Comedy writer takes a serious look at laughter
Or at least he takes it seriously enough to write a book about it.
And the screenwriter will be in South Florida on Dec. 25 to talk about “Funny: The Book” at sessions in Palm Beach Gardens and Boynton Beach.
“The interesting thing is that laughter does come from some specific psychological components — surprise, patterns, resolution,” Mr. Misch says by phone from California. “They’re actually critical to every art form — music, dance, art.”
Mr. Misch probably knows a thing or two about comedy.
After all, his screenwriting credits include “Mork and Mindy,” “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Duckman.”
“Comedy is as interesting, profound and challenging as other art forms. Comedy doesn’t get the same respect as drama,” he says.
“I’m no longer an innocent,” he says. “Between the fact that I’ve been a comedy writer for 50 years now and all the things I’ve seen, it’s very difficult to get simple laughs out of me anymore. I love the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham.”
Still, it’s difficult for him to say what makes them funny.
“I think I probably can call myself an expert on comedy, but I am so not an expert on what is funny,” he says.
The reason for that is simple.
“No one’s sense of humor is better than another. What is funny is purely funny in the eye and the ear of the beholder,” he says. “What I can try to do is tell what is funny.”
But not why something is funny.
Now in his early 60s, Mr. Misch developed his comic talents as a teen.
By the early 1970s, he had a minor hit with the song “Somerville,” about the Massachusetts town that’s next to Cambridge.
“I was never a very good guitar player, but I did know enough chords to play a lovely melody. ‘Somerville’ I was quite proud of at that point,” he says.
He honed his comedy writing skills working in television and film.
“Doing things like ‘Mork’ and ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ was like being in the belly of the beast,” he says. “I loved being inside the innards, and seeing how Robin Williams did it. Rather than spoiling it, it increased my enjoyment njoyment of it to seeee the challenges of makng making it work.”work ”
Mr. Williams preferred keeping things light.
“While Robin could be serious and you could have a serious side to him, but what he enjoyed was playing,” Mr. Misch says. “Having a serious conversation was not his favorite thing to do. He enjoyed being on. That was what made him come alive.”
Even with a small group.
“An audience counts one person on up. Jonathan Winters could do a comedy bit by himself,” he says. Comedy goes back a long way. But even the Greeks were reluctant tan to mine laughs as they first created theatrical works. “It took 100 years for comedy to emerge theatrically. The first plays were tragedies,” Mr. Misch says. “Plato and Aristotle thought laughter was a bad thing. They thought you were laughing at people who were inferior to you.” That notion of laughter has been debated through the ages. Mr. Misch mentions the Umberto Eco novel, “In the Name of the Rose,” set in a medieval Italian monastery.
“One of the key elements was whether God laughed. Is laughter inherently heretical? Because if you can laugh at anything you can laugh at God,” he says. “Most theologians now say laughter is a gift.”
And it’s a gift that perhaps has not been given its due.
“To my mind, comedy and drama are equally important. I guess the more surprising thing is that there aren’t any real differences,” he says.
But it’s amazing what a difference a comma can make.
“The difference of getting a laugh or not getting a laugh is a matter of punctuation or even a letter. Humor is the only one of the art forms that has a specific reaction each time,” he says, adding, “There’s a very clear way to know if you’ve succeeded or not.”
Mr. Misch has passed some of that love of performing on to the next generation.
“My daughter is an opera singer, so she clearly got that from me,” he says. “She’s a student at a graduate school in New York ... She has a great sense of humor.”
His wife is a physician.
“I tried to ply my daughter on the great comics, like Buster Keaton,” he says. “She got a good dose and it served her well.”
After all, a sense of humor is what elevates humans.
“Tom Stoppard wrote that laughter is the sound of comprehension. When there’s a laugh, a mystery is solved. Having a sense of humor means that you’re kind of smart.” ¦