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Essence of Comedy

I came late to “The Green Room,” a cable show in which Paul Provenza hosts a panel of four other comedians in open discussions of the stand-up comedian’s life and profession, ideally without the comedians hiding themselves and the more somber truths of their craft too thoroughly behind their wit. I first heard of the show only a month or two ago on NPR as though the show were a promising future possibility, but no: it’s already in its second season. I’ve seen three episodes so far. All three episodes have been enlightening and quite different in tone. I’m eager to see more.

Several moments stick with me, the best being the more introspective. Provenza really wants this to be more than a display of rapid-fire wit, and I have to agree. What sticks most with me, however, is something not directly from the show, but from Provenza’s interview on “The Sound of Young America.” Among his observations there was the assertion that an essential component of the stand-up comedian is a word view that (1) recognizes that everything is at least a little bit screwed up, and (2) isn’t ashamed to talk about it.

We all know that a lot of things are screwed up. Most of us are willing to talk about most of them, although politeness or circumspection require that we quietly look the other way from certain topics. All of us feel to some degree that we’re screwed up, too, and we’re all right to some degree about that. But the natural inclination is to hide that shame, lest it become humiliation. What sets the comic apart, Provenza suggested, is a recognition that it’s all imperfect and, knowing this, an ability to expose personal weakness as well as complaining.

That comedy helps us to deal with uncomfortable truths, and that comedians make a living speaking uncomfortable truth, are old truisms, at least as old as the court jesters who were deliberately employed to protect rulers from bad ideas by ridiculing them. But Provenza’s formulation, specifically that comedians draw the courage to expose themselves to ridicule from a recognition that we are not individually special in our imperfections, was new to me. And it’s a claim that touches my soul.

I have a comedic streak, too. I inherited a taste for clowning from my dad and a harsh eye and refusal to hold my tongue from the whole Roth side of the family. Provenza’s formulation of comedy is exactly how I come to my material. Everything is screwed up. Some things are screwed up a lot, others just a little, but everything is screwed up; telling ourselves otherwise is just as foolish as any other lie we want to believe. So I find little discomfort in holding up my failings to ridicule, and only belatedly begin to realize that not everyone is equally open about their own shortcomings, or the shortcomings of things they like. My sense of humor often seems mean-spirited, but it isn’t; I just find imperfection interesting. With the right spin, it’s downright funny. So Provenza’s formulation makes me take pride in having something in common with the best comics. It makes me feel like I’m doing something smart and brave, and not something callous. Which is good, because I can hardly stop myself, anyways, and it’s better to laugh than to grow embittered.

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