Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

05 FEBRUARY, 2014

Comedy Godmother Phyllis Diller on What a Comedian Needs and How a Great Joke Works

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“Edit. If one word can do the work of five, now you’re talking.”

Phyllis Diller is one of the godmothers of modern comedy and a blazing antidote to the lamentable and misguided cultural trope that women aren’t funny. Without Diller and the echoes of her legacy, ours may have never blossomed into the kind of culture that can foster a Lena Dunham or a Tina Fey. In We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (public library) — an oral history of exactly what it says on the tin, featuring recollections and anecdotes from such comedic icons as Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, Sandra Bernhard and Joan Rivers — Diller reflects on her unlikely beginnings, what a great comic needs, and how a joke works.

She tells the story of how the confluence of necessity, circumstance, and creative ingenuity sett her down the path of comedy:

I was a housewife with five children. And we reached the bottom. My husband, Sherwood Diller, said, “You’re gonna have to get a job.” And I immediately looked for a job and got it at a newspaper in Oakland, California. For five years, I was writing newspaper advertising, and if an advertiser would allow me, I would write a funny ad. That led to radio. But my husband kept nagging me and telling me I had to become a comic. It was his idea. He thought I was funny. And of course he was thinking of the money.

I met a guy, Lloyd Clark, who was coaching the writer and poet Maya Angelou for the Purple Onion nightclub. He was sitting next to me at a little bar where they had a jazz group, and I said, “I’ve been looking for someone to coach me.” Lloyd knew about demeanor onstage. And he knew about attitude. He’s the one that gave Maya that queenly, regal entrance. And he liked me. I was skinny (I only weighed about 110 pounds), and I was well-spoken, and he was glad to have a new client. So I started preparing for the audition. There was no such thing as an open mic but since he knew all the club owners in the North Beach [San Francisco] area, and they all knew him, he got me my own audition. And the whole time during my audition, which I did very seriously, all dressed up and everything, they were ordering Chinese food. I don’t think they heard it at all. So I did it, and they said, “Thank you.” And that was it. They had just hired a male stand-up comic by the name of Milt Kamen two weeks before and they didn’t have room for me. But when Milt was offered a two-week stint in radio he begged them to let him go to New York for two weeks. Since I had just had my audition, they called me on a Friday night and said, “Could you open Monday?” And I said, “Yes.” And in the two weeks that I worked, they watched me improve day by day by day. Milt got back, and I’d had two weeks onstage at the Purple Onion, which was as long as he’d worked there before he left. So they had to decide: Which one of these two, the man or the woman, were they gonna keep? They couldn’t decide, so they kept us both.

Diller argues that a level of off-ness not only doesn’t hurt a comedian, but aids him or her. She recounts how she had to manufacture her own physical quirks in order to allow for the self-referential humor she sees as a centerpiece of standup:

It helps a stand-up comic to have something wrong — to either have buck teeth, no chin, weigh five hundred pounds, have funny hair, or be too skinny or too tall or too something. Like, for instance, a guy comes out and he weighs five hundred pounds, and he says, “I haven’t eaten in ten minutes,” something like that. To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audience. So right away, you come out and kiss ass. And the reason I developed things like [wearing a bag dress] was because I had such a great figure. So I had to dress so that they couldn’t see any figure because I wanted to make jokes. I had ’em convinced that underneath whatever I was wearing, I was a skeleton, an ugly skeleton — and that’s what I wanted. My legs were really thin. Model thin. I stuck out what was thin and covered up what wasn’t, and everyone thought I was flat-chested.

Dillar defies Rowan & Martin Laugh-In creator George Schlatter’s complimentary assertion that her brand of humor was a science in which she held “the intellectual as well as physical participation of the audience” by constructing a joke like a play with a beginning, middle, and an end, all orchestrated to a meticulous rhythm. Instead, Diller counters with her own theory of what a good joke entails, echoing Mark Twain’s famous dictum to “use the right word, not its second cousin”:

Wrong! A joke has two parts — setup, payoff. Forget this bullshit in the middle. The quicker you get to the payoff, the better. My idea is edit. If one word can do the work of five, now you’re talking. And there are other rules. The joke ends, preferably, on an explosive consonant — like cut. Certain numbers work in certain places when you’re writing a joke. You’ll have to find just the right number — whether it’s eight or eleven. Every word. No one realizes what a science it is.

We Killed is a remarkable cultural artifact in its entirety. Complement it with Arthur Koestler’s seminal 1957 theory of how humor works.

