Sunday, July 17, 2011

Byron and Bugs Bunny

I woke up this morning thinking more about humor. I suppose this is Part II of "What's So Funny," only it's "Why do some things stay funny?" Chaplin's swallowing the whistle scene in his 1931 comedy "City Lights" is hilarious now - eighty years later. I grew up watching the Looney Tunes super star with the Brooklyn accent, Bugs Bunny, and when it comes to comedy, I too am asking, "What's up doc?" Although the wise-cracking, carrot-chomping Bugs never stole my heart, I remember him and his cartoon cronies Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester, and Tweety Bird. Tweety did steal my child heart - something about the little canary with the big eyes who was occasionally a meanie but always a smartie I liked.

To go from the ridiculous rabbit to sublime wit, I reread Byron's long poem called "The Vision of Judgment" satirizing Robert Southey's poem "Vision of Judgment" and Southey's turncoat politics. But it wasn't the political satire I remembered after decades, it was the two devastatingly attractive angelic aristocrats, Saint Michael and Satan; Saint Peter's keys being rusty because it had been so long since they were used to open the gates of heaven; and, the over-burdened recording angel who keeps track of mankind's sins, needing additional support staff to stay current with the workload. I suspect comedy that lasts, really lasts, is about the human condition not a political environment. I also suspect satire, especially political satire, doesn't last as long as pure comedy because political agendas are often short-lived. 

Shakespeare addresses the human condition and politics with ease, wit, and ineffable skill. Vain and pompous Malvolio is remembered not because of his politics but because he is comical. "Bedazzled," the 1967 comedy written by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, is hilarious now not because of the swipes it takes at British politics but because it is the age old story of the lovable schlemiel fumbling at love. The satire in Tina Fey's television show "30 Rock," is incisive and funny but its large dose of politics limits its longevity. Comedy and satire are sometimes sidekicks but they are two different things. It seems to me comedy accepts human frailties but satire ridicules them. And in comedy, the guy is slipping on a banana peel not a Republican or Democratic ticket.

A television comedy that is totally original and funny is "Raising Hope" created by Greg Garcia. It's about struggle, survival, love, fear, and hope - ye 'ole human condition. It does not suggest who we ought to vote for in the coming political election. I find some of it offensive -- ridiculing the great grandmother's dementia -- but most of the humor is splendid. Splendid seems like an odd word applied to a sit-com about a cynical cleaning woman, her not terribly bright handyman husband, and their naive son who had a one-night stand with a serial-killer that resulted in the birth of his daughter named Hope. Without any political banners, this show has plenty to say about social justice and the lack of it. And maybe that's its secret, social relevance with a touch so light it's hardly noticeable but definitely there.

I think one of the reasons I'm diving into all this what makes something funny and what keeps it so is that right now I'm turning a one-one-act comedy of mine into a full-length play. I imagine if I could master the mysteries of a screenplay format, I'd be turning into a screenplay. I wrote a serious full-length play that is chuck full of social justice concerns but my comedy hasn't an ounce of politics and, after writing this blog post, I'm starting to think that's okay.


  1. Some political comedy that I personally adore:

    Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister
    Hail the Conquering Hero by Preston Sturgess

    Both stand the test of time!

  2. Hi Carla, Almost everything Preston Sturges wrote and directed stands "the test of time." He was brilliant.

  3. As a kid I liked Bugs and the gang, especially Daffy Duck and his frantic "Woo-Woo!" But the duo I really loved was the coyote and the road runner. I always laughed at how the bird would "Beep-Beep" past all of the coyote's traps (bought from ACME). Now that I am grown up my tastes cover a wide range of humor ranging from the slapstick to the sophisticated, and from the dark & grotesque to the wholesome and family-friendly.

    I think that humor is a hard-to-define quality that often changes with time, place, and mood for the day. What makes one person laugh may make another yawn. I have showed some of my favorite sketches of all time to other people. Some liked them but others dismissed them as boring and even stupid. I think you never know who is going to laugh.