Since I'm writing about comedy as a thing and talking it up, there's a danger that I'm going to come off as arrogant or, at very least, so full of myself that I'm about to collapse into a singularity. And that's probably inevitable, so fine, call me a pretentious dweeb on Twitter: I'll smile and take it, and you can take comfort in the fact that you aren't entirely wrong. I'll be plenty happy that you took the time to read my silly ideas.
I got into this business by spending most of the years of my life on the outside, looking in and joke wizards crafting their laugh-incantations. Whether it was Patton Oswalt or George Carlin or, in the early days, my dad, I was always utterly mystified and completely impressed by this weird power the right turn of phrase had over me and everyone else. So let me take this chance to tell you why I think making people laugh, whether on a stage or on the internet or in your crappy studio apartment, is just the best, you guys. Just the best.
Because it's the most metal shit you have ever fucking seen. Devil horns! You see ...
"Serious" Stories Control You
To set the stage a bit, I want to point out a weird trend in movies that win the best picture Oscar: First off, there are like no comedies -- but more importantly they all glorify suffering. It's a simple pattern: First, they beat the shit out of the hero, then he triumphs and restores the world to being more-or-less the one we're familiar with, and then we bathe him in our sticky love. For example: war movies show young men sent to die to "protect our way of life." Romances like Titanic, Casablanca, or Gone With the Wind end the relationship in tragedy. Historical dramas like Schindler's List or Dances With Wolves dwell on terrible injustices that (and this is important) aren't happening anymore.
Remember, this is popular entertainment, so the movie hero is meant to be aspirational. Even if we don't literally make an action figure out of him, we're still meant to -- a little bit -- take cues about our values from him. So what cues are we taking?
First, that suffering is noble, and second, that the status quo is great. Our heroes are, across the board, people who suffer and die in the name of keeping things exactly how they are: Jack from Titanic sacrifices his life for his wealthy girlfriend. Frodo from Lord of the Rings sacrifices his innocence, sanity and (sorta) life (it's vague) to protect the Shire. You might argue that Dunbar in Dances With Wolves is trying to stop American westward expansion, which is a criticism of the modern world as we know it, but no one dared to give that movie an award until any hope of stopping the genocide of Native Americans had been dead for over a generation. The message of Dances With Wolves is "this bad thing happened, and now it's safe to feel guilty because there's nothing any of us can do." If the movie had been about a violent revolution on a modern-day reservation, the Academy wouldn't have even noticed.
Even The Hurt Locker ends with the hero going back to war, giving up on himself and surrendering to his addiction to war and adrenaline. I admit that I haven't seen every single movie on that list, and there might be a couple outliers that the commenters will point out, but I've seen most of these, and every single one is about people nobly suffering to keep things exactly how they are. That's the story we're supposed to think is honest, important, and serious. I'm not saying that these types of movies are bad in any way (I'm a huge fan of every movie listed so far) but isn't it weird that this is the only moral we like to give awards to?
Think about what that message means for poor kids growing up in a ghetto, or women who get harassed over literally whatever they happen to be doing that day, or the impressionable teenager being sent to fight for a morally ambiguous war, or gay kids getting beaten to death in the street. "Your suffering is noble," the movies say. "Suffering means you're respectable," the insulated, multi-billion-dollar international industry says. "Being in pain means you're important. You're making this country great. Thanks for that. I'm going to enjoy an old fashioned and watch Pacific Rim on Blu-ray," says the single most far-reaching and powerful propaganda tool that has ever existed in human history.
Oh, and about the lack of comedies on that list ..."
Comedy Sticks It to the Man
I'm not saying that good comedy goes against the zeitgeist, or that I prefer comedy that is anarchistic or whatever. I'm saying that in order for comedy to be funny and entertaining, it needs to be poking fun at something more powerful than the person delivering the comedy.
Think about the difference between watching a bully pummel some scrawny little dipshit and that dipshit surprising the bully with a jab to the throat. The former is a tragedy, the latter is a popular genre of YouTube video. We like to see the underdog win and, ideally, we don't want anyone to get hurt. This is why so many comedians talk about what useless pieces of shit they are on stage: the more people who are better than them, the more stuff they have to make fun of. That's why it's dumb to make jokes at the expense of the homeless: they don't have power over anyone.
This is part of why it's so profoundly stupid for someone to say, "How come X gets to tell that joke, but I don't?" Because comedy, jackass. The place the joke is coming from is part of the joke. That's not fair, but hey: would you rather your jokes be fair or funny? Sorry, that's a rhetorical question, because no one cares about your answer. They just wanna know if you can make them laugh.
Comedy Reveals You to You
"But wait!" you cry deliriously, slamming your hands against your monitor, tears running down your face like a river through the Rocky Mountains (your face is the western half of the United States). "I think jokes about homeless people are hilarious!" Don't worry. I do too. But something consistent about people who make jokes about the homeless is that they regularly have to deal with them: maybe they obstruct their commute to work. Maybe they get freaked out when they see a homeless dude on the metro. Whatever it is, it's a situation where the person laughing feels like the homeless person has power over them, because we tend to not be all that good at telling when we actually have power in a situation.
