Ever watch a comedy and think to yourself, “I know where this is going,” and end up being right? That’s quite a feat, considering that when Professor Eric Hoffman and Dr. Gary Rudoren got together to catalogue every manifestation of humor, they counted 169 types of jokes. That’s an infinite amount of crackem-ups and make-’em-laughs for all you math wizards out there. Their work, Comedy by the Numbers, became an indispensable tool in the arsenal of aspiring and professional comedy-makers around the world who can now enter any situation — a bank robbery, a burn ward, or an evergreen nursery — and leave it a hilarious romp.
Comedy by the Numbers doesn’t only work for the nihilistic comedy that’s so popular today. Sure, it can help you write the sort of book, movie, play, sitcom, etc. where characters make jokes that have nothing to do with the situation they’re in — jokes that would be just as effective in space, in the center of the Earth, or while traveling cross-country to stop you’re best friend’s wedding. Yes, Comedy by the Numbers can help turn your cancer or unplanned pregnancy movie into a non-stop joke fest, but it can also help you identify what’s already funny about the human condition itself! As Sartre #81 (Mr. Know-it-all) observed, a person is thrown into the world, #124 (someone where they don’t want to be), creating their identity with every choice they make, and #103 (playing multiple characters) while never being able to not choose — because to not choose is itself a choice #160 (unintentionally funny). Life is a joke just waiting for a big-screen adaptation, and with Comedy by the Numbers, you can make it happen!
That’s not only a sales pitch — it’s what some of today’s biggest comedy stars want you to do. That’s why they’ve gotten together with Eric and Gary and recorded the Comedy By The Numbers: Book-on-tape CD (pre-order yours today before the May 19th release!). Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, and Dave Eggers are some of the names that share with you some of the secrets that make Comedy By the Numbers so funny, so you can go out there and realize your true comedy potential! Or you can just listen to the CD and have a great time. The choice is yours.
Ben Kharakh: What can we expect from Comedy By The Numbers: Book-on-tape CD?
Eric Hoffman: Well, first of all, it’s a book on tape…but we’ve jazzed it up (not with jazz). I believe the rockers would refer to it as a real “headphones” album. You can expect an all-star collection of comedy greats reading selections from the book, and a healthy amount of new material. Gary and I are doing our doctor/professor characters, which we’re thinking of killing off, Ali G style. We have other characters we plan to someday never play again.
Gary Rudoren: It’s half-hilarious-audio-book, half-outrageous-comedy-album and half-best-friend.
EH: Search your brains; think about what the term “book-on-tape” means to you today, and then prepare yourself to possibly accept a brand new meaning! If I were anyone but me, I’d say it’s the Sgt. Pepper of books-on-tape, and I’d be prepared to look like an ass for saying that. But I ask you: what could be funnier than a CD “about” comedy? (By the way, it will also be available on iTunes which, from what we understand, will delay the release of The Beatles catalogue even more…but we totally think it’s worth it!)
BK: AST Records have released an impressive list of comedy CDs. How was it working with them?
EH: It’s been nothing but fun. Matt [Belknap] and Ryan [McManemin] are both really funny, cool guys who love comedy, and it was a pleasure to create this with them. They did an amazing job. It’s an honor to be a part of the AST family. And a big thanks goes out to everyone at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre LA, and Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter at Comedy Death Ray. We couldn’t have done it without them. And Bob Odenkirk kicked ass on this –- both on the CD and behind the scenes.
GR: This was a project that only could have been a labor of love by comedy nerds, so all of us working together was great. The people at McSweeneys, who published our book, were also really supportive in us putting this out. As a matter of fact, Dave Eggers recorded the special last track and did so at the drop of a hat. And I second Eric about Bob O. kicking ass; we were really lucky to have him working with us.
BK: Your book, Comedy by the Numbers, is a DIY guide for turning everyday events into comedy gold. Have you noticed any changes in the actual amount of humor in the world since its release over a year and a half ago?
GR: I’m not directly saying we’re responsible for the election of Barack Obama, but our book and his campaign both entering the societal zeitgeist at around the same time seems a little coincidental, if you ask me. The original title of our book, by the way, was “Comedy You Can Believe In.” True story! Okay…you caught me, but it would have been a good title.
