I'm fortunate to have known so many funny people in my life. I've written about this before. Back in 2008 I fell hardcore in love with "alternative" (I don't like that term but will use it for lack of a better one) comedy. I was working at the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago and was regularly exposed to comedy, film & theater that seemingly had no boundaries. It wasn't just people telling jokes that were edgy or would be considered rude, sexist or racist by some. That's not what it was about. It was about freedom. It was about exploration. It was about acknowledging that things exist, that we have thoughts and that even seemingly "heavy" topics were not in fact so heavy, but were just another part of the human existence. Mark Twain even said:
"Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow."
I embrace this in a huge way. I love the bizarre, the off-kilter, the underground, the unrefined, the cringe worthy - the Gong Show worthy. While I'm clean cut and wear ties to a workplace where some people don't wear shoes (it's Boulder, people), I am well at home with freakish, weird, outcast culture. While I'm a "nice guy", my sense of humor is often dark, mean and to some, "wrong". While I laugh as much as anyone at Anchorman, I laugh more at the standup of Doug Stanhope, Jim Jeffries, Jamie Kilstein, and recently Ben Roy.
There's a theme to those comics. The ones who tell the "most offensive" jokes - my favorite - are often the brightest. They're thinkers. Analysts. They aren't just telling jokes just because, but in order to somehow make sense of what they see happening around them. This dawned on me while watching this very interesting interview with Jena Friedman, one of my favorite former-Chicago-local comics during my time at the Lakeshore.
My favorite part is when she says:
"I think anything can be funny if you're telling it with humanity. If your joke is based on truth and you have heart coming from it, then I think it's permissible and people can read that."
She says that after explaining how certain jokes of hers were deemed "offensive" by some crowds, yet fully embraced and laughed at by the supposed targets of the jokes. It's deeply interesting. I very much like this topic and I very much like Jena's take on humor. I've seen her standup many times, and it does have an awkward uncomfortableness to it sometimes. It makes some people cautious to laugh. Without saying "those people just don't get it" I think the hesitance comes from a lack of understanding that when on stage, Jena is playing a character, yet that character is founded in true experiences and honest thoughts. In some ways, she's baring her soul to the audience. It's brave and more humanizing than anything. Comedian Patton Oswalt says,
"All alternative comedy is are comedians that have being doing it for so long, that they were relaxed enough to start becoming personal on stage."
Christopher Morley adds:
"Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs."
I like Patton's point about it being personal. That's what I enjoy the most about this type of comedy or other types of "alternative" art forms. They're deeply personal. They don't focus on the broadstrokes. The people who perform in these ways aren't interested in quantity but quality. Jamie Kilstein spends half his set asking questions and then giving his take on it - all in rapid fire. You laugh, but then you go "Oh, shit. It's crazy how true that can be."
I'm not saying this comedy isn't isolating, or that it doesn't turn people off or isn't open for criticism or disagreement. My point is that these art forms are not without reason. In fact, sometimes they are the most reasonable, the most essential, the most human.
I appreciate the fearlessness it takes to be a performer of any kind. I envy the fearlessness it takes to get on a stage and say exactly what's on your mind, the fearlessness it takes to expose the humor in the dark & twisted parts of our humanity. I'm thankful we have people that have that fearlessness, because it reminds me to laugh at life. All of it.