Photo Credit: CBS
"What makes actual human beings laugh?"
That was Jack Donaghy's (Alec Baldwin) big question on 30 Rock last week. It's a question that has intrigued and confounded network executives for decades.
He put it to his intern, Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), a wide-eyed naif from Stone Mountain, Georgia. "You're middle American and Joe Average," he told Kenneth. "What makes you laugh?"
"The usual, I suppose," answered Kenneth. "Two hobos sharing a bean. Lady airline pilots." As usual, unwitting Kenneth was the butt of a joke he delivered himself. (Because, of course, only a simple-minded hick would find those things funny.) Was this punch line mean-spirited? Yes. Funny? Also yes.
Later in the episode, Jack traveled to Georgia to prove his thesis: Heartland Americans have a different funny bone than ones living in Manhattan. But by episode's end, his theory had fallen flat. At a comedy club in Stone Mountain, he found southerners guffawing at the same, mean-spirited jokes that might tickle Manhattanites. Conclusion: "All God's children are terrible," explained his fellow exec, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey).
Like Jack, I have my own theory about people and humor. Mine, too, involves two groups of humans. Group one: women. Group two: men. Theory: They're both ticklish, but in totally different spots. All I need to prove my thesis is a one-hour TV block on Monday night, on CBS.
Representing female funny: Accidentally On Purpose, at 8:30 p.m. Jenna Elfman skips in with this show, a featherweight ode to all things female -- our hopes, our irritants, and (a breezy take on) our deepest nightmares. The premise, a classic female conundrum: Billie (Jenna Elfman) has a perfect guy in James (Grant Show) -- rich, handsome, charming -- but he won't commit. At age 37, she's approaching the moment of truth about her biological clock. (The truth? It's not a clock at all -- just a timer, ticking down.) Breaking off her relationship with Mr. Almost Perfect, she gets pregnant from a one-night stand with a 20-something, Zack (Jon Foster). The pair decides to raise the child together, platonically.
Accidentally has its funny moments, and they usually arrive when the show plays on all those above-mentioned hopes, irritants, and deepest nightmares that are so specific to women. In the pilot episode, for instance, James shows up at an office party with Kate Moss on his arm. Any female viewer would recognize this as a "deepest nightmare" moment: Your charming ex-boyfriend replaces you in an instant. With a model. One famous for being waif-thin. "I wonder if he'll marry Kate Moss," says Abby, Billie's sister. "Abby, how come you never wonder what good things could happen to me?" asks Billie. "Because I'm your sister," says Abby. Would a guy get that joke? I think not.
On last night's episode, Billie is confounded by an unfamiliar word -- pregnofile. (It's a man with a sex fetish for pregnant women.) James has to explain the meaning to her. "How come every man in my life knows this word?" Billie asks Zack a few scenes later. "Do you really want to go down that road?" Zack replies. "Because pregnofile is just the tip of the iceberg." Ewww. As a female TV viewer, I do not want to go down that road. I'm glad that Accidentally stops right there. But if I stay tuned for the next show, that's exactly where I'm going.
Representing male funny: Two and a Half Men. Charlie (Charlie Sheen) is a wealthy ladies man, living the dream (if your dreams feature a different sex partner every night). His tightly wound brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), and Alan's son, Jake (Angus T. Jones), live with him, and he's visited often by his vacuous, promiscuous mother and dowdy, domineering housekeeper.
On Men, joke after gritty joke is constructed from materials I'd just as soon leave on the curb. Poor hygiene. Bad smells. Bad sex. Men getting away with promiscuity. Men not getting away with promiscuity. Dumb names for one's penis. The irritability of hormonal women. The suffocating grip of pushy mothers.
How much time do I spend pondering bad hygiene? About as much as a man might ponder the complex, love/hate relationship of sisters. The jokes don't work, because I'm just not interested.
Last night's episode revolved around the hijinks of the two brothers picking up a voluptuous woman at a bar. At the moment, though, Charlie is engaged to be married. "That means no matter how easy you are, I can't sleep with you," he tells Ms. Curvy. The next morning, when both men wake up in bed with this nameless woman, Charlie is feeling (slightly) ashamed. But his oversexed mother Evelyn (Holland Taylor) puts the guilty feelings out of his mind -- by replacing them with a deeper disgust: She recounts one of her own drunken escapades, sexing up an entire circus cast. (After which, she said, "The Chinese acrobats, the Strong Man and the Little People moved on to the next stop.") Again, ewww.
I will admit that, like Jack's theory, mine isn't perfect, either. According to the CBS Web site, Two and a Half Men has been the highest-rated TV show for four years. All of its viewers can't be men. In other words, there are many, many women out there who enjoy sex-with-the-circus jokes. Alas, there's only one explanation for this.
"All God's children are terrible."
Do you think there's a difference between "female funny" and "male funny"? Chime in below!