What's So Funny?
The late comedian Groucho Marx, famous for his quick wit, performed some of his best work in 1958 on a pile of East Berlin rubble for an audience of five.
Among the five was Judith Dwan Hallet '64, then 16 and the daughter of Robert Dwan, the long-time director of Groucho's radio and TV shows. She and her father, along with Marx's wife and 11-year-old daughter, had accompanied him on the tour of Europe. In Dornum, the German town where Marx's mother had been born, the travelers discovered that the Nazis had obliterated all Jewish graves, and removed from the local church the old register of inhabitants from his parents' generation. Marx hired a car with a chauffeur, and told the driver to take the group to Adolph Hitler's grave in Berlin.
It was surprisingly easy to get there. The car slipped through a checkpoint into a devastated gray and brown city of people in solemn clothing. Marx told the chauffer to drive to the bunker where Hitler was said to have committed suicide, where he was supposedly still buried.
The rubble at the site was about 20 feet high. Wearing his characteristic beret but without the trademark cigar, Marx alone climbed the side of the debris. When he reached the top, he stood still for a moment. Then he launched himself, unsmiling, into a frenetic Charleston. The dance on Hitler's grave lasted a minute or two.
"Nobody applauded," Hallet says. "Nobody laughed."
For Hallet, now a Washington, D.C., documentary film maker who is working on a movie about Marx, the performance near the boundary between victors and vanquished, the living and the dead, helped define the edge between funny and tragic. The apparently effortless dance at the borderline, she says, is what comedians are good at, "the funniest ones, like Groucho."
But even as a young girl, Hallet knew that creating humor wasn't effortless. Groucho's 525 You Bet Your Life quiz programs, for example, appeared unrehearsed and off-the-cuff. Off-camera, though, every show depended on semi-scripted material from elaborate advance interviews of contestants. Filming required eight cameras, four of them running at any one time, capturing every waggle of Marx's cigar and twitch of his thick eyebrows. To come up with the 26 minutes of air time (commercials and titles filled the rest of the half hour), Dwan and his editing team distilled some six hours of film a week, discarding ad libs that failed and any material that might offend 1950s sensibilities. "There was a lot of that," Hallet says, because the format freed Marx to ad-lib whatever came into his head.
Groucho: "Now suppose you became a famous actress, and then you met somebody you liked and got married. Would you be willing to quit acting and be a housewife and a mother?"
Woman contestant: "Well, I think if you keep your feet on the ground you can combine both. That's what I'd like to do."
Groucho: "Well, if you keep your feet on the ground, you'll never be a mother."
Off-camera, Marx was a master of endearing putdowns, Hallet says. "He once told my father, 'I have nothing but confidence in you, and little of that.'" Even without some of Groucho's funniest moments, the show never slipped from the roster of top-ten TV programs between 1950 and 1961; reruns continued for three decades. At his best, Marx lightly seasoned his lines with ambiguity: was he trying to be funny, or solemn? "On the eighth day," he once said, deadpan, "God laughed."
Hallet and other Sarah Lawrence experts on humor note that sometimes we laugh until we cry, that laughing itself is a cousin of sobbing. And they say that behind most good comedians' light touch is a lot of heavy and sometimes fearful lifting.
I laughed, I cried
Less than a year after the suicide assaults on the World Trade Center towers, humor is a delicate and treasured commodity. We are more likely than usual to exalt people who make us laugh. We are also more likely to be wary humor consumers, grousing more than ever about junk-joke e-mails and keeping our distance from punchlines that might offend.
So we haven't heard the one about 9/11—yet.
"There is humor about the most dreadful things in life," says Gregg Horowitz '80, associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Even the Holocaust, "even there, at the edge of the abyss," or the worst massacres of war, Horowitz reminds us that author Kurt Vonnegut forced himself to remember the firebombing of Dresden in 1945 which killed between 35,000 and 135,000 people. The resulting novel, published almost a quarter century after the war, was the dark comedy Slaughterhouse-Five. Like New Yorkers wishing we could turn back the pages of our calendars, its hero, Billy Pilgram, envisions an aerial attack as if it ran harmlessly backwards:
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. …The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed.
