This interview first appeared online in Gothamist.com October 24th ,2007.
Being funny is a very valuable skill. Think about it, do you think Jerry Seinfeld’s ever going to find himself lost in the woods with nothing but the stars and his wits to guide him to safety, or that Steve Martin’s ever going to have to worry about not having enough money for the meter? No, of course not. And neither will you if you read and memorize all of the comedy secrets contained within Comedy by the Numbers. Gothamist spoke with Gary Rudoren, one of the authors of Comedy by the Numbers , to see if there were any hesitations about revealing what it takes to be as funny as the greats, which led to a philosophical inquiry on the nature of evil as well as Gary’s plans to raise a pair of ultra-hilarious twins.
You warn the readers of Comedy by the Numbers that priest molestation humor might not be in vogue by the time they read the book and that they should consult their local scene for what’s in and what’s out. What types of humor have gone out of vogue since you wrote the book?
Well, we find ourselves at a distressing moment in history where it’s old hat to wring laughs from the idiocy and incompetence of the Bush administration and it’s too early to satirize the idiocy and incompetence of Bush in his ex-presidency. So we’re in a comedic grey area. Or gray area. I’m never sure which is the right way to spell that. Although these are uneasy times for political humor, optimistically, I predict if Guiliani gets the nomination, there will be a comedy gold rush! Rudy has embraced many of the numbers from our book including #10, 27, 28, 41,57,85, 98, 112, 117, 121 and 125. Thanks Rudy! And don’t stop being you – comedy will thank you!
What types of humor do you label as having worn out their welcome?
Berlin Wall jokes, little-girl-trapped-in-a-well humor, and apartheid chuckles, for example are all out of vogue and also, I sense that “millennium = disaster” jokes are finally over.
The book has the power to can turn the unfunny into the funny and the funny into the hilarious, but it seems like this great power could also be used for malicious intent. Did you have any apprehensions about revealing those secrets?
Amazingly we had zero apprehensions. Eric Hoffman, my co-author, and I believe, quite strongly, that we live in a world with too many secrets, and we also believe, albeit a little less strongly, that we should be considered heroes, humble heroes, for revealing the secrets of comedy in our book. We further believe that those with malicious intent, who also have $14, shouldn’t be forbidden from purchasing our book.
Is it possible for humor to be used for evil?
Possible, sure, anything is possible. Do you really think you should use the word “possible” in your question, Ben? That seems to me like something a bad lawyer would ask, not a sharp web-erviewer like yourself. In the future, keep in mind that using the word “possible” in a question can lead to vague, uninformative, even rambling answers. Also, I’m not sure what you mean by evil. Do you mean “Hitler-evil” or “Someone-with-12-items-in-a-10-item-express-lane evil?”
Well, certainly someone with Hitler-esq intentions would benefit from funnying up their speeches and the lessons contained within Comedy by the Numbers could lead to pranking, but I wouldn’t consider pranking, or using the express lane with 2 extra items, an act of evil, unless that prank were murder. What are some acts that you, personally, consider evil and how would they be affected if their perpetrator read Comedy by The Numbers?
In our book, under #72-Microphone Bits, we point out that the microphone is responsible for WW II because without it, Hitler would never have been able to reach the people in the back of the crowd and surely his hateful anti-semitism would never have swept the nation if only heard by the first few rows. Yes, there are truly evil acts like war and the holocaust which are tougher to find humor in, but I believe there are also everyday evils like the too-many-items-in-the-express-lane scenario that are infuriating when they happen to you. I consider cutting in line evil. I consider not signaling a left turn and trapping me in the lane behind you evil. I consider getting a lemon slice I didn’t ask for in my Diet Coke evil. Granted, I might need to work on my own personal definition of “evil.” Much of comedy can come from life’s little annoyances. I like to think our book will spur people on to expand their definition of humor targets – and then who knows what will happen?
Do you think malicious acts can be excused if they’re funny?
One man’s malicious act is another man’s high-larious prank. It’s all about perspective. Mel Brooks, certainly an icon for those who love their comedy black, has the best definition of comedy vs. tragedy. Tragedy is when you cut your finger. There’s a little blood, you have to get a bandage, some iodine, maybe go see a specialist – my god, you’ve cut your finger. Comedy is if you see someone else walking down the street fall into an open sewer hole and die. What do you care, it didn’t happen to you?
You recently had twins. How do you plan to indoctrinate them into the world of comedy?
We’ve decided on a grand experiment. My wife and I are already treating one of them as a control group; reading them the comic essays of Woody Allen and dangling a mobile of New Yorker cartoons over the crib. With the other one, we use the word “poop” a lot out of context and prop him up in a bouncy seat to watch South Park marathons.
If you wanted to, could you raise them to be the most hilarious comedy duo in history?
I’ve thought about almost nothing else since they were born, of course. Since we have a boy and a girl, we’re hoping to reach the heights of a Shields & Yarnell. As to “how”, I’m still too busy rubbing ointment on their little cracks to have a real game plan, but if all goes well please contact me again in a few years when they’ve emancipated themselves from us.
Have you exploited your children for humor in anyway, perhaps with a poo-poo or pee-pee joke?
In the book, which was written pre-babies, under #105, I intricately detailed the classic comedy scene where a baby shits on you while being changed. In “Groundhog Day” fashion, I re-live that snarky bit every day. I’m also creating a comprehensive list of names that I call my children while changing them including; Winston Poophill, Mary Poopins, Crapmaster, etc. you know, things like that.