See, we don't have science that understands why jokes work, and I think part of the reason why is because there are too many variables: who's talking, what they're saying, to whom, when, how everyone is feeling, and what's going on in the world at that moment all play a big role. So when you laugh at something that no one else laughed at, that limits the variables -- you may have just gotten a glimpse into your own weird little brain. So when you say "oh, relax, it's just a joke," you're casually dismissing something that has baffled the greatest scientific minds to have ever existed. You're staring down the ineffable abyss and saying "meh." Do you really wanna be that guy? Really?
And this is where we start to burn civilization as you know it to the ground with a string of well timed farts and pratfalls, because...
Comedy Gives a Voice to the Voiceless
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the fart scene from Blazing Saddles:
Watch it. Watch the whole goddamn thing. Take it all in. It's a part of you now, forever. Most people wouldn't defend this as an exemplary piece of groundbreaking social comedy, but most people aren't writer-director Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is, though, and this is what he said:
Farts are a repressed minority. The mouth gets to say all kinds of things, but the other place is supposed to keep quiet. But maybe our lower colons have something interesting to say. Maybe we should listen to them. Farts are human, more human than a lot of people I know. ... Shakespeare said, "Hold a mirror up to life." I held mine a little behind and below.
Comparing farts to repressed minorities seems a bit offensive, so do you think Brooks -- a Jew who fought in World War II -- is fucking with us? He definitely is, but he's not "just" fucking with us, because his weird fucking point is also really fucking true. Farts, like poverty and systemic repression, are something everyone deals with but nobody wants to talk about, and farts are the classic source of comedy. Even Louis C.K. agrees. Fart jokes are about paying attention to something you've been trained by polite society to ignore, and goddamn if that isn't a great definition of "social justice."
Go back further, to Medieval and Tudor times, and you'll see the court jester -- a man whose job it was to debase himself while mocking everybody. No matter how poor and shitty you were or how rich and powerful, the "fool" was still allowed to mock you because he was below everyone else. That's the power of humor: not everybody can make jokes, but anyone can be joked. So the most notable voices are the ones that otherwise aren't being heard.
Comedy Feels Like Light Entertainment (Even When It's Not)
My favorite thing about comedy is how easy it is to sneak something meaningful in there without your audience even getting it. No, I'm not talking about George Carlin ranting on stage, even though that's genius, because nobody was confused about what he was doing. I'm talking about a comedy buckshot that shatters your entire worldview without you even realizing it.
The best example of this is the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy, also known as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End. They're three of my favorite movies, inarguably the best directed comedies released in the past decade at least, and also some of the most secretly depressing stories ever committed to celluloid. And I mean crushingly depressing.
Take Shaun of the Dead: when we meet Shaun, we immediately learn that he's a lazy loser who doesn't want to go anywhere with his life. But after zombies invade London, he pulls himself together in an attempt to survive and ... oh, he ends the movie still a lazy loser with no aspirations. Also, he gets most of his friends killed by insisting that they go to a bar and protect themselves, which is the dumbest way to try to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Hot Fuzz is the same, but a bit more subtle: Nicholas Angel is a strict, by-the-book cop, and by the end of the movie he's still that, only now he believes in wanton violence. He frees the town of Sandford from the oppressive and Illuminati-esque Neighborhood Watch Alliance, but he replaces it with his own hybrid of fascism and action-movie machismo.
The World's End is by far the most depressing: Gary King is an alcoholic, and after the world ends he gives up the drink, yes, but none of the things that made him an alcoholic: he becomes a drifter, leading an army of robot-clones of his childhood friends and fighting people. He isn't able to come to terms with himself and be happy unless the entire world crumbles around him.
All of those movies have the same message: if you don't address your own flaws, illnesses, and insecurities, you will hurt the people closest to you on an increasingly large scale. That's a tough moral, generally a bitter pill to swallow. But we get to leave the theater chuckling to ourselves, because Simon Pegg tripped over a fence again.
Comedy Can't Be Stopped
Memes are the most important medium right now. Part of me wants to pick a more sophisticated medium, like the listicle or the three-minute montage-sketch, and say that's the most important way to communicate information, but we all know that isn't true. Most people get their news on social media. Which means the best way to get a story out there is to make it as shareable as possible. And shareable is all a meme is. Well ... not all. They're also funny.
Yes, I know some serious stuff does go viral. Kony, for example, or bullying stories, or Kim Kardashian's butt. But you know what immediately happened to all those?
Jokes, man. Jokes happened to them. Because jokes rule the world. Even more than Hollywood. Even more than religion. Even more than money.
Which is exactly why we can't take them seriously. We don't dare.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Important Milestones of Maturity That Nobody Talks About. And then check out Texts from Last Night (From Famous Fictional Characters).