Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Key to Great Comedy: Act like you're in a tragedy, not a comedy

If you were to pin me down, barrage me with wet willies, fling my hand at my face going, "Why do you keep hitting yourself, why do you keep hitting yourself," and demand to know who my favorite comedian of all time is, I'd probably in the end choose John Cleese.

There's an old saying that British sketch comedians would eventually either attend the Benny Hill school or the Monty Python school of nonsense comedy. Why do I prefer the ones who choose the latter, symbolized by Cleese, over the former, symbolized by a boisterous man who grins impishly while peeking under ladies' skirts?

Because the Pythons--at least, my favorite Pythons--never act like what they're doing is funny. Ever.

I can't quite define what's so funny about that. But the fact exists: Charlie Chaplin is a comedic genius, but I crack up far more quickly at the sight of Stoneface Buster Keaton's quietest, mildest reaction to indignities than the wildest, most madcap classic Chaplin routine. Just the way I'm wired.

When a comedian is obviously in on the joke, there's an inherent smarmy smugness that seeps in. That certainly has its place and can be amusing--after all, name one host of Late Night TV, even your favorite, where that isn't a thing with them. And I'm not talking about comic greats like Groucho or Steve Martin, since that smug salesmanship is part of their act, part of the joke.

Yet that winking, smirking sense of enjoyment can grate on my nerves in comedy if it's not part of the punchline. That's why I've never felt the charm of certain Mel Brooks movies like Robin Hood: Men In Tights or, again, Benny Hill or any episode of Laugh-In I've seen. Also, most of the jokes are terrible. But again I think of Groucho and Martin: often the very point of their comedy was the painful obviousness of their humor, and it was their self-parodying execution that made their routines classic.

But returning to Cleese, very little in this life has left me weeping in hysterics more than the trials and tribulations of Basil Fawlty. Seeing this buffoonish man yearning for sophistication yet failing again and again, each time in more degrading and humiliating ways, is quite simply funnier than the smartest monologue by the suavest Late Night host. Yet once more, it is Cleese's execution that makes Fawlty Towers a perfect paradise of madcap situation comedy--after all, every sitcom features the trademark Escalating Bad Situation driving the plot and stressing out the characters.

So how does Cleese take that same template and make Fawlty Towers the funniest sitcom in history? It's more than Cleese playing it deadpan, more than just "playing it straight". It's the downright fury and abject disgust Cleese infuses Basil with, his utter impatience and lack of self-awareness. No matter how hard he tires to bottle in the rage behind a tightly uppercrust civil facade, it all comes exploding out into frustrated extremes. He's over-the-top and screechy, and his sincere panic and hysteria make me happier than the sunniest, most gleeful performance of any other comedian I can think of. He isn't just annoyed or stressed; he actively hates what's going on around him and everyone involved, no matter how much of the problem is his fault. And that is hilarious.

Perhaps because we all have within us a deep well of schadenfreude, there's something oddly delicious about watching a tragedy unfold wrapped up in a comedy. But you need a Cleese to sell it, someone who believes wholeheartedly in the tragedy, not the comedy. Off the top of my head, I can think of two modern performances that sometimes just about measure up to the bar Cleese set. The first is Donald Glover crying on Community.

Glover's character Troy is overall a very happy, carefree fellow, but that makes him all the more unequipped to handle the least amount of conflict. What makes his character the standout along with Gillian Jacobs's Britta is how all-out he goes in portraying Troy's moments of hilarious despair. These are numerous, and they are gold. Like Cleese, he is shamelessly over-the-top, shamelessly cathartic. Goofy, but without the knowledge that he's goofy. Crying is just plain funny when he does it.

The second performance also involves copious amounts of crying, along with hackneyed fundamentalist speeches and posturing: Stephen Colbert as Chuck Noblet in Strangers With Candy, one of the greatest comic creations of the '90s.

It's less sincerity than pompous gravitas that makes Colbert Colbert, much like with Martin's persona. But just like Martin and that infamous fit he throws when the mood lighting is wrong, it's when that pompous balloon is popped and the mania and tears are revealed is when shit gets real, real funny.

Welp, I've done it. The one thing no human being should ever do. I've tried to explain why something is funny. Tune in next week for my piece Satire: It Makes Fun of Stuff by Pretending to Be That Stuff. How it Works and How it Makes us Learn to Laugh Again! 


  1. John Cleese is one of my favorite funny men. I adore Fawlty Towers. So glad I found someone who agrees. : )

    1. Thank you, thingy! Anyone who doesn't agree on Cleese's genius is obviously missing a small piece of his or her brain.