One draft down, one to go. But in the interim, I got a fair number of requests to chat about the Michael Richards incident, from a stand-up's point of view. I got a couple similar notes requesting discussion when the Kerry debacle occurred.
All the Kerry incident tells you is that jokes are hard. A joke -- particularly the type Kerry was trying -- involves a reverse in both written concept and delivery, a SNAP of the curveball right at the plate. That's something a lot of civilians miss on jokes. There are jokes with an ironclad structure, and then there are ones that rely on delivery only for the laugh, while 99.99999 % require a personally stylistic blend of the two. Ellen DeGeneres, for example had these intricately timed clockwork jokes only she could deliver, while somebody like Elayne Boosler wrote marvelously solid jokes you could give a chimp to perform. Elayne's stage presence is the bonus.
Kerry's joke itself was poorly constructed -- not a lot of safety rails on it for the none-pro, and not the way a professional comic would have written it. (And again, liberal politicians -- we're right here. Stop just taking our checks and maybe let us help you not suck in public, maybe make an ad or two that isn't bog-fucking-boring. Happy to help, really)
This is a bit geeky, but let's look at Kerry's joke.
"Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
The point of the joke, of course, is that Bush is an intellectually lazy man, and one would do well to avoid his mistakes. In his comments afterwards, Kerry made clear that he was commenting on the President's intellect. That is, the President is dumb.
But the joke as written is about being lazy, not about being dumb. The problem is, that you want the punchline to fit the stereotype of Bush as dumb, not intellectually lazy. "Bush is dumb" is the stereotype, the instant mental shorthand that allows you to snap the image for the laugh. Sure, "Bush is intellectually lazy" may be closer to the actual truth, but it's useless from a humor standpoint.
Beside the construction problem, there's the mixed target pronoun. (I had this issue illuminated for me when I was writing a speech for Jenni Baird, an Australian, on GF.) Americans use "you" as a generic pronoun when proper English utilizes "one", that is, there's no real difference of intent between "You are needed" and "One is needed." But there's another layer -- "you" in stand-up not only stands in for the "generic person", but it's a tool a stand-up subtly uses to involve the audience as the subject/participant of the joke. Often there's an implied "I" in a stand-up's "you", too, making that "you" a "we", further emotionally, unconsciously making the stand-up and audience collaborators in the performance.
Knowing this, let's look at Kerry's joke as performed to his audience of students, but with the joke delivery structure exposed.
"Education, if you [students] make the most of it, you [students] study hard, you [students] do your homework and you [students] make an effort to be smart, you [students] can do well. And if you don't, you [Bush] get stuck in Iraq."
See how that's broken? One (heh) might think that the subject change is the reverse of the joke, but it's not it's the subject of the reverse. Meaning the audience hears the joke as:
"Education, if you [students] make the most of it, you [students] study hard, you [students] do your homework and you [students] make an effort to be smart, you [students] can do well. And if you don't, you [students] get stuck in Iraq."
How do students get stuck in Iraq? As soldiers. Ta-frikkin'-da. Add to that Kerry's bumbling of the pause required to accentuate the punch, and well ...
The comedy sins don't stop there. Kerry's writer muddied the joke setup, not just the structure: "make an effort"? "Do well"? Those are soft phrases. The more a joke evokes a specific image in the mind, the better the laugh.
In contrast, let's look at one of my favorite Chris Rock jokes. A slightly different intent, but the joke is oddly parallel in structure, and depends on the same audience realization -- the same snap -- for the laugh.
"A black C student can't do shit with his life. A black C student can't be a manager at Burger King ... meanwhile a white C student just happens to be the President of the United States."
Just quoting that joke doesn't do justice to the mastery of Rock's delivery. He's like a musician now, and there are multiple subtle rhythm breaks in the delivery of joke that really make it land. The joke is about privilege, not about Bush being dumb per se, but I hope it illustrates the point.
There's an interesting, longer discussion on how all humor comes from persona, how Al Gore is funny while Bill Clinton is not, and why George Bush will never be, but we'll get to that some other time.
The Michael Richards incident, however, illustrates that stand-up is hard. What the hell Richards was doing on the stage of the Laugh Factory, I have no idea. I've been out of the live-performance loop for some time; I don't know if he's been doing a lot of stage-time lately. However, Richards was never a stand-up before now. He was a sketch and improv performer. Setting aside the longstanding, friendly rivalry between stand-ups and improv performers, those are two entirely different animals. Improv and sketch performers, while walking their own high-wires, still operate under the culturally programmed shield of the constructed performance. They are doing characters, in a wee little play. It's a thin shield to be sure, but it completely changes the performer/audience dynamic. It's the blood/brain barrier of the nightclub world.
When Richards apologized -- a piss-poor non-apology -- he blamed "rage". That rage came from a lack of control, a feeling of helplessness before the hecklers. Those hecklers, weren't all the tough, the problem was they were right -- Richards was sucking. Hard. But that's not surprising, or even really a negative judgment on his talent or performance. He's not a stand-up. Whatever skills he does have, they weren't going to work at the Laugh Factory on a late show.
There's another layer here. It's one thing for Richards to go on stage with the audience having certain expectations of him, and being unequipped to fulfill those expectations in the format he'd chosen. But to have to deal with the knife-edge of audience control after a decade of being absolutely, unconditionally-given love as Kramer ... yikes. Thats got to be one toxic brew. Even more bilious to have had that attention and that love and the constant adulation and proclamations of genius ... to then not be able to grasp it again, to have these goddam proles cut you down, you sonuvabitches I WAS/AM A COMEDY GOD...
The human brain just isn't wired for fame. The lucky escape with their lives.
Class, please consult the finest text on this particular font of madness, Cintra Wilson's A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Reexamined as Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations. Discussions to follow.