But we're not at the point where we can use humor to confront the most profound fears that the 9/11 attacks planted in our psyches, Horowitz says. "The trauma is still so deep that we can't think about releasing it." The response of government officials didn't help us handle the shock, he argues. "Remember how quickly we were told we had to go shopping, and eat at restaurants?
The official reaction was we had to get back to normal within a few days. And a conventional story emerged very quickly, with good guys and bad guys who were wanted dead or alive, but without much attention to the anxiety we felt. So even now, before you speak to someone about 9/11, you have a sense of what the official story about it is, and that means you're more sensitive to the possibility of causing offense if you say the wrong thing." The taboos, like many before them, will pass, he predicts, and laughter will peal at the moment.
"The philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, 'Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter,'" says Horowitz. "Every laugh is a sign of successful conquest, an escape from tragedy."
The Happy Ending
Vonnegut and Groucho Marx followed traditions stretching back millennia in their understanding of the close relationship between comedy and tragedy. Sarah Lawrence literature teacher Ann Lauinger, who has published humorous as well as serious work, says she recently reread one account of an all-night drinking party attended by a world-class teacher and some of his friends. At dawn, the teacher was still downing wine and arguing that "the genius of comedy was the same as that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was also an artist in comedy." Plato wrote the account (The Symposium), and the teacher was Socrates—some 2,400 years ago.
Lauinger, an expert on medieval and Renaissance poetry, says authors in the Middle Ages echoed Socrates' argument, even without knowing what Plato had written. "The medieval definition of tragedy is very simple," she says. "First, you have it good, and then you have it bad. That's it, the fall from prosperity into woe or whatever. Classic comedy is the reverse. You start off in bad circumstances and end up better. Dante begins in hell, progresses to paradise."
Comedy's creators have for centuries extracted happy endings out of calamities, Lauinger says. Take the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, "a very funny guy," who lived during plague years and died in about 1400. "He still manages to be extremely funny in all kinds of ways," Lauinger says. His long narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde, isn't a lot of laughs. Troilus loves Criseyde and she doesn't even know he exists. She betrays him, goes off to the Greeks and never comes back, and a grieving Troilus dies in battle. "And then Chaucer turns it into a comedy," Lauinger says. "Troilus ascends into the heavens, gains perspective on earth and life, and begins to smile and laugh and see how foolish it all was." Did audiences at the time, literally plagued, think that was funny? "I think they had to approve the idea that there's sort of a providential plan for everybody," she says. "It may not have been enough to make them laugh, but I suppose that it helped if they had that kind of belief and faith."
A funny thing has happened to humor since the Middle Ages, particularly over the past century. Belief and faith have been in shorter supply. And researchers have begun dissecting comedy with the dedication of pathologists. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, was one of the first to put jokes on a couch. Humor, he proposed, is a way to express what is normally repressed. "Tendentious jokes are especially favored in order to make aggressiveness or criticism possible against persons in exalted positions who claim to exercise authority," he writes.
Sarah Lawrence student and humor writer Tom Hitchner '03 says such psychoautopsies tend to kill the patient. "Analyzing humor makes it not funny, at least for the duration of the analysis," says Hitchner, editor of the Sarah Lawrence satirical newspaper The Bubble. "We've all experienced it. You tell a joke, and someone doesn't get it. And when you explain it and they understand why it's supposed to be funny, they don't burst out laughing, because once you explain it, it's no longer a joke."
Try it, with The Bubble itself. A typical headline lampoons the coverline of a brochure for prospective Sarah Lawrence students ("You are different. So are we."). The Bubble's version: "ADMISSIONS ANNOUNCES NEW SLOGAN: "You're Different. Now Shut Up." We asked one recent college graduate, who liked this, why she was laughing. "Because it's true," she said. "It says, 'OK, OK, so you're different, now stop telling us you are or you won't be different anymore.'"
