Thursday, September 17, 2009

Expectations and Comedy: "The Story of Everest"

It's been said that deconstructing why a joke is funny is a great way to make sure that joke will never be as funny again. In a lot of cases, this is true. Especially if you're right in the moment when someone's told a joke or something funny has happened, and somebody goes, "Oh my god, that's hilarious. Because we were all expecting ________ and instead ________ happened and wow, that is funny." Awkward silence follows.

But since this is a blog, far from being in the moment, and because we touched on the essence of comedy in class the other day, I've picked a personal favorite sketch that shows, rather blatantly, just how effective the manipulation of expectations can be in comedy. In a way, comedy is all about expectations. The comedian manipulates the audience to expect one thing, then either delivers just that, or sideswipes them with something completely unexpected, in such a way that forces them to laugh. Sometimes it's about diversion, other times it's about delivering exactly what you get them to expect. It depends on the context, of course. So, without further ado, Mr. Show's "The Story of Everest."

I have watched this sketch countless times and, in all honesty, I have not been able to watch it without laughing out loud, each time, and with progressively more gusto. It's slapstick, but it's very strategic slapstick.

It begins by exploiting the audience's complete lack of expectation. Thomas (played by recurring cast member, Jay Johnston) arrives, greets his parents, and begins telling his tale of conquering Everest. The audience chuckles at the folksy, super-cheesy acting of the cast, perhaps because they think the words will be the source of the joke. That's the diversion, right there. Like a magician, the writers divert our attention to something we immediately perceive, all the while carefully setting up the trick. The man is telling his story with full conviction, and his parents react to every word with gasps and awe. All the while, the man is stepping back, ever further...

When he falls, it's completely out of nowhere and our laughter comes from a very instinctual place. The pure physical prowess that Johnston displays in executing a rehearsed fall and making it look completely spontaneous and accidental is something to be admired, and it's the primary reason the fall continues to be funny for each of the SIX times that follow.

But there are other elements to be considered in the subsequent instances. The fade in/fade out, set to the same piece of music, becomes comical when repeated and allows us to recover from the last fall and sets our expectations for the next. The writers know we are expecting more falls, so they come up with different ways to surprise us, or make us wait longer than we expect. Personally, the fall that makes me laugh the hardest is probably the last one (4:29): the moment of silence right before the loud violence of the fall usually has me giggling before it even happens. The last two are the best because they're the most ridiculous, really. To fall that violently from a fixed position is pretty much impossible. Which, of course, is the most important element to the comedy: the absurd.

Mr. Show (created by David Cross & Bob Odenkirk) was all about the absurd and, at its best, it was a Master Class in Absurdity. If, unlike me, you were unimpressed with this sketch, I hope you can at least appreciate the craft of it and, further, I urge you to give a few of their other sketches a try. These guys were masters.

The Pre-Taped Call-In Show

The Audition

I'll Marry Your Stupid Ass


  1. I think I have said this before, but the Pre-taped call in show has got to be my favorite sketch. It is so hard trying to figure out what is going on and why these people are idiots until it uses one of my favorite comedic devices and builds and builds and builds until Cross absolutely loses it and it backs out to show you exactly how stupid this all is and comes crashing down hard. In fact, I know what I am gonna do for the next five minutes

  2. That one is amazing. And I love how the further back the footage goes, the more hair he has on his head. Such a great touch. All of it is brilliantly timed.