Quick sketch of a Hollywood friendship: I met DeeDee (not her real name, though coincidentally, it rhymes with her real name) when we both worked on a late-night talk-show pilot for ABC in the Eighties. Our pilot lost out to Into the Night with Rick Dees, leaving my career nowhere to go but up. DeeDee and I were close for over a year, even tried to write a screenplay together. I invited her to my wedding, and I’m told that she left early that night because she didn’t feel well.
Never spoke to her again.
I’m not mad that she left the wedding early. In fact, I don’t think I noticed. But she never called me again after that, and I never called her. (My nuptials were in the era P.E.M.–Pre E-Mail.) I suppose my wife and I were a little, shall we say, confused that she left the reception and never called to say “thanks for having me, the ceremony was lovely, but a vicious charley-horse kicked in after the hora.” Or something. Oh, and she didn’t send a gift. Come to think of it, I’m pretty ticked. She ate the food, where’s our deep fryer?
None of which matters. What matters is that DeeDee used to work as a contestant coordinator on one of our nation’s more durable dating-oriented game shows, and she told me something that stayed with me. Every single person she ever interviewed said they wanted their mate to have a sense of humor. Almost all of these same people believed they had an evolved funny bone of their own. Apparently, not even the dullest person says, “I don’t have much of a sense of humor,” just as dictators never go, “Yeah, I guess I am kinda evil.”
Now then, if we can extrapolate from the population of TV dating show wanna-be-ons to Americans at large, we can deduce that as a nation most of us like a good laugh, and we think we are ourselves pretty freakin’ funny to boot. Meanwhile, I am willing to wager that if there were a version of the same show in, say, Finland, the Finnish contestants would not be telling the Finnish DeeDee that they were all about the chuckles. America is a funny country. We value humor.
So explain to me, then, Gallagher.
I’m sorry, that’s not fair to Gallagher. As balding stand-up comics who smash fruit with sledgehammers go, he’s actually pretty good. So is his brother Ron, incidentally, who looked enough like him to go around doing his act, until Gallagher v. Gallagher II was filed by certain high-powered attorneys.
But Gallagher is wildly successful. His concerts, videotapes, and paraphernalia (Galla-gear, according to his website) have made him…oh, well, I don’t really know how much money, but I live near Howie Mandel, and his house is huge. So I bet Gallagher must have done pretty well, too.
The fact is, the landscape of American comedy is dotted with enormously popular but spectacularly unfunny things. Things no one should laugh at. (Perhaps those of you intrepid enough to run my credits on imdb.com will say I’ve written a few things exactly like that.) And yet, every time I try to think of a specific example, I imagine I am insulting large numbers of people. “Hey, I love Rich Little!” “How can you slam Billy Crystal?” “Home Improvement made a ton of money!”
And while I will submit that transvestite comic Eddie Izzard’s HBO special Dress to Kill is the single most brilliant comedic artifact ever, I can imagine a great number of people rolling their eyes and going back to listening to their local Morning Zoo radio show, which is the sort of thing that makes me want to leap into that tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium where until recently they had a great white shark. (Amazing, the things you know because you have kids.)
Because who, after all, is to say? We have no National Arbiter of Comedy. (I nominate my friend Howard, not because he would be that good at it, but because it would bring him great joy.) We all know that we want to laugh, but each of us decides for ourself what to laugh at. This puzzle torments those of us in the comedy industry. Frankly, it would simplify things greatly if you all laughed at the same things. I would suggest further that you might want to consider laughing at the exact same things that I laugh at.
Sadly, I know that won’t happen, because the key to the puzzle exists in the very phrase “sense of humor.” What’s truly funny is a matter of sense, not objective fact. Things that smell good to me might not smell good to you (a distinction my wife makes quite often), so why shouldn’t it be so with comedy? Hence, the guy in your office who thinks his “Fat Bastard” impression is a riot, and further hence, the gal who thinks he is a scream and asks him to say “dead sexy” over and over. Furthest hence, the fart joke two sentences ago, which I quite liked, but would make my friend Howard sad. And that’s why Gallagher has legions of devoted fans, because the sense of humor is a delicate and undeniable seventh sense, with the sixth of course being the ability to see dead people.
Which reminds me of a story.
My wife and I went to see M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. I am a sucker for a good twist, and the whole thing worked just great for me. (I was similarly pleased by The Usual Suspects and displeased by The Crying Game. She was so cute!) Then, as we were walking out, my wife said she had found five of the signs, but not the sixth.
“What?” I said with the kind of confusion she has come to expect from me.
“I counted five signs, but I didn’t see the sixth sign.” I pointed to the nearby poster advertising The Sixth Sense.
“Oh,” she said. “Crap.”
Now, in my opinion, that’s funny.
–Warren Bell, an NRO contributor, is a 15-year veteran of the sitcom business and a not-so-secret conservative.