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Prologue: Boy are my arms tired

I went to a comedy club about five years ago. Some friends of friends had been given a handful of complementary admissions, and stand-up comedy was said to be an important manifestation of our culture, and I'd never been, and my wife was going, and so was my older son, and I have a reputation in my family for not going places I should go, particularly those places where our culture is manifested in some important way, so I went.

This place was dark, with a small stage at one end, a large bar at the other, and rows of narrow, uncomfortable chairs in between. Out in the gloom, red-and-gold dragon-motif mouldings and wallpaper glowed, remains of the room's previous life as a Chinese restaurant.

Three comedians performed to a packed house, frenetic guys who spun their gags out of expletives, scatological insights, and flourishes of blue-collar resentment. I remember that they sweated prodigiously beneath colored lights while they smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and trolled (successfully) for saps in the audience dumb enough to start in on a man with a microphone, a belly full of Bud, a pretension to grievance, and license to get a laugh from the repetition of fighting words. The stand-ups strode the boards for a collective 90 minutes or so, handing the microphone off with high-fives, like WWF wrestlers in a tag-team match. I don't remember a single joke they told. Neither does my wife. My son remembers a joke leveraged on a boy's experience with a urinal. I won't be disclosing the details just now. You had to be there.

There's no denying that comedy is a tough racket. The first difficulty is that jokes are not a curriculum. "Nothing," Samuel Johnson noted, "is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment" (and as a lifelong struggler against melancholy, he had reason to know). The second challenge is that gags are not enough.
E. B. White (another melancholic), who in his long tenure at the New Yorker probably improved more funny sentences than any man who's ever lived, near the end of his career observed that humor could not be produced except as "a by-product" of "serious work." Proof of White's Theorem (in my view) is that the Three Stooges are not funny; Jerry Lewis is funny only when he tries not to be; and the direct mail letter that earlier this month offered me a book "Nominated for the Arthur Andersen Trophy for Best Business Book of the Year" is very funny. And finally and most disconcertingly for anybody who feels driven to crack wise in public, senses of humor are as individual as DNA readings and almost as inflexible; and so no matter how fresh or resourceful a comic may be, some folks are not going to find his joke about Bill and Monica funny, or appreciate his sendup of Pyramus and Thisbe, or go home whistling the story about the boy and the urinal.

And that brings me to "Goldberg, the Hotel Owner," my idea of the perfect joke; a joke that is to other jokes what Karamazov is to other novels--richer, deeper, threatening. I have no intention of writing "Goldberg" here, it being a fact that paper can drain a spoken joke quicker than an audience of Prussian colonels with gum disease, and it also being a fact that 50 percent of people, by my count, don't find "Goldberg" that funny. But I will tell you that I learned it from a Catholic theologian, who learned it from a rabbi—about as rich a heritage as a joke can bear, and evidence as well of its ability to meet the standards of White's Theorem—and that it is about Goldberg's quest for ultimate happiness and the incongruities that can shift like piles of pea gravel beneath our steps: eros and exhaustion, riches and want, heroic achievement and hotel ownership. In the end, Goldberg tips over, but finds a way to signal that he always intended to land on his ass. And that's the joke.

My DNA inclines me to this kind of comedy, in which determined characters hang onto dignity (or its tattered remains) in spite of having dropped through a manhole, accidentally shot up half of civilization, stepped towel-wrapped through a door marked "private" onto a public street, or made a pass at the stunning woman at the office Christmas party who happens to be the boss's wife. It's primitive stuff, as my sophisticated children never tire of reminding me, but I can't help myself. Mel Brooks gets to me, and so do W. C. Fields, Jerry Stiller, and Leslie Nielsen's police lieutenant in The Naked Gun; while the hipsters, the honking clowns, and the attitudinals leave me smiling wanly—their humor as remote as the puns of Aristophanes.

There is an industry of humor theory out there, from Aristotle to Foucault, that tries to explain why certain things are funny. Its highlight, in my view, may be the Marxian (Groucho, and yes, another depressive) Theorem that while one's own jokes are frequently funny, other people's jokes are "not funny, especially if they're getting laughs." In the end, of course, what counts is not Foucault but whether you can remember the punchline, as I can't seem to stop remembering Goldberg, high in his hotel, the ground dissapearing northward as he tumbles south, trying, just like us, to look as though this was what he'd had in mind for himself all along.

Our story on comedic dreams and burdens begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

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