Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Adam Sandler and Bad Comedy

Humor is sublimated aggression. Instead of venting aggression by punching someone in the neck, people can instead crack jokes. Lucky for us.

The aggression can be directed towards an individual, towards a situation, or even towards reality. Why is putting on a suit of armor and smacking a guy in the head with a rubber chicken funny? Because it’s a symbolic extension of the middle finger to reality itself and people’s expectations.

The level of aggression and the target of the aggression have a great deal to do with a comic's style. Bob Newhart’s subject is the everyday world, and his quiet phone routines are a far cry from punching someone in the neck. Sam Kinison’s subject was humanity in general, and his screaming wasn’t that far away from a neck-punch. Yet still there was imagination and style to his work.

Then there’s the Failed Comic. You know the type. The sort of fellow who will shout at you, then suddenly say “just kidding!” and pretend it was a joke.

It’s not. Humor is sublimated aggression. That’s just plain aggression, with a “humorous” tail tacked on to protect the jerk from the fallout his “joke” merits. If you throw your rage out there, that’s not funny. Only when the rage is tailored for effect is it anything remotely resembling wit.

Adam Sandler is the most public example of a Failed Comic. Take the “joke” used in a promotion for his movie Mr. Deeds. Sandler shows his butler, John Turturro, his frostbitten foot, claiming it has no feeling at all. He invites the butler to hit the foot with a fireplace poker. After Turturro takes a few swings, Sandler suddenly shouts in agony and yells at Turturro. “Why did you do that? You’re sick! Sick!” Turturro backs off in horror. Sandler then pulls back and smiles, “Just kidding.”

What’s the source of the humor here? Sandler (and the audience) is supposed to find humor in making another person feel anguish, remorse and horror. The sudden shift from playful joking to shrieking pain and rage and back again is allegedly humorous.

The joke is about power. By pulling his prank, Sandler hurts Turturro emotionally, then pulls back “in jest” to prevent retaliation. Had he the stones, he could have simply punched Turturro in the gut, but that would have likely led to a straight fight. Had he wit, he could have established his power by something more sophisticated than the infliction of guilt by shrieking and weeping. It’s lame bullying humor. Weak. Just weak.