Thursday, February 11, 2016

Grokking humour

I'm not really into comedy and never have been. Growing up, my favourite TV shows were never sitcoms; I found (and find) the cheesy jokes and laugh tracks mind numbing. As I got older, the unstoppable steam engine of the comedy club/festival train left me standing cold and bewildered on the platform. My contemporaries would rave about hits like Seinfeld or The Simpsons, so I would watch occasionally but was never drawn into their orbit. The Tonight Show, David Letterman, John Stewart, et al.? Cute, but overall... meh.

Maybe I was overly influenced by Valentine Michael Smith in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the human raised by Martians who learned that to be truly human is to laugh, but that laughter is inevitably a reaction to some kind of pain or wrongness. I was quite young and impressionable when I read the novel, and that notion has stayed with me my whole life, even if I'm not sure I really believe it.

Or maybe I'm just a Very Serious Person by nature.

So imagine my surprise when I recently found myself enjoying – on a very deep level – a comedy podcast called Judge John Hodgman. Like anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past decade, I'd encountered John Hodgman before; but I had never actively sought out his work. And I don't actually remember why it was that I sought out this particular podcast. I suppose it was recommended on some other podcast that I listen to.*

Suffice it to say that I'm hooked. And since I know this about myself – that I'm not a fan of comedy – I couldn't not try and tease out why, exactly, I enjoy it so much. This is what I've determined: John Hodgman is a different kind of comedian (or humorist, as he calls himself). He's kind, and self-effacing and, well, kind of serious.

The premise of Judge John Hodgman is that two "litigants" come before him with a "dispute" – usually some habit or viewpoint held by the "defendant" that the "complainant" disagrees with. They make their cases before the judge and once Hodgman has determined the facts, he makes a ruling in favour of one of the parties. On the face of it, it sounds kind of boring, but the "discovery" part of the show is peppered with funny interjections and observations by Hodgman and his "Bailiff," Jesse Thorn.

The serious side of me wants to say something like, "what makes Hodgman different is his deep understanding of the human psyche," but that sounds idiotic, even from me. Basically, he's just a sensitive guy who is able to really grok people (see what I just did there?), be funny in a gently teasing and sometimes very subtle way, and manage to not hurt anyone in the process. In fact, his judgements are usually just incredibly good advice for both parties. So not the usual comedic fare, and yet, to me, extremely funny, touching, and refreshing.

So I guess I like him because he's just like me... y'know, if I were funny, understood people, and gave good advice.

*I just remembered: he appeared on The TED Radio Hour in their "In Search Of" episode.

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