THINKING COMEDY: 2. SETH ROGEN

In the second of our new series Thinking Comedy, film comedian Seth Rogen ruminates on the benefits of analysis on his Comic Art.

Many comedians believe that over-thinking comedy can be the death of a joke, that to think (in the words of Keats) is ‘to be full of sorrow’, and so they avoid any kind of analysis at all, preferring to work on instinct and adrenalin.

Andrew ‘Dice-man’ Clay at his height eschewed comic theory and Eddie Murphy in the Raw years likewise boasted of his unschooled approach to the comedy scene. 

However, I’ve always been a comic who has taken succor and encouragement from the intellectual and philosophical approach to my art. When I was making Funny People with Adam Sandler, Adam and I would sit for hours discussing Freud’s 1905 masterpiece Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. By the way, if you are going to read it I would advise you read the original German Der Witz und Seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten. As with most humor, too much is lost in translation. 


Sandler is a supremely rational comic. It isn’t enough that he is funny; he has to know why he is funny. This is what makes him so similar to the British comedian Ricky Gervais, the man we all look up to as the true intellectual heir of Benny Hill’s comedy crown. 


For my own part, for a joke simply to be funny isn’t enough. It has to say something and it has to say something that is coherent with my political and ethical outlook on life. For instance, some people have seen a consistent strain of misogyny in my comedy, especially in Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Knocked Up. Other people give me the benefit of the doubt and think of me as a lovable doped up man child but the truth is I do hate and fear women and those films are deliberate expressions of my anxiety. I mask my very real and sometimes frightening hatred in an easy-going laid-back style, but this makes it all the more pernicious and effective. Some of you no doubt are thinking: ‘Ah ha! Intellectual coherence, analyzing comedy? But what about Green Hornet?’ Well, to that I’m afraid I only have two words: Cash Grab.

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THINKING COMEDY: 1. JACK BLACK

In the first of our new series Thinking Comedy, film comedian Jack Black ruminates on the philosophical underpinnings of his Comic Art.

It was the French philosopher Henri Bergson who first tried to formulate a coherent philosophy on comedy and what makes us laugh. In his 1924 book Le Rire: Essai Sur La Signification du Comique (and by the way if you can, read it in the original French as the translations available are merely adequate), Bergson refers to laughter causing a ‘temporary anesthesia of the heart’, and it was precisely this idea that I have used in my career up to and including my triumphal Gulliver’s Travels.

The idea that laughter is cruel and unfeeling has a long history. Laughter is often, in writings, equated with ridicule and scorn. For us to laugh at a victim, we have to feel nothing for them. But even characters, clowns, people who we feel some empathy for, even these characters only become comic, truly comic when we suspend our feelings and indulge in the elation laughing at someone brings, what Hobbes in Leviathan referred to as the ‘Sudden Glory’ of our superiority in relation to the object of our laughter. So Po in Kung Fu Panda might be a figure of love-able sympathy for the most part, but for comic sequences there is a cartoonish allowance that although he is being hurt, he is not being really hurt so that we can suspend our empathy and simply enjoy his misfortune. Likewise Nacho and Steve in Nacho Libre are both like-able characters, but the moment they step into the ring we understand that the bets are off and we can giggle and hoot as they are viciously beaten up. 

My own off-screen persona as a kind of wild zany is a meticulously rehearsed construct. My wild eyes, my eyebrows, my incessant face pulling, my obesity: everything is designed at once to provoke a like-able sympathy (I know this isn’t always forthcoming but oh well…) and also to give the audience the Hobbsian Sudden Glory they so obviously crave. This is the frame that prepares everyone for my film or musical performances, but within that frame I can vary my performances greatly. Look at Dewy Finn in The School of Rock for instance, in which I play an anarchic Holy Fool, fighting against an overly rigorous educational system.   

However, what I would like to do is emphasize the flip-side of the Bergosonian equation. It is a ‘temporary [my italics] anesthesia’, and it is this temporariness which is important and which lends comedy its emotional depth as we shift from not feeling to feeling and back again. That’s why in everything I do, from Orange County to Tenacious D, yes I am looking for the laugh, but I’m also probing the heart. 

