And that Was Just the Girls!....
As it slowly recedes into the past, the wonders of twentieth-century American popular culture appear ever more wonderful, and remarkable. Jazz, musical comedy, Hollywood movies, popular song, and rock and roll deservedly get a lot of attention. But not so much for another uniquely American creation, standup comedy. It takes many forms, of course, as is merely suggested by listing such names as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Klein, Richard Pryor, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Watching the telecast of the Golden Globes Awards this past Monday put me in mind of one particular standup artifact. The hosts for the event were Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, wearing glamorous movie-star dresses (about which more in a minute). Besides their many other attributes, the two have a smart and deep appreciation for comedy and its traditions. The particular joke I have in mind came a few minutes into their opening monologue (duologue?). They're running through some of the nominees and Fey says: "'The Hunger Games' was one of the biggest films of the year ... and also what I call the six weeks it took me to get into this dress!"
Then Pohler: "Ang Lee's been nominated for 'The Life of Pi' ... which is what I call the six weeks after I took this dress off!"
You can see the video on YouTube:
Ok, so admittedly those are dumb jokes. But they're genius, too, or rather a lovingly presented example of a particular standup trope that has a special place in my heart. Basically, it's a certain kind of play on words, similar to the "daffynition," which Wikipedia defines as "a pun format involving the reinterpretation of an existing word, on the basis that it sounds like another word (or group of words)." The standup version is to play off a title or common phrase, and follow it or precede it by a surprising but credible interpretation. The element of surprise, the perfect wording, and the comic's (usually winking) attitude provides the humor.
So on the talk shows of my youth, Bob Hope might be on and say, "But I wanna tell you, I was at a banquet the other night and saw Raquel Welch sitting next to Paul Lynde. Now that's what I call The Odd Couple!"
A variation is to pull out the catch-phrase in response to what someone else said. One of the defining characteristics of Steve Carrell's character Michael Scott on NBC's "The Office" is a variation on this gag. Thus, one of his co-workers will say on a summer's day, "Man, it sure is hot and sticky." Scott: "That's what she said." (One of the many brilliant things about the Michael Scott character is that he'll say, "That's what she said" when it doesn't really make sense.")
My daughter, Elizabeth Yagoda (incidentally a big fan of Fey and Pohler), has a similar go-to line. Someone will say, oh, "It took forever for the subway to get there" and she'll come back with: "Sounds like my Saturday night!"
I know these jokes have no intellectual content or social commentary. In fact, they are silly. But they have the beauty of a perfectly constructed machine, they honor a great tradition, and they give me joy.
That's what she said.