I've spent a lot of time trying to decide what was funny, trying to be funny. Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers -- they were either the classy Three Stooges or the cheap, imitation Marx Brothers -- still owes me $300 for 20 minutes of jokes.
I think about what makes something funny when I review a comedy, particularly a comedy that isn't funny.
That's what happened to Imus, I think. Yes, offensive. In his private life he may not be a bigot but he certainly plays one on TV. He's been doing it for 30 years. What was different this time? He wasn't funny.
In a piece in this Sunday's New York Times opinion section (one of three on the Imus mess), Randy Kennedy quotes Woody Allen (actually Alan Alda reading Allen's lines in "Crimes and Misdemeanors"): Comedy is "tragedy plus time."
He also quotes Steve Martin, another smart and literate comic. "It's what makes you laugh but not puke."
There is a murky boundary between funny and pain. Woody Allen's character, for example, believes he has a brain tumor. He doesn't, it's funny. He does? Not funny.
In the last Inspector Clouseau movie, Steve Martin pulls up in front of police headquarters between two parked cars -- way between two parked cars, maybe 50 yards between two parked cars.
He pulls up at the curb, backs up 25 yards until he hits, bangs and dents the car behind him. Then he goes forward 50 yards till he hits, bangs and dents the car in front of him. Then he backs up 25 yards, equidistant between the two cars with newly junked front ends, gets out of his car and, jaunty and jolly, goes off to work.
But if the hood on the car behind him had a pussy catnapping on it and the cat was eviscerated, and if the rear bumper on the car in front of him had a birds' nest full of baby birds on it and the birds were all crushed we'd puke instead of laugh.
The rule is we need to know no one gets hurt before we laugh.
A guy trips on a banana peel, he stands up, dusts himself off, he's fine, we laugh. The simplest of jokes: Make a funny face for a baby. If the baby is frightened he or she will cry; if the baby feels secure he or she will laugh.
In cartoons virtually anything goes. Tweety Bird makes an Immelman turn out a 20-story window, Sylvester the Cat dives after him, falls, hits the ground in an accordion fold. We hear the sounds of an accordion being pumped out of air, a couple of black-and-white keys fall out of Sylvester's mouth…
I could go on here. Warner Bros. always did and it was always funny because we knew nothing was going to happen to Sylvester. Or Bugs, or Daffy, or Yosemite Sam, or Wiley Coyote.
That's why I've specifically called out the Garfield movies in my reviews. Garfield is animated, CGI, he can't be hurt, he doesn't exist. But everyone else in the film is a living human being and when the kid throws Garfield out the window, I wonder if kids watching the film are old enough to understand the difference or will one or two or a few throw their cat out the window to see if it does what Garfield does? Not funny.