Saturday, January 26, 2008


Jane Espenson links to George Meyer's profile on The New Yorker (via The Simpsons Archive). It's interesting to learn that the trademark humor of The Simpsons (which I attributed before to "Airplane" and its ilk) is mainly because of one man -- the man also responsible for Letterman smashing or throwing things off roofs (a gimmick Dave still uses).

The article, written in 2000, also notes Meyer's dismay at situation comedies then ("Friends" being at the top of the food chain), which are subject to the "tyranny of live studio audiences." half a decade later single-camera comedies like "Arrested Development" and "30 Rock" are on the rise bearing the unmistakable mark of Meyer (through Dave, SNL, and The Simpsons).

* * * * *

Telling a joke (much less crafting one) is difficult, especially long, convoluted stories hinging on a proper set up and a punchline delivered deadpan. It doesn't require practice as much as it needs a decent understanding of how humor works. Joey de Leon calls it "abnormalizing the normal," which is a less telling deconstruction than the one Meyer offers:

He remembers being particularly struck by a parody of "Dennis the Menace." He told me, "It was a cartoon that showed Dennis coming into the house holding a skull, and the caption was something like 'Hey, Mom, look what I found in Mr. Wilson's head.' That absolutely put me away. The next day, my stomach muscles hurt from laughing. I felt like I'd been worked over by bullies."

Meyer still admires that cartoon, because, he says, it led him to a significant insight about humor. "It jumps a step, and to me the best comedy always jumps a step," he explains. "Dennis could have said, 'Mom, I killed Mr. Wilson and here's his head,' and Mrs. Mitchell could have said, 'Oh, Dennis,' or something like that, and I still would have thought it was pretty funny, because part of the humor for me was simply that a kid had killed an adult. But, Jesus, what a great joke.

De Leon's definition fits Dennis killing Mr. Wilson (which is abnormal in itself); Meyer's example takes it further by juxtaposing it with the banal (and common Dennis the Menace line) "look what I found!"

The Simpsons often jumps a step. One of my favorite jokes is when Homer, banned from Moe's bar, shows up dressed like the Monopoly man calling himself Guy Incognito. The guys then beat him up and throw him outside where the real Homer then walks past him. Brilliant.

Which reminds me; I really need to include a session on humor in my Lit class.

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