I think a lot about why things are funny. In particular, I've been thinking lately about the difference between comedy and a mind-fuck. Is one legitimate craft and the other in bad faith? Is there a line between them that you shouldn't cross? Or is comedy an "anything goes" kind of performance art?
The example I keep coming back to is Andy Kaufman. Kaufman had an alter-ego character named "Tony Clifton". "Tony Clifton" was a sleazy lounge singer, and Kaufman often performed entire shows as Clifton. The ads promoted a show by Tony Clifton, your ticket said Tony Clifton, but everyone really knew they were coming to see Andy Kaufman. Kaufman wore prosthetics, and never broke character during the show. So far, so good...just an innovative kind of comedy, and everyone knew what the deal was.
But Andy Kaufman added another dimension to it. He took advantage of the anonymous nature of the prosthetics to occasionally have his writing partner Bob Zmuda perform the Tony Clifton shows without telling anyone. The only people that knew were Kaufman, Zmuda and Kaufman's manager. Even the owners of the clubs hosting the performances didn't know. Sometimes Kaufman sat in the audience in disguise. On one occasion Bob Zmuda even appeared as Tony Clifton on the Letterman show. Zmuda was basically playing Andy Kaufman playing Tony Clifton. The audiences had a reasonable expectation that they were paying to see Andy Kaufman, when in fact he wasn't there. Kaufman's response would probably be, "You're paying to see Tony Clifton, and you got him. You're not paying to see me."
I tell the Andy Kaufman story because it's a nice intro to what's keeping me up at night. Is it still comedy if you're not trying to be funny? I realize that you can be unintentionally funny, but that's not a performance, that's an accident. What I'm getting at is, can you be intentionally unintentionally funny? Let's say I'm a terrible singer and I want to perform a comedy bit about a terrible singer. I can do it two different ways. I can imitate a terrible singer or I can sincerely try to sing well, knowing that my sincere attempt will probably be funnier and ring truer than the imitation. It's likely to be emotionally crushing to go the sincere route, but the results are likely to be better too. And like the Andy Kaufman example, the audience will never know.
Does the sincere attempt at singing count as comedy, or is it debasing yourself for a laugh?
Was Andy Kaufman screwing the audience, or was he a daring performance artist?
Is there even a meaningful difference between the options in these two examples?
Does it matter that the audience will never know?
The world is falling apart, and yet this is the kind of thing that consumes my mental energy.