Growing up watching late night television, I missed most of Johnny Carson’s jokes. David Letterman was always my favorite. He was giddy and goofy, and I got it. His was also the first show I ever saw break form. From people hiding under his desk (an explanation of desk noise in response to a Viewer-Mail letter) to him barging into the next studio to ask someone a stupid question, Letterman was the first TV personality I saw feign spontaneity to create chaos. He was funny to me just making dumb faces and running stupid jokes into the ground. I loved it.
Today, viewers may regard Dave as a curmudgeon, reading a never-ending Top 10 List and rarely venturing from behind the desk. But back in the 80s, he was a master of remotes, audience interactions, and zany stunts. Head writer Merrill Markoe recently wrote me, ‘We set it up that we could use every part of the world if we could figure out how to get Dave to say yes to it. So the show took place in the studio, and in the hall outside, and in the rest of the building as needed, and the streets around the building and the rest of NYC as needed and even at home.’ It was controlled chaos as Dave would don a Velcro suit and trampoline onto a Velcro wall. Monkeys and Chris Elliot were allowed to roam all over the set.
The 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live and Letterman’s retirement have me thinking about coming up with comedy. Like any other form, it’s one you have to learn how to enjoy, what William Gibson (2012) calls a “steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve” (Distrust That Particular Flavor, pp. 58-59). What I find funny was largely defined by my growing up watching SNL and David Letterman.
Years ago, in a post-class discussion about progress, one of my classmates asked if things had gotten funnier. You know, things get stronger, faster, better, etc., he mused, so have jokes gotten funnier? The question stuck with me. I think my answer at the time was that it’s gotten more complicated to be funny. Not that jokes have gotten funnier, but that the funny ones have gotten more complex. My favorite jokes are the ones that cram entire worlds into epigrammatic phrases (e.g., Junior Stopka: “So, my niece is cheating on me…”). A quick comparison of say, a Bill Hicks bit with a Doug Stanhope bit, and you’ll see the difference I was talking about.
I’ve been rethinking that idea lately. As weird as his material was, Mitch Hedberg‘s jokes pivoted on a simplicity that cannot be faked. The funniest bits, sketches, shows, and movies rest on simple premises (e.g., Airplane, Super Troopers, Party Down, “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger,” “Debbie Downer,” etc.). Farts and throwing up are always funny to me. Dave’s dumb face still makes me laugh.
As my dear friend Alysia Wood says, “Funny is funny.”
If you think explaining jokes ruins them, then Oliver Double’s Getting the Joke (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) might not be for you. If you’re not into the craft of comedy, the “mechanics and mysteries” as Double puts it, this book also might not be for you. Not since Richard Belzer laid it all out in his 1988 book How to Be a Stand-Up Comic (Villard) has there been a more complete investigation (over 500-pages’ worth) of what’s funny and what makes it so.
I’ve discussed the sense and science of comedy with many comedians. Most don’t like to talk about the craft, so I’m glad when I find someone who does. Lucas Molandes and I have been comparing notes for years and can always pick up wherever we left off last. I’ve spent entire nights talking about it with Alysia Wood and Drake Witham. Others have stopped talking to me altogether as soon as the topic comes up. Learning how the engine works doesn’t make you a better driver.
David Letterman said this week that Johnny Carson’s last show was historic but that he didn’t think his own would be.
Speak for yourself, Dave… Speak for yourself.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).