Good Comedy Doesn't Have To Make You Laugh
I was listening to Still Dwelling, the latest album of depressing ditties out of time from Neil Hamburger, a fictional stand-up comedian and sometimes singer with a voice like pickle juice, cigarette ashes and tears, when I had an epiphany: comedy does not have to be funny to be successful. It does not have to engender chuckles to be good. Comedy does not need to make people guffaw in order to have inherent creative worth. A comedian doesn’t need to bust guts and tickle funny bone in order to honor his craft.
Actually, it’d be more accurate to say that listening to Still Dwelling while walking my dog didn’t produce an epiphany so much as it reminded me of a long ago epiphany regarding the essence of comedy.
Neil Hamburger’s career is dedicated to the idea that comedy doesn’t need to be funny to have worth. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to argue that the whole point of Hamburger’s act is that stand-up comedy is, in fact, not funny but rather a sad psychodrama rooted in misery, despair and a soul-consuming need for attention, approval and validation in the form of laughter from an audience whose silence mirrors that of a sadistic and half-mad God.
Neil Hamburger is the creation of indie scenester and record label head Gregg Turkington, who first breathed life into this sad sack around a quarter century ago. The character has evolved in fascinating and unlikely ways, splitting off into two primary sides. There’s Neil Hamburger the Tony Clifton-style vulgarian and provocateur who takes a malicious delight in taunting and tormenting audiences. One of my favorite Neil Hamburger albums is 2007’s Hot February Night, a live album that finds Hamburger at Madison Square Garden exquisitely antagonizing a hostile crowd that can’t wait for him to get the fuck offstage so that they can see headliners Tenacious D, one of Hamburger’s many big-name fans and supporters.
Then there’s the sad-sack, milquetoast side of Hamburger, the clammy loser with the combover, the hack with the go-nowhere act he keeps trying to sell to a world that ain’t buying. That’s the Hamburger whose not so golden pipes take center stage on Still Dwelling, an album of songs about sadness and loneliness that finds Hamburger backed by polished veterans from the world of indie and classic rock, folks like, John "Rabbit" Bundrick (The Who), Probyn Gregory (Brian Wilson, Beach Boys), Tanya and Petra Haden, Bar McKinnon (Mr. Bungle), Mikael Jorgenson (Wilco) and X's D.J. Bonebrake. Oh, and Jack Black and Mike Patton, who join Hamburger for “Everything’s Alright” from the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack.
Still Dwelling is less funny ha ha than funny weird. It’s less about making people laugh than in fleshing out Hamburger’s weird, time-warp universe of sadness and decay in perversely, exquisitely elaborate detail. Its existence is a bit of a cosmic joke that doesn’t require laughter to be inspired in its perversity and its willful obscurity.
We are conditioned to not only expect, but to angrily demand a series of physical and psychological effects from the entertainment that we consume. Most blatantly, we, or rather you experience pornography pretty much exclusively for the sake of becoming physically aroused and then masturbating furiously. Horror movies are supposed to be scare us, to send our heartbeats racing in terror. Action movies should excite us. Musicals should send us dancing out of theaters. And comedies, needless to say, should make us laugh.
Or should they? The older I get, the less important it seems that comedy produce laughter. When people complained that Hannah Gadsby’s much buzzed about Netflix special Nannette wasn't funny, and consequently failed as comedy it pissed me off because there are so many different things comedy can do beyond making people laugh.
Granted, I have not seen Nanette but that’s only because I’m uncomfortable about being confronted with great art and unsettling truths. If anything, hearing so many people (and by people I mean insecure heterosexual men) complain about it being overrated and overhyped on account of not making them personally laugh made me want to see it more.
Don’t get me wrong. I love to laugh. But there’s more to comedy than provoking the physical response of laughter. Comedy can make us think. It can challenge us. It can make us horny. It can make us hungry. It can be used to teach the basics of accounting. It can do all kinds of things beyond producing guffaws.
The epiphany that comedy doesn’t have to make you laugh proved enormously liberating. It made me inherently more empathetic towards the medium. I stopped using one yardstick to measure a field of almost inconceivable complexity and breadth and opened myself up to new ways of understanding and appreciating comedy.
Hell, the photographs of fantastical creatures at funerals that have adorned pretty much every article on this site since its launch (Theodore Rex the first year, the Bright Orc the second, Jar Jar Binks this year) aren’t laugh out loud funny. Hell they may not even be funny at all but I feel like they add something ineffable and weird and culty to the site that makes me want to continue with this weird, years-long inside joke. As inside jokes go, it’s not exactly of the laughter-producing variety. Thank God that’s not the point.
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