Monday, November 10, 2008


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.

19 metawords:

Dr Zibbs said...

That's a great question but I don't have the answer. Try prayer. I do think Kaufman could be brilliant though. If you haven't read his bio, it's really interesting. On a side note, I love dry, dry comedy that to some, isn't funny because it's so dry. Look at Colbert as Noblet in Strangers With Candy. He played most of that role so straight that it's hysterical. Waiting for Guffman is another that's brilliant in that way.

Red said...

This is really confusing and I don't get it.

Kidding! I don't know what the answer is either, but it's an interesting question to ponder.

Falwless said...

My mind just blew up.

Falwless said...


Poobomber said...

It's simple. Whatever brings in a laugh, whatever you're willing to do. Whatever people will put up with.

Are there ethics in comedy? No, never. You're always laughing at someone's expense, even if it's your own.

Comedy is subtle or brutal, most of the time in between. The people that go to either extreme are the ones that 'make it', then the amount of their success is determined by which people are being laughed at after that.

Now that I'm done being serious, I'm going to put my junk in a stapler and see if I can make myself laugh.

Some Guy said...

I agree with Poobomber. A laugh is a laugh. For me, intent is irrelevant. I can appreciate both intentional and accidental comedy. One thing that I don't think ever works, though, is scripted laughter. It never looks real. Genuine laughter must be spontaneous and can't be faked.

mike said...

You can absolutely be intenionally unintenionally funny. That is the whole premise behind most of reality TV (shows like the Osbournes, Flavor of Love, etc) The people on the shows are not necessarily TRYING to be funny, but people tune in to laugh at them. Whoever makes these shows is intentionally creating unintentional humor.

Gwen said...

Poobomber: I can tell you that I laughed! How did it turn out for you?

Whatever it is, it has to be genuine.

ÄsK AliCë said...

My brain is with Falwless'

~E said...

Tell the truth...were you compelled to write this post because of my unnatural attraction to Dane Cook?


...(looks to see if anyone is watching)

aka. Hotty McGorgeous.

BeckEye said...

You're sucking all the funny out of everything with this post. Nice job.

words words words said...

I've made people's heads explode and sucked the fun out of everything. My work here is done!

180/360 said...

Well, I'm late to the show as usual, but I have to agree with Poobomber. I think Kaufman was genius in mocking his own characters. I also think he was totally nuts! But yes- I think cleverness is often funny, even when it's not laugh out loud hilarious.

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Well...if you wanted to go with the "mind fuck" approach, I think you've got it down pat.

*going back to re-read the post and try to make it make more sense*

Dr Zibbs said...

I just thought of this. Being in Hollywood but from the Philly area, do you happen to know Paul F Tompkins, Chucj Nice or John Matta? I used to do stand up with all three of those guys in Philly.

SouthernBelle said...


Also, check out my blog today.

: )

words words words said...

"Guh?" seems to be the consensus answer to this entry. Doh!

It reminds me of when I go home for Christmas and my mother and I inevitably get into a philosophical discussion. We go around and around and then after a while she says I give her headaches and pours herself a glass of wine. I don't know if that makes me really smart or really bad at expressing myself.

~E said...

I see that you haven't posted in 4 days. That could mean one of two things.

1) you are too busy writing up something awesome for your debut as a guest star on my blog.

2) im screwed.

either way, its all on your shoulders now buddy! make me proud.

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