EH: All we can say is: it’s a grand time for Mirror Routines, and we’re just basking in it! Druggie Humor, Prop Comedy, Irony –- all genres of comedy are seeing a dramatic rise in everyday usage, and we couldn’t be happier.
GR: We’ve also noticed that people are finally turning to laughter to forget how horrible their lives are with the economy and whatnot.
BK: What’s the best way to measure humor?
GR: A nearly impossible question. Trying to measure humor is like asking yourself if you’re ever really finished with a doodle. That said, keep a diary of how many laughs you get each day, what you said or did to get the laugh, the demographics of the people that laughed at your humor, and then, after a year or so, compile the data and spend the next year re-using humor patterns that “worked” the first year… Year 2 will be your funniest!
EH: …With a machine. Much more reliable.
BK: The 169 comedy secrets you revealed can be used to increase the amount of laughs in one’s life, but beyond that, is there any sort of formula for humor — some sort of grand, unifying theory of laughs?
EH: Someone recently asked us to explain, using the comedy numbers, why one of Rodney Dangerfield’s lines from Caddyshack was funny. It’s the one where he’s in the pro shop looking at the ugly golf hat: “Boy, a hat like that — I bet you get a free bowl of soup with it!” (or something like that). But the real laughs come in the follow-up: Rodney then looks at Ted Knight, who’s wearing the hat in question, and sarcastically says, “But it looks good on you!” and then he rolls his eyes in a mocking way. All of this is classic #2 (Anti-Authoritarianism) mixed with a #61 (Inappropriate Behavior), and it works because Ted Knight has been set up with a #10 (Bravado/Snobbery). After the bowl of soup line, Ted Knight just stands there doing a #153 (The Slow Burn). The “but it looks good on you” zinger (#5) is pure #116 (Sarcasm) based in a #68 (Making Fun of Someone Else’s Flaws). And it’s interesting because Rodney is the main #125 (Someone Where They Shouldn’t Be) of the film, but here, in this scene, he makes Ted Knight the #125 -– in his own club! Which is good #91 (One-Upsmanship). And let’s not forget, looming nearby is Rodney’s Japanese tourist friend, Wang (#50 – Funny Names), who is the very definition of a #47 (Foreigners/Ethnics) with a #98 (People Who Don’t Speak Our Language) and a little #49 (Funny Eyewear) thrown in for good measure. Characters like Wang (also #30 – Double Entendre) make a scene feel funny even before it actually is. And finally, Rodney caps it all off (#5) with a great #44 (Facial Expressions). An interesting side note: if the producers had wanted Ted Knight to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, then they would’ve had to add some serious #95 (Pathos aka Chaplin Syndrome aka The Third Mask), for pathos is the only way a comedian can ever win an award for acting. See how easy comedy can be when you know the numbers?
GR: In Eric’s example, he proves that Ted Knight is the Unifying Theory of Laughter (UTL).
BK: With today’s economy, people would certainly benefit from knowing how to make comedy on a tight budget. Got any tips?
GR: We’re working on a book of Comedy Coupons©. Readers will be able to buy discounted barbs, curses or folksy rejoinders, for example. We’re trying to pitch in and help just like the banking and auto people. In an effort to show how much I care, this year, I’m only taking a $1 salary from comedy.
EH: You’re getting your money’s worth there. Snap! (I think…)
BK: Lack of funds might preclude people from seeing live comedy or films, but perhaps there’s a way to find free or discounted comedy if people just knew where to look. Any suggestions?
GR: Sorry, I already answered most of your question with my previous answer. I apologize for my clairvoyance. But to add: we have numerous examples in the book and on the CD that explain how you can use comedy in your own life –- mostly in your office, including: Making Fun of Someone Else’s Flaws, Inappropriate Behavior, Two People Trying To Fit A Door At The Same Time, and many more. Drug Humor, for example (brilliantly read by Paul F. Tompkins on the CD), highlights a hilarious office prank you can do simply using a homeless junkie’s urine. What could be more economical than that?!
