"Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."--E.B. White
"Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy is if you fall into an open sewer and die."--Mel Brooks
I was listening to the radio in the car this past week mostly because I didn't have any new music to listen to, and I'm going to have to do something about that. I wanted to listen to news coming from baseball's winter meetings, but there wasn't any, so it was NPR, that bastion of laugh-a-minute programming for me. I am a walking (or in this case, driving) cliche of a suburban liberal.
That's all beside the point. This particular segment included a scientist--I think he was a scientist, but if not, he was good at pretending to be one--who was asked to explain why we laugh.
If I'd had a lick of sense, I would have turned the radio off and listened to some of my old music right there. But no, I'm a masochist, I have to hear everything everyone has to say about humor, and so I went ahead and stuck with the segment.
There are few things duller than listening to--or reading--someone explain humor. Now, this particular guy wasn't telling the audience what was funny or how to dissect a joke so that all the joy is sucked out of it; he was interested in the physics of laughter. And by the time he got to telling us how it had something to do with our relationship to chimps, luckily I was in my driveway.
Laughter is the humor equivalent of sneezing; it is an involuntary process that requires as much explanation as breathing. As long as you can do it, you don't need to know anything else.
Mr. Brooks, perhaps the last standing face of pre-Apatow comedy in America, is hitting the publicity trail again, at the age of 86. He's promoting a boxed set of bits and pieces of himself on television, including a British show called An Audience With Mel Brooks and an interview he did with Dick Cavett for HBO relatively recently. I have no doubt seen almost all of the six-disc set. I've probably memorized a good section of them. I can likely watch most of them just by closing my eyes.
And yet I've gotta have that set.
This is not a plea; I swear (I just realized gift-giving season is upon us). It's an explanation. Mel Brooks is as attuned to my ear for comedy as anyone I've ever seen. He was making his best films when I was a teenager and a young man (In 1979, I tried to get Rutgers University to award him an honorary doctorate so he would give the commencement address at my graduation--they did not, but I've recently forgiven them). I have followed him from Get Smart and The Producers (Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder) to Mad About You and The Producers (Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick). Completely irreverent but respectful, if such a thing is possible, Brooks lampooned things others had lampooned but did it with love, and that always makes the difference. Nobody who didn't like the James Whale and Universal Frankenstein films could have made his shining masterpiece Young Frankenstein (1974).
He has won Emmy awards, Academy Awards, Tony Awards and Grammy Awards. He has written, produced and directed at least three of the best comedies of all time. He has held his own as a writer in a room that included Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart, among other geniuses. All that, and he has been the 2000-Year-Old Man, one of the greatest comedy recording creations ever, for 52 years.
Being a comedy fan isn't always easy. People for some reason understand blind devotion to musicians or sports teams. They harbor devotion to certain actors without anyone finding that odd. Science fiction geeks are practically revered in today's society for their attention to detail and encylopedic memories. Tell someone you can recite Blazing Saddles without referring to notes and they will look at you funny. And those are the polite ones. The impolite ones might call the police.
In the 1970s, Mel Brooks approached rock star status. Early in this century, he won more Tony Awards than anybody else had ever won all at the same time. In between, he went from "that guy with bad taste" to "comedy legend." Tonight HBO runs a show looking over his career. Next May PBS's "American Masters" will feature him. The following month, the American Film Institute is going to bestow upon him its lifetime achievement award, long overdue (He still does not have a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a true crime against comedy). Mel Brooks is not a comedy legend. He is a comedy fact.
If I were given the choice of meeting anyone currently alive on the planet, I'd pass up the talk with President Obama, Gloria Steinem, Dame Judi Dench or Stephen Hawking. I wouldn't ask to have lunch with Paul McCartney, Nelson Mandela or Secretary of State Clinton. Derek Jeter would be on the B list, probably for the first time in his life since 1996.
Those people who can make us laugh are precious. They are more deserving of our admiration and our gratitude than those who aspire to office to "do the work of the people" and then steer us toward a cliff, fiscal or otherwise. They perform a task more difficult than making us cry; they do not merely tell stories. Comedy, when done right, does everything drama does, and makes us laugh in addition. Try doing that sometime.
If it goes back to our connections to chimps, so be it. In that moment, when we are caught off guard and we react involuntarily, we are at our most human. People like Mel Brooks bring that out in us.
Could there be a higher calling?