The Straight Man – Comedy’s Punching Bag

I’ve written a few screeds about comedy, and how it works, as though I know a damn thing about anything. But I actually do, so here we go.

I’ve spoken a few times about the concepts of comedy, and the differences between punching up and punching down. But today I want to talk about The Straight Man, the unsung hero of every joke ever.

Every joke has its straight man, or concept. The rigid, conformist element around which the comic foil can wrap themselves. And it is wrapped, and clinging for dear life. Comedy requires support, or it’s just yelling. That’s true of pretty much anything. But especially comedy, as it usually requires an element of expense.

Take the classic, “Who’s on First.” The duo’s humor is dependent upon the straight man’s inability to logically explain to the foil the meaning of the baseball program. The humor is derived not just from the misunderstanding of the foil, but from the increasing frustration of the Straight Man.

Pictured, DWTS Champions 1943-1951

Were this a conversation that was actually happening, it would be infuriating, to the point that the straight man would quit and walk away out of frustration. It’s often said that comedy is a tragedy happening to someone else.

But this is a scripted bit. The beats of it are carefully measured. It’s more accurately described as a dance than a conversation, and the art with which the two performers interweave is what suspends the comedic tension without bursting it. So ultimately, both parties are bringing an equal energy to the project, and the end results are a consensual affair.

Improv comedy is a series of techniques that performers use to build sketches in real time based on audience suggestions. Though the art is only bounded by the performance itself, there are a few rules – keep open other people’s offers, and don’t say no. The cardinal rule has always been, “Yes, and…”

  • I have a dog – Yes, and it’s biting me
  • It’s Monday – Yes, and it’s raining hotdogs
  • The sun is shining – Yes, and its perfect weather to use my magnifying glass!
  • It’s raining hotdogs – Yes, and… wait, is it still Monday? Monday is the hotdog day, I thought.

Accept the offer and run.

There’s an anecdote that offers explanation as to why Joan Rivers wasn’t invited to do a lot of sketch comedy with her peers. Del Close, often cited as a master of the art of improv comedy, recalled in his book, Truth in Comedy, the moment Joan ruined her improv career. During a scene with him wherein they played a married couple in the middle of an argument.

“I want a divorce.” Joan said. “Honey, what about the children!” Del said. “We don’t have any children!” Joan replies.

Joan got a quick dose of cheap laughter for that one joke, but the rest of the scene fizzled and broke down after that. Joan sucked the energy out of the scene by breaking both rules at once – ignoring her partner’s offer, and flat-out denying him.

There is a great deal of evidence that Joan Rivers was an excellent stand up comedian, and a marvelous host and MC. What she was not was a team player.

Or a makeup artist.

One of the major reasons I have clung so stringently to the performing arts is not out of a rabid desire to be the modern-day Fanny Brice. I will admit that there is some of that there, but that’s certainly not the only, or even the most pressing reason.

I found myself drawn to the arts as a child with undiagnosed autism because, in the theater, lessons were being taught about HOW TO BE HUMAN. In real time! Students read scripts of human scenarios, taking on one of the person-roles in the script, and then a lesson would develop.

For those who focused on comedy, these were lessons on What Not to Do. Most comedy scenarios were centered on a misunderstanding or a mistake, and the reward of the scene came not only from the resolution of its own story line, but from gaming the scenario afterward and determining better courses of action than the characters had undertaken.

This is invaluable information for anyone on any part of the neurospectrum. And I certainly can’t speak for everyone with autism who has studied the performing arts, but scene study, and particularly actor study, gave me a better understanding of what would be considered “appropriate” facial expressions. Listening to creative turns of phrase forced me to look up the various idioms and metaphors that I didn’t understand – which in turn gave me a greater, more thorough understanding of them than even the people who had used them in the first place.

I don’t have a lot of energy when I get home.

So, it is perhaps both to my benefit and my disadvantage that my public persona was so carefully cultivated. The benefit comes when people are surprised by my poise and presence, and impressed with my command of conversation and the fluidity of my discourse. It is definitely a disadvantage, however, when I rely too heavily on these rules of engagement, and forget that a great many people don’t actually know them, and are just flapping around reality like a bird that accidentally flew into the kitchen. In these instances, I find myself getting clawed, or winged, or otherwise pummeled on my way to open the window over the sink so the poor thing can get out.

Recently, I thought I was entering a conversation at an appropriate point. It was previously suggested that I was welcome in this conversation (though I’m beginning to believe that was not actually true). I had listened for cues and pauses in people’s speaking patterns (though that’s hardly a foolproof method), and entered at an appropriate point with an anecdote relevant to the ongoing topic.

Though no sooner was I able to say “I’ve been reading about how such and such is doing this–” before a participant in the conversation looked up and said, loudly, “NO THEY DON’T!”  Everyone (else) laughed. I removed myself from the conversation, cursing myself for attempting to join it in the first place.

In this instance, not only was I excluded from a conversation, I was ejected, and, by stepping on my line with a swift denial, the person in question both A.) stole my joke and B.) used me as the butt of theirs.

I wish I had an empty industrial room with a concrete floor to vent my rage in. What happened to the one I … oh, right, I left it in South Carolina and someone else lives in that house now.

This is the kind of thing that can, and does (and should), fill me with incandescent rage, and resentment of humanity in general. After all, I am trying here. I don’t do humanity effortlessly. Every day is a challenge, from guarding my every facial expression, to keeping track of what other people are paying attention to, straining to understand other people’s words thanks to my processing delays, and struggling to compose my own aural sentences, thanks again to my processing delays. I don’t get to have an effortless conversation, I only get to occasionally eject a sentiment that I have carefully crafted and arranged to come out of my mouth in such a way, and even then, I run the risk of stumbling.

So, when people step on me in the middle of a phrase, or talk over me when I’m trying to speak, which happens roughly 70% of the time that I try to say anything, is it any wonder that my thoughts end up evolving into multi page essays and treatises on human behavior? Before there’s a warning sign, there has to be a problem. And, ultimately, the problem here is that I’m playing with rules, and no one else is. I’m following carefully practiced lines of protocol and adhering to the rules of engagement, and these things only serve me well until I run into someone who functions like a free radical, eroding the structure of discourse and flapping their jaws for attention, irrespective of purpose or direction.

The Straight Man is supposed to be in on the bit. If you’re just using someone else to get laughs, you’re a bully who knows some jokes. Make sure you’re actually punching up before you swing a fist. Those things hurt.

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