Bet if you were laughing, you've stopped.
But even if laughter dies in the throat when it's explained, Hitchner argues that studying what's funny is helpful to a student of humor like him. The analysis of comedy can help aspiring humorists be funnier, he says. Besides, "You can learn about the greater context of society in which the joke was told. I think a study of humor can tell us a lot about how we as a species let off mental and emotional tension, how we deal with our anxieties and frustrations."
Funny people have fears, too
If humor shares roots with frustration, comedy creation itself can be excruciating work, according to Alana Devich '97, a stand-up comedian in The Comedy Studio. In fact, the stand-up part of the job in the third-floor club, over a Chinese restaurant near the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is easier than the hours of sitting down and writing edgy comedy.
At least some of her ideas come from the pain, weirdness and debris of daily life. Breaking up with somebody. Seeing American flags sprouting everywhere, including her gynecologist's examination room. The filching of her handbag at Filene's department store, and an interrogation about its contents by security guards who caught the thief and recovered the bag. Devich's you-are-there account:
Them: How much is this bag worth?
Them: It looks like you need a new wallet.
Me: My best friend made me that wallet. It's hand-sewn.
Them: Yes, exactly. You're at Filene's. You can get a wallet for $5 with the coupon.
Distilling life into humor is often labor without laughter. Daily, Devich hones jokes with a few trusted peers in the comedy business. "I write with two different people," she says. "I run ideas by them, usually over the phone. I know I'm not going to get a laugh from them because this is what they do, too, and stand-up comedians are just so serious about everything we do." She also tries to send a new joke daily to another writer via AOL to get her feedback. The biggest response is "ha ha" on the computer screen in a return instant message. Before Devich ever arrives at the club to perform, she has developed a five- to seven-minute set of about 10 to 12 jokes, written them down and almost completely memorized them by repeating the whole set like a mantra.
"Five minutes doesn't sound like a lot of time, but it is," she says. "Even longer if you feel that the audience hates you. And before I go on, I'm always afraid that nobody's going to like my jokes."
Rarely but sometimes, nobody does. "One time, I actually just forgot my set. Terrifying! I went into my first joke, one I still do, about being beautiful. It's long, about a minute and a half. I got halfway through it and then just forgot what was next. I repeated the last thing I said, and then I was quiet. I said, 'I don't remember what's next.' There were a few nervous laughs, and I had a little space to kind of back up and figure it out and get through." But she'll never forget the nightmare.
More often, delivering the set is the easiest part of being funny. Devich opens with three or four of her strongest jokes. "Basically it's my 'Are-you-going-to-like-me?' minute." If they do, the performance can stretch into overtime, prolonged by sustained laughter. "Then they're my closest friends," Devich says. "I love them, and I tell them that." Devich was recently nominated by The Boston Phoenix as one of the best new comedians in the city.
A fear-love relationship with humor is doubly difficult for playwright Joe Lauinger, who teaches literature at Sarah Lawrence: he's married to literature teacher and author Ann Lauinger and she periodically tells him to be funnier.
Joe Lauinger's comedies have been performed throughout the U.S. and abroad, and he's also published fiction and poetry in Epoch, Lost Creek, Georgetown Review, Confrontation and Pig Iron. One of his one-act plays, called Waiting for Wood, is a 20-minute comedy-drama set in the green room of a porn movie where its star struggles to recover lost inspiration. Its themes, Lauinger says, include director-actor relationships, fanaticism, Popular Mechanics and God.
