Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Truth In Comedy

With all due respect to Del Close's classic improvisation manual by the same title as this post, my Conference on World Affairs panel Tuesday -- "Cringe Humor From Shakespeare to Family Guy" -- was a true joy to be a part of.

The panelists were comedian/writer Julia Sweeney, perhaps best known as androgynous "Pat" on Saturday Night Live a while back; Tina Packer, head of the "Shakespeare & Company" conservatory up in Massachusetts; and Tom Shadyac, director of many of Jim Carrey's biggest movies -- Ace Ventura, Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, etc.  And then there's me who's done a few stand-up gigs and improv shows. Woah!!

However, it turned into an amazing free-form discussion. The moderator asked at the beginning of what we thought "cringe humor" was and its place in society. But from that starting point, Julia talked about how she's less drawn to cringe/sophomoric humor than she was when younger -- yet still found herself laughing herself silly watching Bruno after being given a promotional DVD; Tina went into the dark humor found in Hamlet and Macbeth -- and the truly appalling cannibalistic lines in Titus and Andronicus. Tom discussed what he thought of humor as being a healing factor in society -- to help throw people back into the non-thinking innocence of youth. Rather than assessing the "bodily functions" sort of cringe humor, I chose to talk about some of the political jokes I've made that have caused audiences to gasp or squirm noticeably.

My favorite recent anecdote involved a joke about Robert Byrd that I delivered at the Broadway Comedy Club.  First part of joke  goes that Byrd fainted at Obama inaugural reception (fact) because as a young man, the former KKK member said, "I'll die if a black man ever becomes president." However, since Obama's half-white, Byrd only fainted and recovered.  Second part of joke: "Problem started back in January '08 when Roland Burriss was appointed to Obama's old Senate seat. Harry Reid said he wouldn't allow the Blagojevich-tainted Burris to be seated. He vowed to Byrd that Burris wouldn't be allowed in. He changed his mind and reneged on his vow to Byrd.  And there's nothing Byrd hates more than a 're-negger.' (Say it out loud).

When I told this joke at the comedy club, one of the promoters there complimented me on my material, but said he didn't like comics to use the "N-word." I tried to explain to him that I didn't use that word, but a pun on the word. He didn't see the difference. Apparently, the closeness of the  word struck his "cringe" button.

Our series of opening remarks launched a real colloquy between the four of us where the conversation went into philosophical areas of the nature of humor, the nature of language, should there be any real "bad words" of which we are afraid.  Julia said that we shouldn't be afraid to say "nigger" (and used the word).  I also mentioned the "C-word"  -- and Julia promptly vocalized it! But the flavor was very open, the humor flowed like fine wine.  We laughed at ourselves, the audience laughed too, several asked good questions about where to draw appropriate "lines" and whether Stephen Colbert is a better humorist -- and has more freedom --  because he has created this persona called "Stephen Colbert."

All told this was a great experience -- intellectually and emotionally satisfying while also being an entertaining event in which I was both participant and observer, teacher and student.   It will be tough to top this as my favorite panel for this year's CWA.  

Then again, there are three days to go.


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