New research shows that the best humor is both a little bit wrong and a little bit right. Is there something about comedians that makes them better at subversion?
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A meeting between the two rivals would make a fitting farewell to a comedy era—and might remind people that there’s more to Leno than his successful-but-stale Tonight routine.
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It came out of nowhere, slipping into the conversation between dinner and dessert. “That’s what she said!” your friend blurted out, before sitting back, satisfied.
At first you didn’t get the joke, which he’d recently poached from NBC’s sitcom The Office. (This was around 2006, or, if your friend was slow on the uptake, around 2010.) So he explained by example for the rest of the meal. When the waitress asked if you wanted sauce on that, he whispered seductively: “That’s what she said,” as if her question was saucily scandalous. Then he giggled like a 12-year-old.
That’s what she said, hereafter referred to as TWSS, was the best bad joke of the late 2000s. It forced almost any sentence into unintentional sexual meanings, even when you were just “trying to get in” to the highway’s fast lane, or “didn’t think it would take so long” in the supermarket line. TWSS was like a bully who stole your lunch money to buy cigarettes. It seized your innocent words and contorted them into indecency.
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As his HBO show Real Talk begins its twelfth season with higher ratings than ever—4.1 million viewers, high for a premium-cable talk show—the iconoclastic comedian and political commentator Bill Maher spoke to The Atlantic about why he likes doing comedy shows in red states, how his show is different from Jon Stewart’s, why the God of the Old Testament is “the most psychopathic character in fiction,” and why he believes most opposition to President Obama is racist.
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It’s hard to make health insurance funny. Even with Amy Poehler involved.
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“The funniest man in America”—those were the words Columbia Pictures used in TV spots promoting Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, its 1982 concert film. The claim wasn’t far off. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a comic making the kind of cultural impact today that Pryor did back then. Pryor’s stand-up fit with the tumult of the Vietnam War and Watergate eras. His guest spots on Saturday Night Live made the NBC series a brand name. His records—That Nigger’s Crazy, … Is It Something I Said?, and Bicentennial Nigger won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album three years in a row. By the end of the 1970s, after the box office success of such pictures as Silver Streak and Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, he was becoming a force in the motion-picture industry, too.
People born after 1980 might only remember Pryor as a comedian who starred in The Toy, Superman III, Harlem Nights, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But those pictures feature only a remnant of the comic he once was. When he was at his best on stage, he exposed the truths that rarely went mentioned in America.
David and Joe Henry chronicle those days and the force that was Pryor in their new book, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. They’re brothers who set out to write a film about Pryor, who died in 2005. Joe is a songwriter and music producer (and Madonna’s brother-in-law). David is a screenwriter. For now, they’ve ended up with a book that’s garnering critical acclaim and working its way up bestseller lists. We spoke with them at the Palihouse in West Hollywood, within a few blocks of the Troubadour, the Comedy Store, and other clubs where Pryor performed.
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This week, Andy Kaufman made headlines when his brother claimed he was still alive. At this year’s Andy Kaufman Awards at Gotham Comedy Club, he introduced Andy’s supposed daughter, 24—who explained that the late comedian/performance artist faked his death 27 years ago.
No one with a passing familiarity with Kaufman could have been surprised that the news of his reincarnation turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Or to be more precise, fabricated: The Smoking Gun revealed that the woman introduced as daughter Kaufman was actually an actress named Alexandra Tatarsky (whose theater bio states that her work is inspired by “Russian absurdism”). Kaufman’s brother now says he’d been duped.
The stunt evoked a Kaufman-esque mixture of confusion, skepticism, and credulity. But Kaufman himself would have probably done it better. He remains in the public imagination as a hoaxter, but for those born after his death, it might be difficult to understand just how effectively he messed with people’s minds.
The Muslims Are Coming!, out this week on video on demand, is a documentary in which Muslim comedians tour the American south and west to combat Islamophobia. Based on that description, I had a lot of ambivalence going in. On the one hand, I think people should not hate Muslims. On the other hand, I think they should hate stand-up comics.
Overall, the film justified my prejudices. The comics are not especially funny. Their stand-up routines never flirt with flights of absurdity or conceptual humor a la Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman—rather, the material all falls resolutely in the “anecdote, anecdote, wry observation about current events/ethnic stereotypes/everyday life, ain’t that funny” formula that seems designed to make TV sitcoms seem innovative and weighty. Co-director and co-star Negin Farsad’s routine about her Jewish boyfriend is typical, starting with jokes about being drunk, moving into jokes comparing Jewish-Muslim relationships to the Palestine-Israeli peace process, and throwing in a joke or two about the terror induced when the bar lights come on and you have to see what the guy you’ve been flirting with looks like. It’s like watching someone go up on stage and fill out a checklist.
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Enlightened fans are accustomed to never getting what they want. Critics championed the HBO series, which starred Laura Dern as an earnest idealist rebuilding her life following a rehab stint, but the show’s devoted disciples never recruited a sizable flock of fellow viewers. Consequently, despite the impassioned pleas and online campaigns, the show got the ax in March after two seasons. So when Dern received an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series this year, it felt a consolation prize. Enlightened may have been a common should-win pick in Emmy preview columns, but few observers actually predicted a win for Dern last night. (They were correct: Dern lost to Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Veep’s acerbic Selina Meyer.)
One of the narratives surrounding Enlightened—besides how audiences missed out on creator Mike White’s brilliant writing (evident in the show’s haunting, existential monologues)—was that it never truly fit the comedy label thrust upon it, perhaps in ways in ways that hurt its chances of survival. Yes, viewers were supposed to sympathize with Dern’s earnest but deluded Amy Jellicoe, but were they also reveling in shadenfreude? In the first season, Amy was that girl in the office: After seeking treatment following a humiliating workplace breakdown, Amy was totally absorbed in her new-age philosophy and completely lacking in self-awareness in ways that could be tremendously funny. But there was also a kind of sadness in her obliviousness, an admirable optimism in her search for purpose, and a vulnerability in her healing process that all resonated despite her flaws. This was especially true in the more plot-driven second season, when Amy decided to become a corporate whistleblower following another office humiliation. The layers of Amy felt less and less comedic as the show went on, but the way Dern pulled them off was still an award-worthy feat.
"If we farm in the way the General tells us, we will become happy," she said and laughs.