The play was an offering to Ann, Lauinger says. "She once said to me, 'Why don't you write something which is purely funny, instead of something that has a hook in it of sadness?' It was awful, because she is my severest critic, and I know she has this great pleasure in jokes. So how in the world could I do that?" So he did it by studying the classics—the plays of Oscar Wilde, Chekhov's early vaudevilles—"and by reading these other people, I sort of put something between me and the horror of her request." But after he was able to produce several funny one-acts, Ann was back on his case. "She said, 'Yeah, well, now I want a full-length play that's purely funny.' I've not yet been able to pull that off."
Like Devich, Joe Lauinger finds a calling in comedy, which he considers one of the highest forms of art. "Certainly comedy is much more timeless than tragedy," he says. "Every comedy in some way ends with a marriage or with the possibility of something ongoing, and a meeting that bridges what seemed to be irreconcilable differences. Tragedy ends with something like a funeral, and that means we have to know what we're saying at the grave of the deceased. We strain for the significance of that one human life. And what we say there has to depend on whatever the specific culture happens to believe at the time."
The comic hero of story outlasts specific times and places. And behind the hero is the humorist, who also wins a kind of immortality through hard work. "I always remember a Mel Brooks skit from The History of the World," Joe Lauinger says, "in which you see the first artist, painting on a cave wall. It's a beautiful painting, but there's another guy standing above him in the cave, urinating on his head. The first critic. That's timeless to me."
So What's Funny?
What makes humorists even more heroic is that long after we've emerged from the cave, there isn't much agreement, even among critics and psychologists, about what's funny. Compared with the first half of the twentieth century — when almost everyone read the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip or watched I Love Lucy— an American "national sense of humor" is elusive. Media have splintered. The remaining bonds uniting us, like CNN or national editions of The New York Times and USA Today, tend to be pretty serious, notes Gina Philogene, a Sarah Lawrence psychology teacher. "Humor tends to be targeted to specific groups, to many different television audiences, for example, each laughing at different things. That means it's a lot harder today to be a comedian than it used to be." Even after millennia of learned argument and inquiry about what's amusing and why, there are virtually no rules today for comedy's creators.
"I think there's a million ways of being funny," says Dan Hurlin '79, who teaches dance and puppetry at Sarah Lawrence and who received a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship to create and develop a new puppet piece. "There isn't one formula."
Rule: Puppets should look like exaggerated human or animal figures. Nah, Hurlin says. "A puppet can be a hat, or a pound of butter standing for Dick Cheney." He directed one show at Sarah Lawrence about Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, an actual Victorian artist who was the first person to build life-size models of dinosaurs. In one scene, white arrows—puppets!—floated above his head as he tried to figure out the architecture of a huge beast. "The arrows kind of throbbed which made it look like a headache," Hurlin says. "It was a great image, one I want to put into everything else I do from now on." Then disconnected bones swirled over his brain, "and at one point they all came together to form a dinosaur" — a sweetly funny image made more so by Hawkins' misunderstanding. "He put a spike on the end of his dinosaur's nose, and it turned out later that he learned it wasn't a spike at all. It was a dinosaur thumb."
No recipes for risibility: Hurlin provides other test cases.
Rule: When things go wrong in a puppet show, it's always human error. Not so, Hurlin says. "It's almost always the puppets' fault."
Rule: Never follow a dog act with a dog act—telling the same joke twice is tiresome. Not necessarily, Hurlin argues.
"There's a brilliant novel by Nathanael West called A Cool Million. The main character, Lemuel Pitkin, loses an eye, then an arm, and then gets scalped. He becomes a stooge in a vaudeville show, and every time they make a joke, he just stands there and the main comedians hit him with a big hammer hoping to knock out his false teeth or some body part. And then there's a whole box of replacement parts for the next joke. So the idea of repetition there is hilarious."
Perhaps you disagree, even if we explain that the book is a mock-heroic send-up of the classic Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story. Maybe you don't find anything in the pages of this issue to be even remotely funny. To you, we suggest—stealing The Bubble' s boilerplate message to readers—"If you are not laughing, please move away from Sarah Lawrence."