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23 JANUARY, 2014

The Future of Love: Malcolm Cowley’s 1930 Parodic Prediction for the Age of Data

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The Stimulus and the Response go on a date.

In 1930, as the culturally raucous Jazz Age was coming to halt with the onset of the Great Depression and America was dreaming up a brighter, technologically advanced world of tomorrow, a curious anthology titled Whither Whither, or After Sex What?: A Symposium to End Symposiums (public library) crept onto bookstore shelves. Exploring the futures of such diverse subjects as prosperity, history, literary criticism, art, music, and the atom, it featured parodic predictions from a formidable roster of future literary titans, at the time in their early and mid-thirties, including E. E. Cummings, Edmund Wilson, E. B. White, and James Thurber (the latter two had just come off their own collaboration on a piece of equally entertaining cultural commentary, the 1929 gem Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do), illustrated with charming cartoons by the Bill Gropper.

One of the best contributions, both for its humor and its unintendedly poignant prescience, comes from the beloved novelist, poet, journalist, and literary critic Malcolm Cowley — he who contemplated the stages of the creative process some three decades later — and considers a subject that has occupied humanity for millennia: Love.

After a series of parodic predictions poking fun at the era’s scientific novelties like psychoanalysis and eugenics, some of which were dismissed as appropriately laughable decades later, Cowley considers “what Love will be — and society in general” in the envisioned new age, beginning with the concept of childbirth:

First, the children of the future will no longer be conceived by the methods unthinkingly adopted by our parents. Children will be had at special pharmacies out of glass vials — tied with blue ribbons for boys, tied with pink ribbons for girls, and tied with variegated ribbons to indicate all the new sexes that we may confidently expect to see developed by the intensive application of modern laboratory methods. Life will thus be greatly simplified. And to think of the relief to bashful parents who hesitate to reveal the biological facts to their children! Little boys and girls will no longer have to be told that the doctor brought them or that the stork dropped them down the chimney. They will know darned well that they came from the corner drug store.

'One of the possible methods of reviving the stork ceremony of birth in the future. A child is produced by laboratory methods, thus avoiding the present system of procreation which is disagreeable to some people and which can henceforth be reserved purely for purposes of debauchery. The infant is placed in swaddling clothes, attached to the beak of a mechanical stork. The expectant mother, who is trained from early girlhood for this serious task, is then given a large butterfly net, and at a signal from the head obstetrician the bird is released, to soar eagerly in swift mechanical flight. The young mother leaps forward, captures the stork with its precious burden, and an heir is born.'

Cowley, writing in the age of truly gobsmacking rules of romance, then moves on to the question of courtship in the future:

We may confidently predict that the mating pattern will be changed by the application of scientific Behaviorism. The post-adolescent male will have learned to condition away the fear reflexes which inhibit hugs and kisses. By producing a box of candy at every visit, he will offer a stimulus certain to produce a favorable response to himself. By taking his girl to the movies (if he can’t make love at home), he will behavioristically surround himself with an atmosphere proportious to the development of heterosexual affection. By gifts of jewelry and flowers, he will condition the sweetheart to a belief in his own prosperity.

But while Cowley’s intent was purely satirical in 1930, a time long before the discovery of DNA and the invention of the modern digital web, the prescience of his parody turns tragicomic in the context of today’s quantified self and personal genomics, where we obsessively measure our psychophysiology and proudly advertise its high points in online dating profiles — ours is, after all, love in the age of data. Cowley continues:

And when the moment comes to pop the question, he will not be so foolish as to say, “Will you marry me?” That would smack of the old Victorian repressions — and besides, marriage will long since have been abolished. Instead the lover (hereinafter to be known as “the Response”) will exclaim to the sweetheart (hereinafter to be known as “the Stimulus”):

“My IQ is satisfactory, my blood count satisfactory, my basic metabolism satisfactory, my male hormones present in satisfactory qualities. My instincts are wholly mature, my thyroid and pituitary glands properly adjusted, and I am capable of following the higher mammalian mating pattern. Will you live with me happily ever after in heterosexual matehood?”

“Let’s synthesize!” the Stimulus will reply, as hand in hand these twain go marching into the heterosexual dawn.

'The eternal triangle is not always husband, wife, and lover. It is sometimes, as we learn from the more prosperous psychologists, husband, wife, and child -- or, to bring the matter nearer home, husband, wife, and Pomeranian. This is but one of the problems which will be solved by a careful reading of the present Symposium, this last Symposium, this Symposium to end Symposiums.'