You live in New York, but Eric Lives in LA. Which town is funnier and why?
This is going to be on Gothamist, right? Then New York is definitely funnier. One simple determining factor in my opinion (my scientific opinion) is the number of Jews in NY, which in any true mathematical explanation of comedy, counts for a large percentage of any city’s “Funny Index.” Sure, there are lots of Jews in LA, but many of them started as NY Jews. In our book, we explain the history of Jews in comedy under #63 – Jews & Their Idiosyncrasies. Please buy the book atMcSweeneys.net , please.
What is the funniest town in America, and the world?
One of the rules of comedy is to… break the rules! So, with that in mind, I’m ignoring what I just wrote about Jews in NY and telling you that Chicago tops the towns in funny in America. I recently wrote a piece on MSN.com detailing the logic, but most of the country’s funny people – Hebrew or not – have come through Chicago. As for the rest of the world, I reserve judgment until I’m able to make my “round-the-world-comedy-club” tour with my children a reality.
Chicago Vs. New York: Which has the best pizza?
I grew up in NY on thin crust pizza and then moved to Chicago where deep-dish pizza greatly influenced my life, but left me spiritually doughy. Now that I’ve returned to NY, I’m excited again about pizza that is cut into “pie” slices as opposed to squares (boo Chicago). Plus the fact that you can get a slice of pizza every eight feet in Manhattan is a big plus.
What is your strangest “Only in New York” experience?
True Story: Early on when we moved here last year, my wife Jodi who works for the NY Times, wanted to show me the new Times Building, which was under construction. We emerged from the subway at 42nd St. and as we were standing on 8th Ave. looking up at it, a seemingly drunk, seemingly homeless person came over to us and yelled; “That’s the New York Times building… Renzo Piano designed that building, Renzo Piano!” New York has the most knowledgeable street people in the world; you can quote me on that.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
One frustration I have as a pedestrian and a driver in Manhattan are the people who ignore the ‘Don’t Walk’ signs -almost willing cars to hit them as they stroll through an intersection and chat on their mobile phones. It’s like the city is a huge game of Frogger. Is it too much to ask that the Walk/Don’t Walk signs be tied into some invisible electric fence system?
Under what circumstances would you leave New York?
At this point only under suspicious circumstances. I grew up here, but just got back last year. I went to Chicago for a summer and stayed almost 20 years. I do love Chicago – it is truly an amazing city. During my time there I was able to juggle my lives as a slash – I’m also an architect and set designer, so I tried to keep pace with several careers, and in Chicago I was able to explore my passions including writing, theater, comedy, architecture and more. But being back in NY amongst family and friends has been personally re-invigorating. In this new phase here as East Coast Gary, I’ve been focusing on writing and theater – oh, and being a father too. I’m sorry this wasn’t a mostly smartass answer like the rest of them.
Is it possible for architecture to be funny?
Architecture isn’t the funniest of professions, but like any other profession, when you’re immersed in it, you can find the humor, albeit inside jokes. I’ve cracked up with other architects over stupid little things like the surprises you find on a job site – masonry coursing that doesn’t make sense, walls painted the wrong color, etc. It all fits into the “What were they thinking?” school of comedy. Then again you also get the whimsical architecture like the Donut Shack shaped as a donut and the Hot Dog Shack shaped as a hot dog and an Erotica shop shaped as a… well, you get the picture.
Are surprise and juxtaposition as effective in architecture as they are in humor?
Absolutely! Adding surprise and juxtaposition in your design as well as your comedy keeps the audience on its edge. If you telegraph humor or if you make your architectural moves obvious, you lose a great creative opportunity in my opinion. I love visiting a building that reveals itself to me more as I move through it and observe it. I love humor that keeps me guessing and takes unusual choices.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
“Most Admire” is a lot of pressure and probably doesn’t come with a plaque or anything, does it. I’m really not trying to cop out when I say this: I am a people watcher by nature and I love walking around this city checking out the seemingly infinite variety of people. Anything can happen in NY and anyone can make it happen. I admire a city where that feels true.
What do you consider to be the perfect day of recreation in New York?
One time, pre-children, my wife and I saw 4 movies in a day at different theaters in Brooklyn. That was pretty cool and admittedly pathetic at the same time. I only got popcorn twice by the way. If you haven’t strolled through Prospect Park, then you haven’t strolled.
What are some projects that you’re currently involved in or contemplating?
Ah, if only one could make a career out of project contemplation… a lucrative career. My co-author Eric Hoffman and I are doing what we can promoting our McSweeney’s book, Comedy By The Numbers. People can check outComedyByTheNumbers.com if they are in any way interested. We’re also working on furthering the adventures of “Prof. Hoffman & Dr. Rudoren” in other mediums like the television. We have a series of short films up on SuperDeluxe.com directed by Bob Odenkirk that highlight examples from the book like “Funny Names” and “Verbal Abuse.” Also, I’m currently teaching writing/solo performance at the Magnet Theater and also directing a group there. I’ve been doing freelancing writing of various kinds. Look, I’d love to find an outlet for my ideas because my wife isn’t paying me when I tell them to her. Cliché as it may sound; I’ve got stories I want to tell in various places on stage, screen and paper. Some of them I can’t wait to tell my kids too.