March 30, 2009KR BlogKR

The Comic Imagination, Part 2

Joseph Tartakovsky’s op-ed piece, “Pun for the Ages,” briefly floated to the top of the NY Times’ most-e-mailed list a couple of days ago. Here’s the highlight:

Jean Harlow, the platinum-blond star of the 1930s, on being introduced to Lady Margot Asquith, mispronounced her given name to rhyme with “rot.” “My dear, the ‘t’ is silent,” said Asquith, “as in Harlow.”

That seems nearly as good as Dorothy Parker‘s famous answer upon being asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”

Dorothy Parker at 50

And it leads me back to last week’s panel on “The Comic Imagination” at the Philoctetes Center. The panelists — Lewis Black, Jim Holt, Bruce McCall, and Tami Sagher — discussed a variety of topics, including why the discussion itself was so difficult. (As Saul Steinberg puts it, “Trying to define humor is one of the definitions of humor.”) Early in the conversation (around the 18:50 mark), Black said, “What laughter’s based on is tension release. It’s the release of tension, quite simply. . . . That’s what a comic does in a room: he raises the tension and then pulls the string.” (When it was suggested that Black’s ideas on laughter sounded a lot like Freud’s, he laughed off the comparison. “I’ve completely dismissed Freud. He did way too much blow for me to pay attention.”)

During the Q & A session that followed, a woman asked (at the 125:30 mark) about the link between humor and intelligence. Referring to a friend, the woman said, “She would rather be with a man who has a great sense of humor because it’s a foregone conclusion that he would be intelligent because they’re so intrinsically linked, rather than a man who’s intelligent because he then might not necessarily have a sense of humor.”

McCall responded, “We all belong to Mensa.”

And Holt followed: “Mensa was defined as an organization for people who are extremely smart but not smart enough not to join Mensa.”

Other topics of conversation included 9/11, the letter “k,” Obama, and the Dutch.

Three questions I didn’t ask the panelists:

(1) Who are your comic influences? I know it’s a much-asked question, but I’d like to know the reasons, not just the names. Here’s Bruce McCall on Nabokov:

He claimed to be Russian. There is no absolute proof that he was not an alien in disguise, sent from some higher civilization to tease us about our dull-witted grasp of truth and illusion and time and space, while flashing little hints that things in life and this world are never what they seem. And he also wrote Lolita.

That’s a pretty good reason.

(2) Can comedy be taught? It’s the same question I get asked about poetry. Certain strategies can be taught, I guess. In a 1955 letter to his mother, John Berryman wrote,

The two great things [in all writing] are to be clear and short; but rhythms matter too, and unexpectedness. You lead the reader briskly in one direction, then you spin him round, or you sing him a lullaby and then hit him on the head.

(3) Wallace Stevens is a great poet by any measure. But place him at a table with Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams, and he’s not unarguably the best of the bunch. (Probably, but not unarguably.) But in the offices of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company? Wow! Imagine finding “The Emperor of Ice Cream” scrawled on a pad that also contains notes concerning legal liability and increased premiums. Context is important. Thus my nervousness at comedy clubs, where the comedians are supposed to be funny. What if they’re not? Whereas if I’m getting my brake fluid changed and the mechanic says something droll, I’m beaming for the rest of the day. It’s the surprise that wins me over. So, as comedy professionals — as writers, as performers — how much do you worry about that kind of response?


Seriously, click here: John Berryman.