Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard


The headline I’m using today is an oft-quoted one in the world of entertainment, and it’s very, very true. It refers to acting, but it can apply to all forms of entertainment. Basically it means that getting people to cry is easy, but getting them to laugh is not.

This is very true. There are universal things that make most of us cry. Extreme emotional pain is often one. Watching someone else in extreme emotional pain is also something makes most of us cry. Movies and TV shows, as well as books, often evoke these sorts of imagery to get a response from the audience, and it frequently works. I still recall crying lightly at a handful of movies, and crying my head off at President Rosylin’s death scene in the last episode of <em>Battlestar Galactica</em>.

But making people laugh is so very much harder. Humor is far more subjective than sadness. The things that make us cry are, as mentioned, largely universal, but what about those that make us laugh? Some people laugh their heads off at the Three Stooges, or a good Marx Brothers interplay. Some prefer slapstick, while others like wordplay. What gets us chuckling is very personal.

For example, this scene, from <em>The Carol Burnett Show</em> is widely regarded as one of the funniest moments in TV history. Go ahead and watch it.

Some of you just laughed your heads off. Others tittered a bit or smiled faintly. But there many more saying, “I don’t get it”, and others saying, “I get it, but it’s not funny.” The interesting thing is that there’s no way to reliably predict this reaction. If you know someone well enough, you can guess that they’ll laugh at a certain TV show, or find a certain movie amusing, but even then it can be hard to guess what exact moments they’ll enjoy.

A great example of this happened to me this week. I was sitting around with my semi-insignificant other watching the latest <em>Top Gear</em> special, and there’s a bit where Jeremy Clarkson is explaining how he’s transformed his Porsche into, “an pick-up truck”. My friend began laughing at the use of the word “an”. I thought it was funny, but more in a “soft smile” kind of way.

Another example is the same friend and I watching an episode of <em>Father Ted</em> where Ted says something like, “We have to go. We need to be there by six,” and Father Dougal says, “O’clock?” A faint smile and chuckle from me, but Rob laughing his head off.

I wonder why it is that we have such different reactions to comedy; what makes it so very subjective? In Rob’s case, the “O’clock?” line reminded him of something someone he knows does from time-to-time, but I have no idea why “an pick-up truck” had him laughing.

I suppose there really isn’t much point to this blog article. I can’t offer up any great theories on why I think humor is so subjective or why sadness is not. I just find it to be very fascinating, and I guess that’s all there is to it.

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