Though long out of print, Whither, Whither, or After Sex, What? can be found online and is well worth the hunt. Complement Cowley’s contemplation with its modern, non-satirical counterparts exploring the natural history of love, the math of its odds, and its alleged science, the very concept of which Cowley so elegantly derided.

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29 NOVEMBER, 2013

Modern Masterpieces of Comedic Genius: The Art of the Humorous Amazon Review, Part Deux

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From scientific miracles to literary criticism, by way of bodily functions and failures of common sense.

Many moons ago, I wrote about the art of the humorous Amazon review as a modern masterpiece of parodic genius, embodying Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor and creativity work. It turns out this peculiar micro-genre of satire is surprisingly expansive — here is a sequel-selection of amusing, absurd, preposterous, and plain funny reviews, spanning everything from literary classics to industrial equipment.

Some take advantage of Amazon’s tendency to mash up the brand name and product description in the same title field, which often makes for some inherently funny propositions — like the Pelican 1510-004-110 Case with Padded Dividers, Black, on which “Teddy Picker” pounces elegantly:

With others, it’s hard to tell whether the person was aiming for comedy or was simply displaying a tragic level of learnedness — which, arguably, makes it all the funnier. From a one-star review of Lolita titled “Wake Me When It’s Over” (with Proper Capitalization) to an unambiguously titled one-star review of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, these “literary critics” employ Koestler’s bisociation in juxtaposing personal preference and cultural credence to a comedic effect, whether intended or not:

Some are doubly amusing not only by virtue of the humorous review but also by the sheer absurdity of why such an item would be sold on Amazon in the first place. Take, for instance, the Cyclone 4006 Ultra High Pressure Hard Surface Cleaner — a giant machine weighing 28,000 pounds and used primarily at airports for removing paint and rubber. A reviewer who goes by Wandrwoman ‘Wise as Aphrodite, Beautiful as Athena…’” — a name that already promises amusement — writes:

Some seem wholly earnest — but, between the nature of the product and the language of the review, they produce an irrepressible chuckle. There’s Body Mint and its ultimate fan, a woman named Anita (who, Amazon kindly informs us, is using her Real Name):

Others reap the irresistible low-hanging fruit of an especially questionable product, such as the AutoExec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Attachable Work Surface Tray. Just when you might think this is intended as a gag gift for that common-sense-defiant teenage driver, you realize this is a serious “ergonomic work surface” “designed to be used in a vehicle’s steering wheel” and “developed for the mobile worker on the road needing support for their tablet or a great place to write” … in an age when it’s both idiotic and illegal to text-and-drive, let alone type-and-drive. Some reviewers go for the meta:

Others take it a satirical step further:

I just picked uuyp my laptop hoder from the post offfice and I’m ddriving home now. It’s OK Iguess, but the bumpy road majkes it hard to type. And theree’s a lot of pedeestrians and traffi c that keep distracti9ng me fromm my computer.

It’s prolly OK ffor web browsing or email, but I don’gt think it will be so useful for mmore complex tasks. Oh, and yyou can’t make any sharrp turns. So when you turn right, somnetimess you have to use the oppsing lane of traffic.

Another reviewer points out the obvious:

Adding this desk to my car’s steering wheel has been baby Jesus awesome. I love emailing the Highway patrol while I drive to let them know the tag numbers of cell phone using drivers. Lordy!

Some reviews weave entire micro-novellas around the product, such as this three-star treatise on the Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable by none other than Star Trek star George Takei:

Another reviewer offers a different, equally entertaining twist on the cable:

After I took delivery of my $500 Denon AKDL1 Cat-5 uber-cable, Al Gore was mysteriously drawn to my home, where he pronounced that Global Warming had been suspended in my vicinity.

Yes, I had perfect weather: no flooding, no tornadoes, the exact amount of rain necessary, and he pronounced sea levels exactly right and that they were not going to rise within five miles of my house.

Additionally, my cars began achieving 200 mpg and I didn’t even need gasoline. I was able to put three grams of cat litter into the tank and drive forever.

What’s more, the atmosphere inside my home became 93% oxygen and virtually no carbon dioxide. In fact, I now exhale oxygen.

One heck of a cable.

Didn’t notice any improvement in audio quality though.

The $800 Apple iCable is clearly superior.

Then there are those that simply defy categorization, such as this one-star review for the Accoutrements Horse Head Mask:

But my favorite remains this brilliant gem from the first installment, wherein an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator reviews a humble jug of milk in the style of “The Raven”:

Read the rest in all its full Poe-tastic glory here, then revisit the original omnibus here.

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