If You Have to Ask…

Finding the Game.

By J’Mel Davidson


I’m not going to talk about Valentine’s Day or Black History Month. There’s nothing new to add. Every day is Black History Month for me, and I ain’t never had no valentine except for the few times in elementary school when you had to bring a card to every student.

See? Just depressing. Why would I dredge that up? Stupid Hallmark holiday created to remind me I’m alone. Pass.

What is funny? Who knows? Comedy and humor are incredibly subjective animals. For every fancy writer guy yelling about the disaster that is The Big Bang Theory, there are 100 lemmings spending their hard-earned milk money on “bazinga” T-shirts.

Recently, I suggested that if you have to explain why something is funny, it probably isn’t funny. At least not to the receiver. How many times has a friend told you a story, and then after not receiving the knee slaps they expected, responded with, “Come on! You know that’s funny!” As if you were making a conscious effort not to laugh at their hilarity. Honestly, the opposite is usually the case. Some of us have, in order to make the social contract a little more tolerable, learned at a young age to fake laugh in these situations. We sense that the person wants that response, and we give it to them so it won’t become a…thing.

But why? Is it just out of kindness? Common courtesy? Is it because watching someone bomb, even on a one-on-one basis, is painful and embarrassing? Maybe some people deserve to bomb. That girl with all the “clever” puns. That guy who still uses “that’s what she said” without a hint of irony. Do we really owe it to them to try and make them feel OK for the pain they inflict?

I saw American Hustle with an old friend. We laughed a lot. When it was over, the friend was amazed by the humor—well, the process of humor. “How do they do that?” he asked. “How did they know that would work so perfectly?”

“…that the music choice would work?”

“…that the look would translate?”

I couldn’t really answer him. Because there is no real answer. You just know. I could give you examples of things I find absolutely hilarious, but they may fall flat to you. Because maybe, it’s not just the material, but the person receiving the material who determines the humor factor. Me hearing a joke that reminds me of the summer of 1985 will fall flat to that hot girl who was born in 1986. (But though five of the three stooges were long dead before I was born, I still find most of their output to be genius. Moe is their leader!)

Look, I’ve been a goofy bastard my entire life. Like lots of folks, I learned early to laugh to keep from crying. I also learned that laughing is more fun when those around you are laughing as well. And finally, I learned that nothing ruins a laugh more than forcing it. There should be skill, but not effort. A gentle push, but not force. A wink, but not a fireworks display.

14 years ago, when I got into improv, it felt natural to me. Sure, there are rules and ways to do it so that it’s not a mess on stage, but at its core, at its innermost heart, it’s just folks paying attention, making a story happen, and feeling each other. Most of what we do is called “finding the game,” and that’s the truth. What are we doing? I’m going to repeat this phrase over and over, you realize it, and set it up to happen. Boom. We’ve found the game.

I’m pretty good at improv. Not because I’m funnier than the next guy, but because my friends and I were always finding the game. In the car, in the lunchroom, at Denny’s (Jesus, I miss Denny’s…Denver omelet and onion rings at 2 a.m. Were we really that young?)

So, what’s the answer? What’s funny? My answer is, “Well, if you have to ask…”

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