Playing the fool on TV still getting laughs

The New York TimesJuly 1, 2014 

We are all on “Candid Camera” now - or at least it can seem like it.

Prank comedy is everywhere, from Jimmy Kimmel’s many hoaxes to joke Twitter accounts and online stunts that go viral. In a sharp piece on Slate last year, Daniel Engber argued that the pervasiveness of such con jobs destroys our sense of wonder and makes us cynical about everything we see.

Yet overkill won’t end this comedic genre. Just as gore taps into a primal pleasure center of certain horror fans, the appeal of pranks is so ingrained - your first laugh, after all, might well have been a game of peek-a-boo - that smart comics will always find a new way to exploit it.

For an example, look no further than to a couple of Comedy Central shows, “Nathan for You” and “Drunk History,” which start their second seasons on Tuesday. These shows, about young dudes pulling pranks, follow in the tradition of “Insomniac With Dave Attell,” in which the comic told jokes and caroused in a different city every episode, and the prank-call virtuosos Jerky Boys.

But replacing the blustery machismo of their predecessors, the new stars and creators, Nathan Fielder (from “Nathan for You”) and Derek Waters (from “Drunk History”), are soft-spoken, deadpan and nerdy.

At the same time that Comedy Central is finding success with smart, brassy female-driven comedies, led by “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City,” it is offering new spins on its bro comedies: Less “The Man Show,” more “Nerdist.”

Fielder, a Canadian comic confident enough to appear painfully insecure, is short, preppy and has the slightly off features of a devil child. On the show, which earned a cult following its first year, he poses as a business consultant, approaching mechanics, say, or illustrators with ideas for increasing profits. If the show has a serious satirical target (and this is an open question), it might be the one thing that both major U.S. political parties celebrate: small-business owners.

The entrepreneurial drive is praised as our economic engine is skewered for laughs. In the second episode, Fielder convinces a man who runs a Hollywood souvenir shop that he can outshine competitors by setting up a fake movie shoot out front and telling gawkers they can be extras. Once the shop owner agrees to this fraud, Fielder, who acts as the director, orders the extras to buy something - right before he says “Action!”

As a manipulator, Fielder has a light touch, but part of what makes his show work is that his scenes don’t come off as overdetermined. They unfold unpredictably, and then build; the narrative here really moves. While he has become notorious for stunts like creating a coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks, he seems more interested in using pranks to add some spontaneity to bits.

Once he runs into problems with the customers’ possibly suing for fraud over the fake movie shoot, he sets out to make a movie and invents his own film festival. He casts himself as the romantic lead opposite an actress in a kissing scene. Their exchange is awkward comedy that ends, pointedly, with him mildly humiliated. Fielder comes off as a jerk, but a gentle one.

The heart of the series is his portrait of himself as a lonely, lovelorn, twee fool. Fielder seems melancholy and even pathetic, looking desperately for connection. He persuades a mechanic to advertise a lie-detector test to prove his honesty in pricing, but closes the sketch by asking the mechanic, who is hooked up to the lie detector, if he wants to spend time socially with Fielder. It’s a fake, of course, a contrived setup to fill out his persona and end the sketch on a funny note. But you’ll fall for it.

“Drunk History,” which began online before being picked up by Comedy Central, is ruthlessly simple: People get drunk, then explain a historical event to Waters, who has actors re-enact their words verbatim. In between, there are shots of Waters drinking at bars and talking to young inebriated people. It’s a mix of frat party, karaoke night and bull session with an unemployed history graduate student.

On the surface, “Drunk History” can look like a prank as well (Fielder actually starred in its first episode last year), a dumb joke rooted in the perennial fun of laughing at drunks. To be clear, it is exactly that. But the slick execution elevates it slightly.

For one thing, Waters is savvy about picking his scenes, favoring the kind of secret histories that are catnip for history buffs. Amid burping and puking, the narrators, who are less famous than the actors, tell the story of, say, the African-American woman who refused to move to the back of a bus before Rosa Parks and the teenage girl who warned that the British were coming before Paul Revere did.

Such scenes, based in real research, occasionally make our official history seem like a joke, or at least a story that omits as much as it reveals. But “Drunk History” also features remarkably game and funny performances by the likes of Lisa Bonet (as Rosa Parks) and Johnny Knoxville (as Johnny Cash). They are occasionally hammy but generally find the sweet spot between committed performance and goofy knowingness. (Any show that gives Laura Dern an opportunity to bark like a dog while going undercover in an insane asylum is worth watching.)

Many of the laughs of “Drunk History” belong to a tradition that may not be quite as long as the prank but are perhaps more central to the history of comedy. It’s the old gag of describing historical events of great moment in contemporary slang. This joke, rooted in blunt incongruity, was employed by comedy pioneers like Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley.

Why does this well-worn gag endure? Frankly, I’m not sure. But novelty is not as important to getting laughs as many think. And when a narrator describes Revolutionary-era teenagers saying, “Hey blah blah, I got it,” it wasn’t exactly a great moment in the history of comedy. But I chuckled.

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