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What's So Funny? 9 min read

What's So Funny?

On the value of idiocy, Seinfeld, and laughter, plus comedy of all sorts, more heroics in the sky, Portland's troubles, Michael Lewis, Marty Scorsese, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

If I say the words “bachelor’s trip weekend,” what do you think of? Images and sounds, perhaps influenced by a few viewings of The Hangover, I’m sure. But what do you smell? What is the smell you associate with a bachelor’s trip weekend? If your brain recalled or projected the stale beer stink of a college frat house, you’re probably not alone.

But I can tell you how I’ll answer that question for a long time, I imagine: burnt human hair choking out the breathable air of the interior of a Ford Expedition.

It was the last day of my brother’s trip, and we were on the interstate for one final activity before a long drive home. He was in the passenger seat, and he was playing with a butane cigar lighter. He was playing with a nonchalance seemingly inherent to little brothers and perhaps expected of grooms-to-be, which is to say recklessly. Annoyingly so. 

In mere seconds (for that’s how long it took to both commence and complete itself) the hair on my arm was on fire. Just like that, the fire had burned up its fuel, and I caught a glimpse of dark hairs glowing orange like the fuse of puny fireworks. A rush of heat, and it was over. And there I sat, a silver half dollar-sized crop circle in my arm hair, no worse the wear.

Collective gasps and “oh shits” from all throughout the vehicle, my brother, understandably, the loudest and most profuse. As quickly as it happened, our conversations in disbelief lasted longer, but once we were sure nothing worse would come of it (and cracked the windows to avoid choking on a truly terrible smell), there was only one response to fit the moment: We laughed. 

They more than I, but still, it was a collective community event. Deep belly laughs, tinged with an unspoken “Whoa, that was close.” But the laughter carried on, and it felt restorative. 

On that trip, we’d attended horse races at the home of the Kentucky Derby, bottled our own bourbon, played 18 holes of golf, got free tickets to a baseball game, toured distilleries, saw how baseball bats are made and held one of Babe Ruth’s actual game bats, attended a stellar concert by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and hiked through caves in a national park. We’d smoked cigars, drank to excess, ate big meals, and the constant through all of it was laughter. 

I kept thinking about laughter, for a week after we’d returned from the trip, my mom, sister, brother, and I were on the road again, this time a shorter jaunt to Memphis to see Jerry Seinfeld at the Orpheum. And he had us laughing until it hurt, which, all things considered for our family in the year 2023, was saying quite a lot. 

Seinfeld’s eponymous sitcom of the 90s was a staple in our household, so much so that it became our shared language. The inanities of our daily lives were relayed with this introduction: “You know that episode of Seinfeld where …” And the beauty of such a deranged system of cataloging life was that the listener could finish the story for us, share a laugh, and then get ready for a story that was, most likely, as pointless as whatever was happening in that episode of the show.

