Comedy: The Witty, Urbane Humorist vs. The Shticky Jew
There's no shortage of comedic archetypes, but by this point I bet you can figure out which kind of comedy appealed to me most. Yep, English comedy. Specifically, the kind that placed an emphasis on eloquence and intelligence as much as humor. Although I love all of Monty Python, John Cleese's combination of vocabulary and hostility was inexplicably appealing. Meanwhile, I was also a big Woody Allen fan, even if his humor was more familiar to me and something I could manifest almost instinctively. There will always be comics more concerned about seeming smart and cool than funny, and comics who wear their Judaism on their sleeve, cracking tired jokes about their overprotective mothers. Ultimately, I realized I didn't want to be either one.
The Dream: Oscar Wilde
If there is one figure who embodies brilliant, urbane English humor to me, it's Oscar Wilde. (Shut up, I know he was Irish.) For those of you who don't know, Wilde was a novelist, poet and playwright who lived from 1854 to 1900 and whose works include The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. But he's probably most known for one-liners like "What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Or "There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." He would have killed on Twitter back in the day.
"Either that dreadful 140 character limit goes, or I do."
This pick shouldn't be too surprising. After all, wouldn't Wilde have made an excellent vampire, and isn't Wilde the literary figure you'd most associate with David Bowie? I spent a lot of my early humor writing aspiring to that kind of comedy, adopting a heightened prose and elevated vocabulary while doing a lot to avoid easy Jewish humor, like ...
The Reality: 75 Percent of All Jewish Comics
This is difficult to explain and probably too hard to do so successfully online. I'm not dumping on Jewish humor. I'm proud of my Jewish identity, and the list of Jewish humorists I admire is far too long to mention, but just like with Billy Joel, sometimes there is a difference between what you admire and what you want to be.
I can't think of any clearer way to explain myself than referring to my Hate by Numbers video series. When it started, I was very aware that a Jew hating on things in a three-minute segment could be easily likened to Lewis Black's piece on The Daily Show. I love Lewis Black, but I didn't want to be him, so I decided to never scream or overly emote. And as opposed to Black's AC/DC theme music, I picked the jazz/cool stylings of Morphine to set a totally different tone. I also embraced the heightened vocabulary borne from years of worshiping Wilde and Cleese. The anger would be suppressed English sarcasm. The result was that I barely emoted for the first 20 episodes. I was so dead in the eyes, it looked like I'd been animated by Polar Express technology. And my tone was so subdued that EOC Jack O'Brien didn't think "hate" was an appropriate word to associate with the series.
And he was right at the time, but would I listen?
Over time, however, as the conflict above played out online, more and more of my personality emerged, until the show reached its high-water mark of market penetration as I hated on the Black Eyed Peas song "I Gotta Feeling." That episode was significant because it was the first time I acknowledged my Judaism in something creative and the first time I showed intense emotion in the show (even if it was feigned). Was that the reason for the episode's success? I don't know, but since then I've become more transparent in my humor, and while I might not be ready to publish the results of my prostate exam as my friend and fellow columnist John Cheese intends to do next week, an article like this leaves me pretty exposed as I sit in an increasingly comfortable chair located somewhere between the two archetypes above.
Was There a Point to This?
Yeah, I think so. Obviously, these examples are very specific to me. I get that. And I also appreciate that splitting my psyche open on the sharpened slate of the Internet has a limited appeal. But I do think there is a larger general point, and it's NOT "just be yourself."
While there are dangers in straying from what you do best or ignoring your true calling to forcibly insert yourself into some other mold, I think it has value, too. Neil Simon, the playwright and screenwriter famous for The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys and Murder by Death, said that he wanted to write his comedies like Eugene O'Neill wrote his dramas. In using one of the greatest dramatists as his source, Simon wrote some of the most well-regarded and successful comedies of his generation. I admire that commitment to going outside your comfort zone in the hope of being better than you are. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I think we can all agree that me gaying it up a la Bowie hand gestures for my '90s grunge band wasn't terribly successful.
Flamboyance and grunge don't mix. That's why you rarely see this.
But other times, I think the desire to escape what comes easiest has worked for me. And while I cannot seem to be my hero David Bowie in any capacity, I do continue to aspire to his belief that you should be able to present yourself, and in my case, my writing, in different ways. Reinventing what you do. Never being too comfortable as to any one thing. And to that end, next week I'll try to write a list about breasts or superhero erections or whatever else is nothing like this.
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For more from Gladstone, check out Was 'Arrested Development' A Remake of a 70s Sitcom? and Dr. Strange The Movie: Why It's Not as Crazy As It Sounds.