Laughing Matters: Sniglets

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I would be overjoyed to report that my formative experiences with comedy were edgy and cool. There were certainly some personally favored selections that skewed to the countercultural — Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Saturday Night Live when it still fit into that category — but I was often responding to some embedded silliness rather than anything truly subversive. In short, I was always a dork.

Few things prove that premise more decisively than one of the recurring comedy bits I committed to most fervently in the early nineteen-eighties. Not Necessarily the News was a surprisingly long-lived sketch comedy show on HBO. Amidst the usual parodies, character-driven bits, and simple skewering of the events of the day, the show provided a platform for comedian Rich Hall to introduce “sniglets,” which he defined as words that don’t appear in the dictionary, but should. In practice, they were sort of like malaprops infused with logic and applied to the minutiae of life.

When I confess I was all in on sniglets, I’m not kidding. It was one thing to eagerly await the appearance of the inevitable sniglets segment on each episode of NNTN. I took what little money I had and directed it towards acquiring all of the slim paperbacks that assembled the various made-up words into mini-compendiums, tediously regaling my classmates with personal favorites.

I still have a lot of affection for the sniglets, if only because the bit speaks to the little word addict inside of me. Much as I admire the politically ferocious boundary-pushers, more gentle, punny humor has its place, too.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: Portlandia, “The Dream of the Nineties”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I can’t claim that I stuck through Portlandia through it’s entire run — including the pending final season — but I have tremendous affection for the comedy series co-stewarded by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Although I didn’t have intimate knowledge of the scruffy metropolitan area it satirized when the program launched, I recognized a generational identity within the comedy.

My swath of the American experience — largely forgotten about in the social energy around both the arrogant authority of the baby Boomers and the misplaced scorn heaped upon the millennials — was briefly known as “the slacker generation” before “generation X” took hold. I always thought the former designation was more telling. We were the ones who formulated the dream of the nineties. Like a lot of the music that Brownstein signed her name upon, I sometimes felt like this early Portlandia sketch was written just for me and my people.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: George Carlin, Class Clown

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

carlin

It’s not accurate to call the nineteen-seventies the heyday of comedy records, not when the prior decade saw the smash-hit album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, elevating a guy who’d recently been a Chicago advertising drone to both Best New Artist and Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. That doesn’t even get into the likes of Vaughn Meader and Allan Sherman tying up the top spot on the Billboard album charts for weeks at a time.

But comedy albums remained a very viable product in the Me Decade. From my perspective as a wee fellow trekking through my single-digit ages, comedy albums were a mark of adulthood. When I was dragged along as a necessary but largely ignored accessory at adult parties, I stealthily took note that there always seemed to be point when the chatter died down a bit and the room was turned over to a comedy record dropped onto the turntable. Usually the host — or, rarely, person who brought the record along — got to enjoy some transferred comedic glory, as if they were the one delivering the jokes.

A few years later, when I was finally buying my own records, that association between adulthood and comedy albums lingered. While my peers were devoting their music-purchasing pennies exclusively to whatever bands seemed cool at the moment — well, and Weird “Al” Yankovic, who occupied his own rare and prime place on the music world firmament — I made sure a portion of my modest budget went towards recordings of stand-up masters. That means one of the very first albums I bought with my own dollars was George Carlin’s Class Clown.

Released in 1972, the album is especially significant because of the inclusion of the routine that prompted me to pick this over other options: “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Two months before the album hit stores, Carlin was famously — or infamously, perhaps — arrested at Milwaukee’s Summerfest for performing the bit, and six years later it stood a key evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, prompted by a complaint about a DJ playing it on air. I didn’t really know all that when I bought the record. In the manner of the early teen boy I was, I just took pure delight in Carlin spending so much time talking about dirty words.

Now I can appreciate the levels of characteristic brilliance Carlin brings to it, including sly shots at ridiculous social mores, explication of the frailties of language, and the expert mix of bawdy and intellectual observations. Carlin delivered greater, more philosophically imposing material later in his career — in his inspired final phase — but the material contained on Class Clown still stands as compelling evidence in the argument for Carlin as one of the all-time stand-up greats.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

 

Laughing Matters: Covfefe the Strong

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too..

While I’m inclined to agree with the junior Senator from the great state of Minnesota in finding the sloppy midnight communication of a nonsense word on a free and open social media platform to be “the least disturbing thing in the history of the Trump administration,” I have great appreciation for the onrush of comedy it produced. In this time of national darkness, it is a gift to be able to laugh at one of the more harmless actions of a man evidently committed to causing great harm at every opportunity.

Others have exhaustively cataloged the responses to the garbled “covfefe.” I will merely present my favorite, gently marveling at the endless possibilities of a digital landscape where such splendid comic invention can arise and be shared with such rapidity.

covfefe the strong

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: Eddie Izzard, “Cake or Death?”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too..

As I recall it, the first time I ever encountered Eddie Izzard’s name was in a piece at the online magazine Salon, when online magazines were still the height of novelty. The comedy performances touted in the article were still devilishly hard to come by, so I simply filed the name away, deeply intrigued by the excited celebration of a comic mind that approached the world in a decidedly different way. And that was even without any consideration of Izzard’s self-identification as an “executive transvestite,” terminology still wildly foreign in the wilds of the late nineteen-nineties.

As is the cast with many, I suspect, my first true exposure to Izzard came in the special dubbed Dress to Kill, as perfect of an introduction as any performer could hope to have. I’ve now seen several Izzard performances — including, on a splendid night, a live show in Chicago — and I’m confident Dress to Kill is a grand comic mind at its most inspired.

Izzard has a loose style that recalls the improvisational sparking of Robin Williams, but there’s a deep, inquisitive intellect at play. That quality is rarely more evident than in the stretches in which Izzard — unlike practically any other person who makes a reasonable living standing on a stage and making people laugh — mines the strangeness of global history for his material.

There have been other bits that have made me laugh louder and harder — Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen comes to mind — but nothing exemplifies to me the unique brilliance of Izzard than when he finds a way to pose a deceptively simple question; “Cake or death?”

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: Mr. Show, “The Limits of Science”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too..

I spend my days writing about the latest surgical tools and medical advances. When my weary mind drifts, I invariably land on this sketch from the late, great Mr. Show.

“Leeches suck out the sick inside of you that witches put there.”

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: The Max Fischer Players

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

“She’s the smartest person in the world, general. I think we ought to listen to her.”

I love this with an intensity I’ll never be able to truly convey.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.