Somewhere back in the archives I talked about stand up comedy. Some comically-inclined fellows and I did a tribute show a couple years back showcasing our favorite comedians whose work inspired our developments. The sketches included Johnny Carson and Jack Webb's "Copper Clappers", Slovin and Allen's "Time Machine", Ron White's "Coup-ins", Louis CK on deer and wealth, and Newhart and Mo Collins "Stop It".
When it comes to consistently entertaining comedy I fine my favorites are Bob Newhart, Eddie Izzard, Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Tim Minchin. I enjoy the stylings of the Smothers brothers, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Robin Williams.
I don't care for Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Mort Sahl, Rodney Dangerfield, and others I'm sure.
Why I prefer one over the other I can't quite say. Part of it has to do with the freshness of the material. Lenny Bruce was, I know, revolutionary. But his jokes are so tied to his times and cultural references of his world that they don't age well.
Timing and delivery is part of it, and is a bit determined by personal tastes. I think John Cleese is masterful in Fawlty Towers, but I can't watch Ricky Gervais in The Office.
Lucille Ball makes me yawn, but Groucho Marx makes me laugh. Jon Carroll said that everything is funny. This, he elaborated, does not mean everything is funny for everyone, but that anything you can think of is funny to someone. My preference for Newhart over Phil Silvers or Buster Keaton over the three stooges is personal, not objective.
("Niagara Falls" is pretty damned brilliant, though.)
Training students to be comedians, as I do, makes this immediately apparent. Some jokes make my students laugh, sometimes only I'm laughing. Some bits make everyone laugh, though. I have begun to study which bits get everyone to laugh.
Often it is what John Wiswell describes when he gives the example of two scenarios involving a driving test. In one version the driving test doesn't go well, and an argument erupts between the instructor and student. The other version has the instructor kidnap the student and hold him for ransom for bizarre and paranoid reasons. Both may be fertile comic soil, yet the latter is possibly better for universal appeal due to its being unexpected and outrageous (which are oft conflated but not synonymous).
"What is it?"
What a wonderfully ripe comedic question. 'It' can be anything: a tiger, a dildo, one million dollars cash, a creme pie. In constructing a comedic scene you need to pick which of these things would be unexpected and amusing without entering the realm of the absurd. Absurd humor is fine, and funny if done right, but is one of the more difficult genres to recreate on the stage. The wildest offerings of absurdist theatre still must preserve some internal cohesion to preserve their audience. If a man asks 'what is it?' and gets the reply 'a leopard' you have the basis for an entire movie script.
The humor can come from silence, action, sounds, and reactions. What else is there for the actor to manipulate? Humor is societal. If a man burps after a meal on stage in America there may be comic appeal. In other countries it's merely a compliment to the chef. If what you do on stage is unexpected in society, and benign, you are likely creating comedy.
Then again, it need not be benign. Many find 'dark' humor in scenarios which, if recreated off-stage, would horrify us. Dr. Strangelove, if a reflection of reality, would be as monstrous as fluoridation. Infanticide is both tragic in reality, and the source of an entire category of jokes.
Recently I've been interested in the trend in American comedy to make the mundane humorous. I'm not sure what is driving this movement, but cannot help notice many others understand the appeal. I don't. But why I don't, I'm not quite sure.