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Misch answers 'What's so funny?'

 


It’s funny we should talk with David Misch, author of Funny: the Book.

Misch is doing a presentation he calls “The History of Ha” in Portland this Monday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, 6651 S. Capitol Highway. Granted, Portland as a sphere of influence extends roughly to the middle of Idaho, but still some consider it something of a pill to drive into. There are reasons, however, why those beyond its city limits might want to attend Misch’s appearance.

Perhaps it helps to share who he is, as some are wont to know such things. Besides being author of what is perhaps the best book on the history and development of humor, Misch is also a veteran writer of some of the best—and least—known TV shows. One of his earliest gigs, for example, was as a writer on Mork and Mindy, the show that gained Robin Williams his first broad-based stardom.

We asked Misch if he was responsible for Williams’ famed catchphrase on the show, “Nanu nanu,” anticipating perhaps he came up with just the second syllable. As it happens, we were close. “What I usually say is that I’m responsible for the second ‘nanu,’” he says. “A guy named Paul McKraven came up with the first one, but that’s just a lie—he came up with both of them.”

One of the best received gags on the show did spring from Misch’s fertile comic mind, though he acknowledges it was inspired by Williams. “In the first episode of Mork and Mindy,” he shares, “Mork came to earth in an egg and therefore thought that’s how all astronauts traveled. When he gets to Mindy’s apartment, he sees a carton of eggs and he assumes it’s a spaceship of astronauts, so he takes one out and says, ‘Fly, be free,’ and throws it in the air, and it plops to the counter and splat! It got a huge laugh from the audience, and I was very pleased because it was my idea. However, it was my idea based on the fact that I had seen Robin’s act, and he would often go into the audience, he might take a fork from the table and say, ‘Fly, be free,’ then let the fork go. So it was an inadvertent collaboration on Robin’s part with me, but I’ll take full credit.”

Misch plugged away on Mork and Mindy for about two years, and he says it was easy to burn out on it, given the fact that its team of writers often languished over lines into wee hours of many mornings. “Our joke was, ‘We were up to 4 in the morning writing Robin’s ad libs.’ A lot of people thought he just ad libbed the show, but he did not. He’s a genius as an improviser, but you can’t improvise a weekly TV show, and he would have killed us if we didn’t have his lines.” Williams had a gift of taking the lines and turning them into memorable laughs, but coming up with the myriad of lines required each week for Williams’ fast-paced delivery was a challenge. “We would get to work relatively late, like 10 in the morning, and then we’d be there until 11, 12 at night, one, two, three, four in the morning. And it was just every day, sometimes Saturdays. Sundays we did get off, but you can just barely get your life together then. I think there were one or two garment workers in China who had it worse than we did.”

Then there was Duckman, a cult-favorite animated series that ran from 1994 to 1997 with which Misch was closely involved. Misch is asked if Duckman is one of those rare TV shows destined to be remembered centuries from now.

“Is that remembered now?” Misch responds wryly. “Maybe it is yet to be discovered. I’m really proud of Duckman. I think it is one of the great animated shows ever. The New York Times called it a national treasure, and it got two Emmy nominations. It wasn’t completely obscure at the time, but it took 10 years to get the DVD out for legal reasons. I know the South Park guys loved it, but most people don’t know it, and it remains to be rediscovered.”

And now there is Funny: the Book. Misch acknowledges that the book is his long answer to the question, “What’s so funny?”

“I’ve always been interested in behind-the-scene stuff,” he says. “I’m fascinated by how movies and TV shows get made, but I’m also fascinated by how paintings and ballets and everything get made. Some people say it destroys the thing, but I think it enhances it when you find out how that works. People just think, ‘Oh, it’s the genius and it just flows out of you.’ No, it’s hard work, and I love seeing how something that ends up seeming so effortless and brilliant is actually the result of incredible hard work and talent.”

But many conclude that surely can’t be true of comedy. Misch’s book deconstructs that fallacy and shows the structure and history of humor in a way that is itself totally amusing. “I think most people think comedy is this silly fun thing, and it’s easily dismissed as an art form, although we all enjoy it. And I think that’s not true. I’ve worked in it, so I know the hard work and the intelligence and craft that goes into it, and I wanted to try and give people a sense of that, the sense of this long history and a sense of why people value it and the incredible talent and skill and time that goes into making it.”

Underlying all the fun stuff, Misch contends and writes about in Funny, is a core of philosophical profundity. Near the end of the book, he discusses the deeper meaning of comedy. “I’m an aggregator,” he says. “I get a huge amount of research, and then I try to bring that research into a sort of funny and coherent whole. I want a book about comedy to be funny as well as about funny. But the amount of original thinking in there is relatively small except at the end where I really try to put together a lot of the theories of comedy and why it’s important to humanity. I come up with my own nice little thoughts on it, and so I’m proud of that because it’s not just repeating what other people say with jokes.”

For example, Misch shares in the book how funny death can be. Sort of. “Comedy is really one of the major ways humans have of defying death,” he states. “We can’t deny it; we try, but we can’t—we know it’s there. We’re constantly reminded of it, but with comedy we can stick our tongues out and be like, ‘We’re not dead yet, and we’ll prove it by being outrageous or ridiculous and showing how there is tremendous life left in us.’ So I try to bolster my case with people like Shakespeare and Umberto Eco and people like that who I think have intimated similar things. And Woody Allen, who for many years was obsessed with death. One of his many great quotes about death is, ‘I don’t mind the idea of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’”

Clearly, then, it would serve one well to ask not for whom the bell tolls but rather go see David Misch in Portland Monday night.

 

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