"Any honest parent will tell you that they live with that ambivalence - and its torture. You look at your beautiful child's face and you have two feelings at the exact same time: I love my daughter in a profound way. I cry at the drop of a hat when I think about her ... She's an amazing creature of pure beauty and love. And I regret every single thing that led to her birth." - Louis CK
"The truth is funny. Honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention."
- Del Close & Charna Halpern, from their book Truth in Comedy
Is comedy funnier when it's based in truth? Is comedy always based in truth on some level? Or is Louis CK - whose fantastic show Louie is playing on Comedy Central, Tuesdays at 10pm - just saying things to get a reaction out of the audience?
At first glance, it might appear to be the latter: I'm quite sure most parents would not admit that they regret the birth of their child, even if you factor in that a good number might be lying. And that's fine. Comedians often say things in large, sweeping terms, employing hyperbole to simplify a joke or make it even more ridiculous - "any honest parent will tell you" is a much funnier setup than "if you ask around every parent you know, I'm sure one or two will tell you".
But if the truth is funny - if, as Close & Halpern would have you believe, "honest discovery, observation, and reaction is better than contrived invention" - yet obviously false statements are funny too, is the truth really that important? Or is it the case that there is always an element of truth in comedy, no matter how invented a gag might seem?
"There's no fixed rules when it comes to comedy, that's the great thing about it," says 2012 Billy T Award winner Guy Williams, the self-described "star" of upcoming comedy show Jono & Ben at 10, who kindly answered a few questions via email. "Personally I love stupidity and slapstick, a couple of examples of humour that might not have anything to do with truth, observation or even reality.
"In saying that, I always claim that observational is my favorite type of comedy. My favorite jokes and bits all probably have an element of 'oh yeah, that is so true' to them. That Louis CK bit you mention means less to me because I don't have kids but I still laugh (possibly out of shock) at the darkness of the idea. To really appreciate that joke you probably need kids, but a great joke will trigger a thought or a belief that you might not have even known was there."
Perhaps the only aim for a comedian is to make the audience laugh, regardless of any notion of truth.
"Yeah, as a comedian the only rule is 'be funny'," says Williams. "It doesn't matter if you hide in the audience and make cat noises, you've just gotta get a laugh. Although that's easier said than done.
"I often get mad at comedy shows when I fundamentally disagree with or don't relate to a joke. I've never had a problem with Auckland's public transport (a common topic for comedians) so I don't really enjoy jokes that point out how bad it is. People who take the bus every day and go crazy when it's late get a real cathartic sense of satisfaction when someone jokes about it ... Maybe it's not so much rooting a joke in truth as it is to root a joke in what people perceive to be true."
It seems to me truth and comedy must somehow be intertwined - after all, even the most ridiculous slapstick comedy relies on our understanding of the truth of the situation in which it occurs. For example, Dr Sheldon Cooper's antisocial behaviour on The Big Bang Theory is funny because we understand the truth, the reality, of that situation.
Is every comedic statement true? No. But it seems to me that most comedy, especially that which subverts the truth, is reliant on our understanding of the truth - or, as Guy points out, of what we perceive to be true.
What do you think: Is comedy funnier when there is some truth to it? Do you think comedy needs to be based in truth to really work? And what do you think of Louis CK's statement above? Brutally honest, or just brutal?
You can see Guy Williams on new show Jono & Ben At 10, starting next Friday at 10pm, on TV3.
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