I should probably be ashamed to admit this, but I consider myself a sort of connoisseur of comedy shows. I have sampled many sitcoms over the years, I have even dabbled in some reality television and taken in some dramas, but it is the comedy that fascinates me the most by far. To further explain this, I think it is because I consider the creation of comedy to be a bigger intellectual challenge than the creation of drama. When I was in college, I found that serious, provocative writing flowed far more naturally than comedic pieces. Serious, dramatic writing depended on the how comprehensively I could communicate whereas comedy depended on timing, on succinct wit and perfectly fashioned delivery. I found it more challenging to make people laugh than cry, as heartstrings are far more accessible and universal than funny bones, which are individual and sometimes more choosy beasts. If you are doubtful of this, then consider how many times you’ve laughed during this painful expository paragraph and how many times you chuckled during my “The Ten Most Annoying Facebook Habits” blog. Point made.
Comedy is Recognizable
Think about the funniest show on television right now. I won’t provoke disagreement by offering my choice favorites, but chances are no matter what you like, the show at some point pokes fun at something you have seen. Holding up a mocking mirror to what we have all accepted is a standard comedic device that has a less-exciting (except for me) literary name I will not divulge lest you fall asleep before the end of my blog. But it’s true, a comedy show has to usher me in using the same method an insecure person does to maximize friendship: keep returning to inside jokes. Make fun of things in culture, things that everyone experiences. Bathroom humor, the base of all humor, is funny because it is universal, from which no one is exempt. That is why the American version of The Office has me roaring whereas its Brit counterpart makes me just a little uncomfortable: because I wasn’t there.
Recognition isn’t enough, otherwise reality television shows where no one is dramatic or ridiculous would be hits. In other words, no one would bang on a table during The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Comedy has to caricaturize; embellish recognizable traits until we have extreme, unrealistic versions of our friends and neighbors. Not every character on the show has to be extreme, but at least one does, in order for us to laugh and to have a standard by which to compare their zaniness. Steve Urkel is a perfect example, as is Kramer on Seinfeld, or Kimmy Gibbler on Full House, or Dwight Shrute on The Office. But there is one think that every caricature needs in order to have the ultimate humorous effect: they have to think they’re completely normal. It’s a delicate balance too, because if all of your characters are extreme, you no longer have a standard of measurement and suddenly none of them are funny, they’re just stupid. That, my friends, is called Reality Television.
Comedy Happens Fast
The funniest things in life are spontaneous, quick and unrehearsed. If a comedy show can appear that way after weeks of rewrites and scripting, it’s made of gold. There is little more painful than a labored joke, and we all know that it’s true. I’ve often wanted to rescue people from telling stories that aren’t funny, and television networks have a way of doing this with comedy shows: cancellation. I do not remember who told me that the ingredients of humor are wit and delivery. Some have one, some have the other, and some have both. There are people who say hilarious things, and people who say ordinary things in hilarious ways. To possess both is rare, but you know when you’ve encountered it. Bow in its presence.
I hope you enjoy comedy with a newfound respect for the difficult balance it strikes, and recognize when it has been struck well. Dramas are a dime a dozen if you ask me, all you need is a hospital, some music, and smoldering glances. But a comedy? Now that is a masterpiece.