EH: Absolutely. And we specifically point out, in #50-Funny Names, that you can find humor around the house. Household pets are ready-made for comedic baptism. You can wring rings of laughter from a potluck dinner with neighbors just by shouting across the room: “Sir Itches-A-Lot! On the paper!” Other funny pet names include Jonathan Livingston Tickfarm, L’il Asshole the Goldfish, Scriffy-Scruffs, Scraffy-Scriffs, Scrammy-Scrums, Kevin Ferguson and many others.
BK: Luckily, no one has put a fee on using our imaginations. What sort of things can we imagine, or what places can our imaginations be put to use to create humor?
GR: This is the kind of small-talk question we get asked a lot at comedy album listening parties –- which are making a huge comeback, by the way! There still are frontiers to be pioneered in comedy. Extra terrestrials, for example –- what do they laugh at? Dick Jokes? Do they even have dicks? Once life on other planets is confirmed, comedy will be out there ahead of the pack, leading the charge in determining whether or not those ETs are cute and cuddly or a danger to our entire existence. Wait for it — you’ll see! You’ll see!
EH: That’s my big fear — that aliens will be funnier than humans.
BK: Recently, Tom Scharpling, host of The Best Show on WFMU, was presented with the following list from Readers Digest, entitled 19 Ways to Enhance Your Sense of Humor. Aside from the fact that this article makes the mistake of not only attributing EB White’s frog quote to Mark Twain, it butchers the quote as well. It should be: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” But, ignoring that, how would you rate this article as a means of upping the amount of joviality in one’s life? Do you employ any of its suggestions in your own lives?
GR: First off –- ya gotta love Tom Scharpling’s show! Okay, back to the matter at hand. Did you know that Reader’s Digest is sized to fit perfectly on the top of the average American toilet tank cover? However, aside from their inability to distinguish among humorists, they’re very smart over there at RD! They know they shouldn’t put together any lists longer than an average person could read during an average crap. Their list of humor enhancements comes off as a good life-preserver for a bi-polar manic-depressive sociopath to use as they cling to some shred of a reason for living. I especially agree with their suggestion to create a “Ha Ha Bulletin Board” for funny sayings and comic strips. I keep old “Ziggys” in my wallet for inspiration, but that’s just because carrying a bulletin board around would make my ass look fat.
EH: We definitely “dissect the frog” with Comedy By The Numbers, but we try to tear into some things that aren’t normally focused on, like the frog’s eyelids or a hangnail, so I don’t think we’re “killing” the comedy. Speaking of which, if you’re just telling a joke to a friend, and then you have to explain why it was funny, that would be a “Comedy Killer” (we have a complete list of these in the book). But if you’re trying to become a comedian, or just a “funny person,” then you will have to dissect humor in order to master it…unless you buy our book and CD! We’ve done all the dirty stuff, like dissecting Funny Eyewear, so you won’t have to!
BK: There seems to be something else happening in this article, which is the idea that without humor, life would be quite dull, if not sad. Is there any truth to this?
GR: Yes, that’s true.
EH: Yeah, imagine going to a comedy film and no one is laughing. (You can simulate this scenario by attending any screening of The Love Guru.) But even more frightening, imagine a world with no Jealousy. I think that was a Twilight Zone…or a Lidsville. But all bad-joking aside, I have to say that, for us, the real core of this project is that it’s just really fun to talk about comedy like this. The over-analysis, the jargon, giving weight to a spit-take…you invariably find yourself cracking up over it. Bob Odenkirk loves talking about that stuff too, and then treating it like it’s something you can just read a paragraph about and do. That’s a lot of fun. Not to insult comedy, but it really isn’t that hard to make someone laugh.
GR: Don’t worry — comedy has a thick skin. It can take it.
EH: You know, you do a little jig, stick out your tongue, do a fart noise, and there you go. Comedy.
BK: What are some things that someone could do to passively increase the amount of humor in their lives? You know, for the lazy folks who want more laughs but don’t want to put the effort forth to read a book or listen to a CD — sort of like pills that promise to lose pounds or those belts that were advertised as having the power to strengthen abs while you sit around and watch TV or do work…but for comedy.
EH: That’s our next step. Comedy pills. “You’ll feel the unfunny melting away!” I think I need one right now.
GR: If you don’t want to read a book or listen to a CD, that’s fine with us, but we do heartily recommend you at least buy our book and CD. It wouldn’t kill you. Laziness is a true staple of comedy. For example, go sit on a park bench all day and let birds shit on you. People will laugh their asses off at you. Most people waste a lot of their energy on thinking, so I would recommend spending some time each day doing things without thinking, and see how much funny stuff you can do then.
BK: Your book covers a lot of comedy that has already been done. If someone read your book, bracketed all of the ideas within, and decided to create comedy, would they be moving into wholly unmapped territory?
GR: There’s that part in Willie Wonka where Willie doesn’t know what’s going to happen when the pressure is building up behind that greedy fat German kid who got caught in the chocolate pipe. Willie is so excited at what could happen. That’s how I would feel at the prospect of someone using all 169 ideas in our book to create a comedy event, and I’d want to eat chocolate while I’m imagining!
BK: What are your thoughts on this comedic adventurism, and what should people be prepared to find if they choose to embark on this exploration?
GR: Most people are bored with their own lives, so why not take a comedy adventure? Walk up to a stranger on the street and start a Mirror Routine! Wear a fake huge mole to a job interview for a job you don’t want! Ask a horse out on a date! The adventures will never end, and if you go for it, the worst that will happen is that you’ll learn a lot about your personal boundaries and, well, you’ll piss off some people (and/or horses).
BK: You give comedy a very academic treatment in this work, and not just because you’re a couple of doctors and professors! What do you perceive to be the importance of comedy in the world of the arts, in people’s lives, and do you think comedy gets the respect it deserves as a field and an experience?
GR: Every -– and I mean every -– personal ad written in the 20th Century includes a reference to some sad and lonely figure wanting to meet someone with a “great sense of humor,” but people still go for the hot body, no matter how funny the short, fat, bald guy (I’m not talking about me). We’re desperate to laugh. Those of us who are desperate to make people laugh call ourselves “comedians.” A world without laughter would be holocaustic in nature, and while we are amused at the dancing clown in the corner, he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. If you’re funny, you’re also smart. If you’re funny, you’re also curious about life. If you’re funny, you also believe deeply in the observation of humanity. However, the opposites of all those are not always true. Clowns (#16 in CBTN) should be held in our highest esteem! I bet you thought I’d have some smart-ass, trying-to-be-funny answer, but quite frankly, it’s late at night, I didn’t have a nap today and I’m uncomfortable because I don’t think I did a great job wiping.
EH: I think you’re okay. By the way, I’d like to riff on that personal ads idea: “SF, blonde, gorgeous looking, loaded with wealth, great outlook on life, into sharing/caring, want kids, love to have fun, looking for someone with absolutely no sense of humor. No funnies. Really serious inquiries only.”
BK: I’ve heard of some products that claim to increase one’s vocabulary or knowledge while one sleeps, simply by listening to audio during sleep. Can the same be said of your CD?
EH: Laughter during a conscious state is certainly preferable. Studies show that the sight of someone laughing their ass off while sound asleep is a little…freaky. But you can certainly learn how to provide laughs while “catchin’ some Zs.” Train yourself to snore amusingly. Try for that “wheeze-box on fire” sound –- the one that sounds like someone sandpapering an elbow. Hubby or wifey will love it!
GR: Eric is right, but he humbly doesn’t mention some of the other effects that our CD has on people. The Comedy By The Numbers Book-On-Tape CD cures snoring. Cures it! But to address your question head-on, what’s really great about our CD is that you don’t have to be asleep to enjoy it.
BK: What do you recommend people do for laughs while they wait for the CD to arrive?
GR: While waiting for the Comedy By The Numbers Book-On-Tape CD, the absolute best thing to do is to crack open a cold beer, order a pizza, get your sex partner to come over, and then both of you read aloud your favorite parts of Comedy By The Numbers, THE BOOK.
EH: If you can’t do that, then please avoid all comedy until our CD comes in. We want you to be fresh; store up some chuckles. Would it kill you to not laugh at something for a couple of weeks?