The following is an essay exploring comedy that seeks complexity through layers in being referential, self-referential, and even reflexive to the point that it’s calling into the question the very form that comedy can be presented. Yes, this will be incredibly pretentious. Is saying that up front going too far? Is this too confusing?
What you just read was my attempt (possibly a paltry one) at meta humor, technically made even more meta in that I’m referencing this very article, which, as a concept, has sparked a great debate in the comedy community. While comedy of the “blue collar” persuasion can be infuriating, the other side of the spectrum can be just as agitating and even confusing, with referential humor that depends on several factors, including prior knowledge of what’s being referenced. It’s buying into the idea that what’s being presented is indeed a joke without being taken out of the reality of what’s being watched or heard, or even just going with it, despite having no clue of what’s going on or why it’s supposed to be funny.
Knowing The Source Material
Last week, Jim Carrey posted a video that “declared” his love for Emma Stone, which, in and of itself, was funny, despite some people not being able to let go of figuring out whether Carrey was kidding or not, causing him to take it down. A day later, Chris Hardwick himself posted a parody of Carrey’s love confession, which took the premise to even more ridiculous heights as Chris adds, “I will never shit on your feet.” Being aware of Carrey’s video makes Hardwick’s parody funny. But how much farther can this idea be taken comedically before it’s no longer funny — how many more layers of meta before the comedy’s gone?
When an act of comedy takes on a form that utilizes surprise, walking the line of an audience’s perceptions and expectations, many of those people quickly get to a point where they want to know if this is all a hoax in good fun. Tim & Eric are a divisive example, as many detractors say of their comedy, quite succinctly, “It’s really weird.” Very little of what Tim & Eric do could be understood in the strict form of a joke, bit, sketch, etc., yet they have found a loyal following that buys into whatever they do and laughs heartily. Their humor relies largely on the nuanced layers of performance and sheer abstraction (i.e. doing something weird, staying in that reality of being “weird”, and not addressing “the why” of the weirdness). While they have their fans, as mentioned before, they have plenty of people that hate them.
Interestingly enough, many crowds that sat in on a performance of Andy Kaufman felt the same way. Angered and confused, they would stare captive to their own curiosity as to exactly what the hell Kaufman was doing. While it’s been well documented that Kaufman has had performances that had little to no laughter, watching Kaufman essentially prank the audience is genuinely entertaining and funny. At that point, you’re in on that there’s supposed to be a joke, but not subject to the awkwardness that fills the entire room watching it live.
Making Fun Of Making Fun Of Making Fun
In short, the humor is a degree removed from its original inception. Hey-o! (I’m sorry, those responsible for that mishap have been sacked). Along those lines, Hardwick’s parody could be considered humor two degrees removed or described as a “joke within the joke within the joke”. Personally, I think one more level/degree is that all a comedic premise can support (a joke within a joke within a joke within a joke.) Scott Gairdner struck that note as he made a sketch, “Clip Cup”, which makes fun of clip shows, which make fun of other shows/online clips, which, arguably make fun of the fringes of society.
Funny Or Uncomfortable, Or Both
While it’s impossible to develop an equation to figure out at which level or degree confusion takes over the instinct to laugh, it’s quite clear that such a level can be reached. Recently Brody Stevens’ Twitter feed (@allthingsbrody) was filled with aggressive messages and cryptic hashtags aimed at Hollywood. It started off being funny and even inspiring to some people, then it quickly devolved into a weird tension, as it was unclear why Brody would be attacking some of his friends then quickly apologizing on Twitter. According to his last few tweets, he apparently has been released from the UCLA psych ward.
Then again, there are comedians of such a caliber like Rory Scovel who can perform in complete darkness in an accent without taking on a character, riffing and ribbing the house band, and doing his normal jokes all while still being hilarious.
So, I think, at this point, we could offer more examples of comedians being successfully extending themselves over several levels comedically, such as the Walsh Brothers from Boston or the Doorknockers from LA, or list even more examples when it goes horribly wrong at any open mic where people fail at being Andy Kaufman, yelling at and berating people for almost no point. However, that might be repetitive when you’ve probably already gleaned the point being made here: As long you’re not stealing jokes/bits and making people laugh, there is very little you can’t do in comedy.