Tonight, I watched the HBO special “Talking Funny.” I felt like I was eavesdropping on the after-work conversation between Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais. The first thing that struck me is the fact that all four of these guys seemed to be a little uneasy with themselves, almost self-conscious about the fact that they were having a serious conversation about the craft of comedy on camera. But comedy is an art, one of the hardest for a writer to master. And make no mistake about it, stand up comedians are writers first. Just like poets and playwrights, there is a rhythm and an energy always at the heart of every line that causes the audience to respond. There are only a handful of truly great comedians and I would have to say that these four rank up there as some of my favorites of this decade.
Some of my most vivid memories as a child have to do with comedians. My mom almost always carried a joke book instead of a journal and my dad liked to listen to comedy albums, so I spent a lot of time listening to them as well trying to memorize specific bits or songs that I liked. Bill Cosby’s bit about flushing his winter coat down the toilet like torpedos firing out of a submarine ranks as my all-time favorite. That image of him as a child doing something so hilariously creative and destructive at the same time left a deep impression on me. It also opened my mind to the idea that things aren’t always what they seem. And just because something is a coat or a toilet, doesn’t mean that you cannot make it into whatever your imagination is able to dream up. I started writing animated stories about everyday objects after listening to that album. One in particular, about a champagne cork that comes to life and travels the world in search of finding his soul mate just flashed through my memory bank.
My cousin introduced me to Steve Martin’s “Wild and Crazy Guy.” We were visiting her family and she must have played “Well, ex-cuu-uuuuuse meeeeeeee” at least twenty times in a row. Every time, we would laugh like it was the first time we had heard it. Then we drove around her living room in a battery-operated electric car yelling the lines at our parents when they got in our way. That’s when I learned that you could say anything–and I do mean anything–in a specific way with a certain attitude or emotion (it helped if you were wearing rabbit ears) and it could be funny.
In the HBO special, the guys get on the topic of fear and how it is the major underlying energy of all stand up performances because at any given moment a joke may or may not work. Not only that, but at any given moment, the person on stage can consciously feel the audience’s fear as well as their longing to trust that wherever they are being led, it will make them laugh and open their eyes to a new way of seeing the world. In a way, they are physically experiencing the line that exists between love and fear over and over and over. Because, that’s the truth about comedy, it makes you see the world in a way that you can never un-see. I’ll never see a baguette and not think of Louis C.K.’s joke about a bag of dicks. I have often seen tricked-out hubcabs on a beat-down automobile and thought about Chris Rock or the fact that he is right, women aren’t interested in going back in lifestyle. Not only did Ricky Gervais change the way I think about corporate work environments, but he’s changed the way I think about Noah and that ark filled with animals. And I will never go to an airport or look at the expiration date on a carton of milk and not think of Jerry Seinfeld.
Growing up, I was the girl who would do just about anything to get a laugh. When I would hang out with my family, someone would inevitably tell me to “Say something funny” as if you can come up with something on command. One time, my father invited a nun over to dinner at our house and my mom and I reenacted the Black Knight sword fighting scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. I pride myself on the day I made my best friend laugh so hard that Pepsi shot out of her nose. But just like many comedians, I can be quite serious and introspective. In order to hear your own voice, you have to be. You have to be willing to look at a thing in a way that no one else would ever think of it. That’s why I love it when someone can make me laugh, because in that moment, they are freely expressing their voices without any artifice. They are showing me their light–even if they spend most of their time in darkness–and there’s nothing more joy-filled than that.