At an anniversary screening of his 2006 movie Idiocracy, director Mike Judge was asked—as he often is—about the prophetic nature of the film. At what point did he realize that he had made a documentary rather than a satire?
Judge responded with a story about how he realized this while he was filming—long before the movie was actually released. One of the film’s quick jokes is Ass, a movie released in twenty-sixth-century America that sweeps the Oscars. Ass is a 90-minute closeup of a man’s naked buttocks intermittently farting. For Idiocracy, Judge had to shoot part of this fake ass movie and then screen it in a theater full of extras. He had earlier done some location scouting at a reform school, and he was impressed by the fact that the students there looked (in his words) “kinda stupid.” So he went back and hired them as extras for a day.
When it was time to shoot, Judge became nervous. He found himself nearly alone in a room with 250 “juvenile delinquents,” and he needed them to take direction. Basically, he needed them to laugh—to act as if they thought a film of a naked ass farting was hilarious. But his worries soon shifted. The kids, it turned out, really did find the ass hilarious. They laughed continuously, on and on, without encouragement.
Judge wondered whether his entire film project was a waste of time and money. He could just release Ass instead and have a hit on his hands. These doubts would only be amplified by the fact that Idiocracy performed poorly with test audiences.
I love this story less for the punchline (they loved the farting ass!) than for Judge’s confusion. It’s a real problem—how do you successfully mock humor? Aziz Ansari had a similar struggle. In the 2009 movie Funny People, he played an obnoxious hack comedian named Randy, who turned out to be the funniest part of the film. Randy, in fact, was arguably a funnier stand-up comedian than Ansari himself. As a 2010 New Yorker profile noted, “In Funny People, it’s supposed to be obvious that Ansari’s character is a hack, but it’s just as obvious that the character is funny—and, if it’s possible for a comedian to be bad and funny at the same time, then who cares about badness? And if a hack comedian is a guy who will do anything for a laugh—well, what, exactly, is wrong with that?”
In “The Road, Part 2,” the very last episode of the TV series Louie, Louie C. K. finds himself bombing at a comedy club in Oklahoma. His opening act, a man named Kenny, kills by lighting his farts on fire, while Louie’s observations of the New York City subway system go nowhere. To make things worse, Louie is stuck sharing a condo with Kenny, and they find each other insufferable. Eventually they confront each other, Kenny calling Louie a snob and Louie calling Kenny a hack (an especially offensive insult for comics). But when Kenny tells Louie to “look me in the eye and tell me farts aren’t funny,” Louie breaks down and starts crying. He can’t do it. “Every fart is funny,” Louie admits.
This is the conclusion of the entire five-season run for Louie. At the end of the day, farts are funny. This is the terrible truth at the center of all comedy—the black hole of humor. Witty bon mots, clever ripostes, trenchant observations, complex situational fiascos—all of these are functionally unnecessary. “Pull my finger” will do just as well.
In his conversations with other comics in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld comes across as a big believer in the idea that stand-up comedy is radically meritocratic—either you get laughs or you don’t, and those who can reliably get them deserve fame and fortune. “It’s the hardest job in the world,” he says to Tracy Morgan. Anyone who’s ever stood on stage alone with a silent—or distracted—audience might be likely to agree. But what if it’s not that hard to make people laugh? What if it’s depressingly easy? What if success in humor—and, by extension, in arts and entertainment broadly—has little to do with talent and hard work?
These sort of doubts form a fascinating backside to the business. What if the vast majority of your labor and energy is simply misplaced? What if the work you’re most proud of is only distantly related to any success you enjoy?