A Comic Life
"You haven't seen enough movies. All of life's riddles are answered in the movies."
--Davis (Steve Martin) in Grand Canyon (1991).
My family has always been fascinated by funny movies. Screen comedians were central to my upbringing. But while laughter ruled, there was minimal analysis. Consequently, most of my adult life has been spent exploring a youth filtered through film. Like the central character in Walker Percy's celebrated novel, The Moviegoer (1961), who and what I am are forever intertwined with film. Thus, my favorite pieces of time are not just memories; they are movie memories. For example, images of a beloved grandfather are forever attached to his tears of laughter over Laurel and Hardy's inspired attempts to get a piano up an endless flight of stairs in The Music Box (1932). My favorite early memory of my father is tied to his chuckling enjoyment of W.C. Field's segment in If I Had a Million (1932), in which the comedian directs an army of Model-T Fords into comic collisions with assorted road hogs.
Consequently, the majority of my forty-plus books are about comedians and various comedy genres. But this has not been merely an exercise in escapist introspection, though I can identify with Michael Chabon's description of a film lover in his inspired novel Wonder Boys (1995): someone "who climbed into a movie as into a time machine or a bottle of whiskey and set the dial for 'never come back.'" My fascination with funny films has anchored my academic career. I am a teacher/scholar; each role complements the other. Research and publication keep me on top of my specialties and enthused about my work. I bring the same enthusiasm and new insights to my classes, which share in this celebration of learning. My students enjoy both this ongoing showcase of fresh inquiry, as well as the time I take to demonstrate how this material will become a book.
However, I always attempt to make sure my classroom "laboratory" on the nature of funny is fun. I credit this to growing up reading English professor Richard Armour's insightfully comic spoofs of literary gems, such as his The Classics Reclassified (1960, where he also documents the importance of not being educated if you want to be a famous writer) and American Lit Relit (1964, which asks the burning question—has poetry been dead since 1882? I can't tell you; you'll just have to buy his book). As these tongue-firmly-in-cheek reflections suggest, Armour peppered his parody with witty comments along related lines, giving learning a comedy coating.
As a young professor I was lucky enough to meet Armour in 1979 at the First International Humor Conference in Los Angeles. Fittingly, he was receiving a lifetime achievement award—a large silver platter (undoubtedly plated), which seemed an odd gift for a humorist, though it could have doubled as a crackerjack Frisbee—an aerial possibility we later discussed.
Armour was disarmingly pleasant to be around, which is frequently not the case with many prominent humorists. Armour was also a serious scholar, and he told me that he wore two outfits—"cap and gown, and cap and bells." I later found out he told everyone that. But I didn't care. He could have just given me the brush; I would have. Regardless, I took to heart his ongoing life lesson about always keeping the fun in the study of funny. Just as Armour had first used parody in his literature classes, I found myself also drawn to this lampooning technique in my film courses. Spoofing is sometimes called creative criticism. That is, to be effective at parody, one must be thoroughly versed in the subject about to be shish-kebabed.
Thus, spoofing is the most palatable of critical approaches, offering insights through affectionate laughter, which also doubles as a definition of Armour's entertaining legacy. After all, every human endeavor is ultimately comic at some level, unless you're humor-impaired!
Ironically, while my research has uncovered a menagerie of mirthful suggestions that might prove helpful should you want to decipher your funny bone, I often have to address a basic fear in my students. Many need the assurance that whatever they may learn will in no way derail their future ability to laugh. This is an old bugaboo, which, paradoxically, sometimes even surfaces among superstitious comedians. For instance, one of my favorite wits, Robert Benchley, was charmingly vague in his case against interpretation: "In order to laugh at something, it is necessary: 1) to know what your are laughing at; 2) to know why you are laughing; 3) to ask some people why they think you are laughing; 4) to jot down a few notes; and 5) to laugh. Even then, the thing may not be cleared up for days."
So, with apologies to Mr. Benchley, I have to whimsically posit that a playful exploration of whatever strikes you as cinematically funny just might provide some revelations about who you are…behind the laughter. Remember, "All of life's riddles are answered in the movies" — especially the funny ones!