Johnny Carson: On Comedy

Johnny Carson
On Comedy

It’s right there in the liner notes. I’m referring to the problem with Johnny Carson On Comedy, a new CD from The creator of the disc, Larry Wilde, is a motivational speaker; it says so in his bio in the credits section. He’s also the founder of the Carmel Institute of Humor and something called National Humor Month.

Larry would no doubt disagree with me, but his livelihood is a mostly useless enterprise. Comedy as an art form is perhaps the one topic that makes funny people resoundingly, universally, unbearably unfunny. Every attempt to distill rules for comedy, from Aristotle to Alan King, has failed miserably. Comedy theory, if anyone took it seriously enough to use it in real life, would no doubt produce work even duller than the work wrought from the same impulses in painting and music.

I’m reminded of the moment at a temp job when I happened across marketing materials for an HR consulting firm. The cutely designed pamphlet advocated taking a Marxist approach to employee relations. On my way to notify HUAC, I noticed the fine print: “A Groucho Marxist approach” — corporate comedy for better employee relations, or something like that. It strikes me as the kind of idea Larry Wilde could get behind: humor institutionalized like casual Fridays.

Wilde brings his high-minded approach to his interview with Johnny Carson as well. Instead of an investigation into the roots of Carson’s work, Wilde provides a forum — an interrogation room, really — for Carson to pontificate on the metaphysics of comedy. Johnny can scarcely get an anecdote in edgewise before Wilde cuts him off with a quote from Emerson. Though Carson repeats over and over that comedy cannot be taught, Wilde refuses to let it go. He probes on and on, searching for the right long-winded question to reveal all secrets, the holy grail of funny.

There are good things about Wilde’s disc, but they mostly occur in asides. Johnny’s stories about growing up in Nebraska are as endearing as you’d expect. I particularly enjoyed his take on the comedy scene of the late sixties: Bob Hope is still the master, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks are going places, Mort Sahl should lay off the politics and get back to being funny. It’s an hour with Johnny Carson, after all; and as bears remembering in these dark days of Leno, that can be a mighty good thing.

So why does Wilde have to make it all so damn clinical? There are all sorts of answers. Maybe he’s a consultant type by nature. The charge of failed comedian could certainly be leveled. But I prefer to think he’s just a fan who wants to know more about his particular obsession and has decided to go about it all wrong. That he’s chosen the most elusive of all art forms is nobody’s fault. We’d all like to know what makes a person funny; it’s just that some of us have stopped looking and learned that we aren’t going to find an answer. We just accept comedy as a blessing and leave theory to the theorists. Maybe Larry Wilde will one day, too.