It seems that nearly everyone has a different opinion about what is and is not funny. One common definition is, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Another definition explains, “When I fall into a sewer, it’s bad, but when someone else falls in, it’s funny.” And you can find thousands of websites purporting to explain why The Three Stooges are hilarious to men but not to women.
Humor is frequently used as a coping mechanism, to release anxiety, or to vent frustration (this explains the huge number of Jewish Mother jokes). And some of the most insightful comedians have used it to vent — think of George Carlin’s rant about the seven words he couldn’t say on television, or Rita Rudner’s jokes about relationships (e.g., when she wanted to dump a guy, she just told him she wanted to have his baby, and “usually he would leave skidmarks”). But it can be touchy. What about when you’re dealing with highly sensitive or politicized issues? I am still impressed by the first Saturday Night Live show after 9/11, when we all wondered when it would be okay to laugh again. After a moving tribute to New York’s first responders, producer Lorne Michaels asked Mayor Guiliani, “Is it okay to be funny?” Guiliani responded, “Why start now?” I hope I can write a line that perfect someday!
Writing political humor frequently means tackling subjects that provoke strong feelings. Sure, every now and then completely neutral stories pop up like the crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, or the scandal involving the oh-so-aptly named Anthony Weiner. But it can be difficult to find humor in an issue that makes me angry, which is why it’s also so important. Laughing at a challenge makes it easier to deal with, even if that challenge involves not screaming at C-Span. Which explains the enormous popularity of programs like The Daily Show.
Irvine, my home town, is in Orange County, which I like to think of as the red state in the middle of California (in the ’60s and ’70s, there were even fewer Democrats than Jews). But many of my uber-conservative high school classmates have seen my videos and will send me messages like, “That was really funny, even though you’re totally wrong,” or, “Cute song coming from a commie pinko.” So when I write my songs, I aim for a tone that even those who disagree with me could enjoy.
Normally. (As my father used to say, “Moderation in all things — including moderation.) Sometimes it doesn’t work, and this week may be one of those times.