Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Professor Cheap Laff's Study Period

Wanna feel old real fast? Try discussing comedy with 12- and 13-year-olds.

Recently, I was invited to give a presentation at my son's middle school, a great hands-on, grassroots learning annex where jocks are nowhere in sight. Which is a good thing for most of the boys who go there, as they would be dog meat in a traditional setting, their arty-nerdy interests and appearances an inviting target for blockheaded dopes doomed to an adulthood of getting loaded at tailgaters, their guts expanding through cheap beer and cheese fries. The teachers are young, committed, and socially aware, and the kids have the same set of teachers for all three years, making the process more personal and in-depth. My son's never been happier in a school environment, and that alone is worth the early morning drive.

One of his teachers asked if I would be interested in a give-and-take session with two classes of kids, showing them various types of comedy, then discussing what it meant to them, if it meant anything at all. I was delighted and inspired to do so, and began thumbing through my numerous comedy DVDs for examples of satire, slapstick, absurdity, and anything that was just plain funny -- at least to me. I decided to keep the presentation loose, in case something went flat, or if the kids turned on me with sharpened rulers. Provided with a large set and DVD player, I arranged my clips and met with each class for an hour.

After introducing myself and giving my background, I asked the kids who they thought was funny. In both classes the overwhelming answers were Dave Chappelle and Carlos Mencia, with Dane Cook coming in third. They then asked if I had any clips featuring these three comics, which I didn't, and anyway, I wanted to show them bits that they had never seen before. You know, stretch them a bit. They appeared disappointed, but learning shouldn't always be fun, even if it's comedy. Especially if it's comedy.

To illustrate a recurring visual joke, I showed a clip from "Everybody Hates Chris," in which the young Chris Rock's dad threatens a local chain snatcher with a baseball bat in increasingly silly settings. The kids loved that, then requested that I show the entire episode. Given how the next example went, I probably should have.

Andy Kaufman bombed. Flat out bombed. I showed a different routine in each class, and they simply didn't get it. "Was that guy in showbiz?" one boy asked me. ""Cause he looked nervous like he shouldn't be up there." I explained that the "nervousness" was an act, part of Kaufman's character. Another boy added, "What's with the lip-syncing to the record? That's not funny. That's stupid." I tried to tell him that this was not traditional comedy, that Kaufman would take everyday things and twist them around, like a children's record. Blank stares. "He sucks." Time to move on.

Chappelle and Mencia kept coming up, so I asked the kids what was it about their comedy that they liked. Almost all who responded said the racial humor, and we talked about that for a while, discussing what constitutes "good" racial humor from simple racist comedy. We know that white comics can be racist, but what about African-American and Latino comics? Can they also be racist? The classes, which were racially mixed, essentially agreed that anyone can say offensive things, regardless of skin color, but that whites had to be more careful than anyone else in this area.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"History," replied a white boy, his classmates shaking their heads affirmatively.

What kind of communist indoctrination goes on in that school?!

This was easily the best part of the day. The kids were really attentive for the first time, and I remembered that I had Richard Pryor's "SNL" stint with me, which I hadn't planned to show, but it seemed the perfect segue.

"How many here have heard of Richard Pryor?"

Not a hand.

"No one?"


I explained who Pryor was, his style of humor, and how he influenced comics like Chappelle, Mencia, and Rock. This was breaking news to the kids. They naturally thought that their favorite comedians appeared out of nowhere, so I was keen to show them how The Master set the tone for subsequent generations. A couple of the teaching assistants looked nervous when I slipped the disc into the player, and I assured them that this was toned-down Pryor from 1975 broadcast TV. There would be no serious profanity (not that these kids don't already freely curse), and it would give the students a decent introduction to Pryor's power and range.

I screened two different monologues for each class, the first of which Pryor talked about his troubles with women and booze, and his out-of-control acid trip; the second one a dialogue between a wino and a junkie. The kids were fascinated and quiet. Pryor can still command one's attention, so electric his delivery. But they didn't laugh much, and afterward shrugged their shoulders when I asked what they thought. It was a bit frustrating, and within minutes the kids were restless once again.

One girl noticed I had "The Best of Will Ferrell," which I brought along for back up. A wise move, it turned out, as the girl asked if the disc had the "Cowbell" sketch. I said that it did, and the kids immediately demanded that I play it.

"But you've all seen it. Don't you want to watch a Ferrell sketch you're not so familiar with?"


I relented, letting the hour end with the kids howling to Ferrell's clanging. Not sure what they learned from that, but it is a funny bit, and sometimes you just have to laugh without thinking. Besides, these kids will face enough serious shit in life, sooner than later. If they gotta have more cowbell, give it to them.

Afterward, a few students thanked me for the clips, even the stuff they hated, like Kaufman and the "Puttin' On The Ritz" segment from "Young Frankenstein," which I thought would kill, but died. My son, who seemed pleased with his old man's presentation, couldn't understand why his classmates failed to laugh at that classic scene, but added, "It's probably best that you didn't show any 'Fridays.'"

Smart lad.