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THINKING COMEDY: ADAM SANDLER

In the fifth of our series Thinking Comedy, film comedian Adam Sandler talks about the relationship between comedy and pain.
I think that all comedy comes from pain. It has to. I know mine does. And for it to be really funny, the pain has to belong to someone else.
This is what is called the superiority theory of humor. It appears everywhere, in the Bible, Shakespeare (think of Malvolio in Twelth Night) but it was first conceptualized by Thomas Hobbes in his masterpiece Leviathan. In this treatise on almost everything, Hobbes remarks that laughter is a sign of Sudden Glory, when we recognize our safety and strength over another. We glory in it. The suddenness is what makes this particularly funny. It is unexpected and the surprise makes us laugh before we realize what we are doing.
Look at when I slap David Hasselhoff in Click. It’s unexpected, funny and we revel in our superiority. The fact that David plays my asshole boss makes the glory all the more glorious.
In all my films I am careful to portray myself as an ordinary Joe, but one who is revealed throughout the film to be superior to the despicable caricatures I surround myself with. Guy Pearce played that role very well in Bedtime Stories for instance. My humor is quite deliberately ungenerous. It could all be summed up by Nelson’s laugh in The Simpsons, because that’s what it is the laughter of the bully. That’s what I am in Happy Gilmore, Little Daddy and Grown Ups. But I’m in good company.  There’s a scene in Paradise Lost by John Milton when Jesus and God are watching the rebel angel army led by Satan approach the walls of heaven. ‘Let’s retreat,’ says God. ‘There are so many.’ But Jesus knows his dad is just taking the piss and has a hearty laugh. And if you want to know what it sounds like, it probably wasn’t a million miles away from Nelson’s laugh.

Sudden Glory bitches!

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THINKING COMEDY: JERRY SEINFELD

In the fourth of our series Thinking Comedy, film comedian Jerry Seinfeld talks about the importance of ‘observation’.
People often say to me: what is the secret of your comedy Jerry? If you could put it in one word, what would it be? And I have to tell them, if I have to tell them in one word, that the word I would tell them with would be ‘Observation’.

That’s right. I do Observational Comedy. But what does that really mean?

Well, let me try and explain. You see what I do is I look at things around me, I ‘observe’ them if you will, and I try to notice things that are funny. Things that are comic.
Sounds easy, right? Not too hard? Unfortunately, there’s a catch.
You see there are lots of things which are funny that I can’t use. For instance the other day I was watching a Louis CK DVD. And I was cracking up and I could see loads of material. I opened my computer and began writing. I’d observed everything and so I was able to write it down almost word for word. Then my wife read it over my shoulder and said, ‘You can’t do that!’ And I realized, drat and darn it, I can’t. You see even though I’d observed it and even though it was funny, the funny things actually belonged to Louis, and, unless you’re Denis Leary, comedians don’t steal other comedians’ acts. It’s a law.
So there are limits.
Here’s another one. I was driving (and no I wasn’t in a car with another comedian getting coffee, ha ha, yeah, ’cause you thought… well  anyway…). Okay I was driving and a police officer pulled me over because one of my lights was faulty. And I noticed that the police man seemed really young. And I thought that’s funny. And started scribbling down ideas. But the problem here is that everyone notices after a certain age that the police seem young. It’s because we get old. So the thought is what we call a ‘cliche’ and unfortunately it’s useless as comedy.
However, we can now see how to make a decent piece of observational comedy. First, observe something. Then check it isn’t already a comedy film, or a stand up act, or a comedy song, or something comic. Then check it isn’t a cliche or a truism, or something everybody already knows. Then check it’s funny (perhaps the hardest part). Now you’re ready for your microphone, an adoring public and beach mansions in Malibu. Have you ever noticed how you’re never sure whether or not there’s milk in the house? Ha ha. Yeah? See? Okay, that’s all I’ve got.

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