It seemed fitting that going to see his standup show was our first outing, our first thing that we’d done together besides simply existing in each other’s space and company, since Dad passed away. And the thing is, this year’s not done with us yet. Not by a long shot. But we’ll have a lot to celebrate before it’s over, such as my brother’s wedding (an occasion which granted him honored status such that he was given a pass for quite literally setting me on fire), and we know to savor all the laughs along the way.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. I don’t care how basic a take it is to say I’m going to miss the Strike Force Five podcast. Now that the WGA’s strike is over (thankfully with good results), the late-night hosts are back to their regularly scheduled programming. But I will miss their off-the-cuff wittiness, even if it fell short of the full wonder of their scripted shows (thanks to those writers again). Mostly, I just liked what sounded like a conversation among coworkers over a dinner, no different than when you see a group of school teachers or lawyers or other easily distinguishable workers based on just the topic, tone, and tenor of the world-weary conversations. Except these are some of the most exclusive jobs in the world; I mean, there are only so many late-night shows. It’s like when living presidents get together, and you just know they could tell some stories because so few other people have done the job. That’s what the podcast felt like, a seat at those exclusive tables, and lo and behold, it was a fun table to sit at. They joked and ribbed each other but always seemed to have genuine affection and respect for the others. And I just really liked it for its short run. Thinking of getting a t-shirt. But until then, this piece in The New Yorker was a nice send-off.
  2. Unlike Seinfeld’s standup set, John Oliver, talking to Stephen Colbert now that the late-night shows are back, told an endearing story about how standup comedy doesn’t always work out, that it’s a tightrope act without a net, and in so telling, was able to provide a lot more laughs this time around.
  3. An older story (and a few of these this week will be older because it’s been two weeks since I’ve sent out a newsletter but couldn’t pass up a chance to share the stories) I’ve been thinking a lot about is from Clare Malone in a recent issue of The New Yorker where she dug into comedian Hasan Minhaj’s routine and essentially fact-checked the stories he told, stories that served as the foundation for his comedy. They were (perhaps shockingly, perhaps not: that’s the fun of the piece) not true. It was interesting to hear people who care about comedy as an art form react to the story: some were angry, some thought it was an over-reaction and a misguided piece in the first place. I honestly don’t know what I think, but I do know that I’d love for it to be the focus of a semester-long course that dives into not just the Minhaj, but also what the nature is the nature of comedy (and thus its requirements to its audience, if anything, beyond making them laugh), as well as the concept of writing “emotional truths” that don’t fit neatly into real-world narratives, like David Foster Wallace’s essayistic journalism and The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.
  4. Of the many responses I sought out on the topic of Minhaj, here are two that I especially liked: One podcast episode of The Colin McEnroe Show and one Slate article.
  5. A review of critic Jesse David Fox’s new book, Comedy Book, in The Atlantic suggests that comedians care only about comedy and nothing else. It’s a review that made me want to read the book.
  6. OK, shifting gears, from the funny to the deadly serious. Another great piece of explanatory journalism from James Fallows as he recounts yet another instance of mishap in the skies, but like the last time I shared one of his breakdowns, this one too is a celebration of the calm and cool professionals who persist under moments of extreme stress. This dispatch is a detailed recap of the air traffic controller chatter when a FedEx plane was forced to land without its landing gear down at Chattanooga’s airport. It is a riveting bit of tape, made all the more accessible by Fallows’s intimate familiarity with aviation practices and lingo. I could seriously read these explainers on everyday, mundane takeoffs and landings if there were any reason for him to write them.
  7. Eli Saslow is perhaps the best newspaper journalist working today (and has been for a long time now). At least in the sense that he tells stories I’m interested in reading. If you’re interested in scoops and breaking news, he’s not your guy. But if you’re interested in human-centered storytelling, there is no better byline to seek out. His latest for The New York Times is a staggering look at the streets of Portland, Oregon’s various downtown crises through the eyes of a single private security guard. He is fighting, mightily, a losing battle. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of reporting.
  8. Perhaps one of the only journalists more celebrated and revered than Saslow from a pure storytelling perspective is Michael Lewis, whose new book Going Infinite on the behind-the-scenes story of Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX’s epic collapse is getting somewhat tepid reviews. This long review/profile from The Guardian is an example of such coverage, and coupled with the fallout of his connection to the ongoing controversy around the subjects of his book The Blind Side, it feels like there’s perhaps a dulling of his usual shine. I’ve not read the book yet, but many of the reviews voice that same concern: That perhaps he’s a bit too close to the subject to write about the most interesting parts in a compelling way.
  9. In a way, this Q&A with filmmaker Errol Morris, ahead of the release of his new film The Pigeon Tunnel, which is an documentary on novelist John le Carré, is grappling with the same issues that hooked my attention in Malone’s New Yorker piece above. It’s about truth and knowability and subjectivity and how they all work together, and it’s being framed by the New York Times Magazine in a somewhat click-baity headline format, but the underlying argumentative nature of the responses are interesting as they relate to the upcoming film. It drops on AppleTV+ on October 20, and I, for one, cannot wait.
  10. Here’s one of those older articles I was mentioning before, but it’s quite simply too good not to share. Whether you’re a cinephile or couldn’t give a single, solitary care about Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon, there is something for all of us in this touching profile by GQ’s Zach Baron. It really shows a man grappling with his own mortality, through the lens of his particular place in the world, sure, but the reckoning is universal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past few weeks.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

9/19: Only Murders in the Building, S3
9/23:St. Paul and the Broken Bones
9/29:Jerry Seinfeld at the Orpheum
10/1: Only Murders in the Building, S3
10/3: STOP MAKING SENSE (4K Restoration)
10/4: Only Murders in the Building, S3
10/6: THE MEG*; Seven Worlds, One Planet
10/7: Seven Worlds, One Planet (3); THE MEG 2: THE TRENCH; AMBULANCE*