Into the Comic Zone

January 13, 2022 | Jim Angehr

From Aristotle through to the present day, many of the smartest minds in the world have sought to define and describe comedy. And they’ve failed. “Why is funny, in fact, funny?,” is a perennially and perplexingly difficult question to answer, and also not funny at all.

Which is why my high school buddies and I decided, “We’ve got this!” I don’t want to brag, but the best analysis of comedy in the history of the universe arose from the mind of a handful of teenage boys in suburban New Orleans, circa 1994.

11th Grade study hall is the ultimate colonic of the mind, and it was from the depths of that bottomless cleanse that my friends and I invented the Comic Zone–––a sort of grand unification theory of comedy knowledge that grounds the comic endeavor in scholarly, schematic terms and therefore supplies the reason as to why when you’re in a group of people and someone farts, you laugh.

The Comic Zone: picture M. C. Escher sketching an inverted-in-the-middle doughnut in which, somehow, once you get to the central doughnut hole you’re vacuum sucked back outside the doughnut completely. Comedy: boom, roasted! You see, the funniest jokes exist at the outer edge of said doughnut, but make your joke too edgy (i.e., poor taste, too mean, anything about dog catchers, etc.) and you slide out of the Comic Zone. Not funny. But try and walk that line, baby! On the other hand, the closer you get to the center of the Comic Zone’s doughnut hole, the more tame and bland your brand of humor, at which point you’ll be suctioned from the center of the Zone and flushed back out to the nether regions of the banal. Also not funny!

Internet, you’re welcome. I’ll bashfully admit that the Comic Zone was perfect then and looks even better now, although I’d want to figure out how to add to it one more axis (or wormhole? dark matter?): pain. The best comedy is never far from poking fun at the absurdity of our human condition, which itself is always adjacent to the ways in which we hurt. I don’t believe that comedy can be otherwise.

Comedian Bob Saget died unexpectedly last week, which made me sad, but the one that really got to me was the comic Norm MacDonalds passing back in September.  As I mourned his death, I subsequently spent way too much time YouTubing Norm’s greatest hits, hidden gems, and strange (but still funny) curios. While MacDonald will never be considered a “clean” comedian a la Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, or Nate Bargatze–––that whole “I’ve got my family chopped up in a duffel bag” bit might not contain any cussing, but you’re still left with grizzled granny parts in a tote–––I’m nevertheless struck by how very gently, innocently even, his comedy came across.

I’ve known that Norm MacDonald was hilarious, but what has been new for me to learn is that his off-stage life, as it is for us all, was fraught with plenty of not-gentle and not-innocent experiences. Nothing too sinister or crazy, but I gather that Norm had his share of demons, from gambling problems to mood swings to debilitating insecurities.

Here’s my somber take on MacDonald’s hilarity through the prism of the Comic Zone: less pain in Norm’s life would have made him less funny.

Recent-ish comics like Steve Carrell and Will Ferrell have gone on record to observe that unlike previous generations of funny people that were stereotypically hard living, addiction battling, abuse surviving, minority hating pieces of work, they themselves are basically happy and whole folks who merely happen to be ludicrously amusing. For their sake, I hope it’s true, but I suspect that it’s not, or at least it’s not the whole story. If the upbringings of a Carrell or a Ferrell were generally placid, I would guess that they’re imbued with far deeper-than-average wells of empathy by which they relate to others’ suffering. There’s no funny without the fall.

Another touchstone from high school: Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” (This is Clapton, the artist behind the prom slow dance staple “Wonderful Tonight,” a tune that served as the soundtrack for some of my most awesome but most awkward adolescent moments.) In this song, Clapton sings, “And I know there’ll be no more/Tears in heaven.”

It’s a thoroughly biblical idea, since in the new heavens and new earth, as the scriptures tell us, God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 21:4). But if there will be no tears in heaven, will we also miss out on the comedy?

Then again, Jesus even in his resurrection glory still has his scars. Since he is still our “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief,” maybe he’ll have some crackling one-liners waiting for us.



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