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April 17, 2003

Comedy for the Ages


Thanks for the link to Dave Barry’s column on taxes (which you can see here.)

After reading Mr. Barry’s column, which is, as usual, very funny, I was struck by just how long I’ve been laughing at his work. And despite having been enjoying Dave Barry for at least a decade, it turns out I was relatively late to the Barry party: he’s actually been cranking this stuff out for 20 years. That means he’s produced roughly 1000 columns. Yikes! (Along the way he’s also tossed off some 24 books.)

This got me to thinking about the nature of what might be termed “long-haul comedy.” What permits someone to keep being funny year after year? (And don’t bring up such tired theories as (1) drugs, (2) unhappy childhood, (3) divorce and (4) more drugs. We all know these things are useful inputs for comedy, but they can’t account for sustained comedy.)

Seeking an explanation, I turned—as I often do—to the greatest repository of information on earth: Google. Simply typing in “humor longevity” (and then, after some hard thought, “comedy longevity”) I came up with the following explanations offered by various sages of the Internet.

1. The Blackstone AudioBooks Hypothesis: Avoid Shrillness

Wodehouse’s longevity is found, like Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon, in his ability to poke without being brackish or brutish. He shuns the shrillness that diminishes comedy and that is found too often in other dens of entertainment-such as American politics.

2. The Larry Wilde Hypothesis: Be Warm and Fuzzy

The platform performances of Larry Wilde -- in addition to his books, television, stage and concert appearances -- have kept millions of people laughing for almost four decades. More than the humor, however, it is the humanity that has made him America's premier motivational humorist and earned him such enduring success.

3. The Kurt Kilpatrick Hypothesis: Use Detailed Research on Your Audience and Be Sure To List Your Educational Credentials:

Kurt Kilpatrick has been a professional Humorist and Motivational speaker for twenty-five plus years. He is skilled at the Art of using Humor in Business and always works hard to relate his humor and message to the audience. It takes extra work and detailed research but the end result always pays off. Kurt Kilpatrick can add That extra spark at any meeting that will make the event fun, exciting, stimulating, memorable and extraordinary! Doctor of Jurisprudence, Cum Laude, 1978, Jackson School of Law at Mississippi College. Bachelor of Science, Cum Laude, 1971, Communications and Journalism, University of Southern Mississippi.

4. The Art Buchwald Hypothesis: Avoid Acknowledging Your Own Mortality, Especially To Yourself:

For example, humorist Art Buchwald says he thinks less about dying than about his funeral, for which he hopes "everyone will get the day off and work very hard on their speeches."

5. The Chile Peppers, Sex and Football Hypothesis: Eat Right and Stay Fit :

…Adam lived to a ripe old age and so did Able. Their recipe for longevity? Grow peppers, make hot sauce and eat plenty of it. Have sex all the time and play and or watch lots of football. If you can do all those at once, so much the better!

(This is contained in a sort of infomercial, The Real Garden of Eden, by Michael H. Jackson who describes himself as Staff Humorist of I don’t know how long Michael H. Jackson has been humorizing, but it seemed like a controversial and potentially important theory.)

6. The Certified Speaking Professional Hypothesis: Communicate in a disciplined way that life is fun, funny and filled with magic:

DENVER, Colorado, USA. July 18-Denver business humorist and motivational speaker Brad Montgomery [whose tagline is "Life is Fun & Funny. And Filled with Magic."] has earned the National Speakers Association's Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation. …"You know they (CSPs) have achieved a certain discipline that puts them in a category all their own;they have passed the test of longevity; they have proven themselves. It makes a difference today and will continue to make a difference in the meeting planning industry."- Marolyn Wright, Program Resources

7. The Mark Russell Hypothesis: Be Well-Informed And Write Your Jokes At The Last Minute:

Russell is well informed, and his humorous commentary about the foibles of Washington's politicians rise above the basic jokes told by most comedians. And he has fearlessly performed his PBS specials live, a point underscored when Russell reminisces about jokes and songs he has written within hours of specific political events. Mark Russell's 25 Anniversary Special is a fitting tribute to a unique career which, while built on perishable material, has somehow managed to attain longevity.

8. The Matt Groening Hypothesis: Be A Cartoon Character & Appeal to All Ages

It would be redundant to go on and on about the success of The Simpsons. Creator Matt Groening recently summed up the reasons before a group of TV critics in Hollywood, pointing out the characters on The Simpsons are blessed with "eternal youth" because of the animated format. Homer, Bart and other family members never age. Springfield looks the same. But beyond the obvious appeal of animation, The Simpsons' producers have kept the series fresh by regularly using social commentary that appeals to all age demographics.

9. Finally, there’s the Libertarian/Internet Hypothesis: Be a Libertarian and Support the World Wide Web

Dave Barry is a libertarian humorist. Among his many books are Dave Barry Slept Here and Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up. Many of his hilarious columns are online.

I think all of these hypotheses have a good deal to offer us in our study of long haul humor, even though many appear contradictory or to be the products of deranged minds. I’m confident, however, that someday the truth will come out. By then, however, I plan to be in a non-extradition country.



posted by Friedrich at April 17, 2003


Dave Barry's amazing, isn't he? It's not like I'm feeling sorry for him -- I'm sure he makes more money in a year than I'll make in a lifetime. But I'm surprised that more isn't made out of him as a writer/performer/humorist. He's phenomenal.

What makes for humorist longevity, what a good question...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 17, 2003 04:40 PM

I'd say being funny is a good start. An alarming number of professional humorists aren't the least bit funny, but people are slow to notice.

Posted by: j.c. on April 23, 2003 04:14 PM

I always get the sense from Dave Barry's best stuff that he's almost channeliing---he truly gets "on an uncensored roll" and it's like it spills off his keyboard. I have no idea if he would agree with this, but that's how his best laugh-out-loud stuff reads. Therefore, I am unsure if there are "rules" for this. But the "be warm and fuzzy" rule certainly does not seem to apply to him. Write your stuff at the last minute? I imagine any columnist would agree with that. But mostly I agree with j.c.---being funny helps alot. I remember an interview between Jerry Seinfeld and Regis Philbin---and Regis asked Jerry if his girlfriend 'thought he was funny.' Seinfeld leaned conspiratorally close to Regis and said---'I AM funny.'

Posted by: annette on April 24, 2003 01:00 PM

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