The Thinking 

The Power of Comedians

January 29, 2013


IN THIS previous entry, Sage McLaughlin analyses the subversive influence of all those funny, clever, sarcastic people on television.

“Sometimes humor can be crafted in the service of objective truths…,” he writes.  “Just as often it is made in the service of lies.”

— Comments —

Kevin M. writes:

Sage McLaughlin writes:

“Sometimes humor can be crafted in the service of objective truths, of course.  Just as often it is made in the service of lies.”

Mr. McLaughlin has made a very interesting statement here. And, as someone who has had a semi-professional interest in the study of comedy, I have to tell you he has conflated “objective truth” with “opinion.”

I have on my bookshelf eight books on the practice and theory of comedy (the other seventy books I have long parted with). One of them is called The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus. It is superb. Chapter One is titled, “Comedy is Truth and Pain.” Without an agreement on truth between the comedian and the audience, laughs cannot take place. Robert DeNiro, playing Al Capone in the film, The Untouchables, said (it was his opening line): “It’s touching really. We laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true.” It was the brilliant playwright David Mamet that penned those words.

There is absolutely a bond between what we think is funny and what we believe to be true. (Note that: What we believe to be true.)

There are two parts of a joke. The setup and the payoff. The payoff is often called the punchline. If you tell a joke and the punchline addresses a premise which your audience does not believe to be true, they will not laugh. If your audience are conservatives and the punchline states that big government is the only sane government, you will not get a laugh. If your punchline says big government is the product of childish and silly minds, they will howl. But that is subjective, not objective.

Now, if you (my present readership) will allow me some rope to run and not condemn me for tangential departures from traditionalism, Catholicism or other characteristics of The Thinking Housewife site, this is how you make people laugh.

You gauge your audience. You estimate their values, their beliefs and their opinions. Once you have done that, you reverse-engineer those opinions and values into jokes, gags and other comedic strategies. If your audience believes that people of Polish descent are dumb, that Italian men cannot keep their pants on, that African-Americans are lazy, that blonds are stupid, that Jews are parsimonious money-grabbers, that young boys are incapable of obeying the speed limit, that all girls are silly, that Democrats are all corrupt, that Republicans are devoted to (fill in the blank), that Korean cars are worthless, that computers are all obsolete six months after purchase…anything, then you can make that audience laugh, provided you arrive at that premise — that truth — via an obtuse route. You must make them see that “truth” without them knowing you’re taking them there.

Never telegraph your punches.

The laughter of all jokes comes from the implicit agreement of truth between the comic and his audience.

There was a female comic named Elaine Boosler (back in the 1980s) who, in conversation with Alan King on an interview show called “Inside the Comedy Mind,” said that wherever she traveled, she took a whole day to recon the environment. When she went to do stand-up in Utah, she first learned how Mormons view relationships. By evening, when she had to go onstage, she knew what would make a Mormon laugh, because she knew what they believed to be true and valuable.

What the comic thinks is funny is immaterial. What the audience believes to be true is the very architecture of comedy.

Mr. McLaughlin’s comment is, in my opinion, 99.99% pure gold. I am merely remarking on the mechanics of comedy as regarding what people find “funny.”

Laura writes:


However, I don’t think Mr. McLaughlin conflated truth and opinion. His point was that sometimes comedy is objectively true (regardless of what the audience believes to be true) and sometimes it is false (even though people may find it funny because they believe it to be true.)

Daniel S. writes:

The Greek philosopher Plato suggested that he would see the popular poets of his day expelled from the the virtuous city-state, as they were a source of lies, misguidance, and immorality among the ignorant people. I would suggest that a similar role is played in modern Western societies by popular entertainers and comedians, who often trivialize and mock the lofty and the good and encourage immorality and vice, among other evils. If ever Western civilization is restored to some sort of health it would be right and just for these buffoons and hacks be prevented from having any sort of influence in society. (I suspect it is already a matter of time before I am denounced as a neo-Nazi totalitarian for my Platonic position, but so be it.)

Hannon writes:

Sage McLaughlin’s comments about mainstream American comedy are inspiring. From the insight that comedians are politically restricted to demonizing a stereotyped “right wing” of society comes the realization that the audience is more enthralled by this tactic than by any conscious, principled embrace of leftist ideology. This means they can, in theory, abandon those views with comparative ease. That is a very satisfying notion. Could this be true also for the popular culture in general– entertainment, print media, corporate policy?

It would be great to see comedians make jabs at progressive ideas and personalities, but what’s funny about liberalism?

Laura writes:

‘What’s funny about liberalism?”

Great question.

Communism wasn’t funny. Nazism wasn’t funny. And advanced liberalism isn’t funny either.

It’s not that liberalism isn’t full of ridiculous absurdities. It’s just that the wholesale destruction of society doesn’t make one feel like laughing.

Alex writes:

“Communism wasn’t funny.” I beg to differ Communism gave rise to a great number of jokes in the whole Eastern Block. Here is an article if you want to know more.

P.S. – I am Romanian so I’m well aquainted with them.

Laura writes:

I stand corrected.

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