comedy is empathy


    Ginger and I agree on most things in life, but one of the places where we differ is our disparate opinions of The Office. She can’t stand it and it cracks me up. I’m late to the show, actually, catching up these days with through cable reruns and well aware that the original British version is probably even funnier. I thought about the show today because I heard part of an NPR interview with Ricky Gervais, the creator of both series and the star of the British version. I stepped out between two catering gigs to grab a cup of coffee and a shot of thoughtfulness thrown in for free.

    Gervais has just finished a US stand up tour and was promoting an HBO special that is coming up. In the part of the interview I got to hear, he was talking a bit more philosophically about what comedy means and where it comes from. I’m fortunate that has a transcript of the part of the interview that I heard:

    “America is my mecca for entertainment. Everything I have ever loved has come out of America,” Gervais says. Those comics “taught me that you have to be at the bottom rung of the ladder. No one wants to see unfeasibly handsome, clever people doing things brilliantly; they want to see a putz struggling and falling over, and the important thing is getting back up again.”

    Gervais insists there is no place for a peacock in comedy. He says it’s all about being the everyman and maintaining a fallible persona that people can relate to. “There should be no machismo in a comedian because comedy is about empathy,” he says. “I think the audience doesn’t need to be told that your life is better than theirs.”

    In Out of England, Gervais comes onstage with a king’s crown and a rock star’s pomp, accompanied by fireworks and Queen’s “One World, One Vision.” His ostentatious entrance is a tongue-in-cheek jab at production values and the idea of celebrity.

    “Soon you find out that all my anecdotes of fame are about me being the underdog, me being embarrassed socially, depressed, everyone getting the better of me,” he says.

    Gervais says returning to stand-up has allowed him to discover the importance of physical comedy. He realized “what people liked was me acting out a scenario as opposed to just telling jokes,” he says. “Because comedy is empathy, most of the things we identify with are probably nonverbal. Body language and the way that you feel things are are more important than what you hear.”

    Comedy is empathy. He said it twice. Comedy is empathy.

    One of my favorite movies is an offbeat little comedy that was one of Luke and Owen Wilson’s first films: Bottle Rocket. The tag line to the movie was, They’re not really criminals, but everybody’s got to have a dream.” Owen plays Dignan, a lovable goof who thinks his seventy-five year plan to criminal success is the key to life. Luke plays his friend Andrew who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. Dignan sees his plan as salvation for them both and begins to put together a team. In the scene below, he’s interviewing Bob for the position of getaway driver.

    “That’s good. That’s good. ‘Cause it hits me right there.” Empathy.

    In another one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) says to one of his students, “We’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing near you.” Comedy is empathy.

    Empathy is identifying with the feelings and actions of someone else so much, as one dictionary put it, that when the batter swings the bat your muscles tense. It is identification, connectedness. The comic is not saying, “You’re like me,” but rather, “This is what it feels like to be in your skin.” Comedy is incarnational.

    I loved what he said and I thought about it as I was helping to prepare dinner tonight for a roomful of people I didn’t even see. I ran through several comedians in my mind and soon realized Gervais was not describing all of the comedy there is, but what he saw as comedy at its best. He was making a bold statement in a world filled with biting and cynical satire where comedy is mostly target practice. He was offering a powerful and gentle alternative.

    Though his words sent me thinking more metaphorically about comedy, particularly related to faith – Jesus as the original stand up comic – I wanted to pass along what I heard because it’s worth regarding someone who takes the time to think about what they do, about what they mean, and then moves to embody those thoughts with intentionality.

    That’s good. That’s good. ‘Cause it hits me right there.



    1. We we SO groove on movies and tv. Bottlerocket is one of my favorites of ALL TIME.

      Jeanene and I found the British Office early. I fell in love. Bought the entire dvd series. Not much considering there were 6 episodes in each of 2 seasons and a two hour finale.

      Recently we’ve been watching the American version and just exploding with laughter.

      Seen Flight of the Conchords?

    2. We love The Office Milton!!! We are still on season 4. Bought the DVD’s and playing catch up. Would love to know when the BBC Office is on tv. Do you know what channel it’s on?

    3. I think the Office is genius in its writing and the faces of those actors.However, lately I ‘ve heard more and more people comment on the “discomfort” factor of the show. It’s definitely empathy when you FEEL the Embarrassment!

    4. Jesus doing standup at the Improv — I can see that. “So, these two apostles walk into a temple…”

      Saw a license plate last week that said “MOEGOD”. My next thought was something about Larry Jesus and Curley the Holy Spirit, which made less than zero sense, but the absurdity of it was still good for a laugh.

    5. Milton, today is my first day reading your blog. I was pointed there by Bill Kinnon.

      I loved your comment that comedy is empathy. How true.

      It’s also humility. We are laughing at ourselves, at what we see as our own foibles and inability to get things right.

      My favourite time to watch the Office is on reruns that are shown on Air Canada flights. I’m a frequent flyer, and there’s no better place to be made aware of your own human condition than when you’re at 30,000 ft, such an unnatural place to be!

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