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Stand-up Tragic

Will Ferrell recalls the first time he realized his destiny in life. “I remember in elementary school when I first learned to run into a door, kick up at the bottom and snap my head back,” he says. “I don’t know where I learned it, but I would get huge laughs from the other kids.” (2019 note: the link is long dead)

My mother sent me the link to this profile because it reminded her of my early propensity for exactly that trick, which works best with rattly screen doors. I developed a whole set of things like this, including Dick Van Dyke’s tumble over the ottoman. But the classic, the prototype, was of course the Pie Gag. I would gather up all my stuffed animals and assorted toys, hold them in my arms, stand at the top of the stairs, and call out, “Ten, banana, cream, pies!” Then I would throw myself down the stairs, amid a great clatter and crash. I was five or six. It was inspired by a skit on Electric Company (Sesame Street’s psychedelic younger sibling) in which a baker stands at the top of a grand staircase, balancing two very large platters on each arm, stacked with pies. He falls down, and tumbles to the bottom, pie filling everywhere, his baker’s hat deflated and askew. I never got tired of it.

My grade-school friend, Mike, when we were in maybe fifth grade, said to me that at the first opportunity, he was going to vote me “Most Likely To Grow Up To Be A Stunt Man.” But it wasn’t about the stunt; I was always after the laugh. And it was a good lesson for a kid to learn: you have to be okay with people thinking you really did just walk into that door.

Broadly speaking, there are two sorts of comedy. The first is the father of satire, parody, and the roast; it is the “comedy of resistance.” It deflates the pompous, skewers the vain. It is “The Aristocrats;” Abbie Hoffman levitating the Pentagon; Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford; Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It can be dark, because to raze another, you may be tempted to stand triumphantly over them, and to raise yourself. It is the comedy of the smirk against the smug.

The other comedy is mother of clowns, grandmother to the Absurd and surreal. The world is so sad, so unjust, so carelessly maleficent, that we have no recourse but to laugh, or die. It is collaborative humor, comedy of the improv, where you must cooperate. “Agree and add.” We’re all in this together: we must roll with whatever meanness or misfortune might come our way, and we have to make it as hospitable as possible for the next improv actor who will join us onstage. You must be generous with the punchline, and willing to play someone else’s straight man. The comedian who always has to be out front will soon find that Dame Fortune has stripped him of his gifts, and brought him low.

I don’t pretend to hide my allegiance. I may have developed some skill in the first sort, but I find it sometimes cheap, and often too easy. People always laugh when someone slips on a banana peel, but I’ll never be the one to plant a peel in someone’s path.

I serve the joke. If you are also impressed that I didn’t break my neck when I fell over the ottoman, that’s nothing to do with me. Humility is the only important lesson – otherwise, why would the whole cosmos be constantly teaching it?