Why is he wearing a cat? Because it's funny. Off-Ramp for July 21, 2012

The roots of humor — David Misch and 'Funny, the Book'

Courtesy David Misch

David Misch with Kermit (right) on the set of "The Muppets Take Manhattan"

Courtesy David Misch

David Misch on the set of "Mork and Mindy."

Courtesy David Misch

David Misch, as he appears today, in a nice green sweater.


David Misch began his long comedy career as a standup in Boston and New York, got his first TV gig writing for the sitcom "Mork and Mindy," and wrote many episodes of a great cartoon series starring the voice of Jason Alexander, "Duckman."

Now, he's written the definitive book on the art and history of humor, "Funny, the Book," which he bills as "The single most popular book on comedy ever written by David Misch this year!"

He explained the book to Off-Ramp commentator Hank Rosenfeld at Izzy's Deli in Santa Monica.

On statistics that say childen laugh up to 300 times a day, adults less than 20 times:
This is actually a study that showed that and I believe it's an explanation for why young people live so much longer than old people.

On where comedy tropes like "slapstick" originate:
The term slapstick originally comes from Commedia dell'Arte, they had oly a few props, but one of them was a board with two wooden slats which they used to hit people and the person would fall down and because it made that noise it would sound even funnier. It was called the batacchio, which in english means slap stick, and when it was adapted to Vaudeville in the 1920s and 30s in America, they would use a goat bladder stretched on a board, which I am fine with, except I just don't like envisioning how they got it.

On how laughter plays into John Wilkes Boothe's assassination of Lincoln:
Boothe was, in addition to being a Confederate sympathizer, as most people could figure out, he was also a prominent actor. He used his fame to get into Lincoln's box during the performance of "Our American Cousin," which was a well-known comedy of the time, and he waited for a specific line that he knew would get a laugh. And the laugh was "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well I know enough to turn you inside-out you sockdologizing old man trap!" So sockdologizing means manipulative, but my God who wouldn't want to say sockdologizing, it's much more fun, it just rolls off the tongue. Boothe waited until that line got a laugh, then he fired hoping the sound of the gunshot would be muffled by the uproarious laughter, but evidently he was wrong because people did notice that the President had been shot.

On how comedy was once considered taboo:
It was actually considered bad for most of history, it started with Plato and Aristotle, those hacks. They claimed that it was bad because it indicated a moral failing on the part of the laugher. That is that you would laugh at the misfortune of other people. This whole feeling that laughter was somehow an indication of a bad character lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years, to the point where many people derided it as the "mind sneezing," the hiccup of a fool, invariably injurious and sometimes fatal.

On how comedy is God:
Some people may consider that as bit of a leap, but the reason I think that is that comedy is directly related to spirituality in that the key to laughter is surprise. I say in the book that Peek-A-Boo is everyone's first comedy routine. The key to Peek-A-Boo is that its a sudden unexpected revelation.

Another version of that is a very different phenomenon called religious ecstasy, which all the saints had, they had this moment of blinding revelation, well that's frequently defined as a sudden unexpected revelation. Same as Peek-A-Boo. So the relationship between laughter and religious ecstasy draws a direct line between Joan of Arc and your baby cousin.

But the other interesting thing is what do we do in that moment of laughter, we're outside ourselves, we're somehow in touch with something larger, same thing with religious ecstasy where people feel that they see God, and that's true of another phenomenon, orgasm. Where we're out of ourselves, we're feeling pure bliss, pure ecstasy, and the relationship between laughter, religious ecstasy and orgasm is something I would go into, but I really feel more comfortable if everyone involved has a few drinks.

Misch reads from "Funny, the Book" at Book Soup in in Hollywood on July 26. Get tickets here.

Read a brief excerpt from "Funny, The Book:"
Excerpt from "Funny, the Book"


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