend to punch up at institutions — and higher education is one of the most pompous — but any field of study that challenges you to be a better thinker will ultimately bolster the quality of your comedy.

When I was in my fifth and final year of college, I took a philosophy course because I had to. A friend endorsed the Intro to Social and Political Philosophy class taught by a particularly engaging teacher. Pre-college instruction, philosophy seemed to me like a convoluted world of high diction and pedantic pontificating. I still kind of feel that way after taking the course, but the nuggets panned by my professor were eye-opening. I’ll spare you my hot takes on John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hobbes, but analyzing the works of these writers changed the way I looked at the world. Verbosity notwithstanding, it also improved my writing.

Comedy and curiosity go hand-in-hand. Observing the world around you and asking “why?” is the root of many comedic premises, but it also helps you evaluate your own behavior. In class, we would build rational cases for why philosophers’ arguments were or were not strong. I realized over the course of the semester that while we may agree with an idea about the way things should be, we often work counter to that end. That’s comedy in a nutshell: Calling attention to, or even trying to rationalize, irrational behavior.

No matter your medium, as a comedian, you comment on the human condition. Because most comedians acknowledge the grandiose difficulty involved in trying to surmise the meaning of existence, they are self-aware. This makes comedians more accessible than, if not more reliable than, philosophers.

Look at the stand-ups who were able to achieve both critical and commercial success. Comedians like Pryor, Carlin, and more recently, Louis C.K., are essentially contemporary philosophers. They use punchlines instead of a works-cited page, so we enjoy listening to their albums more than trying to dissect a Jean-Jacques Rousseau essay.

Sometimes when writing this blog, I feel like I’m talking at, or even condescending to, my audience. If I didn’t come across to you that way before, now that I bring this up perhaps my writing will be forever artificially inseminated with the tone I was seeking to avoid. The neuroses that would cause me to stop and include this paragraph are the same neuroses that allow me to practice comedy. I’m insecure. I place too much value in others’ esteem of myself and the end products/reception of my work, rather than the quality of said work. But I believe that acknowledging flaws improves your self-awareness and makes you a better comedian.

Philosophers try to rationalize the workings of the world and their place within it. Audiences respond to honesty. There’s nothing more honest than someone just trying to figure things out.

Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of  the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.

(Image: Thought Catalog/Creative Commons)

What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports is A-goin' on Here?

Blazing Saddles This is a continuation of a series in which I count down my Top 5 Favorite Comedy Films

No. 3: Blazing Saddles

Ranked No. 6 on the AFI "100 Years…100 Laughs" list, our next entry in my top 5 comedies takes what we’ve seen from the first two and takes the next evolutionary step.

So, with No. 5, The Three Amigos, we saw a movie that went out of its way not to take itself seriously by embracing the absurdly goofy humor of the the string of comedy bits that essentially make up its plot.

With No. 4, Sullivan’s Travels, we saw a movie that found comedy in taking itself too seriously by making its very serious characters look ridiculous for being foolish enough to think they could truly capture the horrors of the Great Depression.

And now, we move on to the next step. The movie that takes on a serious issue, racism, with a distinctly comic eye. It’s basically like a marriage of the techniques from the first two films on the list. Here’s what I mean…

Blazing Saddles (1974) is a satire of the Western films and TV shows that were so popular throughout the middle part of the 20th century. They even (somehow) got real life Western theme song singer Frankie Laine to record the movie’s theme song. He didn’t know it was a raucous comedy. But, beyond just spoofing Westerns, Blazing Saddles tackles the issue of racism in a pretty big way.

With a story by the great Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Bergman, and a couple of other guys wrote the script in one big collaborative effort.

Obviously, the two big, recognizable names here are Brooks and Pryor.

For the younger crowd that may not be as familiar with Brooks, he’s simply one of the greatest comedy writers and directors to ever live. That is not an exaggeration.

And, Pryor is on the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy.

This was an A-Team of comedy writing if there ever was one.

The plot is, simply, a black man is made sheriff of a small, white town in 1874. The reason for this is a dastardly plan set in place by state-level politicians who want to build a railroad through the town. They figure if they send a black sheriff in the townsfolk will abandon the place because pretty much everyone was super hella racist back then. Good thing that’s all changed….(remembers Donald Trump is leading the Republican primary and cries).

It’s a pretty straightforward “fish-out-of-water” story, except that it’s a fish-out-of-water story written by Brooks, Pryor, et al.

So, there are a lot of comedy bits. People who have seen the movie know there are far too many to list. And everyone tends to have different favorites.

“The sheriff is a n—"

“Mongo just pawn in game of life.”

“It’s Hedley.”

“Give the Governor a harrumph!”

“What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin' on here?”

And, so on and so forth…

Like with The Three Amigos, this is a movie written by comedians and comedy writers for a cast full of great comic characters (Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, and David Huddleston who will make a prominent appearance in next week’s movie), so there are a lot of bits and throwaway one-liners that have little-to-nothing to do with the plot. And, that’s OK, because the subject they’re dealing with is absurd. Or at least, it should be.

Blazing Saddles confronts racism with a full head of steam. It doesn’t shy away from dropping just a ton of n-bombs, the white people openly treat all minorities like crap, and they often do it in this very unnerving matter-of-fact kinda way.

So, when Bart (Cleavon Little) comes to town to be the new sheriff of Rock Ridge, the large welcoming party that had been prepared for his arrival is literally rolled up as the town people turn their guns on him. Obviously, he gets out of it. And, hilariously so, as he uses an absurd action to show just how ignorant the townspeople are.

Luckily, he soon gains an ally in the form of the guy currently occupying the jail cell in his office, The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder). Together, they slowly work to turn the town in Bart’s favor, just in time to fend off the greedy politicians and their band of thugs.

And just for good measure, the whole thing culminated into a straight up meta, fourth-wall breaking scene that hammers home the point that the problems of the movie are not as in the past as we may sometimes like to tell ourselves.

So, it’s got silly comedy bits that are just there for the sake of comedy (making it one of the most quotable movies in history), but it also manages to tackle a pretty big issue (racism) from a comedic perspective. And, a fairly light-hearted one at that. As we’ll see with the No. 1 movie on this list, great comedy can also be achieved from pure drama that goes even further than No. 4, Sullivan’s Travels.

In fact, the more I write about this, the more I see a theme in what attracts me to a comedy.

If you haven’t seen Blazing Saddles, do so. I’ve only just scratched the surface. There is literally too many great parts to go over. I could write my dissertation on this movie. No kidding.

“It’s twue! It’s twue!”

Preview for next week: A movie that really ties the room together…

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus on 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)