“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.
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:
- Anthony Jeselnik - Shark Party
- Patton Oswalt - Gay Marriage and Green Lantern Rings
- Key & Peele - Negrotown
- Amy Schumer - Black Guys and Asian Vaginas
- 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)