Monday, January 9, 2012

Make 'Em Laugh

"Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard." - Vaudevillian adage

"Wocka wocka wocka!" - Fozzie Bear

"Good grief! The comedian's a bear!"

Each member of The Muppet Show brought a specific talent to the program.  There were singers, dancers, and acrobats.  Gonzo was the stunt man, Miss Piggy was the actress, and Fozzie was the comedian.  Most of the humor of the show derived from the failures of the performances.  Wanda and Wayne could never finish a song, the Swedish Chef could never cook a proper meal, and Bunsen and Beaker's inventions would cause more destruction than innovation.  Stunts would go wrong and scenes would be flubbed and all of this was more entertaining than the intended pieces.  But what about Fozzie's comedy?  In order for him to fail, his jokes would have to be unfunny.

In the "How-To" book on comedy, Fozzie would be regularly featured in the "Don't" section.  He would stumble over his words, over-explain his jokes, mug after his one-liners, talk back to the audience, and fail to understand how to make his stand up relatable.  His material would barely pass if his audience were comprised of toddlers.

This paradox of humor made Fozzie a difficult character to work with.  Bad comedy elicits discomfort rather than entertainment.  Having purposefully bad jokes would make the show writers appear lazy.  No audience would want to see bad art on a weekly basis.

There needed to be some additional aspect that made sub-par entertainment appealing.  And that came in the form of two crotchety old men.

They were always looking down on the Muppets.

Waldorf (on the left) and Statler (on the right) were played by Jim Henson and Richard Hunt.  They had first appeared in the pilot, by themselves, slowly bantering with on another as they rested in a living room.  Bringing them into the Muppet Theater livened both of them up, and also improved the pace of the show.  For whatever reason, these two made it their duty to watch every show just to make fun of it.  Their inclusion was like a built-in safety net for the entire show.  After every sketch or musical number, Statler and Waldorf would be on hand to provide a biting insult to what had proceeded it.  Usually this would come in the form of their own lame puns, but it introduced a certain rhythm that could save the show from falling flat.

They often started dialogues with the performers on stage, expressing their distaste and the Muppets did their best to try harder.  But the best of these exchanges came during Fozzie's comedy acts.

Heckling at its finest.

Like the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000, who survived terrible works of art by making fun of them, Statler and Waldorf got a sense of pleasure out of seeing the bear perform, despite their vocal disgust.  Their barbs inspired the bear to try harder, test new material, and pursue other vocations all to fulfill his desire to entertain.  Although Fozzie would engage in the childish behavior of the old men, it allowed the audience to build a sympathy for him, even when they agreed with the hecklers.

To get out on a stage to perform a monologue with the sole intent of making people laugh takes a lot of courage.  The fact that Fozzie never gave up his resolve (even when the whole audience once walked out on him) is inspiring to aspiring comedians.  On rare occasions, Fozzie would succeed in making his harshest critics laugh (and not just ironically).  Those lone moments are all the encouragement needed to keep going.

For many people, Fozzie is their favorite Muppet.  But it's not because they loved his jokes.  It is because the loved his strength in the face of adversity.  Fozzie knows he is not the best.  He probably knows that he is the worst.  His catchphrase of "Wocka wocka" is his involuntary attempt to produce laughter by repeating nonsense.  It is his trademark because it sums up his unfunniness into a simple phrase.  It combines his lack of skill with his ineptitude in basic comedy knowledge.  But he continues growing.  He continues learning.  He continues living.  Because it is his dream.  And no one